Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Does Putin have ‘Secret Plan’ to Return Karabakh to Azerbaijan?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 8 – An Armenian journalist says Vladimir Putin has “a secret plan” to bypass the Minsk Group and return control of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, but it is unclear whether this is simply a Moscow-inspired rumor intended to win Russia friends in Baku, intimidate Yerevan into hewing to the Moscow line, or something more.

            Haikazn Gagrigyan, the editor of Armenia’s Lragir.am portal, says that this “secret plan” has been discussed by Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with the Azerbaijani leadership after the recent intensification of ceasefire violations along the Armenian-Azerbaijani front (news.az/articles/commentary/100932).

            “If Moscow wanted,” the Armenian editor says, “Azerbaijan would not fire on Armenia; that’s obvious. Now, there is a struggle for Azerbaijan which is trying to pursue an independent policy … Russia is trying to involve Azerbaijan in the Eurasian Economic Community,” something that he says “would solve the issue of ‘general boundaries’ with Armenia.”

            For Moscow, Armenia is a problem, he continues. Yerevan is “quite unpredictable,” even though its political elite is usually obedient to Moscow’s desires.  “One reason for this difficulty,” Gagrigyan says, is “the lack of shared borders and the apparent contradiction of interests.”

            Unlike Armenia, he says, “Azerbaijan is in fact a Eurasian country and receives economic and political preferences from Russia. But now Russia is in such a state that Baku is in a position to demand more,” and the most important thing Baku wants is the restoration of Azerbaijani control over Armenian-occupied portions of its territory.

Russia is especially concerned to win over Azerbaijan now, Gagrigryan says, because the US has gained influence elsewhere in the region, especially in Georgia and the Minsk Group. Consequently, and “under these conditions, Russia is ready to make concessions” to Baku “because it has no other levers of influence” there.

            Some years ago, a Baku commentator pointed out that for Russia in the southern Caucasus, Georgia is the way, Armenia is the tool, but Azerbaijan is the prize and that at some point, Moscow would turn on Armenia in order to win Azerbaijan to its side.  The question is: has that day now arrived?
            It is not impossible, but it is also far from certain.  First of all, as Gagrigyan writes, Russia is desperately looking for allies and Baku is thus in a position to demand Russian support for the return of the occupied territories. If Moscow could deliver, Baku would likely change sides -- especially given tensions with the West over Azerbaijan’s human rights record.

            But could Moscow deliver on such a promise? That is not clear. While Moscow undoubtedly would be quite ready to betray its longtime client-ally Armenia, it is far from certain that Armenians on the ground in Karabakh and elsewhere would agree. Many would fight, and Moscow might be embarrassed by making another proposal it couldn’t make good on.
            Consequently, it is more likely that the floating of this idea is intended in the first instance to remind Armenia of its need to go along with what Moscow requires or face the possibility that Russia will change sides in the south Caucasus, as several Moscow outlets have suggested (See ng.ru/cis/2015-09-08/6_armenia.html and regnum.ru/news/polit/1963949.html.)
            Or perhaps it should be viewed as part and parcel of Putin’s desire to create new crises for the region and the West by stirring the pot and reminding everyone that he can behave in a completely unpredictable way, reversing even a long-standing policy on behalf of more immediate gains. (See kavpolit.com/articles/sojuz_nerushimyj_polnyj_problem-19697/.)

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