Friday, 13 November 2020 14:09

Halting the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan: Russian Peacekeeping is not the Solution



Halting the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Russian peacekeeping is not the solution

Svante E. Cornell

October 20, 2020


On Oct. 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed that Russian peacekeepers or observers should be deployed to halt the current conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which broke out into open hostilities in late September. Yet, there’s good reason for the West to be wary of this idea. Russian peacekeepers would do nothing to resolve the conflict, and only serve to give Moscow another lever through which to pressure both Armenia and Azerbaijan, thus undermining the corridor across the South Caucasus linking Europe with Central Asia.

In the past two weeks, several hundred people (including dozens of civilians) have been killed on both sides of the renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority-Armenian enclave inside internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory. The conflict has risked triggering the involvement of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Given its proximity to Europe, quelling it has understandably become a high priority, and the need for international intervention is overdue.

The problem is that Russian peacekeepers would violate the first principle of the Hippocratic oath: “Do no harm.” For 30 years, Moscow has sought to manipulate the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict to its advantage, and the experience that neighboring countries have had with Russian peacekeepers should serve as a strong deterrent.

The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is unique in many ways — including the fact that no peacekeepers have ever been deployed along the line of contact between the two armies. This is no accident. Back in 1994, Moscow negotiated a ceasefire between the two parties that ended the “hot” phase of their war. But as international organizations sought to mount a peacekeeping mission, Russia insisted it would take part. This, of course, would violate United Nations peacekeeping guidelines, which insist that neighboring countries should never serve as peacekeepers. And because no other country felt safe sending peacekeepers where Russian troops would be present, no peacekeeping mission ever materialized.

Interestingly, this is one of the few things that both Armenia and Azerbaijan have ever agreed on. Back in 1994, both quietly opposed any deployment of Russian forces into the conflict. The reason was simple: Both knew better than anyone how Moscow had manipulated this conflict from the start. This was true in Soviet times, when Moscow supported Azerbaijan against a wayward Armenia. It was even more true after independence, when Moscow shifted to support Armenia when a nationalist president was elected in Azerbaijan.

Moscow’s behavior in recent years does not indicate that much has changed. In what must be a first in international mediation, Russia is, on one hand, a co-chair of the international body tasked with mediating the conflict — the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Simultaneously, however, Russia has been providing large amounts of weaponry to both parties in the conflict. The main difference? Armenia, a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, has paid next to nothing for these weapons, whereas independent-minded and oil-rich Azerbaijan has paid world market prices.

In the past 30 years, the track record of Russian peacekeepers has given birth to a witticism: Russian peacekeeping is all about keeping the pieces. If Armenia and Azerbaijan need any reminders, they can ask their common neighbor, Georgia. Before the 2008 Russian invasion of that country, Russian peacekeepers in the Georgian breakaway territory of South Ossetia were engaged in the training and organization of paramilitary forces in that territory, which subsequently triggered the conflict by shelling Georgian villages. Russia then invaded Georgia, and now has more than 3,000 troops inside South Ossetia.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has signaled Armenia’s willingness to consider Russian peacekeepers. This is understandable, given Armenia’s setbacks in the current fighting. But Mr. Pashinyan should be careful: The deployment of Russian peacekeepers could, in practice, lead to Russian administration over Nagorno-Karabakh, the very territory Armenia is fighting for.

This may seem outlandish today. Yet back in 1989, when the troubles started, the Soviet regime for some time applied direct administration over Nagorno-Karabakh. Only last year, that model was resuscitated by Modest Kolerov, a former adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the Gazprom-affiliated Regnum news agency.

Mr. Kolerov claimed that Nagorno-Karabakh faced either incorporation into Armenia or military conquest by Azerbaijan. Neither option, he argued, would provide the territory with its purported right to a “dignified state existence.” His solution was for Nagorno-Karabakh to have a form of statehood under Russian tutelage, outside either Armenia or Azerbaijan — something similar, perhaps, to that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, or Transnistria in Moldova.

Mr. Lavrov’s suggestion of Russian peacekeepers may very well be the first step in applying the Kolerov model to Nagorno-Karabakh — something that would freeze the conflict and give Moscow enormous influence over both Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is not the way forward. It has been clear for years that the festering conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was primed to explode sooner or later, and Western policy shares part of the blame, not least because it has tolerated Russia’s role as a co-mediator while Moscow has simultaneously been manipulating the conflict. Simply put, Russian policies are a key reason for the violence we are witnessing presently. A greater Russian role is therefore definitely not the solution.

What, then, is? The conflict requires a serious international effort that aspires not only to freeze the conflict anew, but to resolve it once and for all. This can only be achieved by a joint U.S. and EU effort that combines American hard power to provide security, and the EU’s financial clout for the reconstruction of the conflict zone.

Anything less amounts to a dangerous half-measure — and an opening for Moscow.

• Svante E. Cornell is the director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Strategy.

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  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.