Russia open to return of occupied Azeri land by Armenia

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 around 5,000 people and displaced tens of thousands.

Armenia seized the mountainous region Nagorno-Karabakh region — which lies inside Azerbaijan but populated by ethnic Armenians — and a large amount of surrounding territory in a war that ended in 1994. The UN recognises 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,” Mr 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, but struggled to make gains in the mountainous areas further north.

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.

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin says both sides must find a balance of interests © Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin/Reuters

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 US 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 criticised 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.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a phone call with Mr Putin on Tuesday. Speaking afterwards, he said that 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.”

The Turkish president, who spoke by phone with Mr Aliyev on Thursday, said that he had also set out his “red lines” to Mr Putin and stressed that Ankara wouldn’t hesitate to respond if these were crossed. He gave no further detail, but Ankara has repeatedly called for Armenia to withdraw from what it says are occupied Armenian lands.

Mr Putin on Thursday said that “Turkey and a number of European states” should work together to find a consensus.

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