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Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?
Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or More Peril?
De-escalating the New Nagorno-Karabakh War
De-escalating 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

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.