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What’s Behind the Flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh?
What’s Behind the Flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus
Cooperation over Conflict in the South Caucasus
Ethnic Armenian servicemen in the town of Martakert in Nagorno-Karabakh, 3 April 2016. AFP/Vahram Baghdasaryan

What’s Behind the Flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh?

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has long been regarded as a tinderbox in the heart of the South Caucasus – with serious implications for the wider region including Russia, Turkey and Iran. Each spring, when low-level violence tends to break out, policymakers worry about incidents spiraling out of control due to miscalculation or escalation by leaders in Azerbaijan or Armenia. But familiarity breeds complacency, if not contempt, which is why the international community was largely unprepared for the heavy fighting that erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh on 1 April, claiming dozens of lives.

There still is little verified information about the fighting and how it was unleashed. Each side claims it has inflicted heavy losses on the other. Azerbaijani authorities say they have reclaimed control of some strategic heights, and declared a truce on 3 April. Ongoing fighting has been reported.

This is the most serious escalation since the 1994 ceasefire in the conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory fought over in a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the Armenian majority community of this former autonomous oblast of Soviet Azerbaijan sought to unite with Armenia. For more than 20 years, the ceasefire arrangement has been fragile, with a symbolic presence of six unarmed monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The monitors are deployed in support of the Minsk Process, an OSCE-led effort to resolve the conflict, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States.

Meanwhile, the past decade has witnessed a dramatic arms race between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Emboldened by its oil and gas windfall, Azerbaijan increased its military expenditure more than twenty-fold between 2004 and 2014. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has boasted that the 2014 defence budget was twice as large as Armenia’s overall state budget. Most significant arms acquisitions came from Russia. Armenia, Russia’s traditional ally, has tried to keep up, despite being economically squeezed by a lack of development and closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan. But ethnic Armenian forces have maintained control of strategic heights in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, which has given it a strong advantage and rendered the overall imbalance less acute. If Azerbaijan has now taken some of these positions, this could change the balance.

European policymakers have decried the absurdity of the parallel armament. According to a high-level diplomat, Moscow seems to have been selling arms at a higher rate to Azerbaijan to effectively subsidise the lower-cost supplies to Armenia – a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, host of a Russian military base in Gyumri, and close partner on air defence and other military arrangements, which include a commitment by Russia to defend Armenia’s international border, if necessary.

Since summer 2013, security incidents have become significantly more frequent and more serious in intensity, including the use of artillery in and around civilian areas.

To understand the security situation, one has to scrutinise both the local and the regional politics. As in other conflicts in the European Union’s eastern neighbourhood, they are closely intertwined.

Azerbaijan has been desperate to regain control over Nagorno-Karabakh, or at least the surrounding seven districts also controlled by ethnic Armenian forces since the 1990s. Hard hit by the drop in oil prices and the devaluation of its currency, Azerbaijan faced protests last winter registering a level of dissatisfaction among ordinary citizens. The government may feel the need to rally support around the flag. Baku is also less and less convinced that diplomatic solutions will deliver results: its frustration with the Minsk Group is no secret.

Armenia itself has been under serious economic strain, especially given the economic downturn in Russia, a key trading partner, and the drop in remittances. However, for Yerevan, the status quo on the ground has been advantageous. Any diplomatic efforts to change the situation, such as via the return to Azerbaijan of at least some of the districts under Armenian control, would have to be accompanied by significant security guarantees and gains toward determining Nagorno-Karabakh’s future political status.

The recent months have seen a lot of diplomatic activity, mostly fairly opaque, by Moscow. European and OSCE diplomats say this is only coordinated with the other two co-chairs of the Minsk Group, France and the U.S. – but only in part. Moscow is exploring options that draw on the basic principles for resolution defined by the Minsk Group but is likely to look for opportunities to enhance its own standing in the region. There has been discussion about a possible deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Azerbaijani diplomats have said Russia may support efforts to shift the status quo slightly and allow for some new openings, especially if Baku agrees to a closer alignment with Moscow, such as through observer status in the Moscow-led EEU.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been largely preoccupied with engagement in other theatres, not least in Syria. Turkey, despite its traditional alliance with Azerbaijan, is also stretched thin dealing with the fallout from the Syrian war, the refugee crisis and conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Iran’s re-entry into the region’s politics heralds a change, though the implications are still unclear. On 7 April, the Azerbaijani, Russian and Iranian foreign ministers will meet in Baku to discuss energy issues and possible railway connections.

European diplomats involved with the Minsk Process have been worried about a serious escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh since last year. Indeed, Federica Mogherini – EU high representative and vice-president of the European Commission – raised the issue in Baku and Yerevan during her recent visit to the region. But without a formal role in the Minsk Group and with limited traction in its ties with Armenia and Azerbaijan, the EU’s leverage is not sufficient.

Russia may have more influence, although it does not control Baku or Yerevan and their respective militaries, and has been unable to push through a solution in the past several years despite investing domestic capital. But Moscow is more closely involved than the other outside actors, and seems to pursue its own strategic interests. Key among them is a closer link with Azerbaijan and proving its own indispensability on the regional stage as a mediator and security guarantor. Moscow will likely use its leverage to enhance its own standing in the region.

As the Minsk Group meets on 5 April to discuss de-escalation, the first priority is to stop the violence. But it is essential to get beyond the logic of damage limitation. The risks over the past years have not diminished but in fact have grown. Complacency in the face of long-understood risks should be replaced by strong political will and effective mechanisms to prevent further escalations in Nagorno-Karabakh – and indeed elsewhere in Europe and Russia’s shared neighbourhood.

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.