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Statement: Responding to the Nagorno-Karabakh Escalation
Statement: Responding to the Nagorno-Karabakh Escalation
Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus
Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus

Statement: Responding to the Nagorno-Karabakh Escalation

On the Cusp of War

The worst combat along the Line of Contact (LoC) around Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1994 ceasefire seems to have subsided with a cessation of hostilities announced on 5 April. If Azerbaijan sustains the territorial gains and tactical advances it says it has made, President Ilham Aliyev would be able to claim a significant change in the conflict’s status quo; Armenia has strong incentive, however, to prevent this by demonstrating its capability to repulse any Azerbaijani attack. Even if the ceasefire takes hold, there is a strong risk fighting will resume periodically, both to challenge the status quo on the ground and to attract diplomatic attention.

There is little verified information to date about the immediate causes of the flare-up, casualties or precise changes in the tactical dispositions of the forces. Statements from Baku and Yerevan make clear, however, some of the dangers if the situation is not quickly calmed. Azerbaijan’s defence minister threatened that if “[the separatists don’t] stop shelling our settlements”, his troops would attack Stepanakert, the capital (50,000 residents) of the disputed majority-Armenian entity that was a part of the Azerbaijan republic in Soviet times and is formally recognised as part of independent Azerbaijan. The de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities promised a “crushing response” to such an attack, and President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia said further fighting could spark a large-scale war that would “affect security and stability not only in the South Caucasus, but Europe as well”. (See also Crisis Group Commentary, What’s Behind the Flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh?, 3 April 2016.)

No Sustainable Settlement through Military Means

Besides the loss of life – military and civilian – destruction of property and expensive military equipment, the immediate consequence is likely to be wider recognition of the potential for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to escalate. This could prove far more dangerous than the original conflict at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The arms race that Azerbaijan and Armenia have been conducting has increased the dangers in unprecedented ways and led to considerations of military options as an alternative to peaceful conflict settlement. The fighting of the past few days must be seen in the context of the parties’ strategic calculations about achieving gains through all available means – diplomatic or military. Despite Baku’s extensive military modernisation in recent years, there was a widespread belief that its army remained incapable of major combined operations. Its successful attacks at several points along the LoC, however, appear to owe much to effective coordination of land, air and special forces.

The immediate priority must be de-escalation of both the violence and revanchist/triumphalist rhetoric. Neither side can gain a significant advantage by military means without risking a catastrophic expansion of the conflict, not least because of the levels of armament in the region and because of the larger powers that might be tempted to come to the aid of one side or the other.

To prevent further resort to force by either side, a political process is needed that both can buy into and accept as a viable vehicle with which to move toward a sustainable settlement. The Minsk process, as currently constituted and managed, has lost the traction it needs to fulfill that function. Revising a conflict settlement format is fraught with difficulties and requires consensus. The Minsk process should not be replaced, but it is essential to re-energise it through sustained, high-level political leadership by its key external actors. Only this can change the logic of engagement, with its constant risk of new escalation.

International Mediators Should Seize the Moment

The Minsk Group Co-Chairs have worked for over twenty years to avoid the type of outbreak just witnessed. While both parties realise the status quo is not indefinitely sustainable, a particularly strong and concerted message is needed that their serious commitment to negotiations is long overdue. The political consultations that are underway, including today’s meeting of the Minsk Group, are an opportunity to bring new resources and refreshed political will to the table.

In recent times, the Minsk Group has not received the level of political involvement it needs. The conflict has instead largely been managed by diplomatic and bureaucratic, not political, means; Russia, one of the co-chair countries, has expended some important political capital but in only partial coordination with its French and U.S. co-chairs. The new fighting shows the need for all actors – the OSCE Minsk Group, the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office, and the EU – to join efforts to change this. Because the situation presents such clear regional risks, Western partners should ask, and Moscow should readily agree that it more meaningfully involve all these in its own efforts.

Dispelling the Fog of War – and an Opaque Process

More transparency with regard to the situation on the ground and the settlement efforts is needed, including on the part of mediators. In the heart of the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood, the fog of war should not be so thick as to prevent verifiable information from reaching the wider public for several days.

Details on the negotiation process have also been elusive, allowing Armenia and Azerbaijan to instrumentalise the conflict. Greater transparency would help enhance the accountability of the parties and allow their citizens to form more realistic settlement expectations.

Recommendations for the Minsk Group, including its co-chairs, and the EU:

  • Engage on the conflict at the highest political levels and demonstrate leadership vis-à-vis Armenian and Azerbaijani partners.
  • Organise early opportunities for Presidents Hollande, Obama, Putin and Tusk each to emphasise to their Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts in no uncertain terms that their commitment to a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is both essential and an integral element of bilateral relations, and push for an early meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents.
  • Recognise that Azerbaijan and Armenia will only commit seriously to a political process if they see it as capable of delivering a solution. This means that the external actors must in their turn invest serious political capital in re-energising that process. Foreign ministers of co-chair countries should convene an early meeting with the Azerbaijani and Armenian ministers and then periodically continue to engage personally with the Minsk process.
  • Work to accompany the process with enhanced security monitoring mechanisms. These could be more OSCE monitors and/or introduction of sensors to detect the direction of fire, but the enhancement must be part of a broader diplomatic re-engagement, not a substitute for it or a stand-alone initiative.
  • Aggregate political leverage at a more operational level by establishing regular co-chair consultations with the wider Minsk Group and the EU. The co-chairs and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office should substantively report to and consult the Minsk Group on the situation on the ground and their activities.
  • The EU should step up political engagement in the settlement process, pressing a unified position on the need for stability and sustainable conflict resolution. The EU currently has no formal role in the Minsk Group, and consensus is needed to change OSCE mechanisms. Given the focus in the recent review of its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), on stability, however, its political leadership should seek associate membership for the EU in the Minsk Group.
  • There is no realistic public discourse on the conflict and approaches to its resolution in either Azerbaijan or Armenia, both of which restrict the media and civil society. The Minsk Group co-chairs and the special representative should accordingly undertake to meet representatives of civil society and the media from both countries on a regular basis in order to promote a more nuanced public debate.


Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus

While the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 moved the front lines in Azerbaijan’s favour, it has not brought peace. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to engage in humanitarian initiatives in both Armenia and Azerbaijan and continue to engage diplomatically through the OSCE Minsk Group.

A brief second war between Armenia and Azerbaijan from late September to early November 2020 dramatically moved the front lines in Baku’s favour. But it has not brought peace. The bloody six-week conflict is a cautionary tale, like the nearly 30 years of stalemate and skirmishes that preceded it. Both experiences warn that a future that does not address the grievances of both sides, integrate the economies of South Caucasus countries and bring real benefits to all who live there risks being a recipe for renewed instability and conflict. Russia, which brokered the 9 November ceasefire deal between Yerevan and Baku and has deployed peacekeeping troops to the region, will continue to shape relations among all concerned. Turkey, as Azerbaijan’s chief backer and the party holding the key to Armenia’s economic reconnection to the region, will also wield considerable clout. EU diplomacy and support, however, will be crucial in creating an environment in which the advantages of cooperation outweigh those of conflict. To engage effectively, Brussels will need to work closely with Moscow and Ankara. Unusual as such collaboration might be at a time when tensions are running high between the EU and both Russia and Turkey, it is necessary.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Undertake sustained humanitarian initiatives in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to ease suffering, whether it results from the late 2020 fighting, the longstanding conflict beforehand or the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Stand ready to facilitate economic and infrastructure projects to reconnect the South Caucasus countries, including by road and rail;
  • Continue to engage diplomatically, through the traditional and still official Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group format for negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh and other forums as appropriate. While efforts to resolve the core issues underpinning the conflict, notably Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, are unlikely to bear fruit so soon after the fighting, it is important that diplomatic channels continue to function for when opportunities do arise.
  • As soon as is feasible, resume efforts to build relations and trust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis through direct people-to-people contacts and projects that facilitate cross-border visits for experts and journalists. 

A Ceasefire Short of Real Peace 

When the first Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in 1994, it left the region ravaged, with tens of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Armenian forces were in control of not only the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, a region within Soviet Azerbaijan that its ethnic Armenian majority had unilaterally declared independent in 1991, but also seven additional adjacent Azerbaijani regions. Armenia was, in effect, under Azerbaijani and Turkish economic blockade. Each side accused the other of war crimes and atrocities.

At the time, all involved hoped that with the fighting over, negotiations could bring a lasting deal. The OSCE established the Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the U.S., to facilitate talks. But if the Minsk Group fostered some dialogue, peace grew more elusive with each passing year. As positions hardened, Azerbaijani and Armenian communities became ever more isolated from one another. Both sides built up their militaries, preparing for a rematch. For nearly three decades, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs tried to broker compromise but, as their attempts were rebuffed, gradually threw up their hands. Peacemaking efforts largely petered out. There was a nominal ceasefire, but violations were numerous, and on several occasions escalated into larger clashes. 

All-out war resumed in September 2020. After clashes on the front line, Azerbaijani forces quickly advanced and, over the course of six weeks, recaptured much of the territory lost in 1994. The fighting killed thousands. Most of the dead were male combatants, a great many of them young conscripts between the ages of eighteen and twenty. The war also displaced, albeit in some cases temporarily, tens of thousands, predominantly women and children, with many families separated for at least the duration of the conflict.

In November, Moscow brokered a deal that ended the fighting but has not brought true peace.

In November, Moscow brokered a deal that ended the fighting but has not brought true peace. As a result of both ground offensives and the deal brokered by Moscow, Baku has regained control of the seven territories Armenia had held around Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as roughly one third of the mountainous enclave itself. The rest remains under Armenian control, patrolled by both Russian peacekeeping forces and the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh authorities’ security personnel. The disputed region’s long-term status remains an open question, as do the details of the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate. Other Russian government personnel are offering aid and reconstruction assistance in Armenian-controlled parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey is active in Azerbaijan, assisting with demining and reconstruction. The sides exchanged some prisoners of war in December, but Armenia is now angry at Azerbaijan’s stated plans to prosecute several Armenian soldiers whom it has in custody. Baku says its forces captured these soldiers after the end of hostilities, but they appear to have arrested at least one while the war was still raging. There are other troubling developments, including skirmishes at the new front line, which is much closer to civilian settlements than the old one. Only the Russian forces’ arrival halted the shooting. 

None of this bodes well for the long term. There is little risk that history, which is to say the pattern of military build-up, stalemate and eventual rematch of the last 30 years, will repeat itself exactly. But the past decades illustrate all too clearly the dangers that lie in festering resentment, the absence of meaningful talks aimed at addressing it and a region in which borders are closed and contacts among communities across front lines few.

A lasting peace does not require everyone to agree on everything from the start. Indeed, it would be premature to push the parties toward agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status so soon after the war. Reconciliation is only likely to take place gradually and only if all parties see it as in their interests. In support of a step-by-step approach, the Russian-brokered ceasefire deal calls for economic reconnection, an aspiration the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia reaffirmed when they met on 11 January in Moscow, promising to create a working group to define plans for new commercial ties and transport infrastructure. These plans could define a new and different way forward, one that creates real economic incentives to collaborate and eschew violence. But the plans will not work without broader international engagement – and here, the EU may have a special role to play. 

How the EU Can Help 

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan participate in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. One goal of this program is to improve transport links in the South Caucasus, which Brussels has helped do in Azerbaijan as well as in neighbouring Georgia. EU support for rebuilding railways and roads that once connected Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia would be in line with both its own goals and those announced at the 11 January Moscow summit.

The EU should also call on both sides to address mutual accusations of human rights abuses.

The EU should also call on both sides to address mutual accusations of human rights abuses. Few other international bodies have the leverage and the moral standing in the South Caucasus to call on Armenia and Azerbaijan to fulfil their commitments to prisoner exchanges and to investigate past abuses adequately. 

Europeans can also help keep diplomatic channels alive, even if seeking a settlement on major issues does not make sense for now. Russia’s direct involvement and the relative disengagement of France and the U.S. has, at least for now, relegated the Minsk format to a less central role. Besides, many Azerbaijanis see France and the U.S. as having failed to deliver on peace plans since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. But the Minsk process remains relevant as the internationally agreed format for negotiations: it may be crucial to ensuring the flow of humanitarian aid in the near term and broad regional and global support for any future settlement.

The EU could consider bolstering the role of its own special representative for the region, by giving staff support to enable more active engagement, working both with the OSCE and independently. The EU should also support member state Sweden, which just assumed the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office for 2021, in fulfilling its mandate for keeping up OSCE contacts with Azerbaijani, Armenian, Russian and Turkish leaders on the conflict. The EU can publicly acknowledge the importance of this mission and ensure that Sweden maintains a point role with regard to the conflict for member states. 

Past EU support in this region focused on building relations and trust between civil societies on both sides. Although it facilitated direct people-to-people contacts that would not otherwise have occurred, it increasingly involved the same people, and those less and less frequently, thus limiting its impact. A new approach should involve a broader group of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, including displaced and returning people, people living in border areas, and officials responsible for transitional justice and reconciliation. Brussels could also fund programs that facilitate cross-border visits for experts in a wide range of fields, which largely ceased in the 2010s, and journalists, a few of whom had started making trips prior to the 2020 war. 

The EU can also help mitigate the war’s effects, building on the humanitarian aid it provided during the fighting. Its funding of UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross enabled them to deliver urgent assistance to war-displaced Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Now, it can help fund reconstruction both in territories controlled by Armenians and those controlled by Azerbaijan. It could also consider programs in Armenian and Azerbaijani settlements along the border between the two countries. That border has grown longer as a result of wartime shifts in territorial control and towns have grown larger due to displacement. Such support would supplement Russian assistance, carried out in cooperation with the UN, near the border in north-eastern Armenia to build and light local roads and construct new schools, greenhouses and irrigation systems.

EU health-care assistance is also important. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Brussels has sent basic medical supplies to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. EU support may become essential for effective vaccination and the regeneration of tourism, which was a crucial source of household income in both countries before the outbreaks of war and contagion. 

Aside from its direct effects, a strong EU role can build support for peace. It can reassure Armenians nervous about Turkey’s actions in support of Azerbaijan and both Armenians and Azerbaijanis who, although beholden to Moscow for its engagement to end the conflict, recognise that its financial contribution will not match its military and diplomatic weight going forward. Brussels’ involvement would give the bloc an opportunity to cooperate with both Russia and Turkey. There are many areas of disagreement between Brussels and other EU capitals, on one hand, and Moscow and Ankara, on the other, but improving prospects for peace in the South Caucasus is one area where, broadly speaking, they have good reasons to work together.