"Russia ousted the West from the South Caucasus" - former co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group
Former US Representative to the OSCE (2010-2013) and former co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, Ian Kelly discusses the confrontation between Russia and the West in the South Caucasus, negotiations on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict (after the first and before the second war in Karabakh), demands of the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides and the proposals of the mediators.
The OSCE Minsk Group was established in 1992. This is a group of OSCE member states that was engaged in the peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict before the start of the 2020 war. The Minsk Group includes Germany, Italy, Finland, Sweden, Beralus, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia, the USA and France are the co-chairs of the group. The Armenian side is inclined to return to negotiations in the format of the Minsk Group. In turn, the Azerbaijani authorities claim that the conflict is resolved following the results of the 2020 war.
Excerpts from Ian Kelly’s interview with the Armenian edition of Infocom.
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- Op-ed: national interests of Armenia are an obstacle to peace agreement with Azerbaijan
- Armenia proposed border demarcation concept to Azerbaijan – What went wrong?
Will the Caucasus become an arena of confrontation between the West and Russia in the event of a war with Ukraine?
“There is already a confrontation between the West and Russia in the Caucasus. Unfortunately, this is a more one-sided competition than in the 1990s or early 2000s, when the West, especially the US and France, were much more involved in finding a solution to the most difficult security problem – the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. In recent years, I think, Russia has taken a one-sided position, pushing the Western countries out.
If I were in the Caucasus right now, I would be more worried that the West has moved away and is not oriented towards events in the Caucasus. Of course, in such a situation, this vacuum is filled not only by Russia, but also by Iran and Turkey.
I see no reason to fear the imminent outbreak of hostilities. There are very encouraging factors, in particular, the new dialogue between Turkey and Armenia.
But the Caucasus is seen as “a zone of Moscow’s exclusive interest”, and the growing influence of illiberal forces in the region, in particular, Russia, Turkey and Iran, is very alarming.
I was ambassador to Obama twice, and there was a realization that Russia could do more to end the clashes and prevent all-out war. In some ways, the main role in the negotiations was given to Russia, although initially it was assumed that the mediation would be tripartite – with the assistance of the United States, France and Russia.
In fact, it was a one-way process, and it started under President Obama. And under Trump, I don’t think that this issue was given any attention.
I believe the only interest of the Trump administration was the sale of weapons to the parties to the conflict. His national security adviser made one visit to the region, and his main goal seemed to be to convince the parties to buy American weapons.
What we saw last year, after the second Karabakh war, is, in fact, the complete marginalization of the co-chairing countries.
What worries me the most and gets the least attention is the peacekeeping force. There is an OSCE office, since 1994 there has been an understanding that any peacekeeping mission should be multilateral, it should not include the forces of two superpowers – the United States and Russia.
But today we have a situation where Russia is the only peacekeeping force and there is a new multilateral mechanism, which does not include the United States, France, or any Western country, this is the so-called “3 + 3 format”.
“3 + 3 format” was first proposed and promoted by Turkey. This format is aimed solving regional issues with participation of Turkey, Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. However, Georgian authorities refuse to work in a format in which Russia participates.
Naturally, this is the choice of the parties to the conflict, how they want to negotiate, how they want to manage the preservation of peace. But the end result is the marginalization of the US and Europe”.
What is the Biden administration’s approach to the situation in the South Caucasus?
“Honestly, it’s even hard for me to see if there is any policy [in the Biden administration]. I do not see a strategy developed specifically for the South Caucasus in the near future. I say this with great regret.
We are accustomed to looking at the South Caucasus from the point of view of military security, but I believe that it should be viewed as a single economic zone.
I believe that the United States and Europe need to make efforts to integrate the countries of the Caucasus into the East-West trade route rather than North-South.
In the group configuration “3 + 3”, in my opinion, the goal is rather the North-South trade route, which will pass through Russia.
I hope that the United States, and more specifically Washington and Brussels, will develop a comprehensive strategy to try to integrate the countries of the Caucasus into a trade route that may pass through the Black Sea”.
Was there a possibility of a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict?
“I think there were two main obstacles [to the success of the talks]. The first was to persuade the parties to agree to the so-called Madrid Principles. The Madrid principles were an attempt to find ways [to combine] the principle of self-determination promoted by the Armenian population and the principle of territorial integrity promoted by Baku.
Both sides refused to sit down and talk until the whole package was agreed upon and the most difficult part of the Minsk [Madrid] principles was the idea of the right of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to hold a referendum on their future, which was never approved. Another problem we faced was more related to domestic issues.
Basically, Azerbaijan, I will say now, only Azerbaijan, refused to introduce any measures to build confidence and security.
When I first visited the line of contact [Armenian and Azerbaijani troops], I was struck by the lack of dialogue along the entire line. And it was a very dangerous situation when the commanders did not have regular communications along the neutral zone.
Therefore, we tried to reach agreements on the creation of hotlines, holding regular meetings to discuss issues of concern, we tried, as a third party, to find solutions to existing disagreements. Following the model that exists in the case of Moldova and Georgia.
For example, Georgians have so-called Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms (IPRMs), through which the parties try to resolve emerging disagreements on the ground. We are not talking about serious political issues, but, for example, access to water, pastures, etc.
We could not do this because of the maximalist approach. Because Baku said that it does not want to turn the conflict into a norm, refused to discuss issues that arise on the ground, as was the case in Moldova and Georgia.
I think it was a disappointment for all the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, because the ice did not melt. We knew that for any progress to be made, it had to come from above, from the two presidents [Armenia and Azerbaijan].
Of the three co-chairing countries [USA, France, Russia], the president of only one of them wanted to put everyone at the negotiating table, and that was Vladimir Putin. Washington, on the other hand, believed that the main thing was to make progress, but as a result, we found ourselves in a situation where the country responsible for resolving the conflict became a country that, in the post-Soviet space, had, so to speak, not entirely altruistic motives.
As Secretary Blinken said the other day, the problem is that if the Russian troops are already in, they won’t be inclined to leave. And, of course, Moldova and Georgia can confirm this.”