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What is the position of Russia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

Unlike the other Co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group, Moscow has been officially involved in the conflict from the beginning, since the dispute first flared up. In Soviet times, particularly in 1990-1991, Moscow basically supported Azerbaijan’s position, since the official Azerbaijani attitude to issues relating to the status quo in the Union overlapped with the position of Moscow. Later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia tried to maintain the balance between the parties to the conflict. However, there were perceptions that Russia directly supported Armenia during the war; its troops even took part in the occupation of Azerbaijani territories. In fact, Russia officially recognized the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and actively supports a peaceful settlement of the conflict, and it has contributed to the process by mediating between the parties unilaterally and multilaterally.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia together with Kazakhstan initiated negotiation between the parties in order to reach ceasefire and to solve the issues such as the return of refugees, local elections, and establishment of constitutional governance.[1] The joint efforts of Russia and Kazakhstan were nevertheless unsuccessful, since the war had already escalated and the parties were trying to gain an advantageous bargaining position in the negotiations. In 1992, after the unsuccessful attempts to mediate the dispute by Iran, the CSCE/OSCE Minsk group became the main mediator in the conflict. Despite being a member of this group, Russia continued its unilateral efforts to settle the conflict. Indeed, the 1994 ceasefire agreement that brought the violence to an end was signed by the parties to the dispute due to the efforts of Russia. In 1994, at the Budapest meeting of the OSCE, the co-chair format was established for conducting negotiations within the framework of the Minsk group, and Russia was appointed as one of the co-chairs. In particular, after France and the US were appointed as the other co-chairs of the group, Russia’s efforts in the settlement process were in the context of the multi-party mediation format. Thus Russia, as one of the co-chairs of the Minsk group, initiated various plans to resolve the conflict, all of which proved unsuccessful. In the aftermath of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, and in an attempt to demonstrate its goodwill toward settling South Caucasian conflicts, Russia organized meetings between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia. As a result of these meetings, the Moscow declaration was accepted, which stressed that the settlement of the conflict within the framework of the principles of international law would influence the development of cooperation between the two countries.[2] In 2011, after the Moscow declaration and in an attempt to make further progress, a meeting of the presidents in Kazan was arranged through Russian mediation. Unfortunately, this attempt also resulted in failure.

In fact, there is a perceived view that Russia, in its efforts to realize its geostrategic interests, is having a negative effect on the negotiation process.[3] South Caucasus has traditionally been under the influence of Russia for more than two centuries, and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia has no intention of losing its control over this region, since it acts as a buffer zone for its southern borders.[4] It is therefore assumed that if the conflicts in the region are settled, this will threaten the interests of Russia. In 2008, Russia proved this perception by directly intervening in Georgia’s territorial integrity.[5] Indeed, according to the UN Guidance for Effective Mediation, states which themselves have an interest in the settlement of a particular conflict may not be directly involved in the mediation process, since such states may speculate with the negotiations, which in the end will lead to deadlock in the process. Moreover, mediators must be impartial, must treat the parties to the conflict equally and fairly, and must maintain a balance between them.[6] In fact, the relationship between Russia and Armenia is at the strategic partnership level, which means there is an opportunity to strengthen bilateral and multilateral relations in all fields, including military. Armenia is moreover a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which was established under the leadership of Russia and is based on the principles of “collective defense”.

It is clear that Russia is capable of contributing to the settlement process more effectively, and without its involvement it will be very difficult to achieve lasting peace. While officially recognizing the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, Russia follows the policy of maintaining a balance between the parties to the conflict. But the fact that its relationship with Armenia is more of a strategic partnership that covers military cooperation as well challenges the perception of it being impartial in the conflict.

[1] Baser, Bahar, “Third Party Mediation in Nagorno Karabakh: Part of the Cure or Part of the Disease?”, Journal of Central Asian & Caucasian Studies, Vol, 3, No. 5, 2008 p. 109.

[2] Pashayeva, Gulshan, “The Nagorno Karabakh Conflict In The Aftermath Of The Russia-Georgia War”, Turkish Policy Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 4, pp. 62-63.

[3] Mahmudlu, Jeyhun and Ahmadov, Agil, “Impact of “Five Days War” On South Caucasian States”, Journal of Qafqaz University: History, Law and Political Sciences, No. 29, 2010, p. 47.

[4] Dekanozishvili, Mariam, “The EU in the South Caucasus: By What means, to What Ends?” Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, Occasional Paper #2, January 2004, p. 7.

[5] Mahmudlu and Ahmadov, “Impact of “Five Days War” On South Caucasian States”, p. 49.

[6] “United Nations Guidance for Effective Mediation”, United Nations Peacemaker, July 2012, p. 10; https://peacemaker.un.org/guidance-effective-mediation. Accessed on October 4, 2020.