Lasting Peace Between Armenia and Azerbaijan Will Reduce Russia’s Influence

Moscow is once again trying to flex its muscle by appointing a new general in Nagorno-Karabakh. Durable peace would derail the Kremlin’s plans.

By , a former British Army officer and the former head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Donetsk, Ukraine.
A view of an Azerbaijani checkpoint recently set up at the entry of the Lachin corridor, the Armenian-populated breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region on May 2.
A view of an Azerbaijani checkpoint recently set up at the entry of the Lachin corridor, the Armenian-populated breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region on May 2.
A view of an Azerbaijani checkpoint recently set up at the entry of the Lachin corridor, the Armenian-populated breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region on May 2. Tofik Babayev/AFP via Getty Images

With so much of its attention consumed by the war in Ukraine, Russia has been unable to attend to much of its historic sphere of influence—particularly in the South Caucasus, where Moscow’s hold is fraying at the seams. On April 11, a new outbreak of violence in the 35-year-old, unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh left four Armenian and three Azerbaijani soldiers dead as the two sides exchanged artillery and machine gun fire.

With so much of its attention consumed by the war in Ukraine, Russia has been unable to attend to much of its historic sphere of influence—particularly in the South Caucasus, where Moscow’s hold is fraying at the seams. On April 11, a new outbreak of violence in the 35-year-old, unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh left four Armenian and three Azerbaijani soldiers dead as the two sides exchanged artillery and machine gun fire.

The province, recognized as the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan under international law, was occupied by the Armenian military for 26 years following the end of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994. Under the terms of the United Nations charter, Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijani territory. But the province is also home to a large ethnic Armenian population that, as the Soviet Union was crumbling in 1988, unilaterally declared its independence from Azerbaijan.

After the first war in the province in the 1990s, which ended in Armenian victory and the expulsion of the Azeris, support from Yerevan allowed the separatists to enjoy a form of de-facto independence even though no country in the world, not even Armenia itself, officially recognized them. In 2020, Azerbaijan reclaimed most of the territory that Armenia had occupied for the preceding quarter-century. After 44 days of fighting, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War ended in November 2020 with a cease-fire agreement brokered by the Russians.

Lentsov is one of Russia’s most experienced military figures, with his arrival a signal that Moscow is serious about reasserting its grip on the Caucasus.

The cease-fire was, on the surface, meant to make room for a formal peace agreement between the two neighbors. But many experts suspect that Russia, which is allied with Armenia, wanted to keep the conflict frozen—with a fragile cease-fire but no durable peace settlement. Any peace treaty was likely to favor Azerbaijan and weaken the Kremlin’s influence in the South Caucasus.

Last November, these suspicions were heightened following the appointment of the Armenia-born, Kremlin-linked oligarch Ruben Vardanyan as the unofficial “first minister” of the ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh. Under Vardanyan, peace talks stalled. However, his role as a spoiler came to a premature close in February, when he was unexpectedly sacked from his position by the separatists’ president, Arayik Harutyunyan.

The exact circumstances of his removal are unclear, but it was widely interpreted as a setback for Moscow. April’s clashes serve as further evidence that Russia is losing ability to maintain control over the region, where it has stationed 2,000 armed peacekeepers as per the terms of the cease-fire agreement. In an attempt to arrest this decline, the Kremlin appointed general Alexander Lentsov as the new head of its Nagorno-Karabakh peacekeeping force last week.

His appointment matters because Lentsov is one of Russia’s most experienced military figures, with his arrival a signal that Moscow is serious about reasserting its grip on the Caucasus. He has previously served as the head of the so-called joint center for cease-fire control, coordination, and stabilization in the Donbas following the first conflict in Ukraine in 2014, and has also been involved in Russia’s military operations in Chechnya, South Ossetia, and Syria in the past.

From a Western perspective, this is a worrying development: Each of those conflicts have ultimately ended on terms that favor Russia and run counter to Western values and interests. Lentsov’s arrival in Nagorno-Karabakh should therefore set off alarm bells in Washington, London, and Brussels.


It is widely accepted among regional experts that Russia seeks to act as a spoiler in the South Caucasus. A frozen conflict suits Moscow. It can lean on the unresolved grievances between Baku and Yerevan to heat up the standoff whenever such actions feel opportune. A peace agreement would also remove the need for Moscow’s peacekeepers in the province, which the Kremlin sees as essential to its projection of power over its near neighbors. Were the West to broker a settlement, it would also expand U.S. and European influence in a region that Moscow regards as its own backyard.

“Peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia will have many beneficial consequences for the United States and for Europe,” said Michael Doran, the director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at the Hudson Institute. “It will contribute to the energy security of Europe because it will open up the possibility of increasing oil and gas supplies from Azerbaijan and, potentially, from central Asia through Azerbaijan.” Doran adds that such an outcome would also “strengthen Georgia, which is in the interest of the United States. In general, peace carried out under the auspices of the United States is going to shift the balance against Russia in the South Caucasus.”

The timing of Lentsov’s appointment was telling: It came just four days before the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan were due in Washington for meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The “tangible progress” made at the talks is due to be followed up this weekend with another meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Brussels, rehabilitating the U.S.-EU twin track process that made some gains last year before stalling.

The Americans are evidently aware of the benefits of reconciliation. However, inconsistent signals from European mediators have in the past led to accusations of bias from Azerbaijan, leaving the door open for Russia to obstruct the process. But with Moscow consumed by its war in Ukraine, which is expected to intensify this spring when Kyiv launches a new counteroffensive, the West needs to seize the opportunity to overstretch Russia on two fronts, pushing through a peace deal before Lentsov’s maneuvers muddy negotiations.

Such a peace deal must proceed from Armenia’s recognition that Nagorno-Karabakh is the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. Indeed, Pashinyan has recently signaled he is willing to do so —despite some flip-flopping owing to domestic nationalist pressure—removing the biggest obstacle to a peace deal since the end of the first conflict. In the past, Russia has tempted Armenia to Kremlin-led mediation by suggesting the status of the province should be left off the table for the foreseeable future. But this would be a red line for those in Baku.

However, following the 2020 conflict, the separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh are under pressure to negotiate their reintegration into the Azerbaijani state with Baku. The current peace process centers around how to do that and what assurances can be offered to the Armenians so that their rights as a minority group within Azerbaijan will be respected.

But having demonstrated its military superiority, almost all the leverage in negotiations rests with Azerbaijan—particularly as it knows that its position stands up under international law. In 1993, the U.N. Security Council passed four separate resolutions (numbers 822, 853, 874 and 884) demanding the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azerbaijan. These resolutions were ignored by Yerevan. Baku, somewhat understandably, sees its victory in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War as a justified corrective measure that ended an illegal violation of its sovereignty. So, in that sense, it will be difficult to convince Azerbaijan to concede much in the negotiations—especially anything seeming to grant a special status for Armenians within the territory.

International actors must convince Armenia it should not miss the forest (a sustainable peace deal) for the trees (special status for the region’s Armenians), which is something it has no realistic—and certainly no legal—prospects of achieving.

Aside from snuffing out the danger of renewed violence, peace would bring economic benefits to both the Republic of Armenia and the ethnic separatists. Since the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, Armenia has remained regionally isolated, with more than 80 percent of its borders closed—those with Azerbaijan to its east and those with Baku’s ally Turkey to its west. This has left Armenia’s only connections to the outside world being the border with Georgia to its north (its conduit to Russia) and a narrow border with Iran through mountainous territory to its south.

Regional reintegration would open Armenia to new trade and energy supplies, removing its overwhelming dependence on Russia. It could be linked to Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea gas reserves, whose pipelines to Europe currently snake around Armenia through Georgia. It could also be connected to Azerbaijan’s grid, benefiting from the soon-to-be exploited wind potential of the Caspian Sea.

As Europe’s energy needs increase, and with Russian supplies shut off, more capacity from the east will be needed. New pipelines, with their potential to later transport Caspian green hydrogen—a potentially renewable, green gas—to a more climate-conscious Europe, could run directly and more logically through Armenia from Azerbaijan—earning it the healthy transit fees that Georgia currently enjoys.

The same applies to freight lines. The only viable overland route runs through the South Caucasus; the others being through Iran and Russia. Cheaper and faster than shipping, train-freight capacity will need to be vastly expanded to deal with the growing trade. The region stands to gain from restoring its role as a bastion of commerce, as it once did in centuries past due to its position on the Silk Road. With open borders, Armenia could benefit from rising trade.

Similarly, the separatists stand to benefit. Since the fall of communism, Azerbaijan’s economic development has far outpaced that of its neighbor to the west. However, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh saw no benefits from this growth, as they were split off from the rest of the country. Since 2020, Baku has launched a huge rebuilding project in the province that could bring vast improvements to the material circumstances of the local Armenian community.

This community currently enjoys the worst of both worlds: It is neither part of Armenia nor Azerbaijan and exists in political limbo as an unrecognized pseudo-state. The separatists never achieved the autonomy they declared in 1988, given the lack of international support. Whether they admit it or not, that is now a lost cause. The only people who benefit from the current situation is the small, political elite that leads the secessionist cause. Ordinary people would benefit more from peace: Normalization of ties between Azerbaijan and Armenia would give Yerevan more influence in Baku to advocate for ethnic Armenians’ interests.

Russia has traditionally been Armenia’s main security guarantor. However, its credibility has taken a severe hit since 2020.

These facts are not lost on the Armenian government, and there have been signs that it is ready to do a deal. Pashinyan met with Aliyev at the inaugural summit of the European Political Community in Prague last year. Both leaders confirmed that their nations would recognize each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and that the United Nations’ 1991 Alma-Ata declaration would serve as the basis for border delimitation discussions. Pashinyan has been more willing to engage with Baku than any of his predecessors, but his commitment to the peace process has proved erratic. To keep him focused, Western actors should step in where necessary to offer him incentives to get a peace agreement over the line.

Russia has also traditionally been Armenia’s main security guarantor. However, its credibility on this front has taken a severe hit since 2020, as Moscow proved incapable of supporting the Armenians in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. As a result, Pashinyan has become public in his criticisms of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. The West should seek to exploit the strained ties by driving a further wedge through its mediation, particularly when so much of Russia’s political bandwidth is being eaten up on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. This would also serve to reduce Lentsov’s room for maneuver to sabotage the fragile peace process.

By diminishing the Kremlin’s influence in the region, Yerevan will have leeway to build closer security ties with the West and strengthen cooperation with neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, neither of which have anything to gain from Russia’s grip over the South Caucasus. Because, as Lentsov’s appointment shows, Moscow has no carrots to offer, which is why it is forced to reach for the stick.

Mat Whatley is a former British Army officer, the former head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Donetsk, Ukraine, and a senior manager with the EU monitoring mission in Georgia in the Caucasus.

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