Over the past 30 years Russia has been one of the biggest foreign powers operating in the turbulent South Caucasus region. But the invasion of Ukraine means the two regional archenemies – Armenia and Azerbaijan – are now attempting to distance themselves from Moscow.
Other global and regional actors, namely the European Union and Turkey, are aiming to replace Russia as the major arbiter in the decades old dispute between the two countries. Turkey has previously backed Azerbaijan against Armenia, which Russia has treated as a nominal ally. Now that the Kremlin is preoccupied with its war in Ukraine, Turkey is seeking to change the dynamic and normalize ties with Armenia, despite a bitter history between Ankara and Yerevan. The European Union, meanwhile, is attempting to increase its influence in the South Caucasus.
On April 6, Charles Michel, the European Council president, initiated a meeting between Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The two leaders met in Brussels and discussed the implementation of a ceasefire agreement signed in Moscow in 2020. The deal effectively ended a 44-day war that the two countries fought over Nagorno-Karabakh region, although sporadic clashes continue to this day.
As a result of the meeting, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to establish a joint border commission that will delimit the border between the two countries and “ensure a stable security situation along, and in the vicinity of, the borderline.” In other words, Pashinyan de facto accepted Baku’s five-point plan to normalize relations with its energy-rich neighbor. Azerbaijan’s document calls on each side to recognize the other’s territorial integrity, abstain from threats, demarcate the border and open transportation links.
It is, however, rather questionable if the two countries will reach a lasting peace deal any time soon. Armenian opposition parties strongly oppose any agreement that defines Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh) as part of Azerbaijan. More importantly, even though Russia’s position in the global arena is not nearly as strong as it was before Moscow launched its war in Ukraine, the Kremlin still has significant leverage over Yerevan.
As a result of the 2020 Moscow-brokered ceasefire deal, some 2,000 Russian troops have deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh to protect ethnic Armenians who are still living in the region. It is not surprising, therefore, that Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan traveled to Moscow on April 8 to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. In the coming days, Pashinyan is expected to meet with President Vladimir Putin, as the Kremlin will undoubtedly attempt to preserve its role as a mediator in the South Caucasus.
Aliyev, on the other hand, was quick to make a phone call to his ally – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Following the Second Karabakh War, Turkey has managed to increase its presence in the South Caucasus. At the same time, Moscow and Ankara have established a joint Russo-Turkish observation center to monitor the cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
However, given a new geopolitical reality, Russia will have a hard time preserving the status quo in the region. Although Armenia is the Kremlin’s ally in both the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Union, an Armenian representative did not take part in the United Nations vote to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. Armenia is also actively working on normalizing relations with Turkey, even though more than two thirds of the Armenian population strongly opposes establishing diplomatic ties with Ankara.
Armenian political analyst Areg Kochinyan, however, warned that “Armenia’s statehood will be under threat in the medium term, if the country does not normalize relations with Ankara and Baku.” Indeed, under the current circumstances, Armenia cannot count on Russia’s serious support, which is why the land-locked nation of around three million people is expected to make painful unilateral concessions to Azerbaijan – the clear winner in the 44-day war.
Baku is now looking to exploit Russia’s primary focus on its military operation in Ukraine to make gains in Nagorno-Karabakh. On March 25, following clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in the mountainous region, Azerbaijan established control over the village of Farrukh, which had been under the protection of the Russian peacekeeping force since November 2020. In Brussels, Pashinyan and Aliyev reportedly discussed Azerbaijan’s actions, although talks “did not lead to a joint assessment of the situation.”
From Yerevan’s perspective, the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh should be the subject of negotiations, while for Baku that issue has been resolved in 2020 when Azerbaijan restored its sovereignty over a significant portion of the region, as well as surrounding areas. Given that Azerbaijan is firmly backed by Turkey, while Yerevan’s ally Russia cannot help itself, let alone Armenia, a future peace deal between the two countries is unlikely to include the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh.
One thing is for sure: If a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan is signed in Brussels, rather than in Moscow, it will be another Russian geopolitical defeat.
Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”