Russia on June 20 cemented its role as the MC-enforcer of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict talks by hosting Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev for the duo’s second meeting after their Four-Day War this April.
In St. Petersburg, Sargsyan and Aliyev conspicuously refused to shake hands before retreating to a closed-door meeting with their host, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin later claimed that the two did shake on several issues, such as their stated commitment to maintaining and monitoring the ceasefire in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the biggest potential time-bomb in the conflict-torn South Caucasus.
“We have planned out concrete steps to boost the process of negotiations, and the presidents agreed on a trilateral statement, which reaffirms their commitment to normalization of the situation on the line of contact and also includes their consent to increasing the number of the OSCE monitors,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a small ceasefire monitoring mission in Karabakh. For years, the OSCE has arranged peace talks on Karabakh through its Minsk Group, a mediation mechanism led by Russia, the US and France.
On June 20, Putin first held one-on-one and then trilateral meetings with Sargsyan and Aliyev. The American and French Minsk Group co-chairs were the last to join the negotiations. The US co-chair, James Warlick tweeted that the meeting contained “positive steps.”
Following the April 2-6 flare-up in fighting – the deadliest since the 1994 ceasefire – Russia moved decisively to take charge of the peace talks. Putin brokered the tenuous ceasefire that paused the April fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and ethnic Armenian separatists in Karabakh.
Although the Caucasus remains a place for West-Russian power-jockeying, the US and EU have evinced little desire to challenge Moscow and try taking a lead role themselves in the Karabakh talks.
Russia appears to recognize that the US and France prefer to take a back seat on this one, and, given its clashes with the West over other separatist conflicts in Eurasia, probably is delighted to perform for an international and domestic audience the role of would-be, regional peace-broker.
Lavrov put it clearly: “Beyond all doubt, we are interested – maybe more than the other foreign partners of these two countries – in this conflict being settled as soon as possible.”