Russian President Vladimir Putin will host talks with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan on Monday, as Moscow seeks to reassert its role as a key powerbroker between the Caucasus arch-foes.
The talks in the southern Russian city of Sochi will be held amid growing Western engagement in the volatile Caucasus region, where Russia — distracted by its war in Ukraine — is visibly losing influence after decades of domination.
The initiative comes a month after the worst clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan since their war in 2020.
The offices of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev both said they had arrived in Sochi for the meeting.
The Kremlin said the talks will focus on implementing agreements reached in talks under Russia’s mediation last year and “further steps to strengthen stability and security” in the region.
Putin first held a face-to-face meeting with Pashinyan and was set to meet later Aliyev separately, before the three congregate for trilateral talks, Moscow said.
“The most important is to ensure peace and create conditions for development,” he told Pashinyan.
“I do hope very much, that we will be able today to make steps towards (the Karabakh conflict’s) settlement.”
Pashinyan said Yerevan’s priorities included Azerbaijani withdrawal from the areas in Karabakh controlled by Russian peacekeepers and the liberation of Armenian POWs.
“I thank you for the efforts you are making to establish peace, stability and security.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars — in 2020 and in the 1990s — over Azerbaijan’s Armenian populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
A six-week war in autumn 2020 which claimed the lives of more than 6,500 troops on both sides ended with a Russian-brokered deal that saw Yerevan cede swathes of territory that it had controlled for several decades.
Last month, 286 people from both sides were killed in clashes that have jeopardised a slow and halting peace process.
The hostilities ended with a US-brokered ceasefire, after earlier failed attempts by Russia to negotiate a truce.
With Moscow increasingly isolated on the world stage following its February invasion of Ukraine, the US and the EU have taken a leading role in mediating the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace talks.
EU chief Charles Michel and French President Emmanuel Macron hosted talks between Pashinyan and Aliyev in Brussels in August.
Following a slew of diplomatic efforts from Brussels and Washington, Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers met on October 3 in Geneva to begin drafting the text of a future peace treaty.
Russia and EU leaders have traded criticism of their mediation efforts in the Karabakh conflict, with Moscow and Paris in particular exchanging jabs this month.
Putin recently dismissed a comment by Macron who said that Moscow was “destabilising” a peace process between the two countries.
Moscow has traditionally acted as a middle-man between the two countries, which were both part of the Soviet Union.
– Russian peacekeepers –
The 2020 ceasefire agreement saw Russia deploy a force of 2,000 peacekeepers to the region to oversee a fragile truce.
Ahead of the talks, Armenia’s Pashinyan said he was ready to extend their presence by up to another two decades.
The EU has announced a “civilian EU mission” to Armenia to monitor ceasefire violations.
Aliyev has vowed to repopulate Karabakh with Azerbaijanis and recently re-opened an airport in the conquered territories.
Baku’s ally Turkey has also advanced its efforts to be involved in mediation, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meeting both Aliyev and Pashinyan recently in Prague.
The Kremlin said the trio would also discuss “questions on rebuilding and developing trade and economic as well as transport links.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan. The ensuing conflict claimed around 30,000 lives.