Does Russia Want Lasting Peace Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
Author: Ambassador (Ret.) Richard E. Hoagland
May 11, 2023
The short answer to the question posed in the title of this article is this: probably not.
A senior delegation from the Caspian Policy Center visiting Azerbaijan April 23-30 met with leading public- and private-sector officials, including government ministers and advisers, think-tank directors, and top academics. It’s not surprising that a significant part of our discussions focused on the current process between Armenia and Azerbaijan to seek a true and lasting peace after the 44-day Second Karabakh War of September-November 2020. Although Russia brokered the deal to halt that war, it’s actually been the United States and the European Union that have worked, quietly but persistently, to achieve a lasting peace. All of our interlocutors in Azerbaijan assured us that their government at the highest levels is grateful for that assistance and is truly committed to a final and lasting peace agreement.
We heard no outright criticism of Moscow, but we did hear multiple examples suggesting that the Kremlin is likely not as committed to helping Baku and Yerevan achieve a lasting peace as are Brussels and Washington. The primary example we heard was the appearance of Ruben Vardanyan as the “State Minister of Artsakh” two years after Russia brokered the deal that called a halt to the Second Karabakh War. “Artsakh” is the name ethnic Armenians have given to the Karabakh district of Azerbaijan that Armenia illegally occupied and had hoped eventually to annex – or to declare an independent republic.
Vardanyan, variously described as an Armenian billionaire businessman and a Russian oligarch, is known as “the father of the Russian stock market,” according Forbes, and was a co-founder of the Russian investment company, Troika Dialog, in the early 1990s. But even top levels of the government in Yerevan reportedly were uneasy about Vardanyan’s appearance in Karabakh, because in modern history leaders of Karabakh have tended to become prime ministers of Armenia, sometimes by ousting the incumbent. Whatever maneuvering and deal-cutting it took behind the scenes, Vardanyan was eased out in February 2023, opening the door for true negotiations between Yerevan and Baku.
We heard other examples, too, of Russia trying to call the shots in Karabakh, e.g., insisting that Russian should be the official language of Karabakh and that the Russian Orthodox Church should be its official “state religion,” essentially making Karabakh an exclave of Russia. Baku firmly said nyet and swatted both of those away. But what it couldn’t stop was the appearance of Russia’s so-called “peace keepers” following the 44-day war. This was the very first time Russian troops had been posted on Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory since its independence, and something that continues to rankle Baku. One minister with whom we had a two-hour conversation told us that it is essential for Yerevan and Baku to achieve a true and lasting peace, because “Moscow wants those peace keepers here for another 30 years!”
Why would the Russian government not want a lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially when its back is against the wall with Putin’s criminal war in Ukraine? It’s worth recalling what are called the prolonged conflicts that have persisted in the former Soviet space since the fall of the Soviet Union: Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, Luhansk and Donbas in Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Each in its own way is a break-away territory from the nation it found itself in at the fall of the Soviet Union. And for the last three decades, the Kremlin has done nothing to solve these festering problems, because the prolongation of these conflicts keeps those countries in Moscow’s sphere of influence. A true and lasting peace in each case would allow the countries involved to more freely choose their own international partners, rather than bow, first and foremost, to Russia. Moscow has feared that those new partners would inevitably be in the West.
During our delegation’s consultations before we left for Azerbaijan, the State Department specifically asked us to pass a message that, should Baku and Yerevan actually achieve a lasting peace, the U.S. presence and programs would increase significantly in the region – something that the Kremlin most decidedly does not want.
It’s important to note that Armenia and Azerbaijan are not committed to pursuing a true and lasting peace simply to please Washington or Brussels. Absolutely not! They are doing so because both Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan apparently truly understand that the time has come for real peace and, so far, have brought most of their people along with them – despite the resistance of the radical Armenian dashnaks and their fellow travelers in the international Armenian diaspora. Further, these two national leaders understand that a true and lasting peace will lead eventually to prosperity in their own countries and throughout the South Caucasus region. And that would ultimately be a plus for all involved.
Finally, it’s worth noting that if just one post-Soviet prolonged conflict – Karabakh – can be truly resolved, then there is a glimmer of hope that the others could be, too. A senior presidential adviser in Baku said to us, “We ask the United States to use its special powers to help build this new, international, post-war reality.”