Is Russia Trying to Spoil EU-mediated Armenia-Azerbaijan Peace Talks?
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference following the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) leaders' summit in Astana, Kazakhstan October 14, 2022. Sputnik/Valery Sharifulin
Amid general optimism before and after the EU-mediated talks between Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Aliyev on October 6, 2022, in Prague, the Kremlin lashed out at Western efforts to mediate a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Russian foreign ministry reacted with “undisguised irritation” to mediation efforts to reconcile the South Caucasian states by the US and the European Union. On October 6, when high-level meetings in Prague were taking place, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova voiced her criticism of the US-backed EU format for Baku-Yerevan peace talks. She accused Western approaches to a peace treaty as “not sufficiently balanced” and opined that “Western mediators cannot even be called peace mediators.” She added that Russia submitted its own proposals for a peace treaty. On October 11, again, Zakharova remarked that the EU is trying to wedge itself into Moscow-led reconciliation between Baku and Yerevan and that history shows that EU missions never produced peaceful resolution of conflict.
It is not the first time that Russia has openly publicly criticized the EU-mediated negotiations that some view as outcompeting Moscow’s efforts.
On August 31, 2022, when the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met for US-backed EU-mediated talks in Brussels for a fourth time, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted Zakharova’s comments stating: “Geopolitics drive EU’s ambitions in South Caucasus instead of a genuine commitment to bringing Armenia-Azerbaijan relations back to normal” and described the EU’s efforts as “an attempt to shamelessly appropriate the laurels of mediation.”
On the eve of the previous summit in May, Russia accused Brussels of trying to “hijack” the negotiation process, with Zakharova making a similar statement about the EU “playing geopolitical games.” The EU special representative for the South Caucasus, Toivo Klaar, denounced such claims, denying that competition with Russia was its motivation and that the only goal was to facilitate a “comprehensive settlement” of the conflict.
The Kremlin’s dissatisfaction with competition from a Brussels platform is not unexpected. Moscow has long opposed Western efforts to immerse itself into what Russia considers its sphere of influence. Divisions have opened only wider since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the resultant Western sanctions and arms supplies to Kyiv.
Though Russia has been recently focused on that war and its retreat from the Russian-occupied Kharkiv region of Ukraine, one of its long-term purposes is to maintain its power – if not strengthen its grip – on the South Caucasus countries. It has a military presence in all three republics, with the most extensive military footprint in Armenia. According to one credible account, “Russia has at least 10,000 soldiers within Armenia’s internationally recognized borders, which includes roughly 4,500 border guards and around 5,000 troops in Gyumri.” Moscow has been accused of a weak response to Armenia’s calls for military help in both the war in and around Karabakh in 2020 and in most recent clashes along the interstate border with Azerbaijan. Some forces within Armenia have even called for Armenia’s exit from the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization]– the Russia-led military bloc which, they perceive, has turned out to be more of a paper tiger than a NATO-style security alliance.
Frustrated with Russia's and the CSTO’s inaction, Armenia has tried to mobilize US and French diplomatic channels, capitalizing on the sympathetic visit in September of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Yerevan. There are suggestions that the upshot of her visit included some promises of military support even though Armenia’s formal membership in the CSTO limits US military assistance. As an outcome of this diplomatic activism, Armenia received approval for an EU monitoring mission deployed along its border with Azerbaijan. A team of 40 civilians has been deployed along the interstate border with the official mandate “to monitor the situation in the border regions between Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to support confidence building between the two countries and allow the EU to better support the work of the border commissions.”
However, in the meeting between Russian, Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers on the sidelines of the CIS summit in Astana on October 14, Moscow seemed to have regained something of its mediational leadership. This was aided by perceived anti-Azerbaijani comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron on October 7, which possibly weakened the image of EU leaders as honest brokers. In an interview on French television, Macron voiced support for Armenia and accused Moscow of “destabilizing” and “seeking to create disorder” in the Caucasus. Azerbaijani president Aliyev said that Macron’s comments were “unacceptable.”
And, of course, Armenia cannot so easily distance itself from Russia. Moscow still has enough leverage – military bases and control of economic assets – that can be used to punish Yerevan for any significant "Western drift." There are forces within the Russian establishment who like to see Armenia as Russia’s protectorate.
What to Expect from Russia
While Moscow questions’ the EU’s motivation for wanting to mediate in the Caucasus, the question can be reversed. What does Moscow want, and are its mediation efforts sincere? In the short term, Moscow would likely prefer to freeze the status quo in Karabakh, allowing it to keep and extend its military presence in Upper Karabakh after the current peacekeeping mission ends in 2025. The Kremlin could achieve this goal by hindering the signing of a comprehensive peace treaty between Baku and Moscow, by delaying the work of border delimitation commissions, or, in the worst-case scenario, by provoking further skirmishes between Armenian and Azerbaijan forces. This might buy Putin’s regime time to keep both Baku and Yerevan dependent on Moscow’s whims while the bulk of Russian military attention is focused on Ukraine. If this is the case, it suggests all the more need for continued EU and US efforts and engagement to help Armenia and Azerbaijan break out of the vicious cycle and reach a lasting peace agreement as soon as possible.
Farid Guliyev, Ph.D., is Head of the Department of Political Science and Philosophy at Khazar University in Baku. The views expressed herein are solely the responsibility of the author.