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De-escalating the New Nagorno-Karabakh War
De-escalating the New Nagorno-Karabakh War
Briefing 60 / Europe & Central Asia

Armenia and Azerbaijan: Preventing War

Escalating front-line clashes, a spiralling arms race, vitriolic rhetoric and a virtual breakdown in peace talks increase the chance Armenia and Azerbaijan will go back to war over Nagorno-Karabakh, with devastating regional consequences.

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I. Overview

An arms race, escalating front-line clashes, vitriolic war rhetoric and a virtual breakdown in peace talks are increasing the chance Armenia and Azerbaijan will go back to war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Preventing this is urgent. Increased military capabilities on both sides would make a new armed conflict in the South Caucasus far more deadly than the 1992-1994 one that ended with a shaky truce. Neither side would be likely to win easily or quickly. Regional alliances could pull in Russia, Turkey and Iran. Vital oil and gas pipelines near the front lines would be threatened, as would the cooperation between Russia and Turkey that is central to regional stability. Another refugee crisis would be likely. To start reversing this dangerous downward trend, the opposing sides should sign a document on basic principles for resolving the conflict peacefully and undertake confidence-building steps to reduce tensions and avert a resumption of fighting.

There has been significant deterioration over the past year. Neither government is planning an all-out offensive in the near term, but skirmishes that already kill 30 people a year could easily spiral out of control. It is unclear if the leaders in Yerevan and Baku thoroughly calculate the potential consequences of a new round of tit-for-tat attacks. Ambiguity and lack of transparency about operations along the line of contact, arms deals and other military expenditures and even the state of the peace talks all contribute to a precarious situation. Monitoring mechanisms should be strengthened and confidence-building steps implemented to decrease the chance of an accidental war.

At the same time, more has to be done to change a status quo that is deeply damaging to Azerbaijan; 586,000 Azeris are internally displaced (IDPs) from Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas, and some 14 per cent of the country’s territory is occupied. Otherwise, Azerbaijan public opinion and leadership will feel justified to use the military assets Baku has been accumulating at an increased rate: the already substantial defence budget is slated to rise by some 45 per cent between 2010 and 2011, to $3.1 billion out of a total $15.9 billion state budget.

Weapons purchases, belligerent rhetoric and offensive posturing along the front lines may be tactics to pressure Yerevan into concessions at the negotiating table, but they also could be signs of preparation to use force before the country’s oil revenues are projected to decline after 2014. Similarly, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh – aware of this time line and the risk of a nationalist gamble – may be tempted to try a pre-emptive strike. Azerbaijan’s armed forces are estimated at nearly 95,000, Armenia’s and Nagorno-Karabakh’s at around 70,000. The two sides’ arsenals are increasingly deadly, sophisticated and capable of sustaining a protracted war. Both can hit large population centres, critical infrastructure and communications.

Conflict prevention would be best ensured by signature of the basic principles agreement, first outlined by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2005 and discussed since then between Presidents Sargsyan (Armenia) and Aliyev (Azerbaijan), with the help of the U.S., Russia and France OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs. At the OSCE Summit in Astana in December 2010, the two presidents reaffirmed their commitment to find a final settlement based on international law, including six points that have generally been accepted as part of the basic principles, but they did not sign the long-awaited agreement. Further deterioration in the security environment is likely to make agreement on the basic principles more difficult.

2010 saw little progress in the Minsk Group-mediated talks. Both capitals argue they have offered the maximum concessions. President Aliyev publicly stated that he largely accepted the basic principles as elaborated in February 2010, while President Sargsyan remained noncommittal. The Azerbaijani leadership has begun to warn that diplomacy has been in vain and threaten that it may withdraw from negotiations if Yerevan continues “simulating talks”.

President Sargsyan has little domestic room for manoeuvre. Most Armenians feel the risks of changing the status quo outweigh the benefits. They say they would have to withdraw without a real guarantee of security, in return for a vaguely-defined “interim status” for Nagorno-Karabakh that would include a promise of a vote on final status but no indication of when it would occur and whether it could lead to independence. Armenians initially called the seven districts they occupy around Nagorno-Karabakh a “security zone”, but a growing number now regularly refer to them as the “liberated territories” or “historic Armenian lands” that should never be returned to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis insist that any peace settlement must preserve their country’s territorial integrity and guarantee IDPs the right of return, including to Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenians seek the right to full self-determination for the (Armenian) population of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the possibility of independence.

To reduce the dangers of a new war and improve the environment for conflict resolution:

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan should formally endorse the basic principles, promote more pragmatic public discussion on the value of such an agreement, reduce belligerent rhetoric and not demand at this stage that a fixed timeframe be set or a specific outcome be pre-ordained or excluded in a referendum to determine Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status.
  • The parties should undertake confidence-building measures along the front lines, including withdrawal of snipers from the line of contact (in accordance with OSCE recommendations), suspension of large-scale military exercises near the line of contact, the pullback and cessation of use of any artillery and a halt to trench advancements towards each other’s positions. Armenia should stop sending regular army conscripts to serve in Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • Armenia and the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities should cease supporting activities that make the status quo more intolerable for Azerbaijan and thus use of force seem a more attractive option for its leaders and public, such as settling Armenians in occupied Azerbaijani territories, renaming previously Azerbaijani majority towns and undertaking unilateral archaeological excavations.
  • Both Armenia and Azerbaijan should accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
  • The international community should step up its efforts to discourage the dangerous arms race in the region. In particular Russia, as an OSCE Minsk Group co-chair, but also others, should uphold the non-binding UN and OSCE arms embargoes on Armenia and Azerbaijan.
  • The OSCE, with full support of the Minsk co-chair countries, should encourage the parties to broaden its observer mission’s mandate to authorise investigation of claimed violations and spontaneous monitoring, including with remote surveillance capabilities, and to agree to a significant increase in the number of monitors, as an interim measure until a peacekeeping force is deployed as part of the implementation of a peace agreement.

A subsequent briefing will examine new approaches for advancing the negotiations and implementing any deal and provide recommendations on additional steps external parties could take in support of peace.

Tbilisi/Baku/Yerevan/Istanbul/Brussels, 8 February 2011

The image shared by Azerbaijan Defence Ministry shows howitzers firing munitions towards Armenian positions on 28 September, 2020. Ministry Of Defence of Azerbaijan/Anadolu Agency via AFP

De-escalating the New Nagorno-Karabakh War

Azerbaijan and Armenia are again at war over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region. Russia and France may be best-positioned to broker a ceasefire, but would need to offer parties prospects of attaining goals through talks. It will be a hard sell.

After a bitter three-decades-long standoff marked by sporadic violence and deadlocked negotiations, Azerbaijan and Armenia have returned to war over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Clashes on the front lines followed by an Azerbaijani dawn offensive on September 27 have spilled into days of fighting that have left dozens of soldiers and civilians dead on both sides. Despite international calls for restraint, the mood among both Armenians and Azerbaijanis is bellicose. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made his own hawkish statements in support of Baku. Absent urgent international action, fighting looks set to escalate further, at terrible cost. 

Russia, potentially with European support, probably stands the best chance of brokering a ceasefire. Moscow is formally an ally of Armenia but has ties to both sides. Together with France and the U.S., Russia chairs the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group that has spearheaded peace efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. Moscow helped end the last major bout of violence over Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016. Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered to mediate again, though striking a similar deal will be harder this time around, given that both countries, but especially Baku, have lost all faith in OSCE Minsk Group-led talks, which have largely petered out. While fighting continues, the Minsk Group co-chairs and other European leaders should press both sides to respect international humanitarian law and avoid civilian suffering.

A perilous escalation

The latest violence is the worst since a Russian-brokered ceasefire quieted the 1992-1994 war. That conflict, which pitted Azerbaijan’s armed forces against Nagorno-Karabakh rebels backed by the Armenian army, ended with Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto independence and a self-proclaimed government based in Stepanakert. Armenian forces also took effective control over seven regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh. Tens of thousands lost their lives and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Since then, the two sides have maintained an uneasy coexistence, with occasional skirmishes and flare-ups over the line of contact and sometimes the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. An estimated 200 people were killed in the 2016 flare-up. In addition, Crisis Group has tracked around 300 other incidents and more than 250 casualties and wounded among military and civilians since 2015. 

Exactly how fighting this time around started is unclear, though Azerbaijani forces quickly advanced on several key locations of the 200km-long front line with tanks, helicopters, infantry and drones. In the first days of fighting, Azerbaijani artillery, rockets, and drones have struck populated areas in Nagorno-Karabakh. As of October 1, there were credible reports of military strikes into Armenia proper. Fearing air strikes, Stepanakert – a city of 55,000 people – has gone dark. People have taken refuge in basements and shelters. If fighting escalates, more will be at risk: some 300,000 people in Azerbaijan live within 15km of the front line and will be vulnerable. Because Armenian forces hold the higher ground over difficult forested mountain terrain in Nagorno-Karabakh, losses among Azerbaijan’s forces will likely increase the farther they advance in the soon-to-be snow-covered mountains, even as Armenians, too, take high casualties. 

A number of factors appear to lie behind the escalation. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who again bemoaned the lack of “any results” in talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs in his September 25 speech to the UN General Assembly, has repeatedly stated his nation’s desire to regain control of all the territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh as well as the region itself. In the 2016 clashes, Azerbaijan took control of two strategic points, but the vast majority remained in Armenian hands and none of the Azerbaijanis displaced in the early 1990s were able to return. Baku may have chosen to advance now in the hope of recovering more territory in the face of an inert negotiating process and a distracted international community. The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs have not visited the region since last October and have not convened face-to-face with Armenia and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers since January 2020. They also failed to bring the parties together after they last came to blows in July

Ankara’s backing may be an additional factor. Turkey has been explicit in its support, calling on Armenia to “leave the land it occupied”. After Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed in July, Turkey and Azerbaijan held their largest-ever joint military exercises. Both Baku and Ankara deny Armenian statements that Turkey has already deployed military advisers and provides intelligence through drones and military jets. France and Russia have corroborated reports that Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) fighters have deployed to support Baku. Turkey’s more assertive foreign policy, notably its interventions in Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, makes Erdogan’s loud backing of Baku especially disconcerting, particularly to Yerevan.

Aliyev, who has ordered a partial military mobilisationmartial law, internet restrictions and curfews in several cities, may also be counting on a public opinion boost. Azerbaijan’s economy, like many others, is weak due to dropping demand for energy exports amid the pandemic. In July, the death of a popular general in clashes with Armenia brought tens of thousands of protesters to the streets, demanding Baku go to war to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

While the Armenian side thus far has been mainly on the defensive, its stance could quickly change if losses mount and Baku presses on. Armenia does not yet appear to have deployed additional forces to the front lines. Still, Yerevan is bracing for escalation: Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has also declared martial law and pledged that he himself would take up arms and die to defend Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan also fears Ankara might open a new front and attack Armenia. Turkey’s support for Baku could deter a more forceful Armenian response. That said, Armenia could counter the latest violence by recognising Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence, which thus far it has not done formally. Doing so would further infuriate Baku and Ankara. 

Should fighting spill further into Armenia proper, it would, in theory, activate that country’s defence alliance with Russia, though it is unlikely that either Moscow or Yerevan want things to go that far. Moscow will not want to further complicate its relations with Turkey or sever ties with Azerbaijan, let alone get drawn into military clashes with either country’s forces. Yerevan has no desire for greater dependence on Moscow. Like Baku, it has repeatedly rejected Moscow’s offers of peacekeeping forces in the past. On 30September, Pashinyan stated that Armenia does not, at present, need Russia’s, or anyone else’s military support.

Averting the worst

Thus far, the international response has been consistent but ineffective. Russia has sought to calm tensions: Vladimir Putin has indicated that he has no plans to deploy troops in Armenia’s defence and offered to mediate. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have held telephone calls with Aliyev and Pashinyan. Washington was the last of the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries to issue a statement calling on both sides to show restraint. During the fourth day of fighting, an EU-initiated UN Security Council meeting on 29 September and a 1 October three-way call among Macron, Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump both culminated in calls on the sides to stop fighting and come back to the table. That same day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, for the second time in a week. The Russian readout of the call was that the two also agreed on the need to end fighting and expressed a will to cooperate to bring peace. Turkish state television, however, indicated that Çavuşoğlu had simply reiterated past Turkish positions.

Fighting today may well be harder to stop than in 2016. When Russia brokered that ceasefire, not only were both sides facing large losses, but Moscow was able to convince Baku that it could get at least some of the territory it wanted through negotiations. Since then, the peace process has ground to a virtual halt with a corresponding rise in angry rhetoric. The past few months have seen incidents on the front line and military contingency planning by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Baku in particular has lost any faith that it can achieve its goals by talking. As casualties mount, the appetite for war may shrink, but Armenians and Azerbaijanis will have paid a heavy price. Moreover, as of now, fighting is hardening moods on both sides. Baku may well battle to recapture as much territory as possible until it feels compelled to stop. Things look set to get worse, with grave risks of widespread killing. 

While military conflict looks set to continue given present dynamics, especially in Baku, third parties should step up their diplomacy. As in 2016, Moscow probably has the best shot at brokering a ceasefire. How vested President Putin is in finding a way out is unclear, but Russia has no interest in an escalation that brings pressure for it to intervene on Armenia’s behalf. Turkey is another important player and, optimally, would work with Russia as it has tried to do (with difficulty) in other conflict arenas such as Syria and Libya. But it is unclear how much influence President Erdogan would have if he sought to persuade Azerbaijan to stop fighting. Meanwhile, the rhetoric from Ankara and its continuing material support risks further emboldening Baku. 

As for Western powers, European leaders appear most ready to act. The U.S.’s slow response to date contrasts with its more vigorous involvement in the past, when former Secretary of State John Kerry took an active mediation role, speaking frequently with Armenia and Azerbaijan’s leaders in the wake of 2016 violence and America’s representative in the OSCE Minsk Group engaged in months of shuttle diplomacy. But in recent years, the region has not been a priority for Washington. That leaves European states, which could potentially partner with Moscow: President Macron has made no secret of his belief that such cooperation is essential to peace in Europe and its neighbourhood. Together, European states and Moscow could develop a package of incentives—potentially including economic aid, support for displaced and front-line communities once a ceasefire is in place, and a quick resumption of talks on a political settlement – that might help convince Baku and Yerevan to talk. 

In the immediate future, alas, fighting looks set to escalate. If that is the case, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs’ representatives should engage in shuttle diplomacy to seize any opportunity that might arise to de-escalate the situation and bring the parties together. Meanwhile, the co-chairs and other European leaders should continue to press both sides to halt the fighting or, at a minimum, avoid civilian harm and respect international humanitarian law during hostilities. More broadly, this latest flare-up illustrates clearly how dangerous neglect of the OSCE Minsk Group-led negotiations has been. Lack of international attention has sent a message to the parties that the conflict matters little outside the region. In Baku, especially, this has exacerbated frustration with diplomacy. Reinvigorating efforts to find a settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict once the guns fall silent will be an urgent imperative.