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Russia To Take A Back Seat In Resolving Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict?

A car destroyed by shelling in Stepanakert, capital of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, on September 29, 2020
A car destroyed by shelling in Stepanakert, capital of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, on September 29, 2020

Armenia and Azerbaijan’s 30-plus-year-long conflict over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region used to be considered a conflict in which Russia, which brokered its 1994 cease-fire, was the ultimate potential peacemaker. But now, as Armenia, Karabakhi separatists, and Azerbaijan again come to the brink of full-fledged war, Russia’s ability to impact events decisively has diminished, analysts say.

Rather, space exists for Turkey and Iran, both centuries-old regional players, also to exert influence.

“The geopolitical situation is changing,” pointed out Farid Shafiyev, chairman of Azerbaijan's government-founded Center for Analysis of International Relations. “It used to be considered somehow that the entire territory of the former Soviet Union was Moscow’s exclusive space. I think this all changed a long time ago.”

“This is a World War I-style potential conflict that will compel or force a response and a reaction from several larger regional players – Russia and Turkey, obviously, but even Iran would be confronted with a challenge in terms of whether this continues to escalate,” security expert Richard Giragosian, director of Yerevan’s non-profit Regional Studies Center, commented on the Popular Front podcast this July.

Turkish-Russian Rivalry Influences Azerbaijan-Armenia Fighting
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From the start of active fighting on the morning of September 27, Armenian officials and Russian media have underlined the alleged role of NATO member Turkey, Azerbaijan’s closest strategic ally and a longtime rival with Russia in the South Caucasus.

The Armenian government, which has no official ties with Ankara, claimed on September 29 that a Turkish F-16 fighter jet had shot down one of its own Su-25 aircraft over Armenian territory. The pilot was killed, it said.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly after this report appeared. Russia, which runs an army base in the northern Armenian town of Gyumri, is a fellow member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Ankara and Baku have both, however, denied the downing, with Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Vagif Dargahli denouncing it asanother fantasy of the Armenian military propaganda machine,” the government-aligned Azerbaijani news agency Trend reported.

Attributing Azerbaijani forces’ “effective counterattack” against Armenian forces to “the Turkish factor” is simply “the simplest way for the Armenian leadership to at least somehow justify its own losses … ” the agency posited.

Nagorno-Karabakh map
Nagorno-Karabakh map

Baku, which lost control of Karabakh and seven adjoining districts during its 1992-1994 war with Armenia and ethnic Armenian Karabakhi separatists, claims that it has retaken several strategic heights and at least six villages in the area since Sunday.

Tallies of bilateral damage and casualties are contradictory, but appear to total at least 100 military personnel, with dozens of civilians wounded or killed.

All sides, as usual, blame their opponents for starting the hostilities. Armenia and de facto officials in Karabakh claim Azerbaijan began shelling Karabakh’s main town, Stepanakert (called Khankendi by Azerbaijanis), and the towns of Martakert (Algere) and Martuni (Khojavend) on the morning of September 27.

By contrast, Azerbaijan states that it was compelled to respond when Armenian frontline forces launched a bombardment of Azerbaijani population areas.

A destroyed home in Azerbaijan's Tartar district
A destroyed home in Azerbaijan's Tartar district

The status of Shusha, called Shushi in Armenian, lies at the crux of the conflict, Azerbaijani analyst Elkhan Shahinoglu told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service. This tumble-down hilltop town, located about a half-hour’s drive south of Stepanakert/Khankendi, is deeply rooted in Azerbaijan’s musical and literary heritage, but Armenia also claims historic roots here.

The inauguration of Karabakh’s current de facto leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, in the town this May and plans to move the region’s entire de facto legislature – and, eventually, entire separatist government -- to Shusha triggered outrage in Baku.

“They believed that we’ll come to terms with this insult. They’re deliberately provoking us and will see the bitter consequences of this,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated in a September 27 speech to the nation.

In response, Armenian President Pashinian has threatened an “adequate military-political response [by Armenia and Karbakh] to Azerbaijan’s attempts to undermine regional security and peace” that, he claims, Turkey encourages and supports. Pashinian cited an alleged drone attack and shelling on the eastern Armenian town of Vardenis as a sign of such attempts

As yet, apart from urging both Armenia and Azerbaijan to return to peace talks, Russia, a co-chair with the United States and France of the Minsk Group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe body overseeing the negotiations, appears to have taken no further action to prevent such “consequences.”

Both sides have rejected negotiations as a way to end the fighting.

Against that backdrop, Moscow-based political analyst Arkady Dubnov believes that Turkey, “a regional superpower” with “growing muscles,” is playing “first violin” in the conflict.

“Without the support of Turkey, without [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s support, what we’re seeing today in the South Caucasus could not be possible,” Dubnov charged on September 28.

As he has done previously, Turkish President Erdogan made plain Ankara’s support for the Azerbaijani government. Turkey, which supplies Baku with both military training and equipment, has blockaded Armenia, its eastern neighbor, since 1993, and has no official diplomatic ties with Yerevan.

Azerbaijan “had to take matters into its own hands whether it likes it or not,” Erdogan told a September 28 gathering in Istanbul, Reuters reported. “Turkey will continue to stand with ... Azerbaijan with all its resources and heart.”

Turkish men in Istanbul hold a banner that reads "Karabakh is Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is Turkey." during a September 29, 2020 protest against Armenia.
Turkish men in Istanbul hold a banner that reads "Karabakh is Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is Turkey." during a September 29, 2020 protest against Armenia.

That is precisely what worries Moscow, stressed Stepan Grigorian, director of Yerevan's non-profit Analytical Center on Globalization and Regional Cooperation.

“Russia is also afraid that Turkey wants into the region,” Grigorian said. “When a new player arrives, Russia already gets on its guard because it knows how to communicate with the old players,” Armenia and Azerbaijan, which it considers as “semi-vassals,” he added.

In early September, Russia’s pro-government Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper repeated rumors that Turkey was deploying “proxy formations” into Azerbaijan – a claim now actively repeated by Armenian and other Russian media outlets.

“If they’ve already turned up in Azerbaijan, that means that Baku does not exclude a military scenario the provision of Turkish help in resolving the territorial conflict with Armenia,” the newspaper wrote of such mercenaries.

A September 27 report by The Guardian suggests, however, that any such individuals might have a mission apart from Karabakh.

Two men in Syria’s rebel-controlled Idlib region told the British newspaper that a commander of the Turkish-sponsored Sultan Murad Division militia had informed them in mid-September about temporary jobs “guarding observation posts and oil and gas facilities in Azerbaijan” at monthly salaries nearly double their usual pay.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Supsa oil pipelines and the South Caucasus gas pipeline – all designed to deliver Azerbaijani energy products to outside markets via Turkey -- lie within firing range of Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia’s northern state border.

Both Ankara and Baku, however, have denied that any such foreign mercenaries are being used or recruited for the Karabakh conflict.

For its part, Azerbaijan accuses Armenia of deploying mercenaries from Syria and Lebanon, two countries with numerous ethnic Armenian minorities, to Karabakh to use against Azerbaijani forces.

The government-aligned news agency Trend also has published photos of what it claims to be new settlements in Karabakh, in contravention of international law, for Iraqi and Syrian members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which both Baku and Ankara consider a terrorist organization.

Yerevan does not appear yet to have responded to these accusations.

On September 29, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov asserted that any statements about “any kind of military support or military activities” only “adds fuel to the fire.”

“We call on all countries, especially countries that are our partners, like Turkey, to do everything to convince the opposing sides to cease firing and return to a peaceful resolution of this long-standing conflict through political and diplomatic means,” he said.

As a co-chair of the Minsk Group, Russia, he added, “is obliged to take a balanced position, a responsible position, devoid of any kind of adventurism.” Moscow is currently reviewing “information” about the situation to define its position, he said.

It was not Russia, but Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, which proposed a September 29 meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the conflict, however.

Grigorian believes that only Turkish “bombing strikes throughout Armenia,” whose security Russia has pledged to defend, could prompt Moscow, which sells weapons to both sides, to enter the conflict – and even then, not for sure.

People are seen in a basement used as a shelter from artillery fire in Stepanakert, the capital of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, on September 28, 2020.
People are seen in a basement used as a shelter from artillery fire in Stepanakert, the capital of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, on September 28, 2020.

Similarly, after a July 12-16, 2020 skirmish with Armenian forces that flared up, Baku’s hopes for Russian assistance in resolving the Karabakh conflict “just disappeared,” commented Shafiyev.

Energy, a tool that Moscow has attempted to use on Ukraine, has no effect on Azerbaijan, a major hydrocarbons producer in its own right, commented Mikhail Krutikhin, the managing partner for the consulting company RusEnergy.

Russia, which dominates Armenia’s gas supplies and controls its distribution system through the state-run Gazprom company, “could threaten to stop the delivery of gas to Armenia to compel this country to take this or that political decision,” Krutikhin said, but, as yet, nothing suggests that Moscow will take such a step.

If Russia cannot prevail on the combatants, though, other countries are willing to have a try.

Iran, located just over 200 kilometers to the south from Karabakh, is another potential player. Tehran is a Russian ally, enjoys warm ties with Yerevan, and a trickier relationship with fellow majority Shi’ite Muslim Azerbaijan. Karabakh contains ethnic Armenian migrants from Iran, and the Iranian government has offered earlier to mediate in the crisis.

It repeated those offers on September 28, with the official Islamic Republic News Agency warning that Western machinations “for expanding the security belt” around Iran and Russia and “gaining control” of the South Caucasus’ energy resources lie behind the failure of the Minsk talks.

Armenia and Azerbaijan’s other shared neighbor, Georgia, which has sizable ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities, has also proposed moderating talks. All three of Azerbaijan’s main export pipelines cross through Georgia en route to Turkey.

Tbilisi’s lack of success in resolving its own conflicts with separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia, though, likely would give pause to Baku and Yerevan, some analysts believe.

To date, neither side has accepted Iran and Georgia’s mediation proposals.

Yet, whatever the military outcome of this latest outbreak of fighting, the overall conflict itself “cannot be resolved without a political agreement,” stressed Thomas de Waal, author of Black Garden: Armenia And Azerbaijan Through Peace And War and a senior fellow with the Carnegie Europe think tank.

“Even if, let’s suppose, Azerbaijan will be able to massively take control of the lost territories, even in this case, the foundation of the conflict does not change,” de Waal said.

“For Armenians, this is a real place, where tens of thousands of people live. It’s already a holy place for them. Even if there will be an enormous success in Azerbaijan, this fact does not change and the conflict will not end.”

- With additional reporting from,TASS, and Trend