Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was time to discuss “next steps” regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh truce negotiated by Moscow, including the work of Russian peacekeepers stationed in the area, the demarcation lines and humanitarian issues.
His comments came as he sat for talks in the Kremlin on Monday with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, bringing the leaders together for the first time since the truce sealed in November ended six weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Pashinyan and Aliyev did not shake hands, exchanging only brief greetings as they sat at an oval table across from Putin.
Putin said the peace agreement has been successfully implemented, “creating the necessary basis for a long-term and comprehensive settlement of the old conflict.”
The peace deal brokered by Russia ended a 44-day conflict between the Azerbaijani military and Armenian forces over the mountainous region and surrounding areas, locking in territorial gains for Azerbaijan.
But tensions persist, with sporadic fighting, prisoners of war still held by both sides and disagreements over how a possible new transport corridor crossing the region will operate.
The region lies within the borders of Azerbaijan and is not recognized as Armenian land by any country, including Armenia.
But it has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces and self-proclaimed Armenian officials, backed by Armenia since a war between rivals that claimed thousands of lives resulted in a ceasefire in 1994.
Hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out again on September 27, 2020.
The Azerbaijani army has penetrated deep into the region and surrounding areas in battles involving heavy artillery and drones that left more than 6,000 dead on both sides, the majority of them soldiers.
As part of the peace agreement, Russia has deployed around 2,000 peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh for at least five years.
The truce was celebrated in Azerbaijan as a major triumph, but sparked outrage and mass protests in Armenia, where thousands of people repeatedly took to the streets to demand Pashinyan’s resignation.
Many protesters tried to block a highway from the Armenian capital to the airport on Monday to prevent Pashinyan from reaching Moscow, but police dispersed them.
The Armenian prime minister defended the deal as a painful but necessary measure that prevented Azerbaijan from invading the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Aliyev, for his part, presented the victory of the war at home as a historic righting of wrongs, which Armenia rejects.
Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey have closed their borders with Armenia since the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a blockade that weakened the economy of the landlocked country.
Putin extends Russia’s military footprint
For Russia, the conflict has highlighted Ankara’s growing influence in the South Caucasus, a part of the former Soviet Union that Moscow has traditionally seen as its own sphere of influence.
But by negotiating the deal and putting Russian peacekeepers on the ground, Putin thwarted a stronger Turkish presence for now while expanding Moscow’s military footprint.
Dmitry Trenin, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, said the Kremlin hoped Monday’s talks would allow it to reaffirm its influence in the region.
“(The) peacekeeping function is Moscow’s advantage in its competitive relationship with Ankara,” Trenin wrote on Twitter.
Putin’s meetings tomorrow with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Moscow are not only designed to address multiple practical issues in #Karabakh, but also to reaffirm the role of Russia in the South Caucasus. The peacekeeping function is Moscow’s advantage in its competitive relationship with Ankara.
– Dmitri Trenin (@DmitriTrenin) January 10, 2021
Journalist Onnik J. Krikorian said if Putin insisted on an “agreement” between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Monday’s talks, “there will be one.”
“This then raises the question of longevity, but it offers a window for the restoration of economic ties and the implementation of confidence-building measures,” Kirkorian wrote on Twitter.
“And there are few, especially in Armenia, who will go against Russia. With success and without repercussions, anyway.