1 Feb 2013
Assessing Russia’s role in efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: From perception to reality
The peace process in the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh has reached its deepest deadlock since Armenians and Azerbaijanis sat at the negotiation table to strike a truce back in 1994. Recent developments such as the escalation in cross-border skirmishes and the infamous ‘Safarov affair’, paired with the ongoing and unabated war rhetoric, have aggravated to an unprecedented extent the rift between the sides at both state and societal levels. Concerns of possible resumption of hostilities have mounted. With signs of change of the climate lacking on the horizon, even the ‘cautious optimists’ among observers seem to have grown skeptical.
The absence of any palpable progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks is often attributed to external actors, and the Minsk Group co-chair countries — France, Russia and the U.S. — are naturally the first suspects. It is argued that external geostrategic interests entrenched in the region are increasingly the reason why the conflict effectively remains locked up to date.
Of the countries with such stakes, Russia bears the lion’s share of the blame. Pundits and observers from Yerevan to Baku, from Washington to Brussels have been arguing that Moscow is not interested in the resolution of the conflict. It is widely believed that Russia thwarts conflict resolution efforts and supports the status quo instead, since the latter allows Moscow to keep the region under its hook.
The Kremlin’s own practice of exerting aggressive tactics and instruments in its foreign policy, even more so in its post-Soviet neigbourhood, only fuels this perception. Russia’s perceived negative role in other conflicts — Abkhazian, South Ossetian and Transnistrian — is automatically ascribed to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, too.
But a closer look at the current state of affairs unveils a less unequivocal picture of this engagement. While it is only true that Russia has been capitalising on the conflict to advance its interests vis-à-vis both Armenia and Azerbaijan, its role in the conflict’s resolution remains largely overestimated. There is no evidence in particular as to how Russia could possibly hinder the conflict’s resolution if Armenians and Azerbaijanis were truly ready for that; or else, how Moscow could help resolve it all alone without having the commitment and investment from the conflicting sides.
Beefed up by Moscow’s own aspirations and rhetoric, and with wider geopolitical deliberations dominating minds across the board, it appears now that Russia is being attributed a more significant role than it actually has. But while it is impossible to overlook the impact of broader regional geostrategic projections on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, overestimating their role can carry even more negative implications for the conflict’s settlement. Putting the whole blame for hitherto failed attempts at resolution on external actors and their interests is a dangerous trend. It fails to reflect the essence of the conflict itself whilst effectively nourishing the delusion that the key to resolution is not in the hands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis but elsewhere. It may also serve as a convenient distraction for the conflicting sides that are neither ready nor willing to take full and equal responsibility for resolving the conflict.
Overview of Russian engagement
The role played by Soviet central authorities, and later Russians, during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh is a subject of heated debates and various interpretations. The Kremlin’s own attitude towards the conflict has been controversial and has come a long way since the time when the dormant dispute started to brew anew back in 1987. This was arguably meant to be one of the engines, if not the most crucial one,that set a ticking clock to the end of an empire that existed for around 70 years.
Back then, the complaints of Karabakh Armenians about being discriminated against within the Azerbaijan SSR and their demand to join the Armenian SSR was seen by Soviet leaders as an encroachment upon the unity and stability of the Union. Fearing a spillover effect across the Union, the Soviet central authorities saw the wrong solution to the issue. The measures they thought would allay the tension had the reverse effects. Attempts to suppress the Karabakh movement, punishment actions supported and carried out against Armenians only fueled hostilities and eventually took the situation to a full-scale war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
As the Soviet empire collapsed, Russians got engaged in the conflict through provision of weapons and logistic support to both sides. This paradox had various reasons. Different interest groups among those in power in Russia, at that time chaotic and unstable, had their favourites in the conflicting sides. On other occasions, however, Moscow tried to pursue broader strategic goals and sided with one of the two conflicting camps, depending on the call of the day. This made its engagement even more controversial.
As the short-lived ideological struggle inside Russia ended with the victory of Eurasists, Russia’s further engagement in the conflict and its settlement came in line with its more assertive foreign policy in the post-Soviet space and its self-proclaimed role of the security and stability guarantor in the region. With this proactive policy line, Moscow meant to deter the emergence of other geopolitical actors willing to fill in the post-Cold War power vacuum across the region.
Subsequently, Moscow’s mediation efforts within the Minsk Process have been paired with its own assertive diplomatic undertakings. The cease-fire agreement of 1994 that remains the main document to ensure the fragile truce, despite continuous violations, has become the most important juncture of Russian engagement. But while acting as the chief broker of the peace deal, Russia also tried to secure the deployment of Russian peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone. As seen from Moscow, this would allow a deeper Russian presence and consequently more influence in the region.
Russian diplomatic activity was initially viewed by sound mistrust on the part of its western partners. Over time, however, as Russia’s special interests in the post-Soviet space received a somewhat tacit recognition, its preferential involvement in the conflict’s resolution became less of a frustration for its western partners. At the same time, its relative levers over both Armenia and Azerbaijan started to be viewed as a valuable instrument to steer the sides towards a solution. Finally, Russia remained a somewhat more comprehensible and acceptable broker for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, with closer ties and similar political cultures acting as facilitating determinants.
Not having any specific strategy towards the conflict, Russian policymakers have found what it seems a comfortable middle-ground of sitting on two chairs. During the course of the last decade, Russia has been trying to portray itself, and consequently act, as an honest broker between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Accordingly, neither its close economic and military alliance with Armenia, nor its pragmatic partnership with Azerbaijan have shifted its position on Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, Moscow has been capitalising on the conflict by becoming the main arms supplier to both sides: in 2007-2011 it provided 55% of Azerbaijan’s and 96% of Armenia’s arms imports. The Karabakh issue also remains high on the agenda of bilateral meetings of Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents with their Russian counterpart. This often offers room for various speculations about bilateral arrangements behind the back of the other side.
This inconsistent and contradictory engagement in the capacity of a peace broker on the one hand and arms dealer on the other hand, paired with Armenian-Russian and Azerbaijani-Russian bilateral tit-for-tat deals, has been drawing mixed reactions from both conflicting sides and external actors, with everyone continuously questioning the real intentions Moscow might be having.
Perceptions of Russian engagement
Most concerns about a negative Russian role in the conflict resolution efforts are connected with perceptions of Russia’s pursuit of underlying geopolitical interests. Oftentimes, the Kremlin’s ideological foes in the West and elsewhere tend to view the Karabakh conflict predominantly through the prism of much-feared Russian resurgence in its post-Soviet ‘near abroad’. Hence the undertones of this approach. The perception is that, in its bid to deepen its influence in what comprises an area of vital Russian interests, Moscow simply wouldn’t let the conflict be solved. Settlement of this conflict, they argue, would mend the entire Turkey-Armenia-Azerbaijan divide and effectively bring to the loss of Moscow’s regional clout. This leads to conclude that Russia’s interests lie in supporting the status quo. The Kremlin’s assertive, often aggressive regional policy and attempts to be the first among equals within the Minsk Group have been reinforcing this perception. Perhaps the belief that Russia has enough instruments to prod the conflicting sides towards a solution, yet not seeing Moscow acting in that direction, has been another source of suspicion towards the latter. Finally, the sudden Russia-Georgia war of August 2008 came to further strengthen this thesis. Many observers drew parallels with a potentially similar Russian role in case of a war over Nagorno-Karabakh, despite substantial differences in Russia’s positions and levers on the ground.
But while the Kremlin has been pursuing its own interests all the way long, the history of the last two decades has not seen Armenians and Azerbaijanis impatiently willing to strike a peace deal and Moscow hindering them from doing it. The Russian role in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, whether negative or not, is rather defined in bilateral relations, based on the major perceptions in Armenia and Azerbaijan and on how Russia itself treats those perceptions.
Driven by Russia’s incentives to play on both sides, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have easily embraced the logic that even 20 years since the states have gained independence, garnering Moscow’s (or anyone else’s) support is somewhat important and decisive to solve the conflict on their own terms. Therefore, both sides have been trying to tip the balance in their own favour by influencing Moscow’s position.
On the Armenian side, the expectations from Russia mainly derive from what is considered to be a strategic partnership between the two. Armenia remains Russia’s only ally in the region, with the Russian military and economic presence in the country being the indication of that. Mutual defense clause applies to their relationship both in bilateral ties and within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). An August 2010 agreement extended the life of the Russian military base in Gyumri, Northern Armenia, by 2044.
Yet Armenia’s somewhat flawed foreign and domestic policy line over the last decade resulted in putting critical assets of national security importance under Russian control. This has pushed the Yerevan-Moscow strategic partnership off the rails, turning it into a rather unequal alliance. It is then understandable that over the last few years the feeling has been prevailing in Armenia that Yerevan’s commitment to this alliance is being taken for granted by Moscow. Russia is increasingly seen as pursuing its own interests, often to the detriment of Armenia, and not being fully committed to the status of this relationship, contrary to what is being declared.
From Yerevan’s perspective, Moscow, in the spirit of strategic partnership, should at least refrain from developing the types of cooperation with Azerbaijan that are potentially harming for Armenian interests. But military cooperation in the form of arms sales to Azerbaijan, that of late included strategic S-300 missile systems, has been raising eyebrows in Armenia. Up until recently, the country’s officials and policymakers tended to keep a rather cool face on these developments. Instead, analysts and foreign policy watchers were the ones to increasingly voice their resentment on such events, seen as contributing to Baku’s war rhetoric. But in late December 2012, speaking at a CSTO session in Moscow, Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan for the first time expressed also Yerevan’s official frustration with Russia’s arms deals with Azerbaijan in a thinly-veiled, indirect remark.
Though Armenia is widely seen as being inherently pro-Russian and historically promoting the Russian interests in the region, Armenians have their own fair reasons of being suspicious towards the Kremlin. They do associate the Karabakh conflict’s roots and causes with Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s unilateral decision to grant Nagorno-Karabakh to Soviet Azerbaijan back in 1921, much as a gesture to Kemalist Turkey with which the Soviets had aligned at that time. They also keep in mind late Soviet involvement, and inaction, in the violence against Armenians as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict broke out. All this, paired with some other historical grievances, is well entrenched into the public memory and resurfaces on every occasion giving the impression that Armenian interests can be compromised for Russian interests.
Against the background of growing suspicion towards Russia and the emergence of new opportunities for development, the country’s alliance with Moscow is tacitly changing patterns and undertones. Over the last year or two, Yerevan has been trying to live up to its declared foreign policy of complementarity and diversify its economic and political ties. This was particularly reflected in Armenia’s sudden and full-throttle drive towards deeper European integration, much to Russian dismay and amidst the pressure on Armenia to join Putin’s brainchild, the so-called Eurasian Union — a project which Yerevan has explicitly declared as economically irrelevant vis-à-vis its own interests.
Nevertheless, the country’s policies in the military and security spheres remain the prerogative of its alliance with Moscow. Wider geopolitical considerations still make the two natural allies. Yerevan counts Russian position on the conflict as important, also not to allow that Moscow-Baku relations evolve further on.
In much contrast to Yerevan, and by virtue of its energy card, Baku has had the advantage to carry out a more independent foreign policy line vis-à-vis Russia. Despite this relative freedom of manoeuvre, which Baku often juxtaposes to Armenia’s lack thereof, it still takes to heart everything Moscow has to say about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Baku and Moscow have managed to establish a friendly and pragmatic partnership over the last decade, despite earlier points of tension and antagonism between the two. Baku sees opportunities for itself in Russian attempts to court Azerbaijan to get more access to Caspian hydrocarbon resources and upset the plans to pipe more Azerbaijani resources in western direction. The two also have the shared interest of preventing potential instability in the North Caucasus. The conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh, however, remains a painful point for Baku in its relations with Moscow.
Azerbaijan appears to hold a much ambivalent stance on Russia’s involvement in the region. On one hand it is most unhappy about Russia’s engagement in the region. On the other hand, it also appears to be the side attaching utmost importance to Russia’s past and prospective role in the Karabakh conflict and its resolution. Baku’s frustration with Moscow’s political-military alliance with Yerevan and the Russian military base in Armenia has made it a vocal critic of Russian presence in the region. Azerbaijan consistently refers, at various levels, to Moscow’s negative role in the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Contributing to this is also the Azerbaijani narrative suggesting that during the Karabakh war Russians sided with Armenians and that if it hadn’t been for this support, Armenians would not have been able to achieve the military advantages they have. While this narrative overestimates Russian support to the Armenian side and effectively overlooks that support to the Azerbaijani side, it nevertheless remains the main source of suspicion towards Russia. Coupled with the current Armenia-Russia military alliance that developed since independence, this narrative further consolidates the embedded sense of victimization on the Azerbaijani side. It also nourishes the belief that getting Russian support is decisive and makes official Baku seek ways to reverse the perceived tide in its direction.
Accordingly, Azerbaijan’s generally adopted policy of leveraging its energy resources in a quid pro quo bid to secure foreign support on Nagorno-Karabakh has also been employed in its relations with Moscow.
Pointing to Armenia’s overly reliance on Russia, Azerbaijani policymakers and analysts alike have been presuming that, with so many levers over its strategic partner, Moscow could easily exert pressure on the Armenian side over the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. They have been expecting, in particular, that Russia could secure unconditional withdrawal of Karabakh Armenian forces from the regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku appears to be under the impression that a perceived Russian pressure on Armenia could fast-forward the Karabakh resolution process without causing Azerbaijan the discomfort of investing any capital of its own. The conviction that the conflict would have been resolved long ago — and on terms that would satisfy Azerbaijan — if only Russia wanted, remains by and large unchallenged among Azerbaijan’s political elite and wider public alike.
Underlying in these perceptions is the expectation that Russia should be taking sides. But Moscow has been disappointing all at once by refusing to align with anyone.
Attempt at a realistic assessment
As of late, Russia has been experiencing a range of foreign policy embarrassments. As its European and U.S. partners keep pressuring Russia on its unfair gas sale practices and poor human rights record,, Russia is also witnessing its influence waning in the neigbourhood. All the more so, and against the still prevailing perceptions, Russia increasingly has less influence over the Karabakh peace process.
Unlike the cases of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria, where Russia offers financial and moral support to the unrecognised republics and has its military forces situated on their territories, Moscow neither has any troops deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh, nor even direct contacts with its leadership. At the same time, its relative levers over Armenia are erroneously ascribed also to Nagorno-Karabakh. In a situation where even Yerevan and Stepanakert have principally divergent views around the peace process, Moscow has no lever or influence over Stepanakert.
By the same token, the Russian official approach to the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh is in stark contrast with how it treats other conflicts. Whilst Moscow has been at odds with its western partners over the recognition of Kosovo and declared that it could then serve as a precedent for Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria, it cautiously omitted any linkage to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia’s support for the status quo is not so unambiguous either. Its interests primarily rest in the non-resumption of hostilities around Nagorno-Karabakh. The last thing Moscow would like is to be forced to take sides in a possible military escalation of the conflict, undermining its credibility as an honest broker and security guarantor. In broader terms, as long as military escalation remains the only alternative, not only Russia, but also other mediators see the status quo as a feasible short-term solution. There seems to be a tacit understanding that, in a situation where the sides fail to agree to even basic confidence-building measures, sheer advocacy of ‘the unacceptability of the status quo’ can be interpreted wrongly by one side or another and inadvertedly prompt a military escalation. Therefore, despite the standstill in talks, Minsk Group mediators have primarily centered their efforts on keeping Armenia and Azerbaijan on board diplomatically as long as the sides themselves are not ready to positively challenge the status quo.
The assumption that Moscow could make use of its strategic posture vis-à-vis Armenia and Azerbaijan and push them towards settlement has also proven untenable. It is true that Russia has influence over both countries. Lately, this has been demonstrated by increasing gas prices for Armenia in critical electoral period, forcing the authorities in Yerevan to hide the fact so as to avoid public discontent before elections. Meanwhile, the creation of so-called Billionaire Club of Azerbaijani businessmen in Russia was viewed in Baku as a Moscow-led attempt to challenge Ilham Aliyev’s regime in Azerbaijan. Moscow has been more successful in gaining bilateral advantages by playing the economic and domestic political cards in these countries. For both Armenian and Azerbaijani ruling elites, who are often bashed for democratic deficit and flawed human rights records by their European and American partners, seeking Moscow’s endorsement to fill in domestic and foreign legitimacy gap has somewhat been rendered important in the past.
But the fact that this influence is more of a two-way street, however unequal it might be, is often overlooked. Moscow, albeit masterful in hiding it, also fears losing its partners. Armenia’s geostrategic importance for Russia cannot be underestimated, however unequal their alliance. Similarly, Moscow invests a lot in its partnership with Baku and would avoid resorting to actions that would trigger the latter’s unconditional alignment with the West. And since Georgia veered off the Russian orbit of influence, Moscow is even more interested in not losing any more friends in the Caucasus.
With the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh pertaining to identity and strategic national interests for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, it is also less subject to outside pressure. Any attempt at coercing the sides without offering real win-win incentives would rather drive them farther away from each other, as well as strip Moscow of its credibility in the eye of the conflicting sides. In light of this, officials and strategists in Moscow have apparently come into the conclusion that Russia’s primary power in the conflict rests in its neutrality. All the more so having the failed example of Turkey, whose overt alignment with one of the parties has not only made it impossible to have any constructive role in the conflict’s resolution, but has also straitjacketed Ankara’s aspired clout in the region.
Analysts and experts across the board have been having a hard time predicting whether or not Russia would interfere in case of a possible war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, in accordance with the defense frameworks with Armenia. Moscow itself has left ample room for interpretation by not being very reactive and vocal in condemning larger-scale cease-fire violations on one side and by continuously enhancing the military component of its alliance with Armenia on the other side.
Formally, neither the Armenia-Russia, nor the CSTO defense clause can be invoked as long as Republic of Armenia’s state borders are not threatened. Hence military escalation in the Line of Contact around Nagorno-Karabakh would not induce the mutual defense clause. Besides, contrary to the widespread perception, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian military base in Armenia essentially remained there to curb potential military threats emanating from Turkey rather than Azerbaijan, as the former at some point considered intervening at the Karabakh war on behalf of its ally Azerbaijan. With the regional geostrategic alliances and divides still remaining by and large the same, the primary role of the base remains unchanged, too.
The preferential arms transfer from Russia has allowed Armenia to compensate lack of resources and keep in pace with the mounting arms acquisition of Azerbaijan powered by abundant oil revenues. Yet the role of the ‘Russian factor’ in the prevention of hostilities also appears to be not the essential one. It is the strong defense capacities and terrain advantages of the Karabakh Armenian forces across the Line of Contact, as well as Armenian deterrence capabilities, that are in the first place believed to maintain the military balance in the region in a way as to not allow Azerbaijan feel comfortable about translating its war rhetoric into a military revisionism on the ground.
Indeed, Moscow has offered a reluctant and late reaction to the most recent large-scale cease-fire violations of June 2012. Russia’s official reaction to the incidents that clearly incurred violation of Armenia’s state border near the north-eastern Tavush region came only third after reactions by the U.S. and France. Similarly, the Kremlin was three days late in its low-level reaction to the late August 2012 extradition and pardoning of the convicted Azerbaijani officer Ramil Safarov who had axed his Armenian colleague at a NATO training in Budapest back in 2004. Instead, the responsibility to reinforce the mutual defense clause with Armenia every once in a while has been left to Nikolay Bordyuzha, Secretary General of the CSTO. These conjunctures have not only reinforced the impression that Moscow is extremely uncomfortable about taking stance forcefully, even in line with its bilateral commitments, but also further vocalised growing anti-Kremlin sentiments in public debates in Armenia.
Arguably, Moscow would even be interested in championing some solution between Armenia and Azerbaijan to turn its virtual rhetoric into a more weighty influence on the ground. Most recently this was demonstrated in Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev’s attempt to spearhead an agreement between the sides. During his one-term-long presidency, Medvedev facilitated more than 10 trilateral meetings with Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. It was widely agreed that securing some kind of a progress in the peace talks was a matter of personal reputation for him. This phase of active Russian mediation, however, ended up in fiasco with the 2011 Kazan meeting revealing a deep stalemate in the peace process. Some analysts suggest that Russia’s diplomatic activity has also been driven by the motivation to portray itself as a reliable and cooperative partner for the West by demonstrating that regional security and stability are a shared interest among them.
Russia’s incumbent president Vladimir Putin’s cooler stance and lack of enthusiasm towards the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process is arguably attributed to the fact that Moscow repeatedly finds itself in a situation when its perceived strong influence is being challenged by its inability to secure a deal among the sides.
Whether or not Russia demonstrates a proactive stance in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, it remains an important actor both being a critical member in the Minsk Group mediation efforts and by virtue of its bilateral ties with the conflicting sides. However, its role in the resolution of the conflict should not be overestimated.
Perhaps the main source of overall frustration with Russia’s engagement has been the unfulfilled expectations from Moscow on all fronts. The loaded belief that Russia could prod the sides towards a solution, or — as seen from the part of Armenians and Azerbaijanis — take sides and support their ‘own truth’, have resulted in disappointment and the tendency to blame Russia for the failures of the peace process — more so on the part of Azerbaijan.
As Russia has been building on the conflict when pursuing its own, wider agendas in the region, this has also not allowed many to see the limits of its influence on the conflict’s resolution. Recent developments demonstrated that Moscow has neither enough instruments to forge a solution, nor willingness to offer one-sided advantages to any of the sides. Its perceived capability to influence the process, therefore, repeatedly proves not any more effective than that of Washington’s or Paris’s, or all three of them together. Moscow also sufficiently lacks real soft-power practices and incentives that could perhaps prove a valuable tool combined with its general clout in the region. Finally, Russia’s engagement essentially remains a two-way street and will continue to depend on not only its own ambitions but also the policy choices made by Yerevan and Baku.
Overall, attributing unwarranted meanings to the Russian factor has proven counterproductive on all possible sides. By doing so, Armenia and Azerbaijan have voluntarily conferred more clout upon Moscow in their bilateral relations with it. Placing hopes on one-sided advantages Moscow could be granting has also been creating unrealistic expectations in the parties and negatively affecting their commitment to the peace process. In a sense, the Russian factor has also been serving as a convenient distraction for the sides from the need to take more responsibility for the conflict’s resolution on their own.
On the other side, the tendency — more seen among western observers — to load the conflict with overwhelming geopolitical implications has been another faulty line of perception. Treating the conflict chiefly as a pawn in Russia’s hands in its regional power games has often been developing a sort of ignorance towards the very conflict and its sensitivities. The conflict’s own dynamics and specifics, immediate security challenges, the understanding of why and how the sides’ interests lie in where they are, and finally the most important — human dimension of the conflict, have somewhat been overlooked and overshadowed by the failure to see a more grounded and sensitive picture behind banal geopolitics.
Finally, awarding Russia such a crucial role could eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Blaming Russia for all the wrong things developing in the post-Soviet space has already been nourishing an overstretched, and wrong, rhetoric in some Russian political circles. For the past two decades, they have been advocating that the post-Soviet countries, by and large, cannot move forward without Russia’s ‘strong hand’ pushing them from behind. Overall, however, the general trend in the Russian policymaking community has been adherence to more realpolitik considerations regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. While Moscow is still competitive and hostile to some cases of outside ‘intervention’ in the region, it tends to approach many regional issues as mutually inclusive, rather than exclusive, in relation with other partners. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one of those issues around which Russia is eager to cooperate with its western partners.
It is very unlikely that the state of affairs around Russia’s role, and the importance Armenians and Azerbaijanis attach to it falters any time soon. Neither will Moscow give up its tactics of sitting on two chairs and leveraging the conflict for its own benefits. It is however important to recognise these dynamics as a result of the current stalemate rather than the cause of it and accentuate on immediate conflict resolution efforts rather than on extraneous distractions.
In this sense, Armenians and Azerbaijanis should be the primary sides least interested in the ‘geopoliticalisation’ of the conflict. Only in relation and in cooperation with each other can both preserve important national interests and work out win-win solutions. The fact that Russia’s say is rendered so important at all fronts, while the primary party to the conflict — the de facto republic of Nagorno-Karabakh — remains absent from the peace process also demonstrates the somewhat inherently flawed logic behind the ongoing peace process and the limits of what it can achieve. Regardless of what third sided interests are involved, it is the prerogative of Armenians and Azerbaijanis to achieve the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The key to conflict’s resolution is neither in Moscow nor elsewhere, but in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.
 In particular, the infamous Operation Ring is widely considered to be the turning point from hitherto partisan fighting to full militarisation of the conflict.
 “Trends in International Transfers, 2011”. SIPRI Fact Sheet, Stockholm, March 2012. Available at: http://books.sipri.org/product_info?c_product_id=443
 This perception can be broadly observed in western and regional analyses covering the conflict and in personal conversations. Even when Russia is not blamed for directly obstructing the conflict’s settlement, its role is still regarded as unhelpful and thus negative. While this line of reasoning logically reflects Russia’s realpolitik interests, it ignores the bilateral Armenian-Azerbaijani prerogative for the conflict’s resolution.
 Various sources point to high, if not higher, Soviet/Russian support to Azerbaijan during the war. A recent interview [in Russian] with Azerbaijan’s former defense minister Rahim Gaziyev http://tiny.cc/GaziyevInterviewVestiAz and an earlier one with ex-president Ayaz Mutalibov http://1news.az/politics/20081118041128479.html offer some more first-hand information on that.
 See for an example, http://www.analitika.az/articles.php?item_id=20120312063445935&sec_id=69
 This area is considered by Armenians a vital buffer zone that ensures the security of Karabakh Armenian population and doesn’t allow military escalation. Ironically, Azerbaijan has only been reinforcing this importance and meaning by its continuous war rhetoric and recently also by initiating the ‘Safarov affair’.
 Of late, official Stepanakert has explicitly expressed its opposition to the ‘Madrid Principles’ that are at the core of the peace talks official Yerevan conducts, or to any potential agreement that wouldn’t include the signature of Nagorno-Karabakh representatives, and has been demanding a seat at the negotiation table.
 Emil Sanamyan, “Wikleaks: Armenians can’t be defeated by Azerbaijan”, Armenian Reporter, 22 February, 2011. Available at: http://www.reporter.am/go/article/2011-02-22-wikileaks-armenians-can-t-be-defeated-by-azerbaijan