Russia's Interest in Nagorno-Karabakh: It's About Europe
European sanctions against Russia are set to expire on July 31, barring a unanimous vote to extend them the next time EU heads of state meet. Russia has developed several ways to influence Europeans. Over the long term, Moscow has chosen economic diplomacy, while also supporting any movement that seeks to unravel European integration and disrupt Transatlantic links.
This support covers all kinds of actions: from funding European far-right parties, to supporting roundtables focused on issues of national self-determination, to fostering dialogue on national spiritual awakening -- especially in those countries where Russia can involve the Orthodox Church in the debate. These measures are of little help in the short run -- they are not designed to round up citizen support to press governments to lift EU sanctions in July.
The only way Russia can change the European perception of its actions is through, well, the actions themselves. And we can see Moscow starting to change tack. The first positive reports in the Western mainstream media about Russian operations in Syria came after the liberation of Palmyra. Before that happened, on March 24 U.S. Secretary John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow to discuss Syria and Ukraine. The meeting validated the idea that Russia's involvement in the two conflicts has in fact been linked from the very beginning. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh now presents Moscow with its latest opportunity to create a better image for Russia in the eyes of the Europeans - again, through its actions.
The Kremlin used its intervention in Syria to bolster the perception of a strong Russia - and a weakened United States - and that perception, it hoped, would change the dynamics in Eastern Europe. This was the greater value-added to the genuine interest that Moscow had in Syria itself. Moscow intervened after the anti-Assad coalition failed to take hold and the Islamic State had risen to prominence. Syrian President Bashar al Assad was certainly preferable to the thought of an Islamic State that could reach Damascus, but the United States was unable to reverse its earlier posture that Assad must go. In a way, Washington needed to allow Russia's show of defying American wishes. Putin took the chance, and in so doing he put Ukraine back on the negotiation table. Russia's recent withdrawal from Syria had much to do with events on Russian borders. Putin needed approach talks about Ukraine from a position of strength, considering Russian interests in keeping Ukraine out of Western military alliances on one hand, and unfreezing economic relations with the European Union on the other. Seeing Palmyra liberated, and issuing the public announcement just days after the meeting between Lavrov and Kerry, plays as a splendid PR exercise.
But it's still far too little to impress the Europeans. Enter Nagorno-Karabakh. The Caucasus appear to most Americans as a faraway place, even if their strategic position is well understood, considering that this is where Russian interests meet up against those of Iran and Turkey.
For Europeans, the Caucasus are much closer. Azerbaijan is a key country that the European Union is courting for energy resources, while Armenia is said to be the oldest Christian polity. Nagorno-Karabakh's is a frozen conflict that every so often thaws -- but it hasn't broken into full-fledged war since the 1988-1994 conflict ended. If it did, such a conflict could draw in Russia, Turkey, Iran, and ultimately, Europe and the United States - so the topic is quite sensitive.
This is why the way Russia handles the story is in turn shaping how the European public perceives it. On April 5, a cease-fire agreement had been reached between Armenian and Azerbaijani military chiefs after they met in Moscow. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Yerevan on April 7 and to Baku on April 8.Lavrov was in Baku on April 6 and was set to meet his Armenian counterpart in Moscow on April 8. All this indicates a clever play on behalf of Russia, balancing its diplomacy between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and building on its newfound peacekeeper image.
Moscow is trying to show it can be responsible. Putin understands that governments can't change their minds without the support of their publics. If European publics see Russia more as a peacemaker and less as an aggressor, pressure on European governments to take a softer line will increase. There is little to nothing that the Russian game in the Caucasus actually changes, and as such, Moscow's maneuvering on Nagorno-Karabakh entails little risk. Restructuring Europe's perception of Russia, on the other hand, is important. This is yet another step towards convincing the Europeans that Russia doesn't deserve sanctions: a political switch out of a geopolitical problem.