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Russia’s new meddling in the Caucasus – POLITICO

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Maurizio Gheri is a former Middle East and North Africa Analyst at NATO Joint Command. Previously, he was also an analyst with the Italian General Defense Staff.

Throughout history, European powers have often descended on Prague Castle in the Czech Republic to sign peace treaties and end conflicts. It was here that the War of the German Brothers was settled in the 19th century, and the Peace of Prague paved the way for the end of the Thirty Years’ War, arguably the most devastating conflict in Europe’s long and bloody history.

Last fall, the castle’s medieval halls once again provided an important backdrop, this time for the first-ever summit of the European Political Community. And one of the main items on the agenda was negotiations aimed at concluding a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan to finally lead to a lasting solution to the three-decade dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

At the summit, peace seemed more achievable than ever as Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reaffirmed their recognition of each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, adopting the 1991 UN Alma-Ata Declaration as the basis for border delimitation discussions .

This is indicative, since until that moment the leadership of Armenia had never recognized Karabakh as the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. But despite this decisive progress, the reality is, of course, more complex. And while peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan is still possible, a new obstacle now stands in the way – and it is backed by Russia.

Before regaining much of its lost territory in a quick six-week war in 2020, Azerbaijan was cut off from Karabakh for 24 years as the Armenian military presence turned the region into a Yerevan-backed semi-state. And after the end of hostilities, Baku quickly moved to reintegrate the region, investing huge sums in a massive demining operation, and so far the first 200 families of the 600,000 Azerbaijanis internally displaced after the first war have already begun work. return.

Closing the Azeris who fell victim to the First Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the 1990s is a priority for Baku, but there is also a need to accommodate and integrate the region’s large ethnic Armenian population, otherwise there can be no lasting peace. .

Karabakh may be Azerbaijani territory, but a large majority of its current inhabitants self-identify as Armenians and today live in a unilaterally declared independent exclave within Karabakh that illegally seceded from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. This self-proclaimed state was never recognized by any member of the international community, including Armenia itself. But after three decades of self-rule, Karabakh Armenians are now concerned about their future status as an ethnic minority in Azerbaijan.

Alleviating these fears and ensuring the rights, security, religious and cultural freedoms of ethnic Armenians was a key goal of the Prague talks, and significant progress was made. But then, just a month later, the mood changed dramatically after the intervention of the Russian-Armenian oligarch Ruben Vardanyan.

Born in Yerevan, Vardanyan made his fortune in Russia during the decade of gang capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Called the “father of the Russian stock market,” he worked his way up in investment banking before serving on the boards of some of Russia’s largest companies, many of which are now on Western sanctions lists.

After leaving his homeland in 1985, Vardanyan lived in Moscow for many years until he abruptly renounced his Russian citizenship last November and moved to Karabakh, becoming the region’s de facto state minister. Until that moment, the oligarch had shown little interest in Karabakh, but he clearly saw an opportunity to make money: just a few weeks after his arrival, two long-idle gold mines reopened.

Indeed, the timing of Vardanyan’s arrival was peculiar. He arrived just at the moment when Azerbaijan was supposed to start negotiations with the Armenian leadership in the region, which signaled to representatives of Baku that they would recognize their future as a protected minority within Azerbaijan. But now that Vardanyan has taken over, their stance has become obstructionist, with the oligarch and the government in Yerevan publicly confronting each other.

Protesters hold a giant Armenian flag at a rally in Stepanakert, capital of Azerbaijan’s self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh region | David Ghagramanian/AFP via Getty Images

Worryingly, Vardanyan will now use this influence to turn the public opinion of the Armenian community of Karabakh against peace, which would be detrimental to the interests of both Baku and Yerevan.

The question arises: how did Vardanyan suddenly become so influential in Karabakh and who helped him get to this post?

The two main regional forces operating in the South Caucasus are Turkey and Russia. The former is a firm ally of Azerbaijan, and while the latter has traditionally supported Armenia, Pashinyan has publicly criticized the Russian-led CSTO for failing to give his country sufficient support, a move that can be read as an indirect criticism of the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, Vardanyan is well-connected in Moscow, which considers the South Caucasus firmly within its sphere of influence. All Russian oligarchs are acting on the mercy and grace of President Vladimir Putin, and for that reason there can be no doubt that Vardanyan is the man of the Kremlin, as the Ukrainian government acknowledged when they imposed sanctions on him.

Active in Karabakh, Moscow brokered a ceasefire that ended the 2020 war, and its peacekeepers have been stationed there ever since. However, since the European Union is also actively involved in the peace process, the Kremlin has a direct interest in not being left out in its own backyard.

Currently, Russian peacekeepers also patrol the Lachin corridor connecting Karabakh with Armenia, through which Vardanyan also exports his minerals, and Moscow peacekeepers do not interfere with this export. But while the stolen gold alone is unlikely to sink the peace process, Vardanian’s actions set a dangerous precedent.

Just last month, the situation came to a head when Azerbaijani activists turned up in snow-covered Lachin to protest the opening of the mines, and demonstrations resulted in the road to Armenian-controlled Karabakh being virtually closed.

The worldwide condemnation in the press was harsh, as were doubts about the legitimacy of the activists, as they were repeatedly accused of being government-sponsored. The international community has rightly paid more attention to the impact of the blockade on the delivery of food and medicine, and there is no doubt that a humanitarian crisis is occurring. What is less clear, however, is the true gravity of the situation.

At the beginning of the blockade, Vardanyan appeared in the media, declaring his leadership with great pleasure – starting with briefings for the Russian press. However, as it dragged on, he increasingly had to defend the purpose and motives of his arrival in Karabakh at such a critical time, as well as the failure of Russian peacekeepers to get the protesters out of the way, given their mandate to keep Lachin open.

The danger here is that all this could lead other malicious actors to see that the terms of the Russian ceasefire and peacekeeping agreement are not worth the paper they are written on, increasing the risk that soldiers, military contractors and new anti-personnel mines will move freely legally. borders of Azerbaijan. And if this happens, the threat of a new conflict will sharply escalate.

This scenario is far from unlikely. The Republican Party of Armenia, which ruled the country for almost two decades before Pashinyan came to power, was dominated by Armenians of Karabakh origin, many of whom fought in the first war of the 1990s. These people may no longer have much administrative power, but they are still very powerful and oppose any peace agreements. Should Russia decide to completely sabotage this process, this uncompromising bloc could easily serve as a ready proxy for that goal.

A return to armed conflict is not in Moscow’s interests, but that doesn’t mean it wants peace. The Kremlin would prefer a state of frozen conflict in Karabakh, where tensions can rise or fall at the behest of Russia.

With its diplomatic, military, and political potential being consumed by the conflict in Ukraine, suspending peace talks indefinitely would allow Moscow to put things on hold and resume engagement at a time when it is better able to impose its own terms. Thus, she will be able to maintain her position as an international arbiter in the South Caucasus.

If the international community wants to prevent this, it needs to start substantive peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia as soon as possible. He could do this by publicly telling Azerbaijan that he will guarantee the rights, security, and heritage of the Karabakh Armenians, and by publicly getting Armenia to give its word that it will guarantee respect for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.

But in spite of everything, the local population of Karabakh must understand that there are two sides fighting for peace here – and among them there is neither Russia nor Vardanyan.

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