Back in mid-October, Samuel Charap and Andrew Kuchins published a thoughtful op/ed piece in the International Herald Tribune entitled “Russia’s Peace Offensive,” which argued that there were signs that Dmitry Medvedev was striving for a more cooperative tone during his speech at Evian, signaling the beginning of a campaign to thaw the recent freeze in relations with the West. Perhaps somewhat preemptively, the authors conclude “Now that the Russians have apparently realized that their national interests lie in greater cooperation, and not confrontation, with the West, it is time to reach out to the Russians.” I have some nitpicking problems with this breezy reasoning about what Russia realizes and doesn’t realize, but Charap and Kuchins were certainly right about one thing: the Kremlin would very much like to play good cop for a while to ease the reputational damage caused by the war in Georgia and pay down their yawning legitimacy deficit, which has grown extremely painful during the crushing economic crisis.
Such was the reasoning behind Russia’s sudden financial altruism to countries such as Iceland (although the final loan deal was delayed, talks continue), and renewed efforts to bolster its role as a regional leader.In addition to cooperating with the Sarkozy plan in Georgia and leading the charge to form a gas cartel, Moscow has also been focusing on solving the Nagorno-Karabakh frozen conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia – proving to the outside world (and to foreign investors) that it is capable of resolving conflicts in the Caucasus without the military.Russia’s attempt to assume the mantle of international diplomatic mediator is awkward to say the least, especially when they are more used to simply thwarting the attempts of other mediators. But so far their handling of the sensitive Nagorno-Karabakh issue appears to be going reasonably well, although the critical breakthrough has not yet been procured. (A good background on this breakaway republic can be found at the ICG).Firstly, as opposed to their last Caucasian adventure, which some say was a reminder of the very high costs of acting independently in an interdependent world, Moscow was very keen to make good PR out of this timely intervention (they hadn’t shown much interest in dealing with the problem up until now). The goal was to prove that a) they would work within international legal frameworks, and b) involve the participation of other regional partners.The fact that Medvedev succeeded in getting both Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev to come to Meiendorf and sign a symbolic agreement is not really the point … the document was apparently about as meaningful as the FIFA qualifying match between the two countries.What counts is that the Russians are handling the diplomacy over the dispute in a mature and transparent manner, promising to reinforce the agreed proposals drafted by the OSCE Minsk Group effort, and lastly and most importantly, involving NATO member Turkey to possibly play a major role.Oddly, it is Ankara that is becoming a major player in the Black Sea region following the war in Georgia, and seizing every opportunity it can with the Russians to be delegated more responsibilities that Moscow would rather have them handle than Washington. Just today the Turkish government threw its weight behind the “agreement” (or more aptly, the agreement to continue talking about an agreement), and President Abdullah Gul hosted a rather positive Azeri President Aliyev, who expressed interest in joining the Turkish designed “Caucasian Cooperation and Stability Platform.”Russia efforts to be more constructive are getting noticed – even Matt Bryza has agreed that thanks to Russia, things are going in the right direction. Somewhere deep in a Pentagon basement, the political credit counter just bumped up one point.The Armenians aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the way things are going, and in a rare moment of veiled criticism of the Kremlin, they indicated that this altruism to solve the conflict may be somewhat insincere, and motivated by outside objectives: “After what happened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia Russia wanted to show that it can behave constructively in other cases,” said Aleksandr Iskandarian of the Caucasus Media Institute to EurasiaNet.Similarly, Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, told the Moscow Times that “The fact that Medvedev (presided over the talks) just means that both sides accept Russia as mediator. Russia needed an urgent rehabilitation as peacekeeper in the region.“Although Malashenko appears to doubt that Moscow’s support for Armenia could be softening, I am inclined to disagree. I see Baku in a special moment right now, adroitly seizing advantage of Moscow’s legitimacy deficit and thirst for energy monopoly, using these final months before the next U.S. administration is inaugurated to extract the maximum concessions from the Kremlin. This is a trend we first saw expressed when Dick Cheney, the first U.S. Vice President to ever visit Azerbaijan, was humiliated and not even greeted at the airport. As Andris Piebalgs of the European Commission makes his tour through Turkey to drum up support for the Gazprom monopoly-busting Nabucco pipeline, President Aliyev is enjoying a significant amount of leverage with Moscow, and may be tempted to use it to force a favorable outcome on Yerevan.Of course, the cost of such a move would be nothing less than a total commitment to an alliance with Russia (likely selling 100% of its natural gas to Gazprom), which would sacrifice the carefully balanced swing position that Baku has perfected to best protect its national interests.Furthermore, there remains the open question of whether or not Russia would be willing leave Armenia helpless and friendless yet again, which is probably the price tag of delivering the Azeri-preferred solution on Nagorno-Karabakh. It is likely that Moscow is aware of the immense headaches the Armenians can cause in foreign capitals with their lobbying efforts … just ask Turkey.