U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to step up joint efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict when they spoke by phone late on Wednesday.
The two men reportedly discussed in detail the outcome of the most recent meeting of Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s presidents that was hosted by Putin in Saint Petersburg on June 20.
“President Obama expressed his readiness to intensify efforts together with Russia and with France, as co-Chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group, to achieve a comprehensive settlement to the conflict,” the White House said in a readout of the conversation.
A separate statement by the Kremlin said Putin, who initiated the talk, briefed Obama on the Saint Petersburg summit aimed at “stabilizing the situation in the conflict zone and creating conditions for advancing the peace process.”
“They agreed to continue joint active work within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group in this important direction,” read the statement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also discussed the Karabakh negotiation process in a weekend phone call. Kerry held separate phone talks with Presidents Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev on Friday.
Sarkisian and Aliyev met in Saint Petersburg for a second time since the April 2-5 hostilities around Karabakh that marked the worst escalation of the conflict since 1994. In a joint statement with Putin, they again pledged to bolster the shaky ceasefire regime in the conflict zone.
The trilateral statement also said that the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders reached an “understanding on a number of issues solutions to which would help to create conditions for progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.” It did not elaborate.
A senior aide to Aliyev claimed afterwards that the two sides agreed “in principle” on a phased settlement involving significant Armenian territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. Both Armenia and Russia flatly denied the claim.
The denials did not stop speculation by Armenian media and observers critical of Sarkisian that Moscow is now pushing hard for a compromise peace deal in an effort to avert an all-out Armenian-Azerbaijani war for Karabakh. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman was at pains to insist on Monday Moscow is coordinating its peace efforts with the United States and France, the two other co-chairs of the Minsk Group.
Incidentally, French President Francois Hollande discussed the Karabakh dispute with Putin on June 30 after it emerged that Paris has offered to host the next Aliyev-Sarkisian meeting. No possible dates for the summit have been mentioned by the conflicting parties or the Minsk Group co-chairs yet.
Over the past decade the U.S., Russian and French have proposed peace plans envisaging restoration of Azerbaijani control over virtually all districts around Karabakh that were fully or partly occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces during the 1991-1994 war. A gradual Armenian withdrawal from those districts would be followed by an internationally recognized referendum in which Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would be able to reaffirm the territory’s secession from Azerbaijan.
It is not yet clear whether the mediators have made significant changes in these so-called Madrid Principles of a peaceful settlement after the April fighting in Karabakh.
Aliyev said on June 25 that Karabakh could only be granted the status of an autonomous Azerbaijani region as a result of the peace process. Yerevan denounced that statement, accusing Baku of misrepresenting “the essence of the negotiation process.”