Foreign policy
International Law
Post-Soviet space

Is the OSCE still relevant in Nagorno Karabakh?

Bradley Reynolds looks at how Russia’s deployment of peacekeepers between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh limits the options for the OSCE

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Researchers like Christian Nünlist and David Svarin argued in 2014 that the Ukraine Crisis gave the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the OSCE) a renewed sense of relevance. Both flagged its usefulness as a forum for dialogue in times of crisis between East and West.

Recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh, however, have been a sobering reality check. In this arena, the OSCE’s ability to offer security and a credible forum to negotiate Nagorno-Karabakh’s political status has palpably degraded. Partly that is because there has been a lack of sustained concern from European and American capitals with regard to the conflict. And that was true even before domestic concerns around Covid-19 and the US presidential election turned the West’s attention inwards. The result is that the OSCE’s conflict resolution talks format, known as the Minsk Group, has now been circumvented by Moscow’s decision to put its own peacekeepers onto the ground in the wake of the latest fighting this autumn between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The deployment of Russian peacekeepers in 2020 is a surprise for a few reasons. For the past twenty years, Azerbaijan (with the recent exception) and various OSCE participating States have voiced opposition to their presence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia also had allegedly made a gentleman’s agreement over fifteen years ago with other OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs, the US and France, that none of these countries would send peacekeepers to the region. With the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in November, Fyodor Lukyanov, a member of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Think Tank ‘Russia International Affairs Council’ Presidium, ominously asserted that “the Minsk group basically doesn’t exist anymore.”

In a recent press briefing, President Putin  did not explicitly express any such eulogies. Instead, he commented on his respect for French and US efforts in facilitating mediation in Nagorno-Karabakh, though he neglected to clarify the role of the OSCE Minsk Group going forward. Russia’s ambiguity towards the OSCE’s future role therefore retains the Minsk Group as an option rather than a preference. In a separate interview, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov did mention that Minsk Group Co-Chairs are still working on a political solution. He also commented on coordination with the UN, expressing interest to have UN agencies on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh to work alongside Russian peacekeepers and address humanitarian issues. If Russia does continue to facilitate a political solution on status without the help of the Minsk Group, or if Moscow turns to the UN for international support rather than the OSCE, this would signal a further disparagement of the OSCE in Russian foreign policy. With Russia’s mediation headway, it will also be worth keeping track of whether the Kremlin utilizes this political capital in other negotiating forums over critical European security issues such as the Ukraine crisis or discussions on the post-US organization of the Treaty on Open Skies.

As with Russian proposals for a new European security system in 2008 following the Georgian conflict, the OSCE is again in a position to be marginalized, though on a smaller scale. In 2008-2009, Finnish and Greek OSCE leadership was able to momentarily redirect Russian proposals back into the OSCE, into what eventually became the Corfu Process. This is a reminder of the role small state leadership can play in periods of crisis. To retain the relative significance the OSCE regained with its role in conflict mediation in Ukraine, OSCE participating State and particularly OSCE Minsk Group participants such as Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Finland, need to make a concerted and sustained effort to uphold the added value of the Minsk Group format for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Most significantly, they now need to convince Russia of its utility.

Competing Over Peace

The notion of the OSCE using its own armed peacekeeping as a conflict management tool was largely discussed and planned for one conflict: Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet for more than 25 years, even as mediation proved unsuccessful, deployments were never given a go ahead. Now with Russian peacekeepers being deployed at a pivotal moment in the conflict, the OSCE can only watch on.

In fairness, it was painfully difficult to gain consensus for peacekeeping. Since international actors became involved in the mediation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the early 1990s, armed peacekeeping as a post-conflict measure has been a point of contention. A CSCE peacekeeping mandate first arose at the 1992 CSCE Summit in Helsinki and was further specified as a multinational peacekeeping operation for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict at the 1994 CSCE Budapest Summit. If deployed, this peacekeeping mission would have marked the first-time international armed peacekeepers were allowed into the post-Soviet space.

A palpable air of competition over who had the right to peace mediation in the post-Soviet space eventually developed. Beginning as early as 1993, Moscow tried to get an international mandate and funding for Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh. This competition led to the formation of the OSCE Minsk Group and the High Level Planning Group (HLPG) for planning the OSCE peacekeeping operation in 1994 at the OSCE Budapest Summit. The intent was to overcome mediation competition with Russia and strongly committee the OSCE to finding a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. The Minsk Group and HLPG have been the internationally recognized negotiating and peacekeeping operation planning forums since 1994. This is, until Moscow’s unilateral mediation and peacekeeping in November 2020.

Is There a Peace to Keep?

Analysts now argue that though Russian peacekeepers are deployed, there is still a long road ahead in finding a lasting political settlement. By deploying peacekeepers, though, Russia has ostensibly removed a significant roadblock inhibiting international discussions of post-conflict measures for sustaining any political agreement. Armed peacekeeping over the years has been unattractive to many OSCE participating States. Yet the ability for the international community to offer this protection was considered a critical component for creating confidence among Armenia and Azerbaijan that a political agreement would last.

Ivan Preobrazhensky argues that Russia simply does not have enough resources to sustain its current position in the region for an extended period. Paul Fisher also outlines various legal claims that complicate possible political solutions and the implications any resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh might have for Moscow’s foreign policy in stateless regions going forward. With Russia now putting more skin in the game and the stakes raised, Moscow may have increased necessity to facilitate a lasting political solution, particularly with peacekeepers being skeptically looked upon in the Russian media.

A second possibility is that Russian peacekeepers remain in the area for an elongated period, such as in Transnistria, where roughly 1500 Russian peacekeepers have been deployed since 1992. It is probable that Russia approaches Nagorno-Karabakh peacekeeping differently due to both a different emotional orientation in the post-Soviet space when comparing 1992 and 2020, as well as due to the OSCE’s renewed viability in Ukraine.

For example, the Joint Control Commission (JCC) was the Russian proposed military command structure for shared peacekeeping in Transnistria. Dumitru Minzarari argues that the Transnistrian JCC was used as a template by Moscow to propose a similar Joint Control and Coordination Commission for Ukrainian and Russian military officials as a form of cooperative ceasefire observation in the Ukraine conflict. However, due to mutual suspicion and animosity, this structure eventually disappeared and gave way for primary observation by the OSCE SMM. In Nagorno-Karabakh, it will be important for Russian peacekeepers to maintain peace and successfully facilitate a humanitarian response so as not to inspire active participation from OSCE participating States.

Initial responses from the French Foreign Minister and US Ambassador to the OSCE to the November Russian brokered ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh acknowledged Russia’s new role in enforcing peace, while also calling on the OSCE Minsk Group to continue its work as a forum for political negotiations. At the same time, the OSCE Minsk Group did not have an official collective statement until the OSCE Ministerial Council December 3-4. It seems that the OSCE, currently lacking critical leadership, is attempting to save face in Nagorno-Karabakh as participating States’ attention is split between finding a mediation role in Belarus’ political turmoil and continuing to nurture a tender ceasefire in Ukraine.

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