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De Waal: Kremlin 'Not Primary Actor' Behind Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

An ethnic Armenian soldier in Nagorno-Karabakh's forces stands near an artillery unit in the town of Martakert, where clashes with Azeri forces are taking place, on April 3.
An ethnic Armenian soldier in Nagorno-Karabakh's forces stands near an artillery unit in the town of Martakert, where clashes with Azeri forces are taking place, on April 3.

A noted Western expert on the Caucasus says tensions between Azerbaijanis and Armenians over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh make their dispute one of the most menacing unresolved conflicts from the time the Soviet Union was breaking up in the early 1990s.

But Thomas de Waal, a senior associate with Carnegie Europe who specializes in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, rejects the view that recent fighting has been orchestrated by Moscow as part of a larger Kremlin strategy to hold sway in the region.

Formerly a journalist who covered Russia and the Caucasus region, de Waal is the author of one of the most authoritative books on Nagorno-Karabakh, Black Garden: Armenia And Azerbaijan Through Peace And War. De Waal tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that he rejects the conclusion of Western experts who view Moscow as a primary actor behind the recent outbreak of fighting in the disputed region.

Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, declared independence from Azerbaijan amid a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict have brought little progress.

RFE/RL: What are your thoughts about the collapse of the cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh and the resurgence of fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops?

De Waal: This is the kind of really bad incident that a lot of us have been fearing for some time. It looks like a really bad breakdown of the cease-fire. The problem is that the cease-fire line, the line of contact, is so militarized now. There's all this heavy weaponry on either side -- including aircraft and drones and helicopters being used. It is spring, which is also a traditional time when the cease-fire starts to get broken -- in the spring and in the summer.

When the cease-fire gets violated, it's usually on political grounds. It's not by accident that there is a strong political chain of command going up from the commanders all the way up to the top.

RFE/RL: There is a tendency for some in the West to see Russia as an instigator trying to manufacture a situation where it can intervene and deploy Russian peacekeepers on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh. Do you think it is part of a game being played or orchestrated by Moscow?

De Waal: Personally, I think it is a mistake to think that Moscow is the primary actor. I think Armenia and Azerbaijan are the primary actors in this conflict. And Moscow is a strong secondary actor, but it is not manipulating everything. It is not running the show.

The person who is the most senior diplomat involved in the conflict is [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov. He knows the conflict incredibly well, meets the presidents regularly, and has a new peace plan, we are told, which he has been pushing and seems to involve some Russian peacekeeping element.

But the Russian military is a little bit in Armenia and in Daghestan -- but it's not in Azerbaijan. So there's not a lot that the Russian Defense Ministry can do. They can certainly have some influence on the Armenian side but not particularly on the Azerbaijani side. We're talking about Lavrov and, perhaps, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin getting on the phone.

RFE/RL: How would you respond to those who see the hand of Russia behind the collapse of the cease-fire, particularly at a time when the president of Azerbaijan was in Washington to attend the nuclear summit that Russia skipped?

De Waal: I'm skeptical that Russia can organize violence on the cease-fire line [in Nagorno-Karabakh.] Obviously, it looks a bit curious that the president is in Washington and, suddenly, fighting breaks out on the ground -- and then the Kremlin calls for peace.

But I think we should be a little cautious about that because both the Armenian and Azerbaijani militaries are very strongly independent. They don't like to be pushed around by Moscow. Traditionally, the side that breaks the cease-fire more is the Azerbaijani side because they don't like the status quo of their land occupied. So they have more reason to break the cease-fire.

But once things get going, once the fighting gets started, then that becomes a bit irrelevant because both sides exchange fire and do operations across the front line. So it's incredibly hard to say who started it. And at some point, that becomes irrelevant.

RFE/RL: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has meetings in Vienna on April 4 and 5 to address the cease-fire collapse in Nagorno-Karabakh. Is that something that can make a difference? Or how else can the international community make a difference diplomatically?

De Waal: The OSCE Minsk Group is no longer so powerful as it was. Basically, they work at the pleasure of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. They try to manage the cease-fire. They try to organize things between the presidents [of Armenia and Azerbaijan]. But they are certainly not running the show.

The people who can make a difference [in diplomacy] are basically in Washington and in Moscow, in particular. But even there, I think it's actually very hard once a military operation is there on the ground for any third party to stop things on the ground. There are only six OSCE monitors in the region. There are no peacekeepers. The only thing is to do political pressure, which is obviously easier from Moscow. But even there, Nagorno-Karabakh is the No. 1 national issue both for Armenia and Azerbaijan. They don't always listen to Moscow if they think it doesn't suit their national interest.

RFE/RL: Who has the most to gain from the collapse of the cease-fire and what does that tell us about what needs to be done to stop the fighting?

De Waal: I think the Azerbaijani side is quite negative about practicing the cease-fire without any political process because they see that it basically normalizes the status quo in which Azerbaijani lands are occupied. What this proves is that there is a need for a bigger political intervention to try to restart the political process. But to do that, you need the cooperation of Moscow and Washington. You need them to agree on who the peacekeepers will be. And it is much harder for Washington and Moscow to agree on these kind of things now than it was a few years ago.

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