Looming Dangers One Year after Nagorno-Karabakh Escalation
Looming Dangers One Year after Nagorno-Karabakh Escalation
Upholding the Ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia
Upholding the Ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia
Troops in Nagorno-Karabakh on the first line of defense near a makeshift church on 8 April 2016. SPUTNIK/Ria Novosti

Looming Dangers One Year after Nagorno-Karabakh Escalation

One year after Nagorno-Karabakh’s violent flare-up in April 2016, the danger of even more perilous fighting remains real. Further hostilities risk a larger regional conflagration with far-reaching humanitarian consequences. Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia Program Director, Magdalena Grono, assesses risks in the region.

BAKU, Azerbaijan — The room housing refugees in the former Soviet sanatorium just outside Baku was getting a much-needed facelift: new black-and-silver floral wallpaper “to make it more attractive to the future in-laws of my daughter who are not displaced like us”, said Bayram, an Azeri veteran of the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Bayram remained steadfast in his support for Azerbaijan’s role in last spring’s violent clash with Armenia. “Of course I know what war is and what the consequences can be”, he explained. He pointed to his leg, maimed by artillery fire almost 25 years ago, and to the poor conditions of the refugee shelter where his family has lived for over twenty years. “But I have sent my eldest son to the army anyhow. He is an officer, and I have told him to fight – to take care, but to fight for his homeland.”

Last year’s escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, which began in the early hours of 2 April, killed up to 200 people. However, like many Azerbaijanis whose families have been displaced by the conflict, Bayram’s patriotic pride overtook his concern for lost lives. Bayram had hoped the fighting would result in the return to Baku’s control of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding districts – held by ethnic Armenian forces since the 1994 ceasefire – so he could go back home.

Across the Line of Contact (LoC), the militarised zone that has separated Armenian and Azerbaijani forces since 1994, conversations in Armenia’s capital Yerevan were like stepping through a mirror. “Don’t you understand that Baku lost last April?” a prominent Armenian expert remarked, challenging the mainstream analysis that Baku’s gaining control over two strategic heights was a significant first since 1994, if not in military terms, then certainly in terms of Azerbaijan’s posture. “We are now prepared and ready to inflict major harm on the Azerbaijanis if they attack, so they do not feel they can get away with this”, another Armenian analyst said. Such sentiments are even more sharply expressed in Nagorno-Karabakh itself, where people are deeply concerned for their security.

Conversations on both sides of the divide reveal a new and dangerous situation: that renewed appetite for confrontation has engulfed a conflict once considered frozen but which –  with  clashes escalating since at least 2012 – is particularly dangerous now given both countries’ more powerfully equipped armies, and Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s respective military commitments with Russia and Turkey. In 2015, Azerbaijan spent $3 billion on its military, strategically diversifying acquisitions, with weapons systems purchased from Russia, Turkey, Israel and Pakistan, among others. This sum was more than Armenia’s entire national budget that year, yet Yerevan still sought to catch up, benefiting from more advantageous tariffs and a credit from Russia.

Armenia and Azerbaijan each finds the current status quo unacceptable for different reasons. Before committing to talks, Yerevan urgently wishes to see improved security, including for people whose daily lives are severely impacted by ongoing escalations along the LoC and the international border between the two countries. Baku wants to have guarantees that there will be substantive progress in settlement talks, including the return of districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as a first step. The prevailing dynamic, compounded by an absence of confidence between the sides or in the settlement process, lends itself to further violent flare-ups that contain grave local and regional risks.

There is a long-standing conflict settlement mechanism, the Minsk Group of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But in the absence of a re-invigorated process with high-level backing from the three Minsk Group co-chairs – Russia, the United States and France – the conflict will remain a dangerous tinderbox in the heart of the South Caucasus, between Russia, Turkey, Iran and what the EU considers its Eastern Neighbourhood.

The Frozen Settlement Process

Bayram, the Azeri veteran, said he was disappointed when a ceasefire was brokered by Moscow four days into the April 2016 fighting. Like many displaced people and other ordinary citizens in Azerbaijan, he felt elated that some small but strategically significant land fell into Baku’s hands as a result of the fighting, and that the widespread post-1994 myth of Armenian forces’ invincibility was broken. But he and others in Azerbaijan were also frustrated not to see “more progress”, even if it were to come with a much higher death toll and other costs.

The high pain threshold of both parties in the quest for their desired outcome in the settlement of the conflict bodes ill for finding a political solution. Russia-led attempts to broker a deal last year revealed that a zero-sum logic continues to dictate not only the approach to the substance of the settlement process but also to the process itself. The gulf between Azerbaijani society on the one hand, and the Armenian and Armenian-Karabakh societies on the other, is widened by the lack of contact between parties. Only isolated civil society actors seek the construction of cultural or political bridges. In the year that has elapsed since April 2016, space for discussing mutual concessions has by and large closed.

Yet last year’s conflict did briefly revive the all but moribund settlement process, as detailed in Crisis Group’s July report, “New Opening, or More Peril?”. Summits in Vienna last May and St. Petersburg in June agreed on an investigative mechanism and an increase in the number of OSCE monitors, as well as on proceeding with substantive talks. Yet by late summer, the process ground to a halt and deadly incidents have recurred with varying degrees of intensity.

“We cannot talk when we are being attacked”, explained an official in Yerevan. “The only way to get to substantive talks is to have months of quiet on the Line of Contact”. Beyond the security imperative, Yerevan is reluctant to return lands around Karabakh unless other aspects of the settlement – including Nagorno-Karabakh’s future status – are clarified, guided by a principle of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Armenians fear losing strategic advantage if they do not secure their desired political outcome on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, namely its self-determination outside of Azerbaijan. Indeed, the return of even some of the districts around the contested heartland would make Karabakh much harder to defend for the Armenians.

For its part, Baku resents the current status quo on the ground and fears that any security arrangements insisted upon by Yerevan would only cement it. Officials in Baku say the increased number of monitors and the investigative mechanism agreed upon last summer are only acceptable if linked to broader substantive progress in the talks.

With frustrations mounting on both sides and the process stalled, incidents along the LoC will likely intensify. Baku in particular shows public readiness to use force to achieve its goals. Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials explain that Baku has renounced the use of force if the conflict is settled within the framework of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Failing that, Azerbaijani analysts say, the threat of violence continues to be a legitimate means to put pressure on the adversary.

Meanwhile, Armenian and de facto Armenian-Karabakh forces – two intertwined structures – have focused on new fortifications systems on the Armenian-controlled side of the LoC, as well as on an internal overhaul of command structures. Some Armenian voices, including inside Nagorno-Karabakh, even speak of seizing more territories if they are attacked, in order to increase the security belt and have more to trade in future negotiations.

With both sides now poised to retaliate quickly to any escalation, and without the element of surprise, renewed fighting would likely exceed the unprecedented levels seen last year.

Moscow’s Uncertain Role

On the international diplomatic front, for the last decade, Moscow has de facto been the prima inter pares in the Minsk Group, and it was Moscow that brought about a cessation of hostilities in April 2016. Moscow is the only one of the three co-chair countries which currently seems to have the bandwidth and interest to invest high-level political capital into the conflict.

Diplomats talk about another push for progress in the talks, which Moscow is ostensibly preparing in the foreseeable future. A meeting of Foreign Ministers after the Armenian parliamentary elections on 2 April – coincidentally, the first anniversary of the escalation – should ideally lay the groundwork for a summit of the two Presidents. One desirable approach that is apparently being considered by the Minsk Group co-chair countries would include a combination of a possible declaration of both parties; an expression of support by the Minsk Group co-chairs; and a potential UN Security Council Resolution, according to diplomats based in the region. However, agreement on the details would still be needed at the Presidential level.

With Russia’s long history of rule over the Caucasus region, and a continued sense that the South Caucasus is a sphere of privileged Russian interest, Moscow’s influence has many facets. Russia is the leading supplier of weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia also has close cooperation with Armenia through the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Armenia is a member. While Moscow has not formally said it is interested in having peacekeepers in the region, a Russian official informally said that “of course [sending peacekeepers is in] our interest and we are pursuing it”. According to a gentlemen’s agreement in the context of the settlement process no co-chair or neighbouring country should provide peacekeepers.

Baku and Yerevan share a deep reluctance to accept Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh. Both see this scenario as the ultimate loss of sovereignty and a return to their once subservient role within the Soviet Empire. “We have been able to keep Russia out of our domestic politics”, a former Azerbaijani politician said. “Having their boots in Karabakh would mean they would have a very different say over our internal issues”. Likewise, an opposition-minded figure in Yerevan pointed out it was a paradox that while Armenia hosts a Russian military base, no one in Armenia wants to see Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh itself.

A decade or more ago, Armenian analysts often referred to the Balkans – where Operation Storm restored Croat control over Srpska Krajina though it violated the mandate of the UN peacekeepers deployed on the ceasefire line – as an example for why international security arrangements may not be reliable. Today, notwithstanding the role of Russia as Armenia’s primary strategic partner, Crimea’s 2014 annexation by Russia is causing concern that the use of force cannot be excluded, even if international guarantees are in place.

Baku, on the other hand, has seized on the biting sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its European partners on Russia to pursue in various international fora Azerbaijan’s de jure claim to the territory it sees as occupied, referring also to UN Security Council resolutions of the early 1990s. “After Crimea, the international community’s reluctance to use the term occupation and impose sanctions against Armenia is becoming untenable,” a pro-government Azerbaijani analyst said.

No Alternative to Political and Diplomatic Solutions

A year on from the April 2016 flare-up, positions have significantly hardened. Both sides seem prepared to engage only on their own terms and neither society is ready to consider mutual concessions. Any discussion in Baku of the settlement process and its basic principles automatically assumes the determination of the future political status of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan – something Armenians say is unacceptable. On the other hand, discussions in Armenia over the return of lands surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan have been difficult and, since last April, have become a non-starter. Although, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in the past has said this remained a negotiating chip.

In fact, the distinction between Nagorno-Karabakh proper and the surrounding districts held by Armenians has been largely effaced in the discourse, especially in the months since April 2016. Armenia’s former president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, remains a lone voice urging Armenians to proceed with the return of the districts around Nagorno-Karabakh, but few agree with him. The Karabakhi activist living in Yerevan explained simply: “This would lead to civil war”.

Against the backdrop of political deadlock, risks of escalation on the battlefront are growing dangerously. Most Western diplomats agree that the risks are high, yet they also stress that none of the regional powers are interested in a conflict that could ultimately ensnare them. Russia and Turkey's current geopolitical cooperation regarding the war in Syria increases the chances that they would work to minimise any misunderstandings that might lead to a wider conflagration in the Caucasus theatre.

Even a medium-scale intensity conflict between Baku and Yerevan is likely to have disastrous humanitarian consequences. Given the close proximity of civilians to the front lines, heavy casualties would be likely from shelling or other military deployments. Both sides alleged that the other engaged in atrocities during the April 2016 escalation, which Minsk Group co-chairs condemned in their December 2016 statement. Humanitarian agencies in the region are beefing up their capacities and developing contingency plans.

The destructive potential of renewed conflict should compel both parties back to the negotiating table. If the mooted new meeting between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan materialises, it could help inject new impetus into the stalled process. Baku and Yerevan have already, in theory at least, committed to the basic principles for the settlement developed by the OSCE Minsk Group. The elements, as formulated by Minsk Group co-chairs countries, include: “the return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control; an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance; a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh; future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will; the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation”.

In spite of divergent interpretations of a number of those elements by each party, the OSCE Minsk Group should redouble its efforts to galvanise substantive talks while pushing for implementation of the measures agreed in Vienna. Russia will likely play a leading role in this, but needs the support of the U.S. and France. Washington and Paris should back up these efforts at highest levels, despite the Trump presidency’s apparent disengagement from the region and France’s electoral preoccupations. The EU should use its bilateral relations with each of the countries to reiterate not only the unacceptability of the status quo, but also the unacceptability of a repeat of last April’s hostilities. The EU has long sought to support pro-peace discourses in both societies. This kind of investment should be a renewed priority so that people like Bayram, as well as his Armenian counterparts, do not depersonalise each other.

A lasting settlement will mean living side by side, taking into account the needs of both parties. For now though, there is a wide gap between what outside mediators see as a fair formula and what seems acceptable to local communities. Until this gap closes, the risks of war will remain very high.

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

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”.

T
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 2020, 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.