Russia takes charge of Nagorno-Karabakh

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) met Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev (C) and Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan (L), Moscow, Jan. 11, 2021

The trilateral meeting of the leaderships of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Kremlin on January 11, exactly two months after the ceasefire in the 44-day Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, can be seen as a robust push by Moscow to consolidate its diplomatic achievement so far. The ceasefire has gained traction and this is the opportune moment for Russia to flesh out other aspects that were agreed upon between the three countries on November 10 in Moscow. 

A statement issued after Monday’s meeting underscored an agreement to establish a tripartite Working Group of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan at deputy prime minister level, assisted by sub-groups of experts, on the following lines: 

“The Working Group, by March 1, 2021, will submit for approval at the highest level by the Parties a list and a schedule for the implementation of measures involving the restoration and construction of new transport infrastructure facilities necessary for the organisation, implementation and security of international traffic carried out through the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia, as well as transportations carried out by the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia, which require crossing the territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia.” 

From subsequent remarks by the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, his country would have a rail link with Nakhchivan, the Azeri exclave that borders Turkey and Iran, for the first time in over three decades, and landlocked Armenia would get rail links with Russia and Iran. 

From available details, the focus is on a road corridor from mainland Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan through the 42-km strip that the Armenian district of Zengezur forms between them. (For years, Azeri mainlanders have been forced to travel to Nakhchivan via Iran and to Turkey via Georgia.) Armenia, on the other hand, would stand to gain by securing an all-weather land route to Russia via Azerbaijan. The revival of the old rail networks dating back to the late 19th century — following the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano — and the 1921 Treaty of Kars between Russia and Turkey is also being mentioned. 

In principle, a reopening of the 877-km Kars-Baku rail link running through Nakhchivan and Armenia and connecting Russia’s North Caucasus  is possible, which can also be extended southward to Iran’s Tabriz. Turkey fancies all this as a “a strategic corridor” that would give it direct access to the gas- and oil-rich Caspian basin and Central Asia — and further beyond to China.  

Railway from Yerevan passing through Azerbaijan – Nakhichevan to Russia along Caspian coast. Both routes were actively used during Soviet era as railways and highways until early 1990s.

Evidently, Russia calculates that “any economic and infrastructure agreements take on a political nature. If it is about transport corridors, it means security and some sort of cooperation between the Armenian and Azerbaijani ethnic groups,” Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian Council on International Affairs, said last week. 

Kortunov estimated that although Monday’s agreements did not address the core issue, namely, Nagorno-Karabakh’s status as such, which is “hanging in the air,” the sides are moving in the right direction. To quote the influential Moscow-based think tanker,  

“Even the limited agreements that have been reached make it possible to say that the meeting (on Monday) was successful. Transport was taken as a neutral, technical aspect of relations. With the first step made, the second and thirds steps are to follow. So, the opening of transport communications should be followed by issues of the exchange of prisoners, return of refugees, and co-living of two ethnic groups.” 

But things are not going to be velvet smooth. For a start, Turkey’s centrality needs to be defined to delimited — depending on how one looks at it. According to Kortunov, Turkey’s absence (non-participation) in the Moscow dialogue is quite demonstrative. He explains tactfully, “It means that Turkey is an important neighbour that cannot be absolutely excluded from what is currently going on in the South Caucasus but the Russian leadership has once again demonstrated that the key role in this settlement and post-settlement steps will be played by Moscow.” 

For the present, there is a plausible explanation to keep Turkey out and looking in, while Moscow assembles the peace blocks. Turkey is not liking it but is being pragmatic about it. But if Ankara succeeds in establishing diplomatic relations with Yerevan, the calculus changes overnight.

Equally, there are two other moving parts: the political future of Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan remains uncertain; Turkish President Recep Erdogan has Aliyev’s back; both Erdogan and Aliyev can be free-wheeling players who do not like a long-term Russian military presence in South Caucasus.   

Again, Iran cannot be liking its exclusion either. The fact of the matter is that on the present disjointed regional tapestry, Armenia and Azerbaijan have no choice but to use Iranian territory for transit, and Tehran is unwilling to give up that geopolitical trump card. 

Above all, while the western powers remain passive as of now, the attitude of the Joe Biden administration remains the ‘X’ factor. Last month, the US Congress legislated that “not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Director of National Intelligence shall submit to the congressional intelligence committees a written assessment regarding tensions between the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan, including with respect to the status of the Nagorno Karabakh region.” 

The US Congress has specifically directed the DNI to provide assessment on the following lines: 

  • An identification of the strategic interests of the United States and its partners in the Armenia-Azerbaijan region; 
  • A description of all significant uses of force in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan during calendar year 2020, including a description of each significant use of force and an assessment of who initiated the use of such force; 
  • An assessment of the effect of United States military assistance to Azerbaijan and Armenia on the regional balance of power and the likelihood of further use of military force; and, 
  • An assessment of the likelihood of any further uses of force or potentially destabilising activities in the region in the near- to medium-term.  

Clearly, Washington is gearing up for a geopolitical struggle in the Caucasus. Moscow probably senses this. And that would explain the haste with which it is pushing infrastructure development in South Caucasus to crate equities, whilst the Biden Administration is still in its infancy. Russia is pursuing a trajectory to strengthen its position while also keeping in view the eventuality of having to engage with the western powers at some point within the framework of the Minsk Group.

President Putin touches base with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron every now and then, the two countries being co-chairs (along with the US) of the Minsk Group. Conceivably, Russia remains open to working with the West but safeguarding its interests in the Caucasus. The big question is whether in the present security environment, that is a realistic expectation.     

Meanwhile, the US analysts have been lately highlighting China’s growing involvement in the South Caucasus. In the World Bank’s estimation, since 2005, Chinese trade turnover with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia increased around 2,070 percent, 380 percent and 1,885 percent, respectively. 

Chinese investments are also increasing, given the BRI’s seamless potential to generate business. With the recent completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, China’s footprint will rise further and such economic presence would eventually translate as political influence. 

The geographical location of the South Caucasus countries makes them viable transit routes for Chinese and European goods. One Chinese scholar even described Azerbaijan recently as a “pivotal country” in the BRI’s China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor. China is developing a trade route via Kazakhstan that crosses the Caspian from the Kazakh port of Aktau to Baku, which it visualises as a BRI hub. 

For the US, Caucasus is vital turf for lighting fires on Russia periphery, for navigating NATO’s expansion eastward, for establishing itself in the oil-rich Caspian, for controlling one of China’s main trade arteries to the European market, and for curbing Iran’s influence in the region. 

What should worry Washington most is that there is sufficient convergence between Russia and China to keep the Caucasus out of the US geopolitical orbit, especially as NATO is consolidating in the Black Sea region.