Azerbaijan and Armenia Swap Military Detainees and Land-Mine Maps
Despite many tense months since their November 2020 ceasefire, Armenia and Azerbaijan have made progress towards resolving a thorny diplomatic impasse. On June 12, Azerbaijan released 15 Armenian military detainees while Armenia provided a map detailing the location of 97,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel land mines in the Agdam region of Azerbaijan, which borders Nagorno-Karabakh. According to a statement by the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, the detained Armenians were “handed over to Armenia on the Azerbaijani-Georgian border with the participation of Georgian representatives.” That same day, Armenia’s acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan posted an image on Facebook of the detainees on a bus captioned “our 15 brothers are coming back.” However, on June 13, Pashinyan said that the maps given in the exchange were only a small portion of the minefield maps.
Land mines and military detainees have been highly contentious issues since the Russian-brokered ceasefire in November. Armenia claims that about 200 Armenian soldiers and civilians are detained by Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijan claims that detainees number around 60 and consist only of soldiers who entered Azerbaijani territory after the ceasefire agreement. Armenia and the ethnic Armenian authorities who still control Stepanakert/Khankendi have unofficially denied the existence of mine maps and have avoided questions about them in official statements.
This agreement marks the first diplomatic breakthrough after a long period of escalation. Baku’s statement expressed appreciation for the mediating role played by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Reeker, and OSCE and European Union officials. The agreement signals Azerbaijan and Armenia’s ability to come to agreements with the mediation of regional and Western powers.
Blinken reiterated the United States’ willingness to mediate in the future, stating, “we continue to call for the return of all detainees and stand ready to assist the countries of the region in their efforts to continue cooperation and resolve outstanding issues between them.” Blinken also expressed his gratitude to the Georgian government “for its vital role facilitating discussions between the sides.” Garibashvili said that he was proud of the role that Georgia played in coordinating with the United States to serve as a mediator, adding that this agreement was an “important step toward improved security” in the region.
Russia has played the main role of mediator since it brokered a ceasefire in November and remains the primary mediating force with peacekeepers on the ground and a joint Russian-Turkish military facility located in the Agdam region. However, Azerbaijanis have come to see Moscow as too sympathetic to Armenia and the self-proclaimed ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, Armenians are dissatisfied with Moscow’s actions — or lack thereof — in the face of perceived Azerbaijani pressure and despite Armenia’s security arrangements with Moscow. While Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called the detainee deal “long-awaited and wonderful,” stating “we welcome such steps by both sides” on her Telegram channel, Russia’s absence in this negotiation is noticeable. Although Armenia had previously called on the Russian-led CSTO to mediate a border dispute based on an alleged Azerbaijani incursion onto Armenian territory, the exchange of land mine maps and detainees as a result of U.S.-Georgian-European mediation demonstrates success in Western-led negotiations implemented by the regional mediator.
The fact that the United States played a key role in this swap of detainees and land-mine maps should help to dispel the recent perception that “the United States is absent from the region.” While that was never true, perception too often becomes seen as reality. Further, a visible U.S. (and European) role will add welcome balance for the three post-Soviet states of the region – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia – that have worked hard since their independence to maintain a multi-vector foreign policy.
Photo Source: AFP.