On October 25, 2022, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the West of pressuring Armenia to cut its traditionally close ties with Moscow in an effort to squeeze Russia out of the South Caucasus. Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of the Russian FM, also warned that the West is planting anti-Russian sentiment in Armenian society. Zakharova’s statement came in response to an article published in Haygagan Jamanag (a newspaper belonging to Pashinyan’s family), accusing Moscow of trying to annex Armenia and create a union state with Russia. In response to Zakharova’s comments, Vigen Khachatryan, an MP from Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party, called on his government to “revise” relations with Russia as “Moscow is not a reliable ally.”
Russian newspapers and media outlets have also been accusing Armenia of signing a secret agreement with Azerbaijan in Washington. On October 10, 2022, the Russian Telegram Channel “Siloviki” posted the “Washington proposal,” an unconfirmed document that notes Azerbaijan’s nomination of a representative to work with an Armenian counterpart designated by the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh to “discuss the rights and securities… and provide confidence regarding the protection of the Armenian minority groups in Nagorno-Karabakh.” This means Armenia was going to recognize Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh and push the Russian peacekeepers from the region before 2025. These accusations were refuted by the US.
On October 21, in response to PM Pashinyan repeatedly expressing readiness to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan said that any planned “peace treaty” between Yerevan and Baku cannot force Artsakh’s Armenians to give up their right to self-determination. He warned that the West is “exploiting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in its geopolitical standoff with Moscow.” “I do not imagine the future of Artsakh without the presence of the Russian Federation in the form of a peacekeeping contingent or another mission,” he stated. There were even reports that President Harutyunyan had visited Moscow to meet with officials before the October 31 Sochi meeting.
On the eve of the Sochi meeting, a massive rally of over 40,000 people took place at Stepanakert’s Renaissance Square, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), in parallel with the extraordinary session of the Artsakh National Assembly to unanimously reject any document that would be signed in which Armenia would recognize Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over the region. The Armenians of Artsakh are firm on their principle of self-determination and reject Baku’s genocidal policy of controlling the region and ethnically cleansing the indigenous population. The National Assembly of Artsakh unanimously adopted a declaration arguing that any attempt to forcibly annex Artsakh to Azerbaijan would be a gross violation of international law and an official license to commit another genocide against the Armenian people; therefore any documents with such content are unacceptable for the Republic of Artsakh and its people. The rally caught the attention of Azerbaijani political observers, who made clear that the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh has not been resolved yet and sending signals to Moscow that the population of Artsakh is against the recognition of Azerbaijani sovereignty and any withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from the region will lead to a genocide against Armenians and shake Russia’s credibility in the region.
Fearing an increase of western interference in the South Caucasus and reaffirming its absolute role in the region, Russia initiated its own “peace proposal” to the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan and invited them to Sochi.
The Road to Sochi
With pressure mounting, PM Pashinyan addressed the National Assembly on October 26 and declared that he supports the Russian proposal for a peace deal with Azerbaijan. He expressed hope that a peace deal will be reached by year end and expressed his readiness to extend the mandate of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh for 10 to 20 years.
On the evening of October 27, during the meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia supports the signing of a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan “but is not going to impose anything on Yerevan; the choice of a solution is the business of the Armenian people and the leadership.” He also warned that the “Washington proposal provides for the recognition of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh as a whole.” He continued by saying that if Armenia accepts the US proposal, then “Russia will support the choice of the Armenian people.”
Putin hinted at the complicated issue arguing “(for Armenia) of course it is necessary to reach an agreement with Azerbaijan. These agreements must also be acceptable to Azerbaijan. Armenia is our strategic partner and ally, and of course, with Azerbaijan’s interests in mind, we will be guided by what Armenia itself offers.” The Russian President also commented that Moscow has an alternative peace accord which refers to Nagorno-Karabakh’s unresolved status and calls for a future agreement on it. In Putin’s words, if Armenians accept a peace treaty proposed by the West in which Yerevan recognizes Baku’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, then Armenians should not expect anything from Moscow. Putin also targeted Armenia’s PM saying that Russia takes into account the interests of Azerbaijan but will pay attention to the proposals of its ally Armenia. Hence, his message to the Armenian people is clear: if Pashinyan signs any agreement which does not satisfy the general Armenian public view, Russia will take action. This will push the Armenian opposition to increase its pressure on Pashinyan’s government and prevent his signing a peace treaty.
Putin met separately with Armenia’s PM Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev before the trilateral meeting in Sochi on October 31. After the long meetings, the Russian president stated that not everything was agreed upon. “Some things had to be removed from the text of the final statement, which was previously developed at the level of specialists,” he said. It was clear that Aliyev used all his means to prevent the mention of Nagorno-Karabakh in the statement. This also exposed Russia’s limitations with Azerbaijan under the given geopolitical circumstances and the ongoing war in Ukraine. Putin said that his country will do everything in order to push Armenia and Azerbaijan to reach for a normalization of relations.
In his meeting with Aliyev, Putin argued that Russian peacekeepers are properly fulfilling their mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. He said that the goal of the tripartite summit is to implement all the agreements reached in November 2020 and January and November 2021 regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement and the Armenia-Azerbaijan relations. In return, Aliyev said that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is part of history now and that “there is nothing to talk about; it has been resolved two years ago.”
After the trilateral meeting, the leaders signed the Sochi trilateral agreement in which both Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to refrain from the use of force or the threat of its use and to solve all problems based on the territorial integrity and the inviolability of the borders in accordance with the UN Charter and the Alma-Ata Declaration of 1991. They also attached the importance of the Russian peacekeeping forces in ensuring security in the zone of its deployment and the need for its efforts to stabilize the situation in the region. In addition, they emphasized the importance of creating a positive atmosphere between Baku and Yerevan and launching trilateral inter-parliamentary contacts to enhance trust between the two nations. Finally, the leaders welcomed Russia’s readiness to continue contributing in every possible way to normalize relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. President Putin also expressed his readiness to facilitate the demarcation process of the borders between both countries by providing official Soviet maps. The main question is whether Armenia has gained something from this agreement.
Azerbaijan’s Reaction to the Sochi Trilateral Declaration
Putin’s statements led to interesting reactions in Azerbaijan where many political observers argued that the Russian president refused to recognize Baku’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.
According to Azerbaijani political analyst Shahin Jafarli, “Putin’s speech creates hope among Armenians that there is an alternative to this option (recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as an integral part of Azerbaijan).” Jafari also added that even if the “Washington version” is true, then there are some articles that mention the “rights and security of the Armenians in Karabakh and any status of autonomy even in the boundaries of Azerbaijan is unacceptable for Baku.”
Azerbaijani politicians also raised certain concerns related to Putin’s remarks. Commenting on the so-called “Zangezur Corridor,” Azerbaijan’s Deputy PM Shahin Mustafayev said that Armenia’s proposals to create three checkpoints on the border with Azerbaijan are an “imitation of implementing the provisions of the November 10, 2020 trilateral statement.” Mustafayev said that Azerbaijan does not want a checkpoint on the border with Armenia and that it wants only a “corridor.”
Meanwhile, the chairman of the opposition Democracy and Prosperity Party in Azerbaijan Gubad Ibadoglu said that many conclusions can be drawn from Putin’s speech at Valdai. Among them, the Russian president threatens both the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships. According to Ibadoglu, Putin pressures the former to agree to Russia’s proposal or it will create events that will trigger the Armenian opposition to oust him and forces the latter to accept the Russian rule over Nagorno-Karabakh by not taking Azeris into account. Finally, Putin made clear that he will support the “choice of the Armenian people.”
The former Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofig Zulfugarov warned about the gradual comeback of the Minsk Group, which was sidelined after the November 10, 2020 trilateral statement. If Russia is weakened, Zulfugarov argues it will “leave Karabakh to Turkey,” but this will not be accepted by the West.
Finally, the leader of the Republican Alternative opposition party Natif Jafarli likened Putin’s speech at Valdai to “grandmother’s gossip on a bench in front of the door.” He argued that with Russia’s proposal to freeze the Karabakh conflict, “the situation is getting worse, and we must be ready for a diplomatic or military solution to this problem.”
“Winners” and “Losers”
Historian and Weekly contributor Vahagn Avedian tweeted, “Omitting Nagorno-Karabakh from the trilateral statement in Sochi yesterday doesn’t mean it has been resolved. On the contrary, it means that the status quo remains.” Hence, despite the fact that the phrase “Nagorno-Karabakh” was not mentioned in the Sochi text, the declaration clearly hinted at the ceasefire statement signed on November 10, 2020, where Nagorno-Karabakh was highlighted.
Even though President Aliyev was successful in changing the original draft and pressuring Putin to comment on the text, Russia’s viewpoint is that the conflict has not been resolved; on November 1, Russia’s ambassador to Armenia commented that “the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh should be left to the next generations when conditions will be created that will be acceptable to everyone and will allow solving the issue fairly.” The ambassador also made clear Russia’s position arguing that “unblocking of communications must be based on respect for countries’ sovereignty.” This was also repeated in Russia’s FM spokesperson Zakharova’s answer to a question by Turkish Anadolu Agency regarding the “Zangezur Corridor.” “Well, we use the term ‘route,’” she replied. “An agreement has been reached that the relevant work will continue within the framework of the tripartite working group under the joint chairmanship of the deputy prime ministers of Armenia, the Russian Federation, and Azerbaijan. Basically, as it was defined in the statement of the leaders of the three countries on January 11, 2021,” she stated. Thus, Russia is not in favor of granting an extraterritorial corridor to Azerbaijan or Turkey. Azerbaijan is clearly dissatisfied as Aliyev was convincing his people that the status was resolved and may push him to start new military escalation in the near future. Azerbaijan’s ability to pressure Armenia was not stripped, however. The declaration didn’t call for the release of Armenian POWs or the withdrawal of Azerbaijani troops from occupied Armenian territories.
For Armenia, the Sochi declaration provided some time to organize its resources and have a clear vision toward Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. It is up to the leadership in Yerevan to take advantage of these scarce resources effectively without navigating risky adventures. For the time being, the freezing of the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh is the best scenario for Armenia, at the same time engaging its security and diplomatic ties with Iran, India, Russia and the West to boost its position without turning into a proxy of geopolitical clashes and continue its interaction with Baku and Ankara to minimize the clashes on the border and lobby international support for the withdrawal of Azerbaijani forces occupying bordering areas.
Russia was the main winner. It showed the West that it is still the main player in the South Caucasus and forced its will on the importance of the Russian peacekeeping mandate in Nagorno-Karabakh. The major rally in Stepanakert worked to Moscow’s benefit; it showed that the Armenians of Artsakh will not accept Baku’s rule and hence the conflict must be frozen for a future period. However, given the war in Ukraine, the extent of Russia’s leverage on Azerbaijan regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is also questionable.