By Mina Muradova (09/03/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The Sochi talks on settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict initiated by President Valdimir Putin has not met the hopes of many Azerbaijanis for a breakthrough in peace negotiations. The meeting reached only its immediate aim – a decrease in deadly skirmishes on the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops, which resulted in the deaths of at least 20 soldiers in early August. Many in Baku believe that the clashes were provoked by Moscow to justify its influential position in the region.
According to Yerevan, the fighting was a result of repeated small-scale Azerbaijani attacks to which Armenia responded. Baku for its part said that Azerbaijani troops forcibly prevented provocations by “Armenian sabotage groups.”
The recent clashes were the gravest since the 1994 ceasefire agreement was signed between the two sides with mediation of the Kremlin.
“The nature of the clashes is totally unprecedented,” said Lawrence Sheets, a Caucasus analyst told Bloomberg. “What has changed is that over the past weeks, we have seen the first instances of the use of high-caliber weapons, not just small arms as had previously often been the case. The verbal threats have also hit an unprecedented peak.”
Over past weeks, images of military vehicles and equipment most likely headed toward the frontline have spread in social networks. Controversial information about serious and deadly clashes gave rise to aggressive rhetoric from both sides, even in the virtual world. On Facebook, a number of Azerbaijani users called on the authorities to show “all our military power to Armenian side.” One Baku resident posted: “Now it is time to demonstrate all our military power. Our military aircraft have to destroy all territories along the line of contact, where the ceasefire was constantly violated in order to demonstrate Armenians how serious we are….”
Before President Ilham Aliyev left for Sochi, around 60 tweets threatening Armenia were posted via his official account. “We will restore our sovereignty. The flag of Azerbaijan will fly in all the occupied territories, including Shusha and Khankandi [in Nagorno-Karabakh],” he wrote. “Just as we have beaten the Armenians on the political and economic fronts, we are able to defeat them on the battlefield”.
Although Azerbaijan seems to the side that is most interested in changing the status-quo in the conflict, many in Baku believe that Armenia, a strategic ally of Russia in the South Caucasus, provoked clashes at the behest of the Kremlin. The theory is that Moscow wanted to use the situation in order to change of Vladimir Putin’s image from an intriguer and aggressor to a peacemaker in the region.
Vafa Guluzade, a former state advisor on foreign policy, said that Putin wanted to show that “Russia still plays a decisive role in the South Caucasus,” and therefore, Putin called for a summit on August 10 with his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts in order to show the world his “peaceful, mediating face.”
Guluzade also noted in an interview to Interfax that the Kremlin tried to force Azerbaijan to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, an economic entity that Azerbaijani officials have declined to join. “The meeting with Putin’s mediation was organized just for show, demonstrating that Russia is a key actor in settling the Nagorno-Karabakh problem … Russia tried to compel Azerbaijan, up to the last moment, to join the Customs Union. But Azerbaijan today is a confident and military strong country, so it gave no result,” Guluzade added.
While the presidents were watching a sambo tournament in Sochi following the trilateral meeting, Armenian and Azerbaijani troops continued breaching the ceasefire agreement and taking hostages.
After the summit, President Aliyev said “We discussed the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Karabakh which has been going on for too long and needs to be resolved.” The president stressed that the main mission of the international mediators was to settle the conflict, not to freeze it or strengthen the confidence-building process. “I believe that the latest events will stir international mediators into action,” he said. “Azerbaijan wants peace, the neither war nor peace situation can’t last forever.”
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that the talks with Aliyev and Sargsyan, were “useful,” with both presidents reaffirming their commitment to seeking a solution exclusively on the basis of a peaceful approach. “There are only few uncoordinated aspects of the conflict settlement, the overwhelming majority of agreements are already clear.” According to Lavrov, several specific points will be finalized: “As they say, the devil is in the details, and the most complex issues are not solved yet.”
After Sochi, the rhetoric coming from Baku and Yerevan became even louder. Sargsyan stated that his country had missiles with a 300-km-radius, which could turn Azerbaijani towns into “Aghdam” referring to the ruined Azerbaijani city under Armenian control. Aliyev stated on August 30 that “…The position of Azerbaijan in Sochi sounded even stronger, thanks to the courage of the heroic Azerbaijani soldiers and officers and the enemy was dealt a devastating blow that they still can’t get over … Of course, Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani army is strong, and heroic Azerbaijani soldiers are a constant source of fear for them.”
According to Lawrence Sheets, “With all the current violent upheavals in the world, from Ukraine to Iraq and beyond, unfortunately some are not taking the current major escalation between Azerbaijan and Armenia seriously enough … This is a war, and we are now only a step away from any of the sides deciding to resort to the use of highly destructive and sophisticated missile systems they have acquired, capable of causing massive casualties and destruction.”
The U.S. called on Yerevan and Baku to take steps in order to reduce tensions and respect the ceasefire. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern delivered a video message stressing that threats and militant rhetoric will not help resolve any conflict. Heffern repeated that there can be no military solution to the Karabakh conflict and called on the parties to start talks, since revenge and further escalation will make it difficult to achieve peace. “The best way to honor the memory of those killed is to stop clashes right now,” - he noted.