What is the position of Russia regarding the Karabakh issue?

Unlike the other Co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, Russia has been officially involved in the conflict since the dispute first flared up. In Soviet times, particularly in 1990-1991, Russia supported Azerbaijan’s position since the official Azerbaijani attitude to issues relating to the status quo in the Union overlapped with the position of Russia. 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. Russia, in fact, officially recognized the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and actively ‘supported’ a peaceful settlement of the conflict. It has contributed to the process by mediating between the parties unilaterally and multilaterally.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Kazakhstan initiated negotiations between the parties to reach a ceasefire and solve issues such as the return of refugees, local elections, and the establishment of constitutional governance.[1] The joint efforts of Russia and Kazakhstan were 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 ended the violence was signed between the parties to the conflict with 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 several 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] After the signing of the Moscow declaration, the Kazan meeting of the presidents of the parties to the conflict was organized in 2011, with the mediation of Russia, to continue the negotiations and achieve progress in the process.

There is a perceived view that Russia was harming the negotiation process due to its geostrategic interests in the region.[3] Thus, 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 the settlement of the conflicts in the region is a threat to Russian interests. The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and the violation of the Georgian territorial integrity with the direct military intervention of Russia prove this assumption.[5] Indeed, according to the UN Guidance for Effective Mediation, states that have an interest in 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, treat the parties to the conflict equally and fairly, and maintain a balance between them.[6] In this regard, the relationship between Russia and Armenia was at the level of strategic partnership in all fields, including military, prior to the Second Karabakh War. 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.”

Thus, Russia possesses political leverage to influence the settlement process of the conflict more effectively. Although Russia was following the policy of maintaining a balance between the parties to the conflict while officially recognizing the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, the fact is that its relationship with Armenia was more of a strategic partnership that covers military cooperation as well as challenges the perception of it being impartial in the conflict until 2018.

However, the changing hand of the government in Armenia as a result of the revolution of 2018 also changed the attitude of Russia toward Armenia. In this regard, Russia’s ‘passive stand’ during the Second Karabakh War was considered a message to Armenian new leadership for their intention to integrate the country into Europe. Generally speaking, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was an important factor for Russia to keep these countries in its sphere of influence and avoid their approach toward the West. However, the Second Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Russian War in Ukraine changed the attitude of Russia toward the region and weakened its influence in the South Caucasus. In this regard, while referring to the Ukraine War, Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, highlights that “because of the impact of not only the military losses but also the economic losses because of sanctions and other measures that make Russia a much weaker country today and less able to project power than it was pre-Feb. 24.”[7] However, as one of the geopolitical players in the region for centuries, Russia tries to keep its presence in the region as much as possible. The Russian ‘peacekeeping’ forces deployed into the region after the Second Karabakh War as a precondition of the Trilateral Statement of November 10, 2020, is also part of this plan of Russia. In this regard, the existing status quo between the parties regarding the Karabakh issue is much more beneficial for Russia in order to be in the region as a player rather than having a final peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which may push both countries toward the West.

[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, pp. 10-18; https://peacemaker.un.org/guidance-effective-mediation. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[7] Wilson, Audrey, “Is Moscow Being Tested in Nagorno-Karabakh?” Foreign Policy, September 14, 2022; https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/09/14/nagorno-karabakh-violence-armenia-azerbaijan-russia/. Accessed on December 5, 2022.