Russia on April 7 swiftly took charge as a conciliator in the Armenia-Azerbaijan fight, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the ground in Baku, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on his way to Yerevan and President Vladimir Putin sending his “warmest greetings.”
Lavrov said that Moscow had worked at all levels to end what some call the “April Fool’s War” or the “Four-Day War,” a bloody bout of fighting between Azerbaijanis and ethnic Armenians over the breakaway Nagorno Karabakh region and surrounding territory occupied by Armenian and separatist forces.
“At every level, from president to prime minister, to foreign ministry, to defense ministry, to joint chiefs of staff, we did everything to help the sides arrive at a ceasefire agreement,” Lavrov said on April 7, as he met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in the Azerbaijani capital. The trip was announced in March, before the latest violence began.
While calling for a lasting Armenia-Azerbaijan peace, Lavrov used the opportunity to emphasize Moscow's special role in the affairs of its former Soviet republics and to draw lines for the West's involvment. Russia, “as a country with close ties to both” Armenia and Azerbaijan will stay involved to make sure that the truce holds in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Lavrov said.
Although saying that Moscow is supportive of peace initiatives of the conflict's two other international mediators, the United States and France, Lavrov claimed than Russia is more interested in a peaceful resolution of the 28-year-old Caucasus conflict than anybody in the West.
The United States, France and Russia have long been working together on various ideas about a Karabakh peace-plan through a mechanism called the Minsk Group, which combines the United States, Russia and France. The Group's American co-chair, Ambassador James Warlick, tweeted on April 7 that the trio is headed to Nagorno Karabakh "to meet with de facto leaders and hear first hand [sic] about the violence." France had earlier announced that the co-chairs would also travel to Baku and Yerevan.
But, beyond that, the United States and France are not as diplomatically engaged as Russia. The lead role as peacemaker and power-broker is, therefore, once again left to Moscow.
Critics have long maintained that Russia is interested in perpetuating post-Soviet territorial conflicts that allow Moscow to exert long-term influence in its neighborhood by playing both hands against the middle. With an eye on the South Caucasus’ potential for broader political and energy security matters, the European Union and the United States have tried to temper Russia’s influence by working closely with the region's countries, but, at key moments, nobody acts as promptly and decisively as Moscow.
Just as the long-festering Karabakh conflict spiraled back into a bloody confrontation on April 1, Russian officials got on the phone, dialing both Yerevan and Baku.
As if signaling Washington's desire to take a back seat on this one, US State Secretary John Kerry called Lavrov, not his Armenian or Azerbaijani counterparts, to discuss the Karabakh situation. A ceasefire was agreed in Moscow, where the Armenian and Azerbaijan army chiefs met on April 5, according to Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, RFE/RL's Armenian service reported.
The Kremlin misses no opportunity to cast its diplomatic missions as entirely altruistic, and at potential risk to itself. Russia's government-linked Sputnik news service pointed out on April 4 that Lavrov was traveling to Baku, far removed from the frontline, "despite" the pickup in hostilities.
Some observers, including in Armenia, believe that Moscow wants to station its own peacekeepers on the frontline between the Azerbaijani army and Armenian and separatist Karabakhi forces.
Russia's state-run news agency TASS on April 7 duly cited remarks from the breakaway region of Transnistria, tightly aligned with Moscow, about its own supposedly positive experience using Russian peacekeepers to prevent clashes with Moldovan forces.
Arguably, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev may choose to elaborate on such opinions when he arrives in Yerevan later today. He travels to Baku on April 8. Lavrov takes his own peace mission to Yerevan on April 21.
Many observers may believe a Russian-brokered peace is better than no peace, but the Karabakh conflict is still expected to stay on simmer, ready to explode any time, with no lasting solution in sight. Lavrov, however, says he says good ideas toward that end.
-- Caucasus news editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this post.