Lawrence Sheets, Crisis Group's South Caucasus Project Director, discusses the risks of renewed war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. 5:03
Armenia and Azerbaijan last fought over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994, but in recent months a stalled peace process and heated rhetoric have increased the chances of a return to armed conflict. I spoke earlier with Lawrence Sheets, Crisis Group’s South Caucasus Project Director, about what a return to war would mean for the region.
What is driving this recent escalation?
There were great hopes that the summit hosted in Kazan, Russia, in June of this year by President Medvedev of Russia, which included the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, could lead to a breakthrough after 17 years of talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh question. Unfortunately, we've not seen a breakthrough, and the ongoing Minsk Group peace process over the last 17 years has slowed down dramatically. In addition, you have what is essentially an arms race between the various sides, bellicose rhetoric, ongoing military contingency plans, ongoing military contingencies, and all this has raised the temperature between the various sides.
Armenia and Azerbaijan last actively warred in 1994, not counting ongoing skirmishes. Would you say that this is a frozen conflict, or have the dynamics on either side changed?
I think the term frozen conflict is a dangerous one, because it leads to the illusion that this conflict has gone away or is somehow not dangerous anymore. In fact, frozen conflicts, as we've seen in Georgia in 2008, can be lethal in that over a long period of time, international actors and the sides themselves become complacent. And the word frozen leads to this complacency.
In actually since 1994, there have been ongoing skirmishes and periodic hostilities. Those have escalated in terms of their intensity over the past year or two. Whereas before we saw incidents which seemed to be limited to small arms fire and skirmishes along the line of contact, this year we've actually seen artillery used, we've seen official-type statements, and more sophisticated operations from both sides being carried out. All of these things carry the risk of boiling over or turning into a more organized, systematic and wide-scale set of hostilities.
In the event of a renewed outbreak of widespread violence between these two states, how would you expect regional powers like Turkey, Iran or Russia to respond?
Our apprehension is that any new conflict would not simply be a conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. It could turn into a conflict involving regional actors. For one thing, this is because of the existence of security obligations between, on the one hand, the Russian Federation and Armenia, and on the other hand, Turkey and Azerbaijan, which cooperate closely on military and security matters. Iran, of course, shares a long border with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It’s unpredictable as to what extent or how Iran could become involved, but obviously a conflict on its borders would be hard for Iran to totally ignore.
So all this becomes very unpredictable, and any large-scale renewed hostilities would certainly lead to the conclusion or the possibility that it could involve regional actors, and turn into a region-wide conflict. Keep in mind that the two sides have far more weaponry than they did in 1994, both offensive and defensive. One cannot escape the conclusion that this could be some kind of regional conflagration. And this is the point which we've been trying to emphasize.
What steps need to take place now to calm the current tensions, and going further, what does a permanent solution to this problem look like?
The international community and countries which have been involved in the peace process need to make sure the two sides take a calm approach to the situation on the ground, which is very fluid, which could be destabilized at any time. Having said that, the status quo, with a significant portion of Azeri lands occupied by Armenian forces, is not sustainable in the long run. So in addition to short term steps to stabilize the situation, we need to be looking at various alternatives and how to move forward without disturbing the process that has been going on for 17 years. So if that means stepping out of the box a bit and looking at alternatives which haven't been put forward previously, new approaches, this is what we have to do. The status quo as it is now is not sustainable in the long run.
Edited for print