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Did Russian Miscalculation Spark Nagorno-Karabakh Flare-Up?

FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2020, file photo released by Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, third from left, meets with Armenia's Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan in Moscow, Russia.

The foreign ministers of the warring nations of Azerbaijan and Armenia will separately meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington Friday as the Trump administration joins international efforts, previously led by Russia, to tamp down a conflict that has killed hundreds of combatants and civilians since roaring bloodily back into life in September.

The US has called on both countries to cease fighting and return to the negotiating table over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is governed by ethnic Armenians with the backing of Yerevan.

“The resolution of that conflict ought to be done through negotiation and peaceful discussions, not through armed conflict,“ Pompeo said earlier this week, “and certainly not with third party countries coming in to lend their firepower to what is already a powder keg of a situation.”

Friday’s meetings mark a significant step in US diplomatic involvement in international diplomatic endeavors to secure a sustainable ceasefire. A pair of ceasefires Russia brokered earlier this month have come to naught, leaving the Kremlin floundering to get the former Soviet republics to stop fighting.

Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces have been intensifying their skirmishes on the eve of the talks in Washington.

The mountainous enclave has not seen such heavy clashes since the early 1990s, when as many as 30,000 people lost their lives before a ceasefire, largely orchestrated by Moscow and with the backing of the US and France, left the dispute frozen. Subsequent negotiations to conclude a lasting political settlement have stalled for years, to the mounting frustration mainly of Azerbaijan.

No compromises

The decades-long conflict has seen periodic flare-ups and episodic skirmishes followed by resentful truces. This time, though, Azerbaijan’s president, who has the backing of Turkey, which has supplied armed drones and reportedly proxy Syrian fighters, appears determined to secure a breakthrough by force of arms.

The Armenians are equally uncompromising, say analysts and diplomats. Armenia’s prime minister said midweek he could see no likely diplomatic resolution of the long-running conflict at this stage. Nikol Pashinyan underscored the negotiating chasm dividing the two sides, saying, “Everything that is diplomatically acceptable to the Armenian side ... is not acceptable to Azerbaijan any more.” Previously he had said Armenia was ready for talks.

Azerbaijan’s President midweek said his troops would reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh by force. Turkey has said it will not hesitate to dispatch soldiers and provide more military materiel for Azerbaijan, if such a request is made.

The conflict risks becoming a much broader geopolitical flashpoint, sucking in neighboring powers.

For Russia, this latest eruption in the South Caucasus is both an embarrassment and a longer-term worry. “Russia's problem really is it has no good choices in the current situation,” says Robert Cutler of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a research institute based in Calgary and Ottawa.

Russia’s challenge

Russia has largely maintained a balancing act with its two troublesome southern neighbors. Moscow has a formal mutual defense pact with Armenia and operates an air base in the country, but the Kremlin has close ties also with Baku. It has supplied both Armenia and Azerbaijan with arms, an even-handed approach aimed at keeping both Baku and Yerevan within Russia’s sphere of influence. The so-called frozen conflict served Russia’s purposes, say analysts.

But the geopolitical equilibrium Russia had crafted has been shattered, say analysts, partly as a result of Turkey’s involvement, adding a new layer of complexity to the ancestral feud.

A further wrinkle for the Kremlin has come in the shape of Nikol Pashinyan, who became Armenian prime minister in 2018 after a series of anti-government, pro-democracy protests dubbed the Velvet Revolution. In opposition Pashinyan criticized Armenia’s dependence on Russia, complaining the Kremlin had taken advantage of Armenia’s weakness and isolation.

In power, however, he has kept to a careful line reassuring the Kremlin that Armenia remains a close geopolitical ally while at the same time including in his government those with openly pro-Western sympathies, some of whom worked previously for US and European-funded NGOs.

Putin has reciprocated, flying weapon resupplies to Armenia during a flare-up with Azerbaijan in July. The Kremlin’s assistance may have been a tactical misstep, says Cutler.

“What may have been a mistake on Moscow's part was Russia's apparent failure to foresee the effects of its military assistance and airlifts to Armenia, during the clashes earlier this year in the Tovuz region in northwest Azerbaijan.” He says it “led the Azerbaijani leadership to lose confidence in the evenhandedness of Russia's military diplomacy” and “made the new hostilities inevitable.”


Azerbaijan turned to Turkey for help.

“Turkish influence in Azerbaijan is not new,” says Laurence Broers, author of the book “Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of a Rivalry” and an analyst with Britain’s Chatham House. “What's new is the degree of military involvement. If Azerbaijan succeeds in achieving significant military goals, then I would imagine that Turkey will have a lasting and locally legitimate influence over the country. And it's hard to see how Russia can counter this militarily,” he adds.

Like Cutler, Broers also suspects Russia miscalculated in July with its airlifts to Armenia.

“It’s hard to believe that Russia was completely surprised” by the Azerbaijan offensive, he says. “But I doubt that the scale and scope of what has happened was what Russia understood would happen. Erdogan's ambitions have outstripped Putin's expectations and Russia doesn't have many good options right now.”

He says Russia’s balancing act in the South is at risk of collapsing with Moscow’s leverage seriously diminished. “Azerbaijan now has an alternative, Turkey, that is giving it the capability to say no to Russia's balancing act, which after all was never aimed at resolving the conflict but keeping it in a holding pattern pending a new conjuncture more advantageous to Russia,” Broers says.

“I think the Kremlin has to be freaking out, frankly, not just about Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the whole periphery, from Belarus to Kyrgyzstan,” says David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush. “I think they don't know what to do. I would imagine they're finding this a little scary and a little intimidating,” he added in a phone interview with VOA. “And now they run the risk of Turkey playing a key role in this.”