Is Putin serious about peace in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict?

As fighting flared up once more in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia called for calm and a cessation of hostilities. But is that what President Putin really wants?

Kirill Kudryavtsev/Reuters/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference with his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto following their talks at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, in this March 22, 2016 file photo.

Russia has called for restraint after a fresh wave of fighting erupted Saturday between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The territory, which lies within Azerbaijan but is populated largely by Armenians, has been the focus of a frozen conflict ever since the conclusion of a six-year war in 1994 that left 30,000 dead.

The intractability of the situation led to the creation of the Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France, and the United States, to seek a solution. But Russia, the country most heavily involved on the ground, has a complex array of interests at stake.

“Russia is the main security guarantor for Armenia, but it sells weapons to both countries,” says Jeffrey Mankoff, a former adviser on US-Russia relations at the US State Department, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“Russia is not just looking for peace, but is rather looking for some arrangement that maximizes their regional influence over both countries.”

Nagorno-Karabakh dissolved into conflict in 1988, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, with Azerbaijani troops and Armenian separatists clashing in a brutal war.

A Russian-brokered ceasefire has maintained an uneasy truce ever since 1994, with periodic bouts of violence breaking out, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) set up the Minsk Group that same year to seek a lasting solution.

In this latest outbreak of hostility, it is hard to know how it began or what has actually happened, with talking of Azerbaijani “saboteurs” being thrown “back to their positions”, and AzerNews stating “on the night of April 2, all the frontier positions of Azerbaijan were subjected to heavy fire.”

Perhaps more interesting than the details of the latest hostilities, says Dr. Mankoff, who is currently deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Russia and Eurasia Program, is the fact that the presidents of both countries are in the United States for the nuclear security summit, giving them a far larger global audience than they would normally expect.

So, if this latest development does represent some kind of a cry for international attention, what hope is there of a peaceful resolution?

“If there’s going to be a settlement, it will have to be on Russia’s terms,” says Mankoff. “Yes, there’s the Minsk group, but Russia has 5,000 troops in Armenia, and I’ve heard they sent more.”

The Russian troops’ main role, as Mankoff explains, is to deter Turkish involvement, should there be a serious resumption of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey and Azerbaijan have a close relationship, and Turkey’s border with Armenia has remained closed for two decades because of this conflict.

The position of the United States is that Nagorno-Karabakh is a disputed region, but other surrounding tracts of land that Armenia has accumulated amount to occupied territory and should be returned.

Yet, while Azerbaijan is unlikely to take the risk of invading Nagorno-Karabakh, geography and a predominantly Armenian population making it a daunting challenge, many Azeris detect double-standards in the West’s approach.

“They wonder why the West punishes Russia for annexing Crimea, but not Armenia for similar behavior in Karabakh,” notes The Economist. “Many ask why the West approves of Ukraine using force to restore territorial integrity, but insists on Azerbaijan’s peaceful patience.”

Nobody has formally recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Armenia; even the Armenian government has made no effort to annex the territory.

And yet while full-scale military intervention - by any party - seems highly unlikely, there is also a question mark over how seriously Russia, the main power-broker, wants to pursue full-scale peace.

“Russia doesn’t want conflict because it’s trying to increase its influence over both countries,” says Mankoff. “If they can do that through resolving the conflict, then that’s an option, but failing that, the status quo benefits Russia fairly well.” 

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