MOSCOW–As the Kremlin moved to settle the renewed conflict in Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia lost little time in accusing Turkey of fueling the hostilities. Meanwhile, Russian officials pledged to continue arms sales to both sides of the conflict — Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev publicly speculated on April 9 that the latest conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh was stirred by foreign meddling. There is a Turkish factor in this conflict, he said in televised remarks. Medvedev also said the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh was holding, arguing it’s better to freeze the fighting for the time being, rather than seek a quick resolution that might fail.
Earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan. On April 4, Erdogan also accused Russia of backing Azerbaijan’s opponent Armenia. However, Turkish authorities later dismissed allegations that Turkey was helping to fuel the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting.
Conflict began in 1980s
The resumption of fighting on April 2 is part of a long-running Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that began in the late 1980s. The situation reached critical mass in 1991 when the ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) was proclaimed. The Azerbaijans tried to retake the territories claimed by the NKR and suffered a stinging military defeat, with more than 11,000 killed. In May 1994, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed NKR signed a ceasefire agreement — the so-called Bishkek Protocol, sponsored by Russia.
However, Azerbaijan doesn’t recognize the NKR and considers the region to be an occupied territory. On April 9, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev made it clear that the conflict could only be resolved after the departure of Armenian forces from Azerbaijan’s territories.
The Kremlin rushed to mediate in the renewed conflict. On April 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin held telephone talks with his counterparts Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan in a bid to stabilize the situation. On April 7-8, Medvedev traveled to Yerevan and Baku in shuttle diplomacy aimed at defusing the conflict.
On April 8, at a meeting in Baku, Medvedev told President Aliyev that relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia were of equal importance for Russia and pledged to continue Moscow’s peace-making efforts.
On April 7, following talks in Yerevan with President Sargsyan and Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan, Medvedev said Moscow would act as a mediator in the conflict. He pledged to step up efforts for a Karabakh peace deal.
Yet despite Moscow’s peace-making rhetoric, Armenia appears to have voiced its preference for direct military support from Moscow. On April 7, Abrahamyan told Medvedev that Russia should expedite supplies of military hardware to Armenia.
Playing both sides
In February 2016, Russia granted Armenia a $200 million loan to finance the procurement of military hardware from Moscow. The ten-year loan would finance purchases of Russian-made arms, including Smerch (Tornado) 300mm rockets with a firing range of 70-90 kilometers, and Igla-S portable air defense missile systems. Not surprisingly Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry strong protested the deal.
Russian officials have indicated plans to keep arming both sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On April 8, Russia’s deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, pledged to continue arms sales to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Over the past five years, Azerbaijan has purchased Russian-made arms worth some $4 billion, while Russian arms supplies to Armenia have trended significantly lower.
Sandwiched between hostile Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia remains in a tough geopolitical squeeze. At the same time, Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the post-Soviet security alliance that also includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Azerbaijan pulled out of the CSTO in 1999.
In February 2016, the CSTO general secretary, Russian general Nikolai Bordyuzha, said the CSTO had no intention of increasing its military presence in Armenia — near Turkey’s border. Bordyuzha also voiced hopes that the ongoing hostilities between Russia and Turkey wouldn’t provoke any direct military action.
Settlement in doubt
Russia maintains strong security links with Armenia. According to the 1995 treaty, Russia has the right to maintain a military base in Armenia till 2020. The 1997 friendship treaty also provides for mutual assistance in the event of a military threat to either country.
Nonetheless, Moscow’s official line that relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia are equally important for Russia are due for a reality check. Alleged Turkish meddling in Nagorno-Karabakh could prompt Russia to forge even closer links with Armenia. Moscow’s possible preference for ties with Yerevan on the Armenian side could prompt Baku and Ankara to question the Kremlin’s sincerity as an objective mediator in the conflict. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether Moscow’s peace-making efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh will result in a lasting settlement for this volatile region.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.