Upholding the Ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia
Upholding the Ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia
Firefighters work among the ruins of a house, which is said was hit by Azeri shelling during recent border clashes with Azerbaijan, in the settlement of Sotk, Armenia, on September 14, 2022. Karen MINASYAN / AFP
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia 15 minutes

Upholding the Ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia

A fragile truce concluded on 14 September halted fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia that left hundreds of soldiers dead. In this Q&A, Crisis Group explains what occurred and what needs to happen now to restart the peace process between the two foes.

What happened?

In the early hours of 13 September, fighting broke out along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, killing at least 207 Armenian and 80 Azerbaijani soldiers. This escalation was the deadliest between the two countries since their six-week war in 2020. It erupted at several spots along Armenia’s eastern border with Azerbaijan, spilling into key towns inside Armenia. The ensuing roughly 48 hours of hostilities covered a much larger swathe of territory than in previous years, when fighting was confined to areas in or around the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. That enclave has been at the heart of the conflict between the two sides since the countries gained independence from the crumbling Soviet Union. Azerbaijani forces drove deep into Armenia, with artillery, mortar and drone attacks along a 200km stretch of border. 

By the time the fighting halted with a shaky ceasefire in the evening of 14 September, Yerevan says the Azerbaijani army had taken control of an area inside Armenia measuring at least 10 sq km in what it called acts of “unprovoked aggression”. Baku, backed by Ankara, rejects this characterisation. It
says it took action to prevent the Armenian military from mining supply roads near Azerbaijani army positions on the border – a narrative Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called “a lie”. On 21 September, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev offered additional justifications for the offensive. Because parts of the border have not been demarcated, he said, “no one can claim [with certainty] where the border passes”. He also said: We have been able to show the whole world what we are capable of doing. We have liberated our land by force, and we are proud of that”.

he intensity of the fighting took its toll. Yerevan says four civilians were killed and dozens wounded by shelling at 36 settlements in Armenia’s Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces. More than 2,700 civilians were evacuated from towns and villages there, and the government has cancelled school in many of these areas for fear of renewed fighting.

Videos of the violence posted online ... rekindled anger among both populations, which are still reeling from the 2020 war.

Videos of the violence posted online – which Crisis Group has not verified – rekindled anger among both populations, which are still reeling from the 2020 war that killed an estimated 6,000 people before a Russian-brokered ceasefire took hold. Clips posted by Armenian residents appeared to show damage to Armenian settlements close to the border from Azerbaijani artillery and rocket attacks. Others seem to show Azerbaijani soldiers detaining Armenian counterparts; in one, the Azerbaijanis are seen taking down the Armenian flag at a government building. Most jarring were unverified clips showing the beheaded corpses of Armenian soldiers and, in at least one case, a female soldier’s body naked and mutilated. “There are tens of examples like these”, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan told Crisis Group. Following calls from foreign diplomats for an enquiry, Baku stated its readiness to investigate the allegations.

It is not at all clear whether the ceasefire will hold. The week-old truce was already fraying as this article went to press, with each side accusing the other of firing heavy artillery and Armenia
saying one soldier was wounded in clashes the night of 21 September. On 24 September, Armenia accused Azerbaijani troops of provoking the fighting with an attempt to take over an Armenian military position at the border, while Azerbaijan claimed that three soldiers were wounded in clashes at night on 23 September. In Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, residents shaken by the latest burst of violence braced themselves for what could be coming. Addressing the UN General Assembly on 22 September, Prime Minister Pashinyan warned that the threat of a new offensive remained “very high”. He expressed concern that “Azerbaijan intends to occupy more territories of Armenia”. In Yerevan, rescue workers began the grim task of checking whether bomb shelters were ready for use. Azerbaijan, too, is warning of the ceasefire’s fragility and stressing the need to reach a final peace deal. “For stability to be durable, we need to agree”, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Jeyhun Bayramov, told Crisis Group on 22 September.

What is behind the escalation, and why did it happen now?

Although the primary fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia has shifted geographically, it remains fundamentally linked to a decades-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan lost control of the enclave and neighbouring areas in the early 1990s, but Baku regained part of it and all the adjacent territories in the 2020 war. That war ended with a ceasefire brokered by Russia, whose peacekeepers remain on duty in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. But the 2020 
truce did not settle the territory’s final status or the disposition of the de facto authorities who administer areas held by ethnic Armenians from the city of Stepanakert. Azerbaijan says the only deal it wants is one that begins with unequivocal acceptance by Armenia of Baku’s sovereignty over all territory within its internationally recognised borders, including the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia wants special security provisions and rights for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians.

The last six months have been marked by recurrent outbreaks of hostilities
interspersed with stuttering efforts at peace talks. After fighting flared in March, the European Union (EU) stepped in to mediate, and the parties agreed to April negotiations. Tensions then rose again over the summer, turning into deadly clashes in early August, before subsiding in advance of a late August summit between Armenian and Azerbaijani officials in Brussels (again mediated by the EU). The latter took place amid speculation that the new balance of power on the ground might create the conditions for a durable peace agreement, although no major announcement emerged. On the whole, these prior surges of fighting benefited Azerbaijan, which has been consolidating the military and political advantages it has enjoyed since its victory in 2020. When ceasefires broke down in March and August, Azerbaijani troops were able to take control of strategic sites inside the Nagorno-Karabakh area patrolled by Russian peacekeepers.

In the days and hours running up to the 13 September clashes, Armenia warned that it feared an offensive. Azerbaijan, in turn, spoke of Armenian “provocations”. The scale and ferocity of Azerbaijan’s military action left many observers puzzled, in particular because the EU-led peace process had seemed to be making progress on at least some fronts. At the Brussels summit on 31 August, the two nations’ leaders had agreed that their foreign ministers would meet within one month to work on draft texts of a prospective peace treaty. Baku had publicly expressed satisfaction with the process and Yerevan had explicitly said it was ready to keep going. Then came the flare-up, which went far beyond the border skirmishes the two parties had previously engaged in.

So, why an escalation now? There are several possible contributing factors.

First, Azerbaijan may be taking advantage of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has distracted not just Moscow but also Paris and Washington, the other co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, which until recently was the main sponsor of peace talks. This theory – shared by many in Yerevan – holds that with the co-chairs all looking the other way, Baku has seized the moment to improve the strategic map in its favour and position itself better for a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Consistent with this notion, Azerbaijani media outlets, including
ones close to the government, as well as a prominent Azerbaijani parliamentarian, have called for Azerbaijan to take control of more land along its border with Armenia. Some describe the move they are advocating as defensive, while others appear to see it as additional leverage for negotiations with Armenia.

A pro-government analyst in Baku speculated that President Aliyev wants a peace accord in the next two to three months.

Secondly, Azerbaijan may be in a hurry. A pro-government analyst in Baku speculated that President Aliyev wants a peace accord in the next two to three months. One reason could be that he is looking ahead to the June 2023 Turkish elections and is worried that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – a staunch backer of Baku – may be weakened, thus sapping Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in the negotiations. “Any government in Türkiye will support Azerbaijan, but not every government will protect Azerbaijan’s interests against Russia like Erdoğan does and be independent with respect to the West”, a pro-government analyst in Baku told Crisis Group.

Thirdly, some in Yerevan link the escalation to Azerbaijan’s desire to secure a special land corridor, policed by Russian border guards, through Armenia to the Azerbaijani exclave Nakhchivan. The Russian-brokered ceasefire that ended fighting in 2020 called for opening all transport routes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the roads that connect Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan. The parties’ two leaders were close to reaching an agreement on routes in the spring of 2022, according to Western diplomats familiar with the negotiations. But hopes for a breakthrough on this issue – one that diplomats had seen as one of the easiest to resolve because of the shared economic stake in it – were dashed at the 31 August summit.

Part of the reason for the failure to move forward cooperatively is that Baku has set its goal as reaching a final omnibus peace settlement, meaning it is less interested in resolving discrete bilateral issues ahead of such a deal – even if agreement may be more easily within reach. It may believe that keeping these other issues unresolved makes arriving at a deal on everything at once more pressing. At the same time, it has not foresworn working to achieve these same objectives by force. On 15 September, Armenia’s UN envoy warned of an Azerbaijani offensive that he said would be aimed at capturing enough land for the corridor to Nakhchivan.

Finally, some in Baku say Azerbaijan wants to pressure Armenia to get back control of eight villages that are controlled by Armenia but lie on Azerbaijan's side of the UN-recognised border, which corresponds to the Soviet-era administrative line. For its part, Armenia also has an exclave in Azerbaijan, known as Artvashen and controlled by Baku. “Azerbaijan will try to use [its control of] new areas in Armenian territory as a bargaining chip to get the exclaves back”, a local expert said, adding that the issue has been a priority for Baku since 2020.

How much of a setback are the recent clashes for peace efforts?

Prospects for peace are looking increasingly dim. The difference in power between the two sides appears to be widening, which could set the stage for yet more fighting if Baku decides to press its advantage. As in other recent escalatory cycles, Azerbaijan emerged from the recent hostilities having enhanced its position and demonstrated its battlefield dominance. It is also geopolitically in a strong position, with European powers eager for the energy exports it can offer amid Russian gas cutoffs, and Armenia’s chief protector – Russia – struggling to hold its own in the Ukraine conflict it launched.

This is not lost on the Armenians. The level of force Baku deployed in the recent fighting – coming at a time when it had publicly engaged in and voiced satisfaction with peace talks – has deeply undercut Yerevan’s trust in the negotiations. “Whatever paper we sign, it will become toilet paper in a second and we will still have the war”, a senior official told Crisis Group on 16 September, adding that Armenia would want international guarantees for any peace agreement. “We are in a very bad situation, because no war is good for us. We are not able to fight back”. 

Baku’s growing military dominance may encourage it to take a harder line.

Should the two sides nevertheless return to the table, there will also be new practical and political obstacles to reaching a deal. As a practical matter, the presence of additional Azerbaijani troops in border positions Armenia controlled before the latest escalation will (if they remain) add a new layer of issues to the talks, including difficult efforts to delimit the border between the long-time foes. As a political matter, Baku’s growing military dominance may encourage it to take a harder line, while in Yerevan the fresh anger stirred by the fighting will make any concessions by Prime Minister Pashinyan yet more difficult – potentially even threatening his government.

The challenges that Pashinyan faces have already manifested themselves. When he restated his commitment to making the tough compromises needed in peace talks – even as the fighting raged on 13 and 14 September – people took to the streets in Yerevan and Stepanakert to express their anger. Protest leaders drew parallels to the 2020 war, when, in their view, Armenia’s politicians surrendered after the military had fought fiercely for weeks. Anger still runs deep over the 2020 ceasefire statement, which touched off days of violent unrest, including attacks on the prime minister’s home – almost costing Pashinyan his premiership. 

On the Azerbaijani side, for the first time since the 2020 war, prominent figures publicly questioned the latest clashes, voicing disappointment with the high death toll among Azerbaijani soldiers and what they described as a military incursion into Armenian territory. Such criticism of military operations, however limited, was notable in part because it was almost unheard of in the past – and indeed government supporters quickly mounted a campaign to smear the critics as “traitors”. While there is little reason to believe that these signs of dissent will change Baku’s calculations with respect to peace talks, they do suggest that further cross-border activity may create or surface divisions within Azerbaijan.

How did outside actors respond, and what more can they do in the interest of a diplomatic solution?

The conflict broke out while key mediators from Russia, the U.S. and the EU were visiting the region. But as diplomats fanned out to try to put a lid back on the hostilities, coordination between Moscow and its Western counterparts was less than robust. Whereas the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs (Moscow, Paris and Washington) once worked well together, the group’s loss of status following the 2020 war has hampered its effectiveness, as has friction around Russia’s war in Ukraine. Still, the mediators managed not to undermine each other’s efforts.

Russia took the initial lead but got off to a bumpy start. On 13 September, Moscow announced that it had brokered a ceasefire, but fighting persisted through the next day. It was only after discussion at the UN Security Council – where U.S. and European leaders showed rare unity with Moscow in urging restraint – that Baku and Yerevan issued statements committing to a ceasefire in the evening of 14 September.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken ... brought together the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in a bid to reinforce the fragile ceasefire.

In this process, the diplomatic baton passed to Washington. On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken – who has kept the conflict on the Biden administration’s agenda since the year began – brought together the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in a bid to reinforce the fragile ceasefire. At the 19 September meeting, Blinken stressed that a path remained open for a durable peace through “strong, sustainable diplomatic engagement”. His words were more measured than the note struck by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who as a member of the U.S. legislative branch operates independently of the Biden administration) when she visited Armenia a day earlier, accused Azerbaijan of starting the escalation and drew a strong rebuke from Baku. Still, the U.S. made clear that the next step should be Azerbaijan’s: on 23 September, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan called on Baku to withdraw its troops from the territory of Armenia. On 27 September, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan hosted a meeting of envoys of the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, who previously met several times in Brussels preparing summits at the senior level.

The parties appeared to respond well to Blinken’s call for diplomatic engagement, with both foreign ministers telling Crisis Group they had voiced their readiness to return to the negotiations, despite the outbreak of violence. But while there appears to be an opening for diplomacy, there is still some question about which outside actors will seize it.

Brussels will likely be part of the answer. With the U.S. and France at loggerheads with Russia over Ukraine, the European Union has emerged as the diplomatic lead among the Western actors. The EU has brought the
Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders together four times since the November 2020 ceasefire, and shows every sign of continuing its efforts. Already, it has called for all forces to return to positions held prior to the 13 September escalation, and European Council President Charles Michel has promised that the bloc is committed to its role as “an honest broker”. But while the parties generally have welcomed these efforts, some observers wonder whether Brussels has enough influence over Baku to be effective. A sceptical Western diplomat says the EU’s last effort at leader-level diplomacy in August was largely a failure, in part because Azerbaijan is now demanding peace on its terms alone: “No one sees how to make Aliyev change his mind”.

Whether or not that is the case, if Brussels’ efforts were paired with increased pressure from within the immediate region, they would have the potential to be more effective. Regional powers Russia and Türkiye certainly have some reason to mediate, as they stand to lose from continued instability that impedes their plans for trade and infrastructure development in the South Caucasus. But both have countervailing interests as well.

Because of the conflict with Ukraine, Moscow is trying to be especially strategic about its relations with regional powers.

For Russia – which remains the guarantor of the 2020 ceasefire and has nearly 2,000 peacekeepers stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh – those interests relate most immediately to Ukraine. On one hand, President Vladimir Putin has insisted that despite the war it is waging against its neighbour, Russia still intends and has the resources necessary to mediate in the South Caucasus conflict. On the other hand, because of the conflict with Ukraine, Moscow is trying to be especially strategic about its relations with regional powers. It signed an agreement with Baku deepening bilateral military and diplomatic cooperation ahead of its assault on Ukraine in February, and is very eager to stay on good terms with Türkiye, Azerbaijan’s closest ally. Indeed, Armenian officials report that, for several months, Moscow has stressed the importance of its relationship with Ankara – which has played a crucial mediating role in Ukraine and refused to join Western sanctions on Russia – in asking Armenia to be more flexible with respect to Azerbaijan’s demands.

As for Türkiye, which has never played a substantial part in mediation of the conflict, its alignment with Azerbaijan suggests that it is highly unlikely to take on this role. Statements issued by Ankara in the wake of the flare-up demonstrated solidarity with Baku, with which it shares strong cultural, ethnic and increasingly strategic links. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tweeted on 13 September that “Armenia should cease its provocations and focus on peace negotiations”, and told attendees at a conference that Türkiye would never abandon Azerbaijan.

So, what now? The most promising path forward involves all of the main mediators – Russia, the EU, France and the U.S. – finding a way to continue pulling in the same direction, as they did in the immediate aftermath of the mid-month escalation. Only sustained attention by international actors with influence in Baku and Yerevan has a hope of curtailing further violence. Moscow and its Western counterparts will need to take particular pains to compartmentalise their historically high tensions over the war in Ukraine, coordinating their efforts quietly or indirectly to the extent possible, and avoiding actions that one or the other might find threatening. (Moscow’s clear nervousness about Western involvement emerged on 14 September when a senior diplomat
accused the EU of trying to oust Russia from the region.) All these outside actors should bear in mind that the interests of Russia and the West in the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute largely coincide: Russia does not want any escalation that would require its response; the West does not want an escalation that would lead Russia to beef up its military presence in the region, which has already grown since 2020.

As for what the mediators tell Baku and Yerevan, the core message has not changed: efforts to resolve the parties’ long-running dispute militarily are likely to produce nothing better than a brittle, unsustainable peace. Instead, they say, the parties should return to the negotiation table, where they can best achieve their objectives. Important as this message is, however, it will also be vital to convey a sense of urgency. The frequency of fighting over the course of 2022 is cause for alarm. Absent significant outside pressure, the 30-year conflict could too easily flare up anew, especially as September’s fighting stokes fresh anger in a region still raw from the 2020 war.

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