BACKGROUND: The Minsk group, established in the wake of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the early 1990s, has never functioned seriously and it is increasingly clear that not only the Minsk Group but also the West in general has adopted a consistently passive approach to this conflict. This abdication has essentially left it up to Moscow to try and find a solution even though the controlled tension produced due to this conflict is exactly what Moscow deems to be in its self-interest. The fact that the Minsk Group’s members now attack these governments for seeking one-sided advantages exactly as they do is a telling example of the Minsk Group’s hypocrisy and actual disinterest in finding a solution.
For example, in 2011 at the latest initiative undertaken by then President Dmitry Medvedev, Russia made the following proposal. According to Armenian political scientist Arman Melikyan, in earlier tripartite negotiations with Armenia and Russia on Nagorno-Karabakh that Russia ostensibly “brokered,” Moscow was to arrange for the surrender of liberated territories, thereby ensuring its military presence in return and establishing a network of military bases in Azerbaijan to prevent any further cooperation between Azerbaijan and NATO. While Armenian authorities reportedly accepted this plan; Baku refused to do so and saved Armenia, which clearly wants to incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh, from relinquishing territories under its control. Since recent revelations show that Azerbaijan desires NATO’s full cooperation and says it would even consider membership in NATO if not for implied Russian and Iranian opposition, its rejection of this transparent neo-imperialist Russian ploy is hardly surprising. In other words, Moscow’s price for solving this conflict was essentially to deprive both belligerent states of their sovereignty.
Moscow’s duplicity came out into even starker view immediately after the G-8 summit when it was revealed that apart from the large-scale Russian military deployments to the Russian base at Gyumri, Armenia after 2010 and support for Armenia, Russia had also sold Azerbaijan a reported US$ 1 billion in weapons. Such sales clearly do not conform to the request for both sides to desist from actions that could enhance tensions. These weapons reportedly included T-90 Battle Tanks, BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery systems, multiple rocket launchers, self-propelled gun mortar systems and thermobaric rocket systems. Many of these systems clearly offered Azerbaijan new capabilities even as its defense spending continues to grow. The tanks appear to be close to, if not the actual, state of the art Russian tanks. In addition, these deliveries come on top of previous arms sales contracts in 2010-11 for air defense systems and helicopters worth about US$ 3 billion. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is acquiring UAVs and anti-missile radars, anti-ship missiles from Israel and air defenses and fighter planes from Ukraine and Belarus.
Although Russia regularly claims that it will not disturb the balance between the warring parties or contribute in any way to the aggravation of the existing conflict, this evidence starkly shows its real policy and also highlights just what kinds of systems could be involved if renewed fighting broke out. Of course, the scale of Azerbaijani acquisitions and purchases underscores its increased commitment to a military buildup to coerce Armenia into a solution if not to actually use those systems.
IMPLICATIONS: The scale of Moscow’s military and political mischief-making in Armenia and Azerbaijan underscores just how wrongheaded it is for the West in general and the Minsk Group in particular to continue to pretend to act and scold local governments when they contribute to the unresolved and possibly growing tensions in the area. It is clear from the statement at the G-8 that neither Washington nor Paris has any ideas for how to bring the parties to a negotiation process let alone a resolution of the conflict. Instead, Paris and Washington content themselves with moralizing statements and in practice wash their hands of the area leaving Moscow a free hand.
The results of this free hand are there for everyone to see. Russia is actively abetting a dangerous military buildup while also demanding what amounts to extra-territorial rights at its base in Gyumri which it has steadily built up, allegedly against Western threats, since 2010. In fact the buildup may actually be generated by the large amount of Russian weapons that Moscow is selling to Baku. Russia can thus make lots of money while inciting a state of controlled conflict and then pose as a disinterested mediator if both sides essentially surrender their sovereignty. It should therefore come as no surprise that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is no closer to resolution today than before and that the major powers have essentially walked away from it, leaving Moscow to play its games in the area. Coupled with Russia’s unrelenting determination to annex territory taken from Georgia in 2008 during the Russo-Georgian war, its attempts to coerce Armenia into submission to its gas policy and thus overall economic policy through Gazprom’s manipulation of prices, and Russia’s clear opposition to Armenia signing an Association Agreement with the EU, it should be obvious where this continued Western neglect is leading and what consequences it will have.
This Western neglect of the Caucasus can in no way be regarded as “benign neglect,” but is malign neglect because it allows all the forces of destabilization, those who benefit from conflict and authoritarianism to entrench themselves in power. It also allows Russia to play the most devious of games in order to keep the South Caucasus in a state of unresolved tension and dependence upon Moscow, even as it seeks to undermine them. Thus, even as Russia supplies Azerbaijan with weapons, its local media in the North Caucasus attacks Azerbaijan for its treatment of ethnic minorities while Russia improves its ties with Iran, which has been implicated in four anti-Azerbaijani plots since 2012 alone.
It should be clear that his continued malign neglect of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in particular and of the larger South Caucasus in general can only lead to increased tension, a heightened possibility of military skirmishes if not actual wars, and the continuing degradation of each country’s domestic political process. Thus, Western neglect only facilitates the decline of the South Caucasus into what appears to be a hopeless mess of interacting pathologies that defy solution and that duly provides governments with a further excuse for inaction. Given the global repercussions of the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, this passivity and myopia may seem astonishing. Yet, it has now become a long-term policy conducted not only by the Minsk Group members but also by the EU and other governments.
CONCLUSIONS: Of course, Russia thinks it benefits by being left alone to pose as the ordering power of the south Caucasus. However, as Russian policies in the North and South Caucasus all too clearly tell us, Moscow has no idea of how to establish a generally secure and legitimate order here. Instead, its goals are to make a quick buck, maintain its untrammeled power, and increase tensions in order to achieve the first two goals. It is essentially the policy of a mafia family seeking profit, power, and status, but that is unable to provide anything truly positive to its neighborhood. Since Russia really lacks the means to enforce true security or acquire a genuinely legitimate authority over the rival states and movements that permeate the entire Caucasus, there is every reason to believe that not only will the conflicts in the North Caucasus continue; they may spread southward. Similarly the existing conflicts in the South Caucasus will sooner or later explode for lack of any other alternative. Is this truly what Western interests, not to mention values, call for?
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.