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The Artsakh Question: 2025 and beyond

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The Artsakh Question: 2025 and beyond

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

With Russia’s peacekeeping contingent in Artsakh facing the possibility of expulsion in 2025, the European Union and Russia are in a tug-of-war for the role of mediator in the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace negotiations.

KEY INSIGHTS

– The Russia-Ukraine war has effectively disrupted the Artsakh territorial status negotiations, originally mediated by Russia, France and the United States collectively.
– EU mediation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace negotiations occurs amid the Western scramble for non-Russian energy sources, with EU interests leaning toward Azerbaijan as an energy alternative.
– Russian recognition of Artsakh is a possibility in 2025, though a renewal of its five-year peacekeeping mandate is more likely.

ARTSAKH AND THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR

The political implications of the Russia-Ukraine war have effectively rendered the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group – which is co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States — an unviable format for Artsakh’s territorial status negotiations. 

With the European Union (EU) and Russia competing for the role of mediator in the post-war peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, one provision of the November 2020 Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement looms in the background. The provision states that Russian peacekeepers will be deployed to Artsakh for five years. Their mandate will automatically be extended every five years until either party submits a notification to terminate the peacekeeping directive six months before the expiration of the current term. With the first five-year term concluding in November 2025, it is expected that Azerbaijan will object to the presence of Russia’s peacekeeping forces in Artsakh. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev himself says that there is no territorial unit called Nagorno-Karabakh and there is no status. 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Azerbaijan has used its military to test the resolve of Russian peacekeepers in Artsakh. On March 8, Azerbaijani forces opened gunfire and shelling on the Armenian village of Parukh, which is situated within the Russian peacekeeping zone. In an unprecedented move that has not been observed since the November 2020 ceasefire, Azerbaijan used Turkish Bayraktar drones to strike Parukh on March 24, leading to the killing of three Artsakh Defense Army soldiers. 

In response, Russia’s defense ministry released a statement two days later urging Azerbaijan to pull its troops back from the peacekeeping vicinity, and accused the country of violating the 2020 ceasefire agreement. Later that month, Russian peacekeepers were able to negotiate Azerbaijan’s military drawback from the peacekeeping zone. However, Parukh’s Armenian residents have refused to return due to the fear of future attacks.

Considering the dormant tensions that exist between Russia and Azerbaijan over Artsakh’s fate, Azerbaijan has shown an inclination to seek EU mediation when it comes to negotiating Artsakh’s territorial status. As a natural gas and oil supplier, Azerbaijan sees the current Russia-Ukraine war as an opportunity to leverage the EU’s scramble for alternative oil and gas sources, and thus, expects to induce Western support for a pro-Azerbaijan settlement of the Artsakh conflict. This would mean the rejection of Artsakh’s bid for statehood, an end to the question of its territorial status, and the irrelevance of Russian peacekeepers in Artsakh. 

AN EU THREAT TO RUSSIAN HEGEMONY?

One fundamental question remains regarding the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace negotiations: could an EU-mediated settlement be implemented if Russia is not substantively involved in the peace negotiations? 

One of the OSCE Minsk Group’s strengths was that its co-chairs represented American, European and Russian involvement so that great-power competition could not pose an obstacle to the settlement of Artsakh’s status. However, the war in Ukraine has effectively pitted the Minsk Group co-chairs against one another, leaving the format paralyzed. The West and Russia are now in competition over mediating the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace negotiations.

Since the first Karabakh ceasefire agreement in 1994, it has been no secret that Russia aims to keep the Artsakh conflict frozen — having profited off of Armenia and Azerbaijan’s mutual insecurities by selling weapons to both sides. Russia hopes to benefit from using the Artsakh issue against Armenia, keeping Armenia even more politically and economically dependent on Russia in exchange for security from its Turkic neighbors. 

On June 25 during his diplomatic visit to Baku, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared the cessation of the OSCE Minsk Group’s mandate to mediate the Artsakh status negotiations. Notably, the collapse of the OSCE Minsk Group benefits both Russia and Azerbaijan. Russia seeks to monopolize its political influence over the Artsakh issue to keep it a frozen conflict, while Azerbaijan has an excuse to label the Minsk Group as obsolete, with Aliyev frequently citing Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 Karabakh war as having resolved the dispute. Now, as the Russia-Ukraine war ensues, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has made it clear that the Minsk Group co-chairs can no longer work together.

With Aliyev having deemed both the Artsakh issue as resolved and the Minsk Group useless, Azerbaijan is expected to submit its notification for the termination of the ceasefire agreement’s peacekeeping clause in 2025. Although Russia and Azerbaijan temporarily banded together to criticize the Minsk Group, further tensions remain ahead if Russian peacekeepers unilaterally extend their stay in Artsakh. That said, in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s efforts to preserve its hegemony in the post-Soviet space, there is no guarantee that Russia will abide by the peacekeeping clause of its own mediated agreement. With the NATO-Russia fault line being shaken on the battlefield of Ukraine, the last thing Russia will accept is a hard-power political vacuum in the South Caucasus. 

Knowing that the EU would like to see Russia’s hard power in the region decrease, a withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers in the absence of a political settlement to the Artsakh conflict does not bode well for Europe’s current energy security needs. If Russian peacekeepers were to withdraw from Artsakh without a final settlement, conditions would be ripe for an Azerbaijani military offensive and a renewed war. 

In the EU’s eyes, such a scenario would pose a risk to oil and gas pipelines running through Azerbaijan, especially when considering that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and Southern Gas Corridor run only 25 miles from the conflict zone; nor would it create the type of conditions that would warrant greater international investment in Azerbaijan’s energy sector. The EU understands this point and is seeking a political solution to the Artsakh conflict. However, any EU-mediated settlement would discard the possibility of internationally-recognized statehood for Artsakh. 

Any peace agreement mediated by Russia would likely include a stipulation that maintains Russia’s troop presence in Armenia, Azerbaijan and potentially Artsakh as well. The Pashinyan administration has been trying to revive the OSCE Minsk Group, hoping that an OSCE-mediated settlement would prevent the Artsakh status talks from being solely mediated by Moscow. But, with Russia having boots on the ground in the South Caucasus, any settlement without substantive input from Russia could create political and economic problems for the region. Russia would view its political exclusion from the negotiations as a threat to its post-Soviet ‘backyard’; and by virtue of its presence in the region, Russia — via its peacekeepers in Artsakh — would have the ability to threaten oil and gas pipelines coming from Azerbaijan destined for western markets.

In contrast to the EU, Russian mediation continues to strategically delay substantive talks around Artsakh’s status, with Lavrov citing the need to address border delimitation between Armenia and Azerbaijan as a way to first build trust. Border delimitation is also being negotiated under EU mediation, though the EU is the only mediator currently conducting negotiations on Artsakh’s status.

Yet, the current global energy crisis has the EU in need of a faster resolution to the Artsakh conflict than Russia requires. Like Russia, the Artsakh government prefers the status quo at least for the time being, rather than having the fate of Artsakh negotiated by the EU. Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan asserted in December 2021 that the Russian peacekeeping contingent should remain indefinitely until a favorable settlement is reached, along with international security guarantees for the Armenians of Artsakh.

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Playing the long game

Even if the EU negotiates a settlement, Russia may resort to citing ongoing security concerns in Artsakh as a reason to remain, a proposition that has the support of the Artsakh government. Similar justifications for protecting a population’s right to self-determination have been made by Russia with respect to its troop presence in, and recognition of, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and more recently, the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine. 

ARTSAKH IN 2025

As reported regularly by the UN Human Rights Council, Armenophobia and hate speech against Armenians remains acute in Azerbaijan. This also includes severe human rights violations that Azerbaijani citizens have been subject to. The EU also published a human rights report in 2021, highlighting deficiencies in basic freedoms and rights in Azerbaijan. 

To complicate the human rights issue, Moscow leverages the existential threat posed against Artsakh Armenians as a way to keep Armenia dependent, knowing well that Artsakh Armenians prefer the peacekeeping status quo rather than attempting to pursue their self-determination within Azerbaijan. Despite the likely inability of Artsakh Armenians to obtain basic freedoms and autonomy within Azerbaijan, the EU went on to sign a new energy deal with Azerbaijan on July 18 to double imports of Azeri natural gas by 2027 – signaling the likelihood of progress (i.e. concessions by Armenia) being made in the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace negotiations.

That said, Pashinyan’s government has been facing a challenge to its legitimacy in representing the Artsakh government’s political interests in the peace negotiations. In April, Pashinyan informed his cabinet that Armenia should lower the bar when it comes to Artsakh’s status. In response, the Artsakh parliament issued a resolution condemning Pashinyan’s statement. 

With the EU being the only mediator to host talks on the Artsakh issue, Armenian opposition parties have been protesting for several months in the streets of Yerevan against the negotiations. The opposition’s criticism is primarily against the government’s alleged plans to hand over Artsakh to Azerbaijan, and against the EU for placating and providing impunity to the Aliyev dictatorship in exchange for increased energy exports to Western markets.  

Pashinyan is attempting to tread lightly on the Artsakh issue, with the goal of trying to utilize the EU to reduce Armenia’s political-economic dependence on Russia, yet disclosing little of the EU-mediated talks to the public. Pashinyan may be trying to exploit Russia’s current political and economic vulnerability derived from its stalemated invasion of Ukraine and western economic sanctions. Essentially, the Pashinyan government likely views Artsakh as the anchor that keeps Armenia tied down to Russia. By making concessions on Artsakh’s territorial status, Pashinyan may be under the impression that Armenia could subsequently broaden its foreign policy and experience greater prosperity as a result.  

Nevertheless, if the diplomatic rift between Armenia and the Artsakh government deepens, expect Russia to exploit that rift to keep its peacekeepers in Artsakh. By virtue of its presence there, Russia could continue pulling the strings of geopolitics in the region. If the EU effectively hijacks the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace negotiations from Russia, the Artsakh government could also just refuse to abide by any settlement reached. Furthermore, an EU-negotiated settlement on Artsakh’s status may not have any enforceability in the face of Russian hard power, despite Azerbaijan’s hopes that an EU-mediated settlement would result in the expulsion of Russian peacekeepers from Artsakh. 

As 2025 approaches, expect another five-year extension of the Russian peacekeeping term, as Russia will likely cite ongoing security concerns in the territory, similar to its approach in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Yet, Moscow may be utilizing its unspoken threat of recognizing Artsakh if Azerbaijan attempts to object to the Russian peacekeeping contingent in 2025. Therefore, with Russia having recognized other breakaway territories in the past, Artsakh’s recognition by Russia could be on the table in 2025, giving Russia the pretext to keep its forces in Artsakh past the peacekeeping deadline.

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