Averting All-Out War in Nagorno-Karabakh: The Role of the U.S. and OSCE
Averting All-Out War in Nagorno-Karabakh: The Role of the U.S. and OSCE
Warding Off Renewed War in Nagorno-Karabakh
Warding Off Renewed War in Nagorno-Karabakh

Averting All-Out War in Nagorno-Karabakh: The Role of the U.S. and OSCE

Testimony by Magdalena Grono, former Europe & Central Asia Program Director, International Crisis Group, for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on “Averting All-Out War in Nagorno-Karabakh: The Role of the U.S. and OSCE

Thank you very much, Alex. Thank you very much for the kind introduction. Thank you also for the invitation. It’s an honor to be here, and to also be on such a distinguished panel.

I’ve been asked to set the stage and say a little about the background of the conflict and the current state of play. I would probably start by saying that other than the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the PKK conflict in Turkey, I think that Nagorno-Karabakh is, indeed, the deadliest conflict currently in Europe. It is also among the most intractable and risky. An escalatory trend has been evident in the region since the past five years or so, possibly even longer. Concentrations of weapons in the region are among the highest in Europe. And the line of contact is among the most militarized in the world.

And of course, the ceasefire is basically self-regulated, with six unarmed OSCE monitors conducting pre-agreed visits. The settlement process has been stalled, though this Monday’s summit between Presidents Aliyev and Sargsyan is a long-awaited opening for the first time since over a year. The April 2016 escalation that Alex has already mentioned has shown in no uncertain terms that the conflict has a serious potential to flare up, with possible significant humanitarian consequences. That escalation galvanized, for a short while, the settlement process, but also highlighted the entrenched zero-sum positions the parties espouse.

I would say that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is also quite so dangerous because of its possible regional implications. It has the potential to draw regional powers—Russia and Turkey—into a direct confrontation, given their respective military alliances with Armenia and Azerbaijan. If an escalation were to occur, though, it could also have broader regional implications. Here, I’m thinking mainly of Iran. After all, the 2016 escalation saw shells land on Iranian territory. But also Georgia, whose Armenian and Azerbaijani ethnic minorities, of course, found themselves in 2016 drawn in two different directions— although this did not necessarily have a broad resonance in the region. Lastly, of course, an escalation that could occur in the region would be very close to the EU’s borders. And living in Brussels, I must say that the EU takes that very seriously.

I have been asked to set the stage. And I thought I would say a couple of words on the background and the basic parameters of the conflict, and then a few words on the state of play today including, indeed, the risks that had fueled the 2016 escalation and that, on many counts, are still in place today and, in some ways, possibly have even exacerbated since last year. I hope we can then address policy recommendations and options in the discussion. I think that that probably would be the best way to go.

Firstly, on the background and the basic parameters of the conflict. Of course, the conflict’s roots go back decades, arguably centuries. But the parameters of the current dispute were formed as the USSR began to fray in the late 1980s. Nationalist sentiments swelled and led to violence. By 1991–92, moves by the majority Armenian population of the then–Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region of Azerbaijan to break away from Baku’s control had taken on the character of a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijani sides. By 1992, the CSCE, later the OSCE, sought to convene a conference in Minsk to seek a peaceful solution. This is what then, of course, developed, by 1994–1995, into the 4 OSCE Minsk Group that in 1997 started to be co-chaired by, indeed, the three co-chairs: the United States, Russia, and France.

In 1994, when the ceasefire was reached, Azerbaijan lost control of NagornoKarabakh, as well as all or part of seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Thanks to the topography, of course, positions in these areas have given Armenian forces an important security advantage. The conflict claimed 20,000 casualties and over 1 million people were displaced. Over 700,000 of those were Azerbaijanis who were displaced from Karabakh and the surrounding districts, mainly two districts. Communities have been torn apart and people-to-people contacts were, indeed, severed. The conflict also resulted in closures of Armenian and Azerbaijani and Armenian and Turkish borders, leaving Armenia connected to the outside world only by Georgia and Iran. Nagorno-Karabakh unilaterally declared independence, a move that has not been recognized by any state, not even Armenia, though there are, of course, deep links between the two.

Now, in terms of basic positions, I of course realize that it’s very difficult to sum up the basic positions, but let me give it a try. In many ways, of course, the conflict is a classical clash between the principles of territorial integrity and self-determination. And this is where it squarely falls in the mandate of the Helsinki Commission. Azerbaijan, therefore, insists on territorial integrity, claiming Armenian forces occupy up to 20 percent of its territory, although independent experts assess this at about 14 percent. For Baku, it’s essential to return under its control the districts surrounding NagornoKarabakh, and to reintegrate Karabakh itself.

Often Baku refers to possible autonomy arrangements. To support its case, Baku also recalls four U.N. Security Council resolutions of 1993, which were adopted at the height of the fighting, calling for Armenian withdrawals, but that have not been implemented. Especially since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, I would say that Baku has intensified its calls on the U.S. and the EU to treat the Karabakh conflict like they treat conflicts in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, whose territorial integrity they support unequivocally, including in the context of future conflict settlement options. The right of displaced persons to return to their homes is another key consideration for Azerbaijan.

Now, if we move towards the Armenian side, of course, the Armenian side insists on self-determination. And we should stress here, indeed, the self-determination of peoples, as per the Helsinki Final Act—so not self-determination of communities as others suggest, arguing that Karabakh needs to have the possibilities to seek self-determination outside of Azerbaijan. Another important consideration for the Armenian side is, of course, security. The lands around Karabakh have, in fact, served as a certain security buffer. This position and the need for security have, I would say, strengthened with the deteriorating conflict dynamic of the past years.

President Sargsyan has previously said that Agdam and the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh was not Armenia’s, but there are barely any constituencies in Armenia and Karabakh today that would support this claim. We will get back to that when we discuss the state of play today. The territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh have also traditionally been an important negotiating chip. It’s also worth mentioning, in terms of looking at the different positions, that an essential consideration for the Armenian side is ensuring a land corridor between Armenia and Karabakh.

Now, the settlement process, led by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs from the U.S., Russia and France, is predicated on the three principles of the Helsinki Final Act: the non-use of force; territorial integrity; and self-determination of peoples. The so-called basic 5 principles for the settlement of the conflict—and we will hear later from Ambassadors Cavanaugh and Warlick about this—that co-chairs have developed, I think that as seen from the outside, are a balanced formula for political settlement.

In their 2007 iteration, the Madrid Principles call for—and we all know them, but I will reiterate—the return of territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control; interim status for the region providing guarantees for security and selfgovernance; a corridor linking Armenia and Karabakh; future determination of the final legal status of the region through a legally binding expression of popular will; the right of return of all displaced persons; and international security arrangements, including a peacekeeping operation. I see these principles as providing a possible workable roadmap for a sustainable political settlement. And I would say this is something that we see in short supply in many of the other conflicts in the post-Soviet space.

But of course, while the parties in principle agree to these principles as a basis for negotiations, in practice the principles are very far away from the reality that currently shapes the society and from discussions in these societies. We see a big disconnect there. So, indeed, efforts to get to an agreement have consistently failed. And post 2016, the parties have taken a dramatic departure from any compromise-based solution. The relationship between Baku and Yerevan is firmly anchored in a zero-sum logic. And maximalist positions have, indeed, gained currency after 2016.

Here, I would like to shift a few years down the line to the state of play today and after 2016. And I think it’s important today to really think through the escalation of 2016 and its lessons. The dynamic today is very directly shaped by that. And many factors that had contributed to that so-called Four Day War are still valid today. In fact they have even been exacerbated. I will mainly focus on two of those factors—sort of big-ticket factors, confidence or the lack thereof, and militarization of the region.

Confidence is in short supply. There is no confidence between the sides, but there’s also very little confidence in the mediation process itself and in its ability to deliver progress. I would even say that there is little confidence in the international system that frames the settlement effort. This has become especially evident also after 2014. Azerbaijan in particular fears the process is cementing the status quo on the ground, which Baku, of course, finds unacceptable. And in the absence of confidence in the settlement mechanism, the use of force—at least tactically—to perhaps shake up the status quo, has become a part of calculations, which is something that many in Baku are fairly open about.

On the Armenian side, on the other hand, there is quite little confidence in the international system’s ability to provide any meaningful security guarantees, for Yerevan to be then able to engage in substantive talks.

The second big factor has been the arms race in the region. I think that we all have followed the increase of that. Of course, it has not stopped since 2016. So, if we roll back prior to 2016, we just look at the sort of increase that has been on the rise for the last decade or more.

Let me start with Azerbaijan. It has pursued a massive increase in military expenditure over the past decade. Three billion U.S. dollars were invested in defense in 2015 alone, which was a 165 percent increase over 2006. And of course, Azerbaijan has also sought to diversify its weapons acquisitions. We’ve seen a lot of cooperation not only with the Russian Federation, but also Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel.

The Armenian side has worked hard to catch up, although in the year that I cited, 2015, the country’s overall annual budget was smaller than Azerbaijani defense spending alone. Having said that, Yerevan is benefitting in many ways from the alliances and the close cooperation that it has with the Russian Federation, both bilaterally and in the CSTO. Many argue that, indeed, preferential tariffs for weapons purchases have probably helped close the gap.

The upshot is that the military balance has probably not been decisively tipped. There are many different factors that play into this, but the dangers are no less small. After all, both sides have access to midrange missiles that could reach civilian areas and infrastructure deep into each other’s territory—something that raises the stakes. The region also saw a progressive deterioration of security already since 2012. I won’t bore you with the trajectory of that deterioration, but in 2016 it reached a qualitatively new level through that year’s escalation.

I will say a couple of words on the escalation and on the main logic of the deadlock and obstacles now. So 2016 came as a surprise—a surprise it probably shouldn’t have been—with over 200 casualties and acquisitions, importantly, by Baku of two strategic heights, which was the first time that land changed hands since 1994. And this has very important implications. It gave Azerbaijan a morale boost. It also in a sense burst the myth of Armenian forces’ invincibility. It fueled a desire for a more significant departure from the status quo, which had become unacceptable.

On the Armenian side, it initially caused shock. But of course, it caused also a very strong upsurge of popular support for Nagorno-Karabakh and the cause. And Armenians from all walks of life and many different places started traveling to Karabakh to provide support. It led to an important revision of Karabakh’s security, with new trench and fortifications systems built, new command and control put in place, and a strong restructure of Armenia’s armed forces. Armenia also experienced a backlash against Russia following April and, indeed, a querying of Russia’s role as, on the one hand, a co-chair, but on the other hand, Armenia’s main ally, who simultaneously happens to be a provider of weapons to Azerbaijan as well.

The escalation seriously polarized the nations. On both sides maximalist positions got deeper and more entrenched. And on both sides, we hear calls for the ‘‘final settlement’’ of the conflict, which do not preclude the use of force. On the contrary, many call for the use of force and have given backing to a possible military option. Our research on this in all these locations has been very instructive. There seems to be no appetite on the Armenian side to countenance the notion of the return of territories adjacent to Karabakh. I think that’s been, for me, a really important point, that this distinction between the Karabakh and the territories seems to have been erased from the public discourse.

And on the Azerbaijani side, on the other hand, there is an insistence that the only settlement option that would be acceptable would be to reintegrate Karabakh into the territorial integrity framework of Azerbaijan.

We have already said that the escalation galvanized the settlement process briefly, with the two meetings of the presidents last May and June. But basically, the process ground to a halt by the autumn of 2016, and there have since then been serious security incidents, which have claimed dozens of casualties during the course of this year alone.

Last couple of words on the renewed deadlock and the obstacles today—the main obstacles can probably best be summarized as a tension between security and substantive 7 progress in the talks. Armenia, of course, insists on more security. We’ve seen the calls for the investigative mechanism, for increased capacities of Mr. Kasprzyk’s office, and, indeed, confidence and security building measures [CSBMs] before substantive talks can start. An official in Yerevan told me, ‘‘No one in Armenia is ready to engage in negotiations if we’re under fire.’’ I think this captured the logic very well.

But Baku, of course, feels that these various CSBMs will make it more comfortable for Yerevan to just continue with the status quo that is there, and that is so deeply unsatisfactory for Baku. And again, basic confidence is lacking.

The last three months have been much calmer on the line of contact, very interestingly, after a serious deterioration of security earlier this year. I think that this in a way allowed also for the meeting of the two presidents to take place earlier this week.

I would say it’s absolutely essential that negotiations continue to dispel risks of escalation. And in fact, a lack of contact between the sides is very dangerous. Both the absence of political contacts, but also the continued lack of contact between militaries on both sides. In contrast with other post-Soviet conflicts, there’s barely any contact between the sides at all in this conflict—both in terms of the political negotiations but also in terms even of track two efforts. I know that some are underway, but they’ve been fairly limited.

Of course, it’s excellent that the meeting took place. And hopefully it will manage the conflict better. But it will be interesting, whether it manages to bring a change in the party’s calculations. I would say there’s also a risk that if the renewed process does not manage to tackle both substance on the one hand and, indeed, the concerns about security on the other hand, we are possibly entering a phase where there will be a renewed risk of escalation.

Very last word: If there is a renewed risk of escalation, and indeed if that escalation were to occur, I think it’s important to think also about the humanitarian consequences it could have. I don’t think that a huge escalation is in the interest of any of the parties. But if an escalation were to spiral out of control, it probably would lead to significant humanitarian consequences. We can discuss that during the debate. It’s been interesting to see that humanitarian actors on the ground are very concerned about this. They’re making contingency planning. And I think that—again, our research showed that this is something that is very important because the humanitarian contingency capacities on the ground are exceedingly limited.

I would probably stop right here. Thank you very much.

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