Since the Second Karabakh War in 2020, a final peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan has remained elusive. A series of mediators – Russia, the European Union and, now, the United States – have attempted to build on the ceasefire signed under Moscow’s patronage in November 2020. Several high-level meetings organised under EU auspices and bolstered by French involvement, as well as a re-engaged Biden administration, appear to have produced preliminary results. Yet, it remains to be seen whether a stable solution will be found, despite the limited commitments, the clashing interests of, and considerable distrust between the various mediators, not least considering their much larger-scale strategic confrontation in Ukraine.
This is even more important in light of the apparently diminished role in the process of the only outside actor with ‘boots on the ground’ in the region: the Russian Federation. Moscow was instrumental in backing up the November 2020 ceasefire with a peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh. Vladimir Putin himself expended considerable political capital in attempts to turn this truce into a final settlement – to no avail. A much-heralded push for a comprehensive peace agreement, featuring border delimitations and the opening of regional transportation routes, did not materialise.
Instead, Azerbaijan’s shelling of Armenian border towns and incursions into Armenian territory, in September this year, added to Yerevan’s doubts about Moscow’s long-standing alliance commitments, drawing little opprobrium from the Russian side (Armenia’s primary security guarantor since independence), or from the CSTO (of which Armenia has been a member since 1994). Meanwhile, Azerbaijan continues to view the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh as a temporary measure in preparation of the territory’s ‘re-integration’ into Azerbaijan, balking at any mention of ‘status’ for the local ethnic Armenian population.
These elements of dissatisfaction have now combined with greater Western involvement to reshape the negotiations format in recent months. The EU has notably emerged as a mediator from the beginning of this year, with Commission president Charles Michel organising several trilateral summits with Armenia’s PM Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev. Following the September attacks – on the heels of one of those EU-organised talks – French and United States involvement has also intensified, through the personal participation of President Macron and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. These are arguably the highest-level and most consistent Western intercessions into the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, since the failed Key West negotiations of 2001.
All the above-mentioned mediators have distinct interests in the region. The EU is partly driven by a concern – misplaced, according to some – for reliable energy supplies from Azerbaijan and Central Asia, in place of its long-standing energy reliance on Russia. The US, for its part, seems concerned with preventing Russia fromprolonging and expanding its footprint in the region – for instance, through control over a potentially extraterritorial, sanction-busting corridor connecting Azerbaijan to its Nakhchivan exclave and, further, with Turkey. Russia’s wish to see its presence in the South Caucasus expanded and prolonged indefinitely could also be fulfilled by delaying any resolution to Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status, against Azerbaijan’s long-stated ambition to bring the region (and its unwilling population) under its direct control.
On the face of it, Western-led negotiations – in the United States as on the margins of the European Political Community’s recent Prague conference – have produced results, building on elements previously established under Russian tutelage. Indeed, Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to recognise each other’s territorial integrity – and delimit their borders – according to the principles of the United Nations charter and the 1991 Alma Ata declaration. They reportedly plan to set up working groups towards a comprehensive peace agreement, to be signed ‘before the end of this year’. Moreover, all sides have agreed to EU observers being dispatched to Armenia’s border zones for a period of two months. Also, the agreement reportedly separates the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status – and the presence of Russian peacekeepers there – from the bilateral relations between Baku and Yerevan. This has fanned local fears that Armenia may be on the verge of recognising the region as an integral part of Azerbaijan, leaving only Russia’s peacekeepers as their protectors, within a broader context of ethnic cleansing and cultural erasure.
These moves appear to fit into an attempt, by Yerevan, to compensate for the security vacuum created by Moscow’s unwillingness or inability to intercede on its behalf, in a westward pivot that remains high-risk, because of Armenia’s multiple dependencies, both inside and outside the security realm. Azerbaijan, for its part, appears to be pushing for a comprehensive peace agreement in view of possible political changes in its stalwart ally, Turkey, during next year’s elections, in addition to its hope that any final agreement with Armenia would pave the way for Russian forces’ departure from Nagorno-Karabakh.
This is a risky strategy, especially for the weaker side in this protracted conflict: failure to achieve a final agreement within the relatively tight timeframe provided may very well see a return to coercive diplomacy by Azerbaijan. Western pressure following the most recent incursions and bombardments – including clear condemnations of these events themselves, as well as of reported war crimes - appears to have diminished such possibility. Neighbouring Iran has now also joined the fray by organising large-scale military exercises near its border with Armenia and Azerbaijan, in an apparent warning to the latter not to challenge the territorial status-quo. Yet, the question remains whether, in the absence of a military (rather than observatory) Western presence, as in the face of clear Iranian irritation, Baku would refrain from pushing its obvious advantage. Pashinyan’s government might also not survive a perceived betrayal of what has been Armenia’s defining national objective since the late Soviet era.
In addition, Russia’s ability to spoil should not be underestimated: it has voiced its strong displeasure at what it sees as a Western attempt to disrupt its own preferred processes in the region – a distrust between itself and the Western mediators that is certainly reciprocated. It could use its many levers to destabilise a still-overdependent Armenia or, otherwise, entice either side into ‘forum shopping’ with alternative peace proposals. Much will no doubt depend on circumstances in Ukraine as well. In any case, the coming months will prove decisive in what remains the longest-running armed conflict in the former Soviet space.