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Armenia’s Karabakh Dilemmas and the Quest for a Golden Bridge

Article by Ilya Roubanis (PhD)

July 1, 2022

Armenia’s Karabakh Dilemmas and the Quest for a Golden Bridge

The Ukrainian war calls into question Russia’s ability to act as a security guarantor for Karabakh Armenians. There is little to suggest that Moscow is inclined to challenge Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh. As the guarantor of the 2020 Ceasefire Agreement, Russia continues to provide the Armenian population in Karabakh with security guarantees, but this is a temporary arrangement, and there are reasons to believe that the evolving situation in Ukraine will erode Russia’s commitment. At this point, Armenia can do little else but lobby Moscow for support; the war in Ukraine de-substantiates the Minsk process, while bilateral negotiations in Brussels will not touch upon Karabakh. Following the war in Ukraine, Karabakh Armenians are falling through the cracks of Europe’s security architecture.


The nature of the study

This article summarises the conclusions of a study based on 25 structured interviews conducted from March to May 2022. These one-to-one interviews engaged Armenian foreign policy analysts, lobbyists and political activists in Paris, London, Berlin, Brussels, Rome, Stockholm, Athens, Berlin, Yerevan and Stepanakert [Az. Khankendi]. The interviewees were selectively targeted to engage all cultural fountains of the Armenian World – Western, post-Soviet and the Middle East – as well as to balance views favourable and critical of the government of Nikol Pashinyan. Beyond this core interviewee group, this study is also indebted to a secondary group of foreign policy analysts and former diplomats engaged as discussants from the United States, the UK, Georgia, Poland and Iran.


This entire project can be distilled into two Armenian dilemmas:

  1. First, Yerevan and the global Armenian community are entirely dependent on Russia for the security of Karabakh Armenians; however, Armenians must engage with Europe and the United States to ensure Karabakh continues to be framed as an international diplomatic issue.
  2. Secondly, Yerevan needs to engage with Ankara and Baku to avoid war, for which Armenia is not prepared; to do so, Yerevan needs to adhere to the nine-point ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia, where it implicitly accepts that Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijani sovereign territory.


Karabakh: neither an international nor a bilateral challenge

Historically, the Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) lay within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Armenia led a successful military campaign from 1988 to 1994, capturing Nagorno-Karabakh and seven Azeri-majority territories west, south and east of the territory.[1] Since 2006 these territories have been de facto ruled by Stepanakert [Az: Khankendi], which in 2017 became the de facto administrative centre of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh. The regime never gained international recognition, not even by Armenia.[2] Instead, Yerevan opted for indirect control over the territories and open-ended negotiations over the status of Karabakh through the OSCE Minsk process.[3] Each year that passed seemed to entrench the status quo until it did not.


In Autumn 2020, Azerbaijani forces launched a military campaign that allowed Baku to regain control over the seven adjacent regions and make inroads into Karabakh, including the towns of Shushi (Az. Shusha) and Hadrut. The 44-day war resulted in the death of including approximately 4,000 service personnel, civilian casualties, and tens of thousands of displacements.[4] In a small country with just under three million people, no family in Armenia was spared loss. For the Armenian world, galvanised as a community through its international campaign for the recognition of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, this was a moment of existential significance.


The Azerbaijani advance ended in November 2020 with a Russian-mediated nine-point agreement referred to in the Armenian World as “the capitulation”. Herein lies a demand for Armenia to recognise the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and forego any claims over Karabakh. Until the future of Karabakh Armenians is determined, the sole guarantor of their security is a force of 1,960 Russian peacekeeping troops.[5] The mandate of the Russian force ends in November 2025 and what happens next is anyone’s guess. Most Armenian interviewees hope that Russian troops will remain indefinitely, frequently citing Russia’s perceived interest in keeping boots on the ground.


However, according to an interviewee with direct knowledge of national security discourse in Yerevan and Stepanakert [Az: Khankendi], the Russian message is that Armenians should be preparing for “reintegration” with Azerbaijan. This message from Moscow tallies with the message from Yerevan. Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan and Foreign Minister Mirzoyan have stated that the Karabakh conflict is not a territorial issue but “a matter of rights”. That statement means that the government of Armenia no longer regards Karabakh Armenians as ‘a sovereign people’ but rather as a minority that needs to be protected by international law, if not by Azerbaijani justice.


That means that Karabakh Armenians rely on the internationalisation of the Karabakh question because they can’t rely on Armenia. The question then is how the Karabakh question becomes internationalised. Before November 2020, the primary forum for the negotiation of the Karabakh conflict was the Minsk Group, set up in 1992 by the Conference on Security Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).[6] This OSCE framework is also the platform through which Russia’s peacekeeping mandate in Karabakh gains international legitimacy. That presents Russia with a procedural problem. As noted by Thomas De Waal, Karabakh’s 2020 ceasefire agreement gains international legitimacy via the OSCE Tirana statement rather than any subsequent UN Resolution.[7] Therefore, the presence of Russian troops on the ground without the Minsk process would be legally precarious.


Ukraine changes this normative calculation because Russia appears to be divorcing from any need for external recognition for its authority in the ‘near abroad’. The notion of a single security-dispute mechanism emanating from the 1975 Helsinki accords has been fracturing and is now broken. Following the 2014 annexation of Crimean and the more recent invasion of Ukraine, relations between the West and Russia are past the point of no return. As explained by an American diplomat who served in the South Caucasus, as long as Moscow and the West are embroiled in a confrontation in Ukraine, no diplomatic framework that requires Russian-Western cooperation is workable.


An Armenian interviewee in contact with the OSCE co-chairs leaves no room for illusions: “there is no Minsk process.” Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov blames OSCE co-chairs France and the United States for disrupting cooperation over Karabakh.[8] Significantly, Russia has been entertaining the idea of a transition to the self-proclaimed three plus three frameworks: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan plus Russia, Turkey and Iran.[9] That may be unacceptable to Armenia and Georgia but points to the fact that Moscow no longer stands behind the Minsk process (CSCE). Increasingly, “might is right”, and Russia can carve out a diplomatic community in which Moscow is the sole rule-maker.


Perhaps more significantly, the Minsk process has failed to yield results since November 2020. As noted by a French-Armenian interviewee, no co-Ambassador from the Minsk Group has visited Stepanakert since 2020 [Az: Khankendi]. Statements by co-chairs amount to nothing but wishes for the renewal of bilateral negotiations.[10]


Contrary to speculation, Brussels does not present an alternative to the Minsk process.[11] On April 6 2022, the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met in Brussels and subsequently tasked their foreign ministers to “begin preparatory work for peace talks”. As noted by Thomas De Waal, the talks mediated by European Council President Charles Michel entail light touch facilitation rather than arbitration.[12] The precondition for Azerbaijani engagement is Armenia’s adherence to the November 2020 ceasefire agreement principles, recognising Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Therefore, Armenia can’t put Karabakh on the table, and the EU won’t.


Many interviewees believe or hope that Russia will do what Europe won’t and step in to arbitrate a solution in which Karabakh Armenians are protected. An Armenian interviewee with intimate knowledge of the negotiation explains that the foundations of the Brussels process were set in Sochi.[13] After all, claims to the contrary are dismissed by the Kremlin.[14] In fact, a former British diplomat confirmed a meeting in London with the Armenian government liaison tasked with debriefing Moscow on the progress of the negotiations. Brussels is not and cannot be about Karabakh, and Moscow knows that.


Perhaps surprisingly, at least two sources in France suggest that President Macron has been advocating for the inclusion of French peacekeepers or military observers in Karabakh. This idea has apparently been pushed back by the foreign ministry. In any event, this would require Paris and Moscow to work together, which does not seem likely. Moreover, French credibility is questioned, as the tendency to instrumentalise the Karabakh conflict for electoral gain is not unheard of in Paris.[15] The 600,000-strong and politicised French-Armenian community is an object of desire in every presidential cycle. Far-right candidates Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen have been waving the flag of their support for Armenia during the Presidential campaign, which is not unprecedented.[16] Not to be outdone, the centre-right candidate Valerie Pecresse visited Yerevan and Stepanakert [Az: Khankendi].[17] The pattern may very well repeat itself in five years.


The Armenian opposition in Yerevan reverts to Russia as the only necessary protector of Karabakh Armenians. That assessment has become less realistic as Ukraine forces Russia to cut down on non-essential financial and military expenses.[18] A recent Crisis Group report refers to 1600 Russian soldiers in Karabakh, 360 short of the force specified by its mandate.[19] And then there is the question of what Russian troops in Karabakh are willing to do. After Azerbaijani forces moved to capture the strategic Parukh [Az: Farukh] village in April this year, Moscow issued a rare reprimand, yet no further action followed. In the words of a French-Armenian interviewee, the Parukh [Az. Farukh] village incident attests to the fact that Russian presence “is necessary but not sufficient to maintaining peace in Karabakh”.


Neither international nor bilateral?

The war in Ukraine freezes the international dimension of the Karabakh conflict indefinitely. The issue at hand is that Armenia cannot engage bilaterally on the question of Karabakh either, forgoing this right by signing onto the November 2020 ceasefire agreement.


Politically, that is an unmanageable admission for Yerevan. It is no surprise that the Armenian foreign minister Ararat Mirzoyan contradicts Lavrov, hailing the cooperation of all the parties involved in the Minsk process.[20] Traditionally, Armenia leans on Russia for its foreign and security policy and promotes an Armenian human rights agenda with the support of its Western Diaspora. The constant and omnipresent fear articulated by interviewees is that Moscow will “pull a Bush” and ask the “with us or against us” question.


Until that happens, Yerevan will claim that the Brussels process is about the territorial delimitation with Azerbaijan. For Azerbaijan this is a non-issue; Yerevan insists there is a Karabakh issue but that is the subject matter of the Minsk process, which is no longer in effect. Therefore, when it comes to the Karabakh question, the debate in Armenia gravitates around a futile East versus West policy debate: “it’s all about Russia”, explains a globally respectable Armenian intellectual, noting how political discourse revolves around various degrees of owed loyalty to “the elder brother”.


Armenia’s Ukraine position is articulated sotto voce. When the leader of Karabakh Armenians, Arayik Harutyunyan, demands recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk, he sounds more Russian than Armenian. Yerevan abstained from the UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the vote to suspend Russia’s UN Human Rights Council membership.[21] Most Armenian lobbyists interviewed dismiss any allegation that Armenia backed Russia’s invasion as Azerbaijani-Turkish propaganda.[22] In sum, Armenia cannot afford to have a Ukraine policy if the government insists on paying homage to the Minsk process. The government needs to pretend that a balance between East and West is possible; the opposition must pretend that allegiance to Moscow or lack thereof is a choice. If none of these illusions is maintained, Yerevan will be seen to admit that it no longer has a seat at the table where the future of Karabakh is discussed. This is politically untenable.


Fighting it out is not an option. The key to Azerbaijan’s military victory was arguably the diversification of its military arsenal, with support from Israel and Turkey. According to an Armenian defence specialist, even if Armenia had the money for an arms race, Yerevan would be unable to refuse Russia access to strategic technology and data. That means no diversification. A war of attrition in Ukraine makes matters worse as Russia exhausts its stock of ammunition, further diminishing the Armenian ability to replenish its arsenal. In this context, the ambition of rebuilding the Armenian army to end the slippery slope to appeasement seems less credible, even if there is a suggestion that Yerevan is already developing indigenous drone prototypes.[23] Playing for time is not an option as Azerbaijani troops move beyond Karabakh and the current point of contact. Armenia needs to engage with Azerbaijan and Turkey even if Karabakh is not on the table.


Here lie two problems for Baku: first, if the Pashinyan government does not have “a golden bridge” and signs an agreement with no provision for Karabakh Armenians, then the instrumentality of that treaty is reduced. In Yerevan and around the world, this peace agreement will be dismissed as yet another capitulation for Armenians. The second is that Baku does not want to see the renewal of a Russian presence in Karabakh beyond 2025; Azerbaijan would probably want to resolve the question of what happens to Karabakh Armenians before that date.


A challenge that Armenia and Azerbaijan share is that talks in Brussels are taking place in parallel to the war in Ukraine, with both parties unable to calculate the catalytic effect of the conflict. As a diplomatic facilitator, the EU is happy to follow through with the diplomatic agenda set in Sochi. However, amid growing polarisation between Europe and Russia, that appears to be a fragile consensus. The assumption that Russia and the West can address regional security challenges as partners looks increasingly unlikely. In turn, the assumption of a multilateral rules-based order and co-development is likely to suffer, undermining the authority of the Council. The emerging reality is one of competitive regionalisation projects, which should be a concern both for Yerevan and Baku, both of whom have a tradition of multi-vector diplomacy.


A fuller version of this study has been published by the Observatory on Contemporary Crises in Madrid, Spain. You can read it here: 


Ilya Roubanis (PhD, European University Institute) is a British-born International Relations analyst of Greek heritage. He is a fellow of the Observatory on Contemporary Crisis (Madrid) and the International Relations Institute in Athens (IDIS). For over a decade, he has worked in the South Caucasus as a government affairs consultant, risk analyst, and journalist.


[1] Joshua Kucera, For Armenians, they are not occupied territories, they are homeland, Eurasianet, August 2018,

[2] Pierre Alix-Pajot, The Republic of Artsakh’s Pursuit for International Recognition, Le Journal International, February 2018,

[3] Andrew Rettman, Referendum to create ‘The Republic of Artsakh’ on Europe’s fringe, February 2017, EU Observer,

[4] The Economist, Armenia’s Army turns on its prime minister, March 2021,; RFE/RL, Armenia Abstains from UN Vote on Ukraine, March 2022,

[5] International Crisis Group, New Opportunities for Crisis Mediation in Nagorno-Karabakh, May 2022,

[6] CSCE, About the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe,; Minsk Process Review:

In 1996, the OSCE member states laid out three principles as a legal basis for the peaceful settlement process:

1) territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan;

2) legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh to be based on self-determination, which confers on Nagorno-Karabakh the highest degree of self-rule within Azerbaijan;

3) guaranteed security for Nagorno-Karabakh and its population.

In November 1998, the Minsk Group proposed that the use of the Lachin Corridor by Karabakh for unimpeded communication between Karabakh and Armenia be the subject of a separate agreement. The Lachin district must remain a permanent and fully demilitarized zone.

The basis of the negotiated settlement plan is based on the principles introduced by OSCE Minsk Group in Madrid (November 2007):

1) the return of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control;

2) an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance;

3) a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh;

4) the future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will;

5) the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and

6) international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation.

These principles are supported by other intergovernmental organizations, which have accepted the exclusive role of the OSCE. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan rejected them but they interpret them differently.

[7] Thomas de Waal, Brussels takes the initiative in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations, Analyticon, May 2022,; OSCE, Joint Statement by the Heads of Delegation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair Countries, December 2020,

[8] Turan, Washington and Paris refused to communicate with Moscow on the Karabakh settlement-Lavrov, April 2022,;, Lavrov says US, France annulled OSCE membership: what’ll happen to Karabakh?”, YouTube, April 2022,

[9], Russian Foreign Ministry: Trilateral agreements are considered by the Russian Federation as a basis for the normalization of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, April 2022,

[10] OSCE, Joint Statement by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair Countries, December 2021,

[11] International Crisis Group, New Opportunities for Crisis Mediation in Nagorno-Karabakh, May 2022,

[12] Thomas de Waal, Brussels takes the initiative in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations, Analyticon, May 2022,

[13] Mariam Nikuradze, Armenia and Azerbaijan agree to bilateral commission in Sochi, OC Media, November 2021,

[14] Maria Zacharova, Russian Foreign Ministry: Trilateral agreements are considered by the Russian Federation as a basis for the normalization of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations,, April 2022,

[15] Tigran Yegavian, The French Presidential Election and the Armenian Question, EVN Report, April 2022,

[16] Ani Meljumyan, French far-right candidate seeks votes in Armenia, Eurasianet, December 2021,; Marine Le Pen, Twitter Post, Twitter, May 2021,; Siranush Ghazanchyan, Marine Le Pen says Artsakh Reunion with Armenia Desirable, Public Radio of Armenia, April 2017,

[17] Azatutyun, Another French Presidential Candidate visits Armenia, December 2021,; Asbarez, French Presidential Candidate Visits Artsakh; Baku adds her on Black List, December 2021,

[18] Civil, Moscow says Abhazia, S. Ossetia Shall be less dependent on Russia, March 2022,; The Kyiv Independent, Ukrainian Armed Forces: Russia plans transfer of troops from Armenia, March 2022,

[19] International Crisis Group, Nagorno-Karabakh: Seeking a Path to Peace in the Ukraine’s War Shadow, Crisis Group Europe Briefing No. 93, April 1993,

[20] Arka News Agency, Armenia sees Karabakh conflict settlement in OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmanship format – Mirzoyan, April 2022,

[21] Azatutyun, Armenia Abstains from UN Vote on Ukraine, March 2022,; Naira Nalbadian, Russia Again not Backed by Armenia on UN Vote on Ukraine, Azatutyun, April 2022,

[22] Haber Global, Ermenistan’in SU-20 Yalani Ortaya Cikti! Iste Uydu Goruntuleri, YouTube, April 2022,

[23] Siranush Ghazanchyan, UL-450: Armenian company presents new drones, Public Radio of Armenia, March 2022, Also see: Inder Singh Bisht, Armenian-Made Kamikaze Drones Undergoing Tests, The Defence Post, February 2021,

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