“War is over, beware of peace” goes a phrase from the Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play by Bertolt Brecht. It rings true today when peace in the Caucasus is brought by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is initiating a new phase of the roughly 24-year-long talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
After brokering a shaky April 5 ceasefire between the two, Moscow now has hit on “intensive negotiations,” a familiar prescription, as the way forward. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Yerevan on April 21 to talk about the Karabakh negotiations.
As yet, however, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the tripartite body headed by Russia, the US and France, which has overseen the Karabakh talks since 1992, is not in the picture.
“It was the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” said Ali Hasanov, a senior aide to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. “He addressed the presidents of both countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan] and preparations are underway now for the negotiations process.”
“We have activated all necessary diplomatic mechanisms to place the sides at the negotiations table,” Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying.
The official said that Moscow attaches top importance to finding peace in Karabakh, but, then, whether in South Ossetia, Ukraine or Syria, it always does, supposedly.
Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian separatists responded cautiously to Putin’s peace call, underlining that the talks should focus on ensuring peace and stability rather than debating the status of Karabakh. Armenia, the territory’s backer, indicated they could go back to an earlier proposed road map, which focused on handing over to Azerbaijan the Armenian-occupied territories around Karabakh.
Everyone is, thus, going back to square one. Save for Azerbaijan’s grabbing some strategic heights and international attention, the four days of bloodshed didn’t change much. But it did give an opportunity for Russia to display and reinforce its influence over the region.
At latest report, on April 20, the Minsk Group chairs were in Berlin, busy sharing their views of the conflict with OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Frank Walter Steinmeier.
Yet the US and EU are still stopping short of getting involved in a meaningful way, leaving the field open to Russia. While Washington and Brussels were making statements, Armenia and Azerbaijan’s military bosses were discussing ceasefire plans in Moscow.
Former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza told The Financial Times that with President Barack Obama on his way out, the White House has little desire to engage on Karabakh. “Strategically, when the US has been so silent, Putin has filled a vacuum that leaves the impression in Baku and Yerevan that they are alone, that he’s the only game in town,” Bryza said.
Leaving the South Caucasus unattended arguably involves higher risks for the EU. Apart from the need for peace in the vicinity of its borders, the region has a major role as an energy supply alternative to Russia.
If Russian involvement in Syria, Ukraine and Georgia are any indication, Putin’s peace mission in Karabakh is questionable. “Russia is not looking for peace, but is rather looking for some arrangement that maximizes their influence over both [Armenia and Azerbaijan],” Jeffrey Mankoff, a former US State Department adviser on Russia told The Christian Science Monitor.
Bigger clout south of the Caucasus mountain range and a PR score north of it is what Putin seems set to gain from his Karabakh game.