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One of Russia’s leading Caucasus experts, associate professor at the Russian State University for Humanities and an expert at the Russian Council for International Affairs, Sergey Markednov (SM) discussed Russian policies with the Focus on Karabakh editor Emil Sanamyan (ES)
ES: In many respects, the year 2008 became a watershed moment for the Russian policies in the Caucasus, how would you describe the evolution of these policies?
SM: Over the past two and a half decades, there have been two major changes of the regional status quo. First was shaped after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the conflicts in Nagorno Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia that by 1994 concluded with cease-fire agreements without resolution of the major political and legal disagreements. This situation was broadly unacceptable for Georgia and Azerbaijan, and their governments tried to challenge that status quo. Georgia’s effort was comparatively more ambitious since its government counted on Western support, but in the end this effort produced a second status quo: Russia’s formal recognition of Abkhazia & South Ossetia. As a result, Tbilisi became even closer to the West. The former Georgian SSR has effectively been divided into “spheres of influence.”
Nagorno-Karabakh did not undergo changes that were as dramatic to be able to transform the conflict resolution process. The outbreak of fighting in April of last year attracted attention to this post-Soviet “hot spot”. However, those events were not completely unexpected. In recent times, there have been more frequent violent incidents along the Line of Contact as well as at the internationally-recognized Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Ceasefire violations have increased steadily, culminating in the last April violence, the worst since the ceasefire of May 12, 1994.
Nevertheless, Azerbaijani efforts to challenge the status quo in 2016 and before were more limited in comparison with Georgia’s. Karabakh was and is different from Abkhazia and South Ossetia in that there is no peacekeeping operation. The cease-fire is based on the balance of forces between the parties to the conflict, which is not a proxy conflict for Russia & the West, in fact they try to cooperate in resolving this conflict.
Also relevant to the Karabakh conflict are policies of Turkey and Iran. Turkey is the only NATO member to directly support Azerbaijan. Iran is a status quo power, opposed to both military escalation and involvement of external powers in a potential peacekeeping operation. Russia’s position is closer to Iran, but different when it comes to the updated Madrid principles, which assumes presence of external peacekeepers.
Unlike in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia is not ready to recognize the NKR or otherwise take sides between Armenia & Azerbaijan. This doesn’t mean that Russia is an absolute status quo power. If tomorrow Azerbaijan were to attack Armenian borders outside Karabakh, e.g. in Tavush or towards Sevan, that are part of the Republic of Armenia proper, Russia might change its position.
ES: In the West, and to some extent in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the notion that Russia is not interested in the resolution of the Karabakh conflict is quite popular. What is your view of this?
SM: This notion could be accepted if Armenian & Azerbaijani governments were ready to reach a compromise and Russia was opposed to it. In fact, both states have maximalist requirements that are contradictory to one another. Russia cannot make a deal instead of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Perhaps, Russia might be faulted for not being ready to accelerate the peace process, but that is primarily because the Russian government does not see propitious ground for a diplomatic breakthrough.
For Russia, Karabakh is not at the top of its agenda. There are issues with the West, Ukraine, issues in the Far East with China that are deemed more important. Russia prefers the Karabakh status quo to an escalation, but that is not the same as preferring the conflict to its resolution.
There have been multiple mediating initiatives with the Russian involvement, the achievements that have been made include the 1994 cease-fire agreements, the Meindorf declaration of November 2008, and most recently the April 2016 cease-fire. These efforts were also supported by the West.
ES: When it comes to Russian policies, the weapons sales to Azerbaijan is one of the most controversial. What do you believe motivated Moscow to begin large-scale weapons sales to Baku, roughly since 2008? Were Armenia’s talks with the European Union towards an association agreement a significant factor?
SM: In 2008, by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia lost remaining influence over Georgia. And there were fears that Russia would also lose influence in Azerbaijan, so that explains to some extent Moscow’s engagement with Baku. There are also commercial motivations of selling weapons to Azerbaijan, which unlike Armenia, pays full price for this weaponry (Armenia gets Russian weapons at discount). At the same time, Russia wants to avoid a further escalation in Karabakh, this desire is reflected most recently in Russia’s sale of Iskander missiles systems to Armenia. Leaning completely in favor of Armenia would also undermine Russia’s integration projects, such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, where key members such as Belarus and Kazakhstan have closer ties with Azerbaijan.
As far as the Armenia-EU process, the Europeans were not ready to offer any security guarantees to Armenia, the EU or NATO never really offered a real security alternative to Armenia. Moreover, EU looks to Azerbaijan as an important alternative energy supplier. Armenia’s efforts to develop relations with the EU and the West in general are quite understandable. It is a major economic market, there are large Armenian communities there, and there is also the need to counter Azerbaijani lobbying.
ES: When it comes to lobbies, are there Armenian and Azerbaijani lobbies inside the Russian government? For example, deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin’s public pronouncement after the April war that Russian weapons sales to Azerbaijan would continue was seen as particularly problematic.
SM: Inside the Russian government, Rogozin is responsible for arms sales. If he were responsible for CSTO, his rhetoric would probably be different. And his rhetoric was different when he was a political figure in the 1990s, expressing more balanced views. To some extent foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s verbal duel with an Azerbaijani journalist earlier this year may be seen as reflecting some pro-Armenian views.
In reality, there are no real pro-Armenian or pro-Azerbaijani figures within the Russian government. Russian officials look at the Caucasus through the prism of Russian interest. Just as we cannot say if Serge Sargsyan is pro-Russian or pro-Western politician, he is an Armenia-centric politician.
ES: Returning to the matter of the Iskander missile sale to Armenia, which became the first foreign buyer of this system, how would you evaluate the Russian government’s calculations behind this sale?
SM: I am not an expert on technical issues, but considered politically, this was a gesture addressed to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. And it reflects the fact that the commercial logic is not the only one behind Russia’s actions. When it comes to Karabakh, this gesture was intended to seal the security situation and was primarily of symbolic significance, showing that Russia is against an escalation in Karabakh.