It was only fitting that President Vladimir Putin took the bickering leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to a wrestling match in Sochi on August 10. The tableau of Putin wedged between Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev emphasized Russia’s role as a war-deterrent and power-broker in the two Caucasus countries’ boiling conflict over the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
The Putin-Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting in Sochi was held against the backdrop of the fiercest fighting in years over the remote, mountainous area. That sense of heightened conflict extended to the summit. Before attending the wrestling match, the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents had a bout of words between themselves. The two accused one another of ignoring UN Security Council resolutions on Karabakh.
That left it to Putin to step in with calls for wisdom and temperance. “[T]here is no bigger tragedy than the deaths of people,” observed the Russian leader.
Perhaps he was speaking from experience, if not from a sense of irony. The international community has widely blamed Moscow for encouraging the fighting in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists that already has led to the deaths of hundreds, including the downing of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17.
That idée fixe has been a background theme in both the war in Ukraine and regional debates about the flare-up in Karabakh.
The outcry over Karabakh, so far, has been comparatively limited to expressions of concern. On August 9, a group of Armenian, Azerbaijani and other observers, journalists and politicians made a passionate call for ending the latest surge of violence.
“[A]n attack for an attack will only make more young Armenians and Azerbaijani dead, wounded and disabled,” the petition read. “A few meters of territory or ‘strategic heights’ gained are worth nothing if they put young people in the ground and leave their loved ones traumatized.”
Many would concur in Ukraine. Yet, Putin is the best peacemaker Armenia and Azerbaijan can get for now. Putin acted fast to bring Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to Russia and to press peace and, most likely, Russian interests upon the two countries.
It is unclear if the weekend in Sochi is going to bring a permanent deal on Karabakh or what price Russia would exact for any mediation-services rendered. But with the rising death toll, many in both countries may think that a Putin-peace would still be better than no peace at all.