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NAGORNO KARABAKH – The Minsk Group: Karabakh War’s Diplomatic Casualty (Part Two) (Vladimir Socor, The Jamestown Foundation)

The second Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan (September–November 2020) has conclusively discredited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, the instrument of multilateral diplomacy mandated 28 years ago to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict (see EDM, November 12131725).

While the Minsk Group’s discredit accumulated over time since 2010 (see below), the second Karabakh war has now robbed the Group as such, and its triple co-chairmanship in particular, of its raison d’être. The Kremlin-brokered armistice agreement of November 9, 2020, and subsequent documents do not even pro forma mention the Minsk Group and its decade-old Basic Principles for resolving the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.

Nominally accountable to the OSCE, the Minsk Group operates through its triple co-chairmanship of Russia, the United States and France, each co-chair being, in fact, accountable to its own government rather than the OSCE (the Group’s collective reports to the OSCE are a purely ceremonial exercise). Its multilateral legitimation through the OSCE notwithstanding, the Minsk Group’s triple co-chairmanship in fact attempted to introduce a concert-of-powers diplomacy to the South Caucasus.

The Kremlin, however, turned that concert into a Russian solo performance, practically monopolizing the role of mediator for the Russian co-chair from 2010 onward, after the Minsk Group’s three co-chairs had jointly tabled the Basic Principles for solving the Karabakh conflict (2009). From that point onward, Russian Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin took over the process, both through the Minsk Group and unilaterally by circumventing the Minsk Group. The United States allowed this to happen through its own passivity, and France through its own irrelevance to the South Caucasus. During the second Karabakh war, however, US and French diplomacy both switched to a largely pro-Armenia stance. If that was their quickly improvised way to recoup some of their lost influence over the diplomatic process, their attempt failed; and in that attempt, they forfeited the impartiality that qualifies any mediator for that role.

Russia was, all along, an inescapable participant in any multilateral mediation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, considering Russia’s proximity and interests vis-à-vis the South Caucasus. But Russia was (and remains) inherently unqualified for a mediator’s role, inasmuch as its interests in the region are hegemonic, and its mediation has only worked to advance those interests. Nor does Moscow meet the criterion of impartiality, since Russia and Armenia are strategic-military allies, whereas Azerbaijan had cast its lot with the West all along and, more recently, also with Turkey. Indeed, Moscow tilted generally toward Armenia after (and despite) the Minsk Group’s determination of the Basic Principles. Thus, the Kremlin’s 2011 proposals in the “Kazan Document” (see EDM, June 29, 2011), which shaped Russia’s position in subsequent years, so departed from the Basic Principles as to become unacceptable to Azerbaijan. The Kremlin, moreover, reinterpreted the Basic Principles to mean that five, not all seven, Armenian-occupied districts around Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh were to be returned to Azerbaijan, so that the two other districts would become negotiable.

The operating principle of Russia’s mediation consisted of keeping both sides off balance for more than two decades. Russia underwrote Armenia’s seemingly permanent occupation of Azerbaijani territories de facto; but at the same time, Moscow recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty de jure. And in recent years, the Kremlin delivered weapons to both sides (discounted or gratis to Armenia, commercially for cash to Azerbaijan) (see EDM, April 12, 2016 and May 28, 2018). For its part, Yerevan came to regard Russia as the perpetual guarantor of Armenia’s territorial gains at the expense of Azerbaijan. The Kremlin never dispelled that Armenian perception until it was too late for Yerevan to recognize its overreach.

Never interested in a solution that would not advance its own hegemonic goals, Russia was instead content to maintain a controlled degree of instability between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Kremlin blocked any progress toward a political solution, pending an opportunity to further enhance Russia’s influence over the process and in the region. This opportunity came with Azerbaijan’s military victory over Russia’s ally Armenia, as consecrated in the November 9, 2020, armistice agreement. This agreement concludes one major phase in a protracted conflict that remains unresolved politically, despite Azerbaijan’s military triumph in this second Karabakh war. The Kremlin brokered this agreement on terms that have increased Russian influence on the further evolution of this conflict and in the region beyond Karabakh. Most significantly, the agreement authorizes neighboring Russia unilaterally to deploy troops to the region, in breach of the Minsk Group’s erstwhile consensus, OSCE understandings and United Nations norms on peacekeeping.

At the same time, Turkey has entered the South Caucasus as a political-military power (adding to its economic power) to Russia’s discomfiture. The Minsk Group had excluded Ankara from the co-chairmanship and, thus, from any meaningful role. As if to confirm the Minsk Group’s loss of relevance, Turkey has now entered the region hand in hand with Azerbaijan and even, to a degree, on Azerbaijan’s coattails. This will serve henceforth as an insurance policy for Azerbaijan vis-à-vis Russia’s stronger leverage.

Russia’s unilateral mediation of the armistice agreement has unceremoniously shut out the United States and France. The Minsk Group, with its collective co-chairmanship, looks all but defunct, as Washington and Paris undoubtedly realize. Yet Moscow deems it useful to keep the Minsk Group’s co-chairmanship barely afloat, for possible further manipulative use down the road. Russian officials, from President Vladimir Putin on down, maintain that the Minsk Group’s basic principles are the foundation of the armistice agreement. The Kremlin would welcome Minsk Group collective stamps of approval on those unilaterally driven Russian solutions. It, therefore, received the Minsk Group’s US and French co-chairs in Moscow post factum, to “provide them with full information about the agreement reached by the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, in full compliance with the Minsk Group Principles,” as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reported to Putin in a Russian inter-agency meeting (Kremlin.ru, November 20). Russia’s presence in this exercise of multilateral diplomacy, however, has doomed the whole exercise; and it will continue to have this effect, if the Minsk Group is allowed to limp further along.