The latest talks between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict show some promise. An official statement issued after the June 20 meeting, held in St. Petersburg and mediated by Russia, called for more international observers in the conflict zone and noted that all parties involved in the negotiations were satisfied with the existing cease-fire agreement. Still, despite such diplomatic strides toward peace, the issues underlying the conflict remain unresolved.
At the St. Petersburg summit, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, met for the second time since conflict escalated in Nagorno-Karabakh in early April. A mid-May meeting in Vienna, mediated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, had already produced an agreement to reduce cease-fire violations along the line of contact. That agreement has actually proved effective, but Armenia and Azerbaijan still remain fundamentally at odds over the disputed territory. On May 31, the co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Minsk Group, along with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, arranged the June 20 discussions mediated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the meeting, Sarkisian and Aliyev expressed a mutual desire to resolve the conflict and agreed to continue their high-level meetings over Nagorno-Karabakh on a monthly basis.
Nonetheless, the meetings probably do not portend an imminent breakthrough in the long-standing disagreement. Despite the leaders' pacific promises, Armenia wants to maintain its de facto political control of the region, while Azerbaijan, in whose borders the contested territory falls, wants to challenge it. By reviving the dormant dispute in April, Azerbaijan brought it back to the world's attention. Although the renewed fighting won Baku relatively little territory, it heated up a frozen conflict and intensified the diplomatic mediation process surrounding it.
Russia's position in the conflict adds another complication. Russia, though strategically aligned with Armenia, has pursed closer ties with Azerbaijan in recent months and did not intervene in the April escalation on Armenia's behalf. Indeed, Moscow has sided with neither country in the dispute, devoting itself instead to negotiations to resolve it. Russia's apparent objective is to shape Nagorno-Karabakh into a manageable crisis, in which Moscow can preside as arbiter over a conflict that simmers without boiling over. The strategy serves a dual function, at once curbing the influence of other external powers — namely Turkey and the West — and reaffirming Moscow's importance to Armenia and Azerbaijan.
So far, the intensified mediation efforts have worked. Cease-fire violations have declined, and the fighting has been contained. But this relative peace is not guaranteed to last. Though the negotiations have bought some time and breathing room, Azerbaijan may grow impatient if it feels that the talks are dragging on to no avail. Unless the peace talks can bridge the strategic divide over the disputed territory, there will still be potential for further violence in the region.