The Caucasus is a special area, where Russian foreign policy strategy manifests itself most clearly. Russia has to build an optimal system balance for itself amid unstable conditions in the region, where attempts at diplomacy remain tenuous due to the willingness of local powers to use military force against each other. Russia's long-standing geopolitical rivalry with Turkey and Iran has been supplemented in recent decades by competition with the United States in the Black Sea region. The threat of possible NATO expansion to the South Caucasus is forcing Moscow to pay special attention to the security of its southern borders.
The situation is complicated by the Ukrainian crisis, and the flow of Islamists from Syria to the borders of Russia. Historically, Moscow has always put its foreign policy activity in other areas on hold whenever a crisis in the Caucasus has arisen. Will it happen again?
The complexity of the situation in the Caucasus is not something new for Russian politics. However, in recent years, the use of armed force in the region has become more frequent than in any other time in the past century. This can be noted in the example of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, where Russia's position is tied to many interests among regional players and is forced to adopt a strategy of maintaining balance.
There are three components to this strategy. First, while maintaining a military alliance with Armenia, Russia provides balance in its relationship with Azerbaijan. Secondly, Moscow is developing military-technical cooperation with both countries, which makes it possible to keep them from igniting a major regional war. The existing military balance between the parties and Russia's military guarantees to Armenia make a big war unlikely, although they do not preclude attempts to change the negotiating agenda with the help of military force. Finally, thirdly, Russia is developing cooperation with Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to neutralise the influence of the West and prevent the defrosting of the conflict by NATO forces, primarily Turkey.
The settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one of the key foreign policy priorities for Russia. The protracted situation of "no war, no peace" impedes the development of relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, the Russian leadership understands that this conflict will not be resolved unilaterally without taking into account Ankara's interests.
According to the Russian leadership, the main threat to the escalation of the conflict is the resumption of large-scale hostilities with the involvement of third countries, primarily Turkey.
Understanding the peculiarities of the Russian position, Yerevan seeks to shift the responsibility for preserving the results of its victory in the 1991-1994 conflict onto Moscow and feels nervous when Russia is not making any effort to do so. Azerbaijan is also trying to capitalise on the current situation - as an important regional player ready to defend its interests by force, it is constantly raising the stakes, forcing partners to bargain over the new rules of "negotiated confrontation". The Turkish factor greatly complicates the situation. Moscow's relations with Ankara remain volatile and depend on a wide geopolitical context, including Russia's actions in Syria. All these factors together make the situation unstable and difficult to predict, especially as the status quo fades away.
Given all the circumstances that Russia is facing in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is interested in it being resolved. This is evidenced by a number of active diplomatic initiatives launched by Moscow in recent years. Once approved by other members of the Minsk Group, they can lay the groundwork for the settlement process. However, Moscow does not have a monopoly in the political process - until the parties are ready to accept a settlement agreement, no one can influence them. That is why in recent years, in the absence of better alternatives, Moscow has taken a position aimed at keeping Baku and Yerevan from resuming hostilities.
In this context, the sale of Russian weapons to Azerbaijan can be characterised as a measure to strengthen military transparency. Despite a series of military incidents in recent years and armed clashes in April 2016, it is clear that the system of military-political checks and balances created by Russia is generally working. Azerbaijan's operation against Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 continues to proceed within the "red lines" and does not affect the territory of Armenia.
So far, Baku does not intend to break the status quo once and for all and ruin its relations with Russia, following the example of what Georgia did it in 2008.
Although Azerbaijan does not seek a major regional war, it is beginning to use force to indicate its political interests and disagreement with the current status quo. Signalling the need to preserve regional constants, at the end of October the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a brief statement that in accordance with allied commitments, Russia will provide Yerevan with all the necessary assistance, but only if the clashes spread into the territory of Armenia itself.
Russia's military cooperation with both Armenia and Azerbaijan can be viewed not only from the point of view of containing the conflicting parties, but also from the point of view of preventing attempts by the West to expand its influence in the region. One of the reasons Russia is in no hurry to curtail its defence cooperation with Azerbaijan is that it forms the basis of multifaceted cooperation between the two countries. Without it, Baku would have to look for a solution to its problems, including Nagorno-Karabakh, without Russia and even opposing it. An example of such a policy in the Caucasus was Georgia's strategy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia under Mikhail Saakashvili.
Russia would like to benefit from the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, not from it becoming frozen again. It is increasingly clear that maintaining the status quo is detrimental to Russia's ally, Armenia. Given the maximalist position in the settlement of the conflict, Yerevan is gradually losing to its opponent in terms of economics and demography, while at the same time increasingly irritated by the actions of Russia, which, in its opinion, must solve the problems of the Armenian state. Armenia has no access to the sea and lacks a common border with Russia, it is blocked by Turkey and geographically cut off from key regional transport and energy infrastructure. These and other factors have led to a slowdown in economic growth. Even Armenia's membership in the Eurasian Economic Union alone is not capable of solving these problems.
The current escalation of the conflict has its limitations. With the support of Turkey, Azerbaijan is trying to seize the initiative and provoke developments in order to restart bargaining over the new rules of "negotiated confrontation" around Nagorno-Karabakh. The strategy of Baku is based on calculation, a rational interest in strengthening its negotiating positions - therefore, one cannot expect the conflict to scale up and transfer to other theatres. However, there is the need to look for ways out of the "frozen conflict" impasse. Otherwise, each new aggravation of the conflict will threaten regional security more and more, with a threat of a catastrophic war.
In his article, Dr. Vali Kaleji, a Tehran-based expert on Central Asia and Caucasian Studies, proposes the logic for including Iran, Russia and Turkey in the process of Karabakh peace talks that is way stronger than their participation in the Astana talks to resolve the Syria crisis. Against the backdrop of three decades of failure in transition from ceasefire to peace in the Karabakh conflict, formation of a 3+2 mechanism (Iran, Turkey, Russia with Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan) should be considered more seriously, he believes.