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Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?
Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?
Reducing the Human Cost of the New Nagorno-Karabakh War
Reducing the Human Cost of the New Nagorno-Karabakh War
An ethnic Armenian soldier stands next to a cannon at the artillery positions near Nagorno-Karabakh's town of Martuni, 8 April 2016. REUTERS/Staff

Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?

Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in early April killed up to 200 people, forcing international attention back to resolving the generation-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The time has come for a decisive push for progress in the peace talks. Both sides are on an unprecedented war footing, and any new clashes risk dragging outside parties into a wider war.

Executive Summary

The pattern of military escalation on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and Line of Contact (LoC) around Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) since at least 2011 meant it should not have been the surprise it was when major fighting broke out on 2-5 April. In combat that evoked powerful nationalist emotions in both countries and included use of multiple-launch missile systems, heavy artillery, tanks, attack drones and highly trained special forces, Azerbaijan seized small but strategically important pieces of land, and up to 200 people on both sides were killed. That and the acute threat a graver escalation could draw in powerful neighbouring countries have focused the much-needed political attention of key international actors and produced an opportunity to find a peaceful solution to a generation-old conflict, often mistakenly called frozen. It is essential that the parties, urged on by France, Russia and the U.S., as co-chairs of the Minsk Group (MG) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the diplomatic point body, make a decisive push for progress in peace talks.

Resumed military escalation would likely be far more destructive than the April flare-up. There is a serious risk that long-range ground-to-ground missiles would be used and casualties, particularly civilian, be much higher in the effort to gain a decisive ground advantage. In the wake of the April fighting, the publics in Armenia and Azerbaijan are more ready for military solutions than at any time in 25 years. Russia sees itself as the regional arbiter which is bound to intervene, not least because of its tight treaty relations with Armenia. Besides mutual affinity based partly on ethnic kinship, Turkey has military cooperation, a critical energy partnership and close political and economic relations with Azerbaijan. It links normalisation of relations with Armenia, including reestablishment of diplomatic ties and opening of their border, – to progress on resolution of the conflict.

The regional context has changed profoundly in the last year, increasing the potential for wide fallout if fighting resumes. Moscow’s and Ankara’s ties are strained. Iran is still defining its approach to the region but has flagged an interest in a greater role. Russia and the West remain at odds, with differences in Eastern Europe perhaps even greater than in Syria. Interests do align in pushing for progress on the NK conflict, but Moscow, which profiles itself as the key mediator and security guarantor, also seeks thereby to strengthen its strategic stake a region it considers a sphere of privileged interest, including by forging a closer relationship with Baku. Moreover, while Moscow has the political will and clout to drive the process, its regional role has been divisive, so it needs the other co-chairs to make the process genuinely credible. France and the U.S. should ensure this cooperation is indeed substantive.

The talks the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents agreed to on 16 May to pave the way for negotiations on a comprehensive settlement can be a chance to get a peace process back on track. However, the statement issued after the follow-on talks in St. Petersburg on 20 June suggest momentum might already be weakening. All the Minsk Group co-chairs should engage in the mediation effort at a senior political level in order to lend it the necessary weight and sense of urgency. For progress toward an eventual comprehensive settlement to be possible, there must also be parallel movement on confidence and security building measures (CSBMs), including the OSCE investigative mechanism agreed in Vienna to establish responsibility for ceasefire violations. The co-chairs should maintain pressure on the sides to offer concessions, specifically on Armenia to hand over occupied Azerbaijan territory, and on Azerbaijan to accept strong, internationally-backed security guarantees and an interim status for NK. They should also engage Turkey, to encourage it to use its leverage in support of the peace process.

The EU should continue to give its strong political support to the Minsk Group, including through its bilateral relations with Baku and Yerevan, and the leverage negotiation of new agreements with both can provide. It could make a special contribution, in conjunction with key European Union (EU) member states, particularly Germany – the present OSCE chairman-in-office (CiO) and the EU Minsk Group members – by putting on the table concrete offers of assistance to bolster security and other CSBMs. The EU should also plan what substantial expert and financial contribution it could make to a future post-conflict reconstruction effort, including restoration of communications, such as railway rehabilitation.

Finally, the OSCE High Level Planning Group should step up preparatory work on a future peacekeeping force, including by exploring possible contributions. There will be much politics around the composition, but discussion is needed to galvanise planning. The ultimate product could range from deploying monitors drawn from the armed forces of member states to where the opposing armies face each other and civilians from the different ethnic communities live in proximity to each other, to substantial support for the local police.

None of this would yet mean achievement of a final resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But if there is early and coordinated action on the return of occupied territories to Azerbaijan, establishment of credible measures to guarantee security and an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh, a genuine possibility that the peace process could break out of its current impasse and move forward in a positive direction could take shape.

Recommendations

To the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships:

  1. Take advantage of the renewed international attention and support for progress in the peace negotiations to make the compromises that would make war less likely and bolster the long-term security of their peoples.
     
  2. Observe the ceasefire strictly, refrain from provocative rhetoric and create a permanent channel of communication in which to discuss the situation on the international border and the LoC and prepare meetings at head of state and foreign minister level.

To the Minsk Group co-chairs and other members, the EU and the OSCE CiO:

  1. Stress to the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships, through high-level political engagement, the importance of seizing the opportunity before them, because a new, more serious escalation is likely if progress on CSBMs and toward comprehensive settlement is slow.
     
  2. Prepare the sides for compromise by renewing efforts to encourage dialogue between Armenians, including in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijanis, including internally displaced persons (IDPs), to develop ideas to promote people-to-people contacts, transparency and accountability in the mediation process and public discussion about how a solution of the conflict would be implemented; and work with officials, media and civil society groups as part of that dialogue.
     
  3. The OSCE CiO (Germany) should assist the Minsk Group (MG) co-chairs (France, Russia, the U.S.) with offers of practical support, including assistance with an investigative mechanism and an enhanced monitoring role for the CiO’s Special Representative; and press for reestablishment of a hotline between the two countries’ militaries.
     
  4. Give the work of the OSCE High Level Planning Group new impetus by considering modalities, including exploring offers of personnel for deployment of monitors, police and peacekeepers.
     
  5. The EU should use all leverage in its bilateral relationships with Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the discussions on new agreements with both, to press for a renewed commitment to work for peace; and its High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR) should continue to lend explicit political support to the efforts of the MG co-chairs, including by direct contact with the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in the run-up to their meetings. 
     
  6. To capitalise on the EU’s traditional strength and in the event peace talks lead to progress, the HR, actively supported by France and other EU members of the MG, should commission, and the EU’s Special Representative (EUSR) should lead, work on a plan of support for the reconstruction of Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent occupied territories and restoration of physical communications. 
     
  7. The U.S. and EU should encourage Turkey to support the efforts of the MG co-chairs to make progress in peace negotiations on NK in its statements and actions. International actors stress Turkey should move toward normalising its relations with Armenia, including by opening the borders, without preconditions but Turkey has linked this with progress in the peace negotiations; Ankara should at least clarify what level of progress it seeks and make firm commitments accordingly.

Baku/Yerevan/Vienna/Brussels, 4 July 2016

Woman cries inside a bus prepared for evacuation of civilians during increased fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, on 3 October, 2020. Celestino Arce / NurPhoto via AFP.

Reducing the Human Cost of the New Nagorno-Karabakh War

Fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh is decimating towns and cities, displacing tens of thousands and killing scores. Combatants must cease attacks on populated areas and let humanitarian aid through. International actors, notably the UN and OSCE, should send monitors and push harder for a ceasefire.

Two weeks into a renewed war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and its environs, fighting appears poised to escalate. On 10 October, a Russian-brokered humanitarian ceasefire intended to enable combatants to retrieve the bodies of the dead and exchange prisoners appeared to fall apart as its ink was drying. Both sides have since struck towns and villages, with enormous damage to lives and livelihoods. While it may take time for the parties to return to peace talks, they and international actors must act to stem the mounting human toll. Whatever an eventual settlement entails, it will be closer to hand and more sustainable if the parties stop killing civilians and adding fresh grievances to an already intractable conflict.

Both sides have struck towns and villages, with enormous damage to lives and livelihoods.

As Crisis Group noted in a 2 October statement, the conflict has no simple solution. Since the 1992-1994 war, which pitted Azerbaijani forces against Nagorno-Karabakh rebels backed by the Armenian army and ended with Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto independence, decades of stalled negotiations, outbreaks of violence and hardened positions on all sides have compounded the territorial dispute. Foreign actors matter, but for now cannot impose a lasting peace. The failure of the 10 October ceasefire shows that even Russia, which has a treaty with Armenia and longstanding relationships with both Yerevan and Baku, has only limited leverage. Turkey backs Azerbaijan diplomatically and with military aid, but Baku is not sufficiently dependent on Ankara’s support that threats of its withdrawal, even if they were forthcoming, would end fighting. Europe and the United States have even less influence. 

Military casualties already number high in the hundreds and the civilian toll is also mounting. Azerbaijani missile, artillery and drone strikes on Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital of Stepanakert and other towns and villages have turned homes, schools, and much of the region’s infrastructure to rubble. Credible reports indicate the use of cluster bombs, particularly dangerous to civilians and banned by an international convention (although neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are signatories). Since 10 October, fighting has spread to the streets of Hadrut, a town 40km south of Stepanakert and well within Nagorno-Karabakh itself, rather than being limited, as it was during the first days of the war, mainly to the unpopulated adjacent territories controlled by Armenian forces since the 1992-1994 war. According to the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, as of 12 October, at least 31 civilians had been killed in the region and over 100 injured, many seriously. Some 70,000-75,000 people, half the region’s population and 90 per cent of its women and children, have fled their homes. Many are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. With a continuing pandemic and rapidly cooling weather, the mass displacement could have severe public health consequences.

With a continuing pandemic and rapidly cooling weather, the mass displacement could have severe public health consequences.

On the other side of the front lines, Azerbaijani officials report 42 civilians killed and 206 injured as of 12 October. Most attacks have hit Azerbaijani cities near the breakaway territory, but some have struck civilian areas hundreds of kilometres away, including the Absheron peninsula, where the capital, Baku, is located. Azerbaijan accuses Armenian forces of using cluster bombs and Scud missiles. Particularly hard hit are the country’s second-biggest city of Ganja and a town, Mingachevir, which hosts a large water reservoir and serves as a regional electricity hub. Ganja was hit again within 24 hours of the weekend’s ceasefire. Journalists tell Crisis Group that several hundred people, mostly women and children, have evacuated front-line areas.

Employees of the Ministry of Emergency Situations work near destroyed houses in Ganja, Azerbaijan on 11 October 2020. They were hit by shelling after fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces began in and around Nagorno-Karabakh on 27 September. Mikhail Voskresenskiy / Sputnik via AFP.

Many outside actors have expressed alarm. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has joined calls for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds, while the European UnionSlovakia, and a variety of humanitarian organisations promise aid, though the fighting hampers aid delivery. Moreover, no international aid can reach Nagorno-Karabakh itself without Azerbaijan’s blessing, which Baku has not granted, leaving only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has maintained a permanent office in the region since the 1990s. With international borders closed due to COVID-19, if fighting escalates to engulf more of Azerbaijan and Armenia, it will result in many displaced who have nowhere to go.

With the collapse of the Russian-brokered ceasefire, both parties look set to escalate fighting, with prospectively grave consequences. Azerbaijani advances fuel Armenian fears and counter-strikes. The attacks on civilian areas to date may be mistakes or efforts by combatants to deter further escalation by the other side. If intentional or with insufficient care for protecting the civilian population, they violate international law. Even if not, they are causing tremendous suffering. They are counterproductive to an eventual peace, hardening hostility and rendering a sustainable settlement more remote.

It is critical that both sides cease targeting civilians and undertake efforts to prevent and alleviate humanitarian suffering.

Ideally, both sides would return to talks, but even absent that, it is critical that they cease targeting civilians and undertake efforts to prevent and alleviate humanitarian suffering. They must eschew cluster bombs, stop targeting population centres and provide corridors for the evacuation of the wounded and dead and the delivery of humanitarian aid. International actors, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which has overseen negotiations since the end of hostilities in 1994, and its co-chairs France, Russia and the U.S., other capitals worldwide and international organisations should speak in one voice and specifically call for such measures. Countries that provide weapons to the parties, including Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Pakistan and Israel, and those through which deliveries transit, including Iran and Georgia, should cease provision and transit, at least when it comes to systems credibly reported to have been used in attacks on civilian targets (Georgia has already stopped weapons transit through its territory).

The UN Security Council can play a role. First, the council, which has to date discussed the crisis in private and released a press statement calling for calm, should now convene an urgent public meeting on the escalating fighting and attacks on civilian areas. It should insist the parties abide by the 10 October Moscow agreement on a humanitarian ceasefire and facilitate the safe, unhindered and sustained delivery of lifesaving aid, including providing full and secure access to the region for humanitarian actors. Going further, the council should adopt a resolution calling for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, beyond the limited humanitarian one agreed in Moscow. The resolution should also condemn the parties for endangering the lives of civilians and call on them to return to talks under the Minsk Group co-chairs’ auspices.

The OSCE and its Minsk Group should step up efforts on the ground.

As for the OSCE and its Minsk Group, they should step up efforts on the ground. Mitigating harm to civilians will require coordination across front lines even as fighting continues. The Minsk Group process has frustrated both sides (and particularly Baku) in its failure over three decades to deliver a lasting peace. Still, it provides a format for the parties to carry out such coordination. In the wake of the Moscow agreement, which called for a return to Minsk Group talks, the co-chairs reported that they and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office (OSCE CIO PR) were working with the ICRC to explore “modalities and logistics for the return of remains and detainees”. They also report that they continue to engage the conflict parties on a long-term settlement. Building upon this work, the OSCE should resume its field activity in the region, suspended in March as a result of COVID-19, and work with military and diplomatic representatives of the warring parties and the ICRC to develop guidelines and a contact mechanism to facilitate the humanitarian measures outlined above. 

This expanded field activity should include means to monitor and “verify” the Moscow agreement’s or any new ceasefire, as the Russian and Armenian foreign ministers called for in a 12 October press conference. One tool might be a version of the investigative mechanism to study incidents that Yerevan, Baku and OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries agreed to put in place, along with an expansion of the OSCE CIO PR’s office, after four days of clashes in 2016. This could give OSCE monitors the unrestricted access they would need to Nagorno-Karabakh and, if expanded, any parts of Azerbaijan and Armenia under fire. In the past, Baku resisted the mechanism, despite having agreed to it on paper. At the time, Azerbaijan sought to regain control over the adjacent territories through negotiations before agreeing to new mechanisms that it feared would solidify the status quo. But Baku may be more amenable to granting monitors temporary access to its territory and that of Armenia to investigate recent attacks, while active hostilities continue. Whatever its specific tools, the OSCE should consider making its monitors’ and investigative reports public,given the lack of objective, neutral reporting on the conflict and rampant biased information and disinformation.

The UN could support the OSCE’s monitoring. The two institutions already have a strong relationship. The OSCE Minsk Group could tap UN expertise on observer missions and investigative techniques in warzones as it designs a way forward. The UN could be even more active in its support if the Security Council requests that the UN Secretary-General dispatch, in coordination with the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office’s Personal Representative, military and civilian observers to Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider conflict region. Such a mission could observe the ceasefire and document and report on violations of international humanitarian law committed during the fighting. Once the OSCE’s monitoring mission takes shape, the UN mission could withdraw. Such missions would require the conflict parties to guarantee members’ security, which in itself could help limit violence. 

These steps will not, in and of themselves, end the war. But they would save lives and improve prospects for a real peace, whenever it may come.