MOSCOW (Dispatches) -- Russia is open to the return of Azerbaijani territory occupied by Armenian forces as a means to help solve a long-running conflict between the two countries that erupted into war last month.
The handover of the land surrounding the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has been a central element of long-stalled peace negotiations, but Russian president Vladimir Putin’s reiteration comes at a moment of intense diplomatic efforts to pause the fighting, which has killed about 5,000 people and displaced tens of thousands.
Armenia seized the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region — which lies inside Azerbaijan but is populated by ethnic Armenians — and a large amount of surrounding territory in a war that ended in 1994. The UN recognizes the land as belonging to Azerbaijan.
"It should be said that our position is absolutely open with regard to the possibility of handing over these five plus two [surrounding] districts to Azerbaijan, alongside the provision of a specific regime for the Karabakh zone and the securing of a link with Armenia,” Putin said on Thursday.
"[We must] find a balance of interests that would suit both sides: the interests of both the Azerbaijani people, whom we treat with unwavering respect, and the Armenian people should be taken into account,” he added. "Each side has its own truth. There are no simple solutions.”
In a little over a month of fighting, Azeri forces have taken control of a large proportion of the mainly flat and sparsely populated territory south of Nagorno-Karabakh.
A return to Azerbaijan of the surrounding territories was first agreed in 2007 under the so-called Madrid Principles, in exchange for a self-governed Nagorno-Karabakh with a corridor linking the region to Armenia.
But Baku has accused Yerevan of failing to engage in talks over implementing those principles, forcing it to take military action, while also stating that it seeks the return of all the land captured by Armenia.
Russia, the U.S. and France have led efforts to pause the fighting, but three attempted ceasefires have failed to hold. Moscow, the traditional powerbroker in the Caucasus region, has sought to remain neutral in the conflict between the two former Soviet states but is wary of the rising regional clout of Turkey, which backs Azerbaijan.
Turkey, which has supplied armed drones and offered strong political support to its "brother country” Azerbaijan, has criticized previous efforts to reach a truce. Ankara has insisted that it must play a role in negotiations — a stance echoed by Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a phone call with Putin on Tuesday. Speaking afterwards, he said he had urged the Russian leader to work with Turkey on a joint solution to the crisis. "I said: ‘You talk with [Armenian prime minister Nikol] Pashinyan, I’ll talk with my brother Ilham [Aliyev] . . . We are sincere. I believe that you are too.”
Erdogan, who spoke by phone with Aliyev on Thursday, said he had also set out his "red lines” to Putin and stressed that Ankara would not hesitate to respond if these were crossed. He gave no further detail, but Ankara has repeatedly called for Armenia to withdraw from occupied Azerbaijani lands.
Putin on Thursday said "Turkey and a number of European states” should work together to find a consensus.
Iran, Russia Share Common Approach
Iran, the other regional power, also put forward an initiative to bring peace to the disputed region, as all former peace efforts in Karabakh have so far ended in failure.
On a regional tour on Thursday, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi paid visits to Moscow, Baku and Yerevan to present Tehran’s proposal
He said the proposal is based on humanitarian principles and attention to the demands of the warring parties.
Araghchi met his Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov in Moscow, after a meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister for Central Asia and Caucasus Andrei Rudenko.
"Today in Moscow,” Araghci said in a tweet, "I had a useful meeting and proposed the Iran initiative.”
"Iran and Russia share common approaches toward the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” he added.
Prior to his visit to Moscow, Aragchi met Azeri officials in Baku and later left the Azeri capital for Yerevan, where he said he had very intensive and useful talks in Baku and Moscow.
Earlier this month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif informed his Azeri counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov of the nature of a proposal by Tehran for resolution of the long-drawn-out conflict.
According to Zarif, the proposal
foresees the Islamic Republic, Turkey, and Russia forming a trio that would boost a standing Minsk Group that has failed to resolve the territorial dispute. The Minsk Group that already comprises Russia, the United States, and France was formed after the 1992 Armenian invasion.
Tehran has repeatedly warned since late September that it would not tolerate even accidental violation of its sovereignty as a result of the escalation.