The last Russian-U.S. confrontation in Syria seems to have ebbed but the question – what consequences it might have for other trouble spots and particularly the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – is still there.
For the time being, Nagorno-Karabakh is not on the map of possible Russian-U.S. conflict. It is just an instrument for both the Kremlin and the White House to pressure Armenia and Azerbaijan and to influence the policies of Iran and Turkey.
For the moment, Donald Trump and his team are not interested in the South Caucasus and its trouble spot, Nagorno-Karabakh. But the Russians must not relax as this indifference may be followed by keen interest – especially if the Americans are stalemated in Syria and are forced to search for alternative weapons against Syria’s key allies, Russia and Iran.
There is also Turkey, that will hardly share the Russian-Iranian commitment to avoid a new war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
More than a year has passed since the so-called four-day April war. It gave no advantages to either of the sides and was stopped on the Kremlin’s pressing demand. A small piece of land captured by the Azerbaijanis during that war was far from what they expected. The deaths sustained by the Armenian army were followed by harsh criticism of the Armenian authorities and their diplomatic and security policies
It seems that the peacemaking efforts have come to a deadlock. The last meetings of Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev have given no results – despite their peaceful promises given in St. Petersburg in Vladimir Putin’s presence.
Syria and the general situation in the Middle East have distracted the world community’s attention from Nagorno-Karabakh. But this can’t last forever. Contradictions in Syria have not spoiled the Russian-U.S. contacts on Nagorno-Karabakh. On the contrary, the OSCE Minsk Group remains one of the few platforms where Moscow and Washington are still partners. The only problem here is the diplomatic level of the group. Were the mediators represented by deputy foreign ministers, the group could be much more efficient.
In the way it is now the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will sooner or later resume. One can only delay this moment as there are factors that are pushing the sides towards a new escalation. The sides are growing more and more distrustful towards each other and are acquiring more and more arms. Today, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone may well be one of the most militarized territories in the world. For the Russians, this area is a foothold for their activities in Syria, so, it is a priority for them to prevent a new war there. There are two ways for them to solve this task and both solutions imply certain problems.
A specific settlement algorithm will hardly be accepted. The Azerbaijanis are not going to implement the Vienna and St. Petersburg agreements. They say that until the Armenians withdraw their troops from at least two districts (partly controlled Agdam and Fizuli districts of Azerbaijani SSR), they will not sign anything.
The Armenians insist that the OSCE observation mission should be enlarged and should be more attentive to what is going on the contact line. They say that until the mediators do something to restore confidence between the sides, they will not discuss any withdrawals.
What can the Russians do under such conditions? Can they force the sides to make peace? The Kremlin has repeatedly said that it is not going to impose any solutions as any pressure can provoke internal instability and a new war – something the Russians fear the most.
But if nothing is done to settle the conflict, it may resume at any moment. The April war has shown that the Russians’ confidence that everything is under control had no grounds.
They can’t balance between the sides forever. And they can’t endless feed them with arms and arms supplies and peacemaking are two very different stories. The Russians can stop the inflow of arms into the region but this will hardly limit the appetites of the sides, especially the Azerbaijanis, who consider themselves as “victims of Armenian occupation.”
The future of the so-called security belt – the Armenia-controlled territories around Nagorno-Karabakh – is one of the most sensible aspects of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. After the April war, this belt has become even more precious for Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Had there been no such belt, the Armenians would have had no time for regrouping their forces and counterattacking the enemy. The April war convinced many in Armenia that the security belt is vital for the Armenians.
The last parliamentary elections in Armenia have shown that the “territories against peace” algorithm is no longer popular among the Armenians. The key advocate of this idea, first President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan registered one of the worst results. The incumbent Armenian president suggests giving the territories against the status (of Nagorno-Karabakh) but this algorithm is unacceptable for the Azerbaijanis, who want their territories back unconditionally and are not going to give Nagorno-Karabakh even a temporary, transitional status.
Under such conditions, the mediators are unable to offer concessions. Today, they have very little room for maneuvering. The Armenians are already immune to the Azerbaijanis’ threats. They rebuffed the enemy last April and they have Iskanders and other very powerful rocket systems. So, the mediators can no longer expect any concessions from the sides.
The Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks are in a deadlock. Only some force majeures in the region or around it could change the situation. Under such conditions, the Russians need predictable partners. They can’t force the Azerbaijanis to make peace with the Armenians, so, if the former use their growing confrontation with the Americans in Syria for organizing new “surprises” in Nagorno-Karabakh they will have no other way but to react as tolerantly as they did in April 2016. The only thing they require is that there should be no full-range war. This is the only thing they can insist on for the moment.
But local violations are not the only way for the Azerbaijanis to blow off their stream. A year after the April war, they are mobilizing lots of their forces for an exercise aimed to see how their army can act under simulated battlefield conditions. According to Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, the exercise is scheduled for Apr 16-21 and will involve 30,000 soldiers, over 250 tanks and armored vehicles, 200 rocket systems and mortars, 25 planes as well as drones.
So, it seems that from now on, all processes in Nagorno-Karabakh will be very close to battlefield conditions. As regards Syria, Russia and the United States have been using bellicose rhetoric against each other of late and only their nuclear status is keeping them from a global confrontation.
Vyacheslav Mikhaylov, specially for EADaily