This policy paper suggests a two-fold strategy for the Russian Federation over Nagorno Karabakh, one for the short-term, another one for the long-term.
In the short-run, a “wait and see” policy maintaining the “frozen” status quo is necessary because at the moment it is impossible to assess the future geopolitical situation given the election of Donald Trump as the new President of the United States. On the other hand, the Russian Federation needs a long-term policy to settle the issue definitively, because this conflict is inherently unstable. A full-fledged war in Nagorno Karabakh would be a threat not only for the stability in the South Caucasus, but also for the stability of the Russian Federation.
- Short-term policy: maintain status quo of a “frozen conflict”
As long as the future international setting will not be more understandable and Armenia and Azerbaijan are not willing to accept a settlement, the best possible solution is to deter them from resuming hostilities. It means that in the short-term the best solution for Russian Federation is to preserve the status quo, i.e. to maintain the conflict “frozen”. Indeed, this will allow the Russian government to keep some leverage both on Armenia and Azerbaijan. The reason for this is that the break-out of a full-fledged war could be a real catastrophe for Russia, due to the following reasons:
- Risk of a proxy war with Turkey.
The Russian Federation will be obliged to help Armenia because of CSTO’s commitments. This could worsen the relations with Turkey, as Ankara is Azerbaijan’s ally, due to the common historical heritage between the two countries. This in turn could convince Turkey to provide military support to Azerbaijan. Furthermore, such a proxy war could create internal tensions on those territories within the Russian Federation that have close ties with Turkey, such as Tatarstan for example. In addition, it could be also a problem for a positive settlement of Syrian war
- Instability at Russian borders
The start of a war on Karabakh’s ground, will not only undermine Russia’s relations with Ankara, but it could also destabilise the entire South Caucasus region. This might carry the risk of a spill-over of hostilities and the movements of fighters to the Russian North Caucasus.
In order to prevent these possible consequences of a war in Nagorno Karabakh, the Russian Federation must prevent both sides in the conflict from using military measures. To this end, the sales of Isklander missiles to Armenia was the right choice. Indeed, they had an important deterrence effect on Azerbaijan during the last April skirmishes. Nevertheless, I suggest not only insensifying military ties, but economic and political ones too. For this purpose, it will be important to:
- Continue to sell weapons to Armenia.
Halting the sale of weapons to Armenia could give a comparative advantage to Azerbaijan. Baku’s regime could begin a new war once it feels militarily strong enough to attack Armenia. As Armenia, could still buy weapons from other sources, stop selling weapons to Armenia might lead it out of Russia’s sphere of influence, resulting in the loss of Russia’s closest ally in the South Caucasus, a region whose stability has a core importance for the Russian Federation.
Guaranteeing a balance in military power of both Armenia and Azerbaijan is therefore the best way to preserve the status quo.
- Strengthen economic ties with Azerbaijan.
Russian industries should continue to invest in Azerbaijan’s economy, as Gazprom already did in September 2015. The Russian government should encourage the conclusion of further such agreements, in order not to let Azerbaijan become too economically independent from Russia. Especially when considering the ongoing construction of Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, which is reinforcing the linkages between Baku and the European Union. Indeed, the building of this pipeline together with the Gabala-over-horizon radar negotiations, could be already perceived as an attempt by Aliyev’s government to escape the Russian influence. The strengthen of economic ties not only will avoid Azerbaijan to improve its own relations with the West and, moreover, they could be used to discourage Azerbaijan from re-starting the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh
However, this can be only a short-term policy that should be adopted until the external conditions will have become clearer., given the fact that, concerning Nagorno Karabakh, several circumstances make the status quo as an option that cannot be pursued in the long-term.
- Nagorno Karabakh conflict is based on cultural issues.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan see Nagorno Karabakh as a cultural wellspring, due to the presence of important historical monuments in the region. Hatred is fostered since school, where textbooks contain plenty of rhetoric against the historic enemy. Moreover, the recent destruction of the Aga-Dede mosque has exacerbated the situation even further, bringing Azerbaijan to accuse Armenia of cultural terrorism. Nevertheless, Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of the complete destruction of the Armenian cemetery of Jugha.
- To Azerbaijan the status quo is intolerable.
Azerbaijan could desire to gain full control over the region through a military operation. Indeed, Azerbaijan thinks that it is not able to guarantee Azerbaijan’s teritorial integrity as acknowledged by several UNSC’s resolution.
On the other hand, Armenia is satisfied with the status quo in the short-term, which allows it to maintain the de facto control over Nagorno. However, in the long-term the status quo might be unsustainable for Armenia too, because of its worsening economic situation and its geopolitical isolation, resulting from the current situation.
- A war in Nagorno Karabakh could legitimise Aliyev’s regime.
Indeed, Azerbaijan is now witnessing an economic recession and the government could divert people’s attention from such domestic problems by starting a war against Armenia.
Given this inherently unstable nature of the situation in Nagorno Karabakh, Russian interests will be served best through a definite settlement of this conflict.