The shift away from the U.S.-backed rules-based world order has heightened discussions of geopolitical rivalry in Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Across this broad landmass, assertive regional and rising global powers have stepped into the vacuum created by U.S. retrenchment. Some of these rising powers have shown a clear capacity for mischief, as in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, or Yemen, where geopolitical agendas have fueled proxy wars. But rival powers have also managed to advance functional diplomacy that resulted in peace agreements, like the international effort that ended the Bosnian war in 1995 or Moscow’s brokering of a ceasefire in Tajikistan in 1997.

Some now hope that Russia’s post-2020 efforts to mediate and play a peacekeeping role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can enhance regional stability and dissipate geopolitical tension in the Caucasus. Yet Russia’s positive diplomatic role in stopping the bloodshed and securing the peace there coincides with its military buildup around Ukraine. What do Russia’s divergent approaches—mediation versus militarization—say about the prospects of stability in Eurasia at such turbulent times?

Reasserting Influence

Indeed, nowhere are these conflicting trends more explicit than on the Eurasian continent, which has a deep imperial history of great power rivalries and a string of armed conflicts. Post-Soviet Russia in particular has increasingly shown a desire to shore up its global and regional influence, using a broad toolkit that consists of coercion, diplomacy, investment and trade ties, and soft power projection. Russia remains keen to push back on perceived encroachments by regional powers, including Europe, Turkey, and the United States. Eurasia is also riven with a series of regional or internal conflicts in which Russia has chosen to intervene either as a potential force for stabilization (the Tajik civil war, or the brokering of a presidential transition from Eduard Shevardnadze to Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia), or by further escalating tensions (Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine), albeit with the common goal of reasserting its influence. “Mediate or militarize” has emerged as a key choice for the Kremlin when it senses vulnerability in its neighborhood.

In two of the most recent crises in the region, Russia has opted for divergent approaches. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, in which outside power Turkey provided ample military support to Azerbaijan (drones, military advisers, and mercenaries), Russia stepped in as a mediator to stop the violence and blunt Ankara’s encroachment into the region. Russia’s large military footprint in Armenia likely also contributed to Azerbaijan’s eventual willingness to end the war. In Ukraine, Moscow has taken an outright militarized approach since 2014, first by seizing Crimea and then by building a conflict using anti-Kyiv protesters in Donbas. Most recently, its military buildup in Eastern Europe suggests it is willing to use coercion either to get a better deal in the negotiations over Donbas, or to push for a new security order in Europe. The two conflicts could not be more different in origin, history, or the role that Russia plays. But they highlight the perils and the promise of heightened great power rivalry in Eurasia and the region’s ability to resolve long-standing security issues.

Mediation in the Caucasus

Predating the Soviet Union, this largely intercommunal and local ethnic-national conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in and around Nagorno-Karabakh expanded over the decades following the twilight of the Soviet Union. A majority-Armenian enclave within Soviet Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed. Ethnic Armenians gained control over the enclave and several neighboring regions in the 1990s. For most of the past three decades, a status quo of “no peace, no war” brought an often false notion of stability to a region where Russia, France, and the United States jointly tried to mediate and manage the conflict. Even though Russia was formally part of the long-standing mediation effort, it still served as a destabilizing force by supplying arms to both sides. Violence was always a possibility, and led to frequent skirmishes between the sides: a four-day war in 2016 and another brief clash in the summer of 2020, shortly before the longer, forty-four-day Azerbaijani offensive war the same year. That conflict had an explicit geopolitical dimension, with Turkish military backing of Azerbaijan increasing Ankara’s footprint in the Caucasus and Black Sea Region, an area Moscow sees as part of its privileged sphere of interest.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia avoided a confrontation with Turkey, a NATO member, despite the latter’s supply of Bayraktar drones to Azerbaijan, which were widely credited for securing Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia’s Russian-armed military. Throughout the conflict, Moscow tried to deploy a diplomatic mediation strategy, proving occasional rhetorical support for Yerevan, and avoiding any direct clash with Ankara or Baku. It eventually brokered a peace agreement on November 9, 2020, with the quiet acquiescence of both Paris and Washington.

Russia’s wait-and-see approach, coupled with pacifying messages to all parties during the 2020 war, was strategically wise for Moscow, enabling it to consolidate its role as the sole impactful security broker between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It did so in a way that made it difficult for the international community, particularly its geopolitical rivals in Europe and the United States, to object. Furthermore, Moscow used its influence over both Armenia and Azerbaijan to insert Russian peacekeepers between the two sides, a long-standing goal that minimized Turkey’s role on the ground and in future mediation efforts without outright antagonizing Ankara. For Russia as a regional hegemon, neutrality or equidistance in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict delivered global dividends in improving its image, carefully managing its relationship with Turkey, and reasserting itself as the power with the most leverage over both Baku and Yerevan.

Militarization in Ukraine

In Ukraine, Russia’s response to geopolitical competition has been to hit back, both at Ukraine and the West, whose growing engagement in the region Moscow views as a threat. Russia declared Ukraine’s security engagement with the West and aspirations for NATO membership as a nonstarter in the mid-2000s, communicating that clearly to both the Ukrainian and NATO leaderships. Yet in 2013–2014, Moscow shifted those redlines from Ukraine’s NATO aspirations to curtailing Kyiv’s desire for closer economic or political ties with Europe, a decision that led to the rapid deterioration of East-West relations and Russian intervention in Ukraine. Since then, Moscow has used a military approach to complicate Ukraine’s political evolution, stymie its prospects for integration into European structures, and try to force it and the West to make concessions.

Russia has at times tried to insert itself as a mediator in the Ukraine conflict, yet that has been complicated by it being a party to the conflict, especially in the eyes of Ukrainians. While both sides signed the Minsk Agreement, Ukraine insists on the pullout of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory before any implementation can take place, and refuses to negotiate with the separatists in the Donbas region. Despite campaigning on a peace agenda, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has struggled to muster the domestic political support needed to overcome the deadlock over the issue of a special status for Donetsk and Luhansk, as negotiated with Russia in the Minsk Agreement. Moscow has shown a willingness to talk and engage in diplomacy, but not to meet Ukraine even partway. Instead, it is using overt coercion to jump-start its desired diplomatic process, one which could lead to a special status for Donetsk and Luhansk without demilitarization.

Ukraine’s Western partners likewise reject Russia as a mediator. Russian attempts to broker a solution directly with the United States over Ukraine and its concerns over the post–Cold War European security order have gone nowhere under three successive U.S. presidents. The West refuses to revisit the Charter of Paris, which formalized the rights of all states—including small states—to determine their foreign policy, a document Moscow signed in 1990. Russia’s alienation of the Ukrainian people and the West since 2014 has left it few options to try to assert its interests in Eastern Europe beyond militarization. Its coercive approach in Ukraine also sends a message to its other former Soviet neighbors to be wary of engaging too closely with outside powers, especially the West. It is a message that most of them will probably heed, although it does little to improve Russia’s soft power image in the region.

Peace in Eurasia?

While successful in stopping the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, Russia has had more difficulty in managing the crucial post-war transition. Moscow is either unwilling or unable to implement the very agreement it brokered, despite the presence of peacekeepers on the ground. In fact, disputes over resources and clashes along the Soviet-era border between the two countries (i.e., not in any disputed territory) became a regular occurrence in 2020, culminating with a large-scale Azerbaijani offensive on November 16, 2021. Instead of coming to the aid of its formal ally Armenia and fulfilling its treaty obligations, Russia simply stood back, likely aware an overt effort to help Yerevan would reduce the leverage it has gained in Baku since brokering the 2020 ceasefire. Having reasserted its influence via mediation, Russia today is struggling to maintain that leverage.  

Baku in fact seems to have learned a lesson from Russia in both Georgia and Ukraine, where Russian forces have used overt coercion and military pressure to seek territorial concessions. In Georgia, Russian troops have moved the administrative boundary line between the breakaway regions and the rest of the country deeper into Tbilisi-held territory, transforming it into a fortified border. Although neither Russian troops nor their proxies have yet crossed into Ukrainian territory again, the military buildup along the border is a similar attempt to use coercion to change facts on the ground.

Russia’s dual approach to resolving regional conflicts continues. Russia-brokered negotiations between Baku and Yerevan are ongoing and have opened up space for the revived participation of Western institutions in mediation diplomacy, a prospect that will further legitimize Moscow’s role in the region. After consolidating its geopolitical position as the key broker in this conflict, Moscow is relatively comfortable cooperating again with Western powers in high-level diplomacy, but has done little to support the bottom-up peacebuilding efforts across conflict lines or to address any remaining humanitarian, legal, and security issues. Its security provision for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh is existential for the population there. Yet cross-conflict peacebuilding work remains elusive. 

In eastern Ukraine, Russia is using its military buildup to force its will onto Kyiv. Russia’s attempt to challenge NATO’s fundamental “open door” policy and undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, and its retrograde insistence on reestablishing nineteenth-century-style “spheres of influence” reduces the chances of a comprehensive security accord. Instead, the prospect of war in Ukraine seems to grow by the day.

For Moscow, opting to mediate or militarize is largely driven by the immediate geopolitical benefits it can accrue in conflict regions, but not necessarily a long-term vision for stability. In Nagorno-Karabakh, it found a way to accommodate Turkey, a rising regional power, and gain legitimacy as a broker, including from its geopolitical rivals in the West. In Ukraine, the West is far more torn between how far to engage and legitimize Russia, a party to the Ukraine conflict and a growing threat to European security. Eurasia needs a modicum of stability. Success on that front is not guaranteed in either the Caucasus or Ukraine, but it looks slightly more promising in the former, where Russia has far more successfully managed geopolitical tensions through mediation, as opposed to coercion.

This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.

By:
  • Anna Ohanyan