Russia wanted Armenian forces to pull out of five, formerly Azerbaijani populated districts south and east of Nagorno Karabakh and be replaced by Russian peacekeepers, but Armenia’s former president Serzh Sargsyan resisted the push.
This is what Belarus president Aleksandr Lukashenko told a press conference on December 14. In addition to Armenian forces giving up most of the security belt around Artsakh, Azerbaijan would be able to accede to Moscow-led trade and security organizations.
“This was at the CSTO meeting in Yerevan. I told Serzh [Sargsyan]: give these five districts [to Azerbaijan]. These districts are empty, why not return them. I said this in front of Azerbaijanis. He said: no, we will not do that, we do not want that. I was surprised, since those districts are empty. [They are in fact sparsely populated, but not empty. – Ed.] This would be a first step. And then Azerbaijan and Armenia would be in CSTO and Eurasian Union. This was the condition under which Ilham [Aliyev] was ready to join these organizations. I don’t understand why did [Armenia] refuse? Russia guaranteed that there would never be a war there, if those districts were freed.”
Lukashenko did not specify the year when this conversation took place, but most likely this was when Armenia last hosted a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit on October 14, 2016.
[Updated: On December 7, 2020, Armenian media published a recording of the conversation between Lukashenko and Sargsyan, believed to be made at that summit in Yerevan. In it, Lukashenko relays Aliyev’s proposal to pay Armenia $5 billion in exchange for withdrawal from the former Azerbaijani districts; Sargsyan retorts that he would be ready to pay Aliyev $6 billion, if he agrees that they should remain under Armenian control. Sargsyan adds that he cannot return the districts for which 5,000 Armenians died fighting.]
Since the resignation of Levon Ter-Petrosyan in February 1998, Armenian leaders refused to agree to any troop withdrawal unless the status of Nagorno Karabakh – specifically its path to formal independence from Azerbaijan and union with Armenia – is also addressed.
Armenian pundits have long speculated about Russia pushing for a peacekeeping mission. Moscow formally took the lead in the negotiations after securing the Meiendorf declaration, a commitment from Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev to resolve the conflict, made in November 2008. The parties reportedly came close to agreeing the basic principles of settlement prior to the summit of June 2011, held in Kazan, Russia, but talks have stalled since.
Since 2015, the Russian peacekeeping idea was dubbed in Armenia as “Lavrov plan,” after Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, though Lavrov himself denied that Russia made any proposals separate from French and U.S. mediators.
Russian media reported that Lavrov pushed for resumption of negotiations process following the April 2016 war, but Armenia refused to talk until security situation is stabilized. The parties then agreed on internationally monitored measures to strengthen the cease-fire, but Azerbaijan subsequently refused to implement them. Over the last year and a half, the security situation had nevertheless stabilized without expansion of international monitoring, particularly following the Aliyev-Sargsyan summit in October 2017.
Following the election of Nikol Pashinyan as Armenia’s new leader last May, the security situation remained stable. After a brief spike in shooting incidents in September, Pashinyan and Aliyev agreed to resolve cease-fire incidents through a direct “hot line.” More talks between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders are expected next year.
On weapons sales to Azerbaijan
Lukashenko also addressed Armenia’s criticism of weapons sales to Azerbaijan by CSTO member states, particularly the recent missiles sales by Belarus.
“We should not be blamed for selling weapons to Azerbaijan. When we were testing the Polonez missile complex here in Belarus [in June 2016], Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Russians, all were invited to observe it. Everyone saw that the missile hit four meters from the target. This is a high precision weapon. Azerbaijanis wanted to buy it, and we had to sell it to cover the Chinese loan we got for it. I agreed. I knew that there would be a problem with Armenia and offered it to Armenians as well. Armenians declined, saying they already had the Russian Iskander system.
“Azerbaijanis, and I am revealing a secret here, asked us to get the Polonez to them before their next [military] parade. Armenians showed the Russian [Iskander] at their parade [in September 2016], they are about the same, [the Russian system] is slightly more powerful, ours flies to 300 kilometers, theirs to more than 300. So we made it before the parade [in June 2018]. I guess I am to be blamed that I made this happen before the parade, but I offered it to you too and you told me: we don’t need it.”
According to Lukashenko, he has “a normal attitude both to Armenians and to Azerbaijanis,” but still he recalled how some eight years ago, Aliyev loaned him $900 million to pay off a debt to Russia. “This was very important to me, so I treat [Aliyev] as a very dear person.. and he has the same view of me.”
Lukashenko also complained that Pashinyan singled out Belarus for criticism. He said that at their latest summit in St. Petersburg on December 6, he pointed out that over the past decade, Russia supplied more weapons to Azerbaijan than any other country.
“In front of Putin I told [Pashinyan] at the CIS summit, Ilham was there also.. I told him, Nikol let us dot all the i’s – who is the number one arms seller to Azerbaijan? Who? Russia.. And why don’t you tell that to him, criticize Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]? Are you scared [to do that]?”
Pashinyan’s spokesman Arman Yeghoyan expressed regret that “Lukashenko continues to make public off-the-record discussions.” Yeghoyan also said that Pashinyan raised Russian weapons deals with Azerbaijan as well.
Since Armenia moved to join the Russia-led Eurasian Union in 2013, Russia significantly curtailed new weapons sales to Azerbaijan and has also expedited the supply of the Iskander missile system and other weaponry to Armenia. However, Belarus, as well as Israel and Turkey, helped fill in the “missile gap” for Azerbaijan.