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Armenian and Azerbaijani diplomats to start first talks since outbreak of war

The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan have flown to Moscow to meet their Russian counterpart in the first diplomatic talks between the two sides since heavy fighting broke out nearly two weeks ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on October 8 that he had spoken with both countries’ leaders – Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev – that day. And following those talks he invited the foreign ministers to discuss “a cessation of hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone for humanitarian reasons to exchange prisoners and the bodies of killed soldiers.”

AFP then cited unnamed French sources as saying that “Karabakh warring parties heading ‘towards a truce’ Friday or Saturday.”

The two foreign ministers, Jeyhun Bayramov of Azerbaijan and Zohrab Mnatsakanyan of Armenia, were to meet with Russia’s Sergey Lavrov; a meeting with Putin was not planned, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov said. Asked about the AFP report, Peskov said “we can’t yet say anything in this regard.”

The high-level diplomacy and the prospect of even a limited break in the fighting were the first respite in the 13-day-old war, which has already killed unknown hundreds in the worst violence since Armenians and Azerbaijanis signed a ceasefire in 1994.

The Armenian side sought to play down expectations for the meeting, emphasizing that the agenda was “exclusively” focused on the exchange of bodies and prisoners.

Azerbaijan sounded a more encouraging note. OC Media reported that Hikmet Hajiyev, Aliyev’s senior foreign policy adviser, told Turkish television that the meeting would be “the first contact” and that through ongoing discussions it would be possible “to come to a resolution of the conflict,” although “everything will depend on the discussions.”

Azerbaijan has previously been demanding a full Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijani territory before it would agree to a ceasefire, and there was no indication that that had changed.

Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, predicted that “no substantial talks will be still in sight for a long time” unless international mediators could put forth proposals that would satisfy Azerbaijan’s demands, including a return of the Azerbaijanis displaced by the 1990s conflict to their homes. “Even if [a] ceasefire becomes somehow possible in the coming days, there will be another outbreak of fighting in several days,” he tweeted.

Curiously, just ahead of the talks there was a spate of articles in government-controlled media portraying Pashinyan as having been outmaneuvered by Aliyev, “begging” for peace talks and being ready to surrender territory. Given that Armenia is certainly not going to give up lands at this point, it’s not clear what kind of game the media were playing by raising such expectations.

Even as prospects for the talks remained modest, the fact that they were happening under Russian mediation underscored the dominant role that Moscow still plays in the region.

Russia considers the South Caucasus to be its strategic backyard and sphere of influence, and over the years it has been the international player by far the most deeply involved in the conflict and the attempts to resolve it.

But in these nearly two weeks of fighting, Moscow’s relative disengagement from the conflict had been conspicuous.

Turkey’s aggressive entry into the conflict on the side of its ally, Azerbaijan, raised the prospect of a counter move by Russia, Turkey’s regional rival and a treaty ally of Armenia.

But Russia has held back. It took Putin more than a week to comment on the outbreak of fighting, and when he did so it was in measured terms. In particular, he called attention to the fact that Russia’s obligations to defend Armenia, under the Collective Security Treaty Organization, only would be activated if Armenia itself came under attack. Thus far, the fighting has been limited to Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories, all of which are internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

“We have certain obligations as part of this treaty,” Putin told TV network Rossiya 24, the Moscow Times reported. “Russia has always honored and will continue to honor its commitments.”

“It is deeply regrettable that the hostilities continue, but they are not taking place on Armenian territory,” Putin said.

Meanwhile, other potential mediators have been falling by the wayside. Along with Russia, the two parties in the Minsk Group of the OSCE, the diplomatic body that has been mediating the talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan for nearly three decades, are the United States and France.

The United States has evinced very little high-level interest in the new war. And Azerbaijan has turned against France following comments by French President Emmanuel Macron criticizing Turkey’s involvement in the conflict and appearing to back Armenia. “I say to Armenia and to the Armenians, France will play its role,” he said on September 30.

That resulted in a firestorm of criticism of France from Azerbaijan and suggestions that Paris could no longer be an honest broker between the two sides. “France is already excluding itself from this equal trio [the Minsk Group], and we cannot remain silent about it,” Aliyev told Turkish television.

“Putin’s ceasefire demand comes at a critical moment. With his swift summons, the Russian leader has emerged as the Grandmaster of the Caucasus, diplomatically isolating his Turkish opponent,” wrote Yerevan-based analyst Richard Giragosian in an analysis for Asia Times.

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