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Russia smells a rat, as post-war architecture is reconfigured

7 June 2022 10:00 (UTC+04:00)
Russia smells a rat, as post-war architecture is reconfigured

By Orkhan Amashov

That Russia believes the EU presumes too much in terms of its role in bringing Azerbaijan and Armenia together is no longer a tentative assumption, but an indubitable certainty. Not yet discombobulated or flummoxed, Moscow is nevertheless undeniably vexed that Brussels is apparently taking over what the Kremlin is convinced is its rightful brainchild - the original trilateral format.

Related, but not intertwined

The truth is, there are two related, but not intertwined, trilateral formats, the original being born with the Moscow-brokered ceasefire deal on 10 November 2020. It enjoyed near-uncontested supremacy for a full year, addressing both the issues pertinent to the unblocking of communications and the delimitation and demarcation of the interstate border.

This, coupled with the Russian peacekeeping forces stationed in Karabakh on a five-year basis, tempered only by the joint Turkish-Russian monitoring group in Aghdam, gave the Kremlin an upper hand compared to what is currently dubbed the collective West.

It was when Charles Michel suggested a trilateral convocation, to be held in Brussels in early November 2021, that Moscow first smelled a rat. When the date of the EU-mediated meeting was set for 15 December, Russia arranged an early get-together in Sochi, scheduled for 26 November. That must have been the defensive reaction of the Kremlin to curb the ambitions of an interloper and attempt to reassert its leverage on the state of affairs.

In December 2021, the newly-emerged Brussels format appeared to be complementary to the Kremlin. The impression the author of this article had was that Moscow would focus on the key aspects of the interstate normalisation agenda, and Brussels would content itself with the humanitarian domain.

Not exactly rendering this perceived balance topsy-turvy, the war in Ukraine has augmented Brussels’ role. The second trilateral meeting, mediated by Charles Michel on 6 April, was a clear indication that the centre of gravity had already tilted towards the West, which remains the case, to date.

Russian lines of objection

At first, diplomatic and aloof in its view of the EU involvement, Russia now seems to be open about its misgivings. In the first instance, there was a feeling in Moscow that its foundational role in building the post-ceasefire architecture is not duly acknowledged by Brussels. It has not been lost on the Kremlin that the last two post-meeting statements made by Charles Michel contained no mention of Moscow or its role.

Brussels begs to differ. Toivo Klaar, Special Envoy of the EU in the South Caucasus, has rejected this criticism, suggesting that no-one questions the legitimacy or importance of the Moscow-brokered ceasefire, or the 11 January and 26 November statements.

Nevertheless, Moscow wants its centrality to be acknowledged, not as a past accomplishment but as a relevant consideration, defining the present. It does not just want the documents to be prepared and adopted with its participation referenced, but for its active participation and contemporary clout to be recognised.

Secondly, the Kremlin is mindful of a possible EU-engendered novelty. On 8 April, Russian Foreign Russia Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the fundamentals of the Azerbaijani-Armenian peace process had already been established through its mediation, and these fundamentals should not be altered.

The Kremlin seems to be of the opinion that the regulatory framework of the journey to peace is to be guided by the three trilateral statements, and Brussels should not permit itself the liberty to deviate from this logic.

Another streak in the official Moscovite reasoning is that the EU has taken a lot on its plate and the assumed rubric is excessively all-embracing. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova’s 25 May briefing is a case in point. It is evident that the first meeting of the border commissions on 24 May, a direct result of the 22 May meeting, was received with some caution by Moscow.

The EU praised this as a sign of tangible progress and US State Secretary Antony Blinken, in his telephone chat with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, offered the services of his country towards undertaking bilateral work on border delimitation.

Russia appears to be adamant to ensure that improvement through the Brussels track does not undermine its role. It is in this light that Zakharova stated that the concept of a bilateral commission with the Russian consultative assistance, as envisaged in the 26 November statement, is still in force. The spokesperson went on to “accuse” the EU of trying to wear Russian shoes and claimed that the EU lacked delicacy.

The line maintained by the Kremlin is that the region constitutes its neighbourhood, it knows better than Europe what is needed, and Moscow has the best experts, cartographers, and maps available to address the issue.

Russia also finds the EU’s proactive role in economic and transport projects as an attempt to muscle in where it is unwelcome. The 3 June meeting of the trilateral commission on the unblocking of communications has addressed myriad issues, including what was referred to as “the Nakhchivan route” in the press release of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Reciprocal acknowledgment, but no cooperation

The misbegotten OSCE Minsk Group was a unique case of West-Russia cooperation that lasted almost three decades. At present, the Moscow and Brussels trilateral formats do not cooperate, but they acknowledge each other. Both platforms function on the basis of the 2020 ceasefire deal, and they are in unison, in a sense. They deal with the same thicket of subjects, but function autonomously.

The International Crisis Group, for instance, has suggested that the EU and its member states should facilitate diplomatic efforts, support Moscow's role and agree on steps towards a final "settlement".

The article published in the French Causeur magazine suggests that, at the present juncture, Brussels is more attractive to the parties, as the EU has a “smaller whip” and a “bigger cake”. The purported meaning here is that, since neither Baku nor Yerevan aims to become a member of the EU, the leverage that Brussels has over the two nations is relatively limited, but what it can offer is considerable. However, the reverse is true in the case of Russia.

In the meantime, the task with which Baku and Yerevan are encumbered is the same - to chuck away the toxic remnants of the past and forge a new future. This is to be achieved with or without a mediator. Yet, given that mutual trust is in short supply, the supreme criticality of a fair mediator remains of paramount importance.


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