Нагорный Карабах: приближение к развязке
Нагорный Карабах: приближение к развязке
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Warding Off Renewed War in Nagorno-Karabakh
Warding Off Renewed War in Nagorno-Karabakh
Briefing 55 / Europe & Central Asia

Нагорный Карабах: приближение к развязке

КРАТКИЙ ОБЗОР

Прорыв в затянувшемся на два десятилетия конфликте вокруг Нагорного Карабаха – подписание рамочного соглашения об основных принципах, возможно находится в пределах досягаемости. Армения и Азербайджан в основном согласны с этими принципами, контуры которых были впервые очерчены Минской Группой Организации по безопасности и сотрудничеству в Европе (ОБСЕ) в 2005 г. Хотя договоренность об основных принципах является всего лишь основой для дальнейшей работы, она играет решающую роль для достижения мирного соглашения. Остаются серьезные различия по конкретным пунктам последующего окончательного соглашения. Продвижение к восстановлению отношений между Арменией и Турцией после вековой вражды также улучшило возможности выхода из тупикового положения по проблеме Нагорного Карабаха. Устойчивый мир в регионе требует компромиссов по всем конфликтам, но есть опасность обратной отрицательной реакции, особенно в Армении, где недовольство общественности может пустить под откос рамочное соглашение по Нагорному Карабаху. Президенты Саркисян (Армения) и Алиев (Азербайджан) должны сделать больше для информирования своей общественности. США, Россия и Франция, сопредседатели Минской Группы, умножили коллективные усилия, но необходимо сделать больше, чтобы подчеркнуть опасность попыток цепляться за ненадежное статус-кво.

Хотя в ближайшем будущем преднамеренная наступательная операция с обеих сторон маловероятна, перемирие, которое остановило активные боевые действия пятнадцать лет назад, становится все более хрупким. Отмечается постоянный рост частоты и интенсивности вооруженных столкновений, которые могут непредумышленно спровоцировать более широкий конфликт. Хотя это перемирие дало возможность предотвратить возвращение к полномасштабным боевым действиям, тем не менее с 1994 года вдоль линии фронта погибло порядка 3 тыс. человек – как военнослужащих, так и гражданских лиц.

Официальные переговоры также не привели к существенному смягчению большого скептицизма и цинизма среди армян и азербайджанцев по отношению к возможному разрешению конфликта. К процессу посредничества отмечается  глубокое недоверие, и многие люди с обеих сторон испытывают подозрение, что эти переговоры служат всего лишь ширмой. Многие также жалуются на закрытость переговоров. Это питает почву для подозрений, что мирное соглашение означает капитуляцию, и что лидеры, которые пошли бы на его заключение, были бы виновны в измене. Эти страхи сформировались в результате многих лет официальной и неофициальной пропаганды с обеих сторон и, особенно в Армении, растет чувство, что изменение статус-кво могло бы создать новые угрозы для безопасности. Следует отметить, что даже некоторые правительственные чиновники обеспокоены тем, что на Армению оказывается давление  с тем, чтобы она отдала нечто существенное – оккупированные ею территории – в обмен на простые обещания безопасности. Эти чувства особенно остро проявляются в Нагорном Карабахе.

Предполагается что президенты в целом договорились о необходимости поэтапного вывода вооруженных сил этнических армян из тех районов Азербайджана за пределами Нагорного Карабаха, которые они контролируют  в настоящее время. Азербайджан также обозначил, что он в принципе не возражает против коридора, связывающего Нагорный Карабах и Армению. Существуют разногласия о сроках и порядке возвращения этнических азербайджанских беженцев в Нагорный Карабах, однако самой спорной проблемой остается окончательный статус региона. Было отмечено некоторое продвижение к определению «промежуточного статуса» для Нагорного Карабаха, но Азербайджан все же настаивает, чтобы он юридически всегда оставался частью его территории, в то время как Армения (и де-факто власти Нагорного Карабаха) настаивают, чтобы жители региона были вправе определить свой собственный статус, быть ли ему частью Армении или независимым государством.

Правительства Армении и Азербайджана должны вовлечь свое население в обсуждение вариантов, представленных на переговорах, а также рисков дальнейшего сохранения статус-кво. Общественные организации, вовлеченные в миростроительство, должны направить свои усилия на обеспечение более конструктивного и широкого обсуждения этих проблем. Проектами международных НПО охвачен лишь мизерный процент армян и азербайджанцев. Часто одни и те же «эксперты» привлекались к участию в конференциях на протяжении более десяти лет, что в значительной степени не позволило обеспечить большее понимание общественности по проблемам, вариантам решения и их последствиям, которые могли бы снизить напряженность и, таким образом, развязать руки посредников.

Помимо всего прочего, Армения и Азербайджан должны постепенно привлекать де-факто власти Нагорного Карабаха и азербайджанских представителей Нагорного Карабаха к мирным переговорам, чтобы они могли участвовать в принятии решений, которые непосредственно их затрагивают. Всесторонний и многослойный формат, предполагающий прямые контакты между Азербайджаном и карабахскими армянами, a также между армянами и азербайджанцами  Карабаха, мог бы помочь в установлении более эффективного диалога.

К числу определенных дополнительных шагов, которые необходимо предпринять, относятся следующие:

  • стороны должны подкрепить свои обязательства воздержаться от применения силы, позволив существенно расширить мандат крохотной миссии наблюдателей ОБСЕ, например, санкционировать расследование заявлений о нарушениях и позволить увеличить число наблюдателей на этом основании, что в свою очередь могло бы облегчить создание международных сил по поддержанию мира, как только будет заключено такое соглашение.
     
  • Азербайджан должен пересмотреть свою позицию и принять предложение ОБСЕ, уже  предположительно принятое Арменией, о выводе снайперов из районов линии фронта, и обе стороны должны прекратить продвижение своих траншей к позициям другой стороны.
     
  • Армения, вместе с де-факто властями Нагорного Карабаха и Азербайджаном, должна начать планирование вариантов действий, механизмов и процедур для вывода армянских вооруженных сил из районов Азербайджана за пределами Нагорного Карабаха, который они продолжают оккупировать.
     
  • Правительства Армении и Азербайджана должны официально одобрить к концу 2009 г. документ об основных принципах и полностью раскрыть его содержание на общественных форумах. Армения должна побудить де-факто власти Нагорного Карабаха к одобрению этого документа.
     
  • Азербайджан должен позволить азербайджанцам Нагорного Карабаха больше участвовать на переговорах и во внутриполитическом процессе, включая путем принятия законодательства, позволяющего им избирать главу их общины.
     
  • Все стороны конфликта должны обсудить всесторонний и многослойный формат переговоров, предполагающий установление прямых контактов между правительством Азербайджана и де-факто властями Нагорного Карабаха, также как между армянами и азербайджанцами Карабаха.
     
  • Внешние действующие лица, в особенности США, Франция (и, в более широком смысле, ЕС) и Россия должны усилить свои коллективные усилия по побуждению Армении и Азербайджана к официальной ратификации документа об основных принципах и незамедлительному переходу к переговорам по мирному соглашению.
     
  • Доноры, вовлеченные в разработку, осуществление или финансирование проектов по миростроительству, должны привлечь больше людей в свои проекты, в том числе через электронные СМИ и совместные общественные форумы.
     
  • Де-факто власти Нагорного Карабаха должны прекратить поддержку процесса заселения армянами территорий, в которых ранее преобладало азербайджанское население, включая путем прекращения приватизации, развития инфраструктуры и учреждения структур местного самоуправления в этих районах.

I. Overview

A preliminary breakthrough in the two-decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – a framework agreement on basic principles – may be within reach. Armenia and Azerbaijan are in substantial accord on principles first outlined by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group in 2005. A basic principles agreement, while only a foundation to build on, is crucial to maintain momentum for a peace deal. Important differences remain on specifics of a subsequent final deal. Movement toward Armenia-Turkey rapprochement after a century of hostility has brought opportunity also for ending the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate. Sustainable regional peace requires compromises on all the quarrels, but there is backlash danger, especially in Armenia, where public discontent could derail the Nagorno-Karabakh framework agreement. Presidents Sarkisian (Armenia) and Aliyev (Azerbaijan) need to do more to prepare their publics. The U.S., Russia and France, Minsk Group co-chairs, have stepped up collective efforts, but more is needed to emphasise dangers in clinging to an untenable status quo.

Although a deliberate military offensive from either side is unlikely in the near future, the ceasefire that ended active hostilities fifteen years ago is increasingly fragile. There has been a steady increase in the frequency and intensity of armed skirmishes that could unintentionally spark a wider conflict. Though the ceasefire has helped prevent return to full-scale hostilities, it has not prevented some 3,000 deaths along the front line – military and civilian alike – since 1994.

The official negotiations have also not significantly tempered the great scepticism and cynicism among both Armenians and Azerbaijanis about a possible end to the conflict. There is deep distrust of the mediating process, and many on both sides are suspicious that the talks are little more than window-dressing. Many also complain about what they perceive as the secretive nature of the talks. This gives rise to suspicions that a peace deal equates to surrender and that leaders who would take such action would be guilty of treason. These fears have been fuelled by years of official and unofficial propaganda on both sides, and particularly in Armenia, there is a growing sentiment that a change in the status quo could create new security threats. Notably, there is concern even among some government officials that Armenia is being pressured to give up something tangible – the occupied territories – in exchange for mere promises of security. These feelings are especially acute in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The presidents are believed to have broadly agreed on the need for an eventual pullout of ethnic Armenian forces from districts of Azerbaijan outside of Nagorno-Karabakh they currently control. Azerbaijan has also given indications that it is not opposed to a corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. There have been differences on a timetable for the return of ethnic Azeri refugees to Nagorno-Karabakh. The most contentious issue, however, is the region’s final status. There has been some movement towards defining an “interim status” for Nagorno-Karabakh, but Azerbaijan still insists that it must always remain legally part of its territory, while Armenia (and the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities) insist that residents of the region have the right to determine their own status, be it as part of Armenia or as an independent state.

The Armenian and Azerbaijani governments should engage their populations in genuine debate about the options on the negotiating table, as well as the risks of letting the current situation linger. Civil society organisations involved in peacebuilding should revamp their efforts to facilitate constructive, wider discussion. International NGO projects have involved a miniscule percentage of Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Often the same “experts” have been involved for over a decade in conferences that have largely failed to create the greater public awareness on issues, options and their implications that could diminish insecurities and so free the hands of the negotiators.

Furthermore, Armenia and Azerbaijan should gradually involve Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto authorities and the Nagorno-Karabakh Azeri representatives in the peace talks to secure their buy-in to decisions that would directly affect them. An inclusive and multi-layered format envisioning direct contacts between Azerbaijan and Karabakh Armenians as well as between the Karabakh Armenians and Azeris could help promote a more efficient dialogue. 

Specific additional steps that should be taken include:

  • The sides should reinforce pledges to refrain from use of force by allowing the mandate of the tiny OSCE observer mission to be significantly broadened, for example to authorise investigation of claims of violations, and allowing a larger monitoring force on the ground that could facilitate establishment of an international peacekeeping force once an agreement is in place.
     
  • Azerbaijan should review its position and accept OSCE proposals, apparently agreed by Armenia, to remove snipers from front line areas, and both sides should stop advancing their trenches towards the other’s positions.
     
  • Armenia, together with the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities and Azerbaijan, should begin contingency planning on the mechanisms and procedures for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the districts of Azerbaijan outside of Nagorno-Karabakh they continue to occupy.
     
  • The Armenian and Azerbaijani governments should formally endorse by the end of 2009 the document on basic principles and fully disclose its contents in public forums. Armenia should encourage the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities to uphold the agreement.
     
  • Azerbaijan should allow Karabakh Azeris to play a bigger role in the negotiations and the internal political process, including by passing legislation allowing them to elect the head of their community.
     
  • All sides to the conflict should consider an inclusive and multi-layered negotiation format envisioning direct contacts between the Azerbaijani government and the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, as well as between the Karabakh Armenians and Azeris.
     
  • External actors, particularly the U.S., France (and, broadly, the EU) and Russia should intensify their collective efforts to encourage Armenia and Azerbaijan to formally endorse the basic principles document and move on at once to negotiating the peace agreement.
     
  • Donors involved in developing, implementing or funding peacebuilding should engage greater numbers of people in their projects, including through electronic media and joint public forums.
     
  • The de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities should end their support for settlement of formerly Azeri majority areas with Armenians, including an end to privatisation, infrastructure development and the establishment of local government structures in those areas.

Baku/Yerevan/Tbilisi/Brussels, 7 October 2009

An Azerbaijani soldier stands on the road to Shusha, controlled by Azerbaijani forces. On the other side of the fence, a Russian checkpoint set on the parallel road used by Armenians. July 2022 CRISIS GROUP
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia

Warding Off Renewed War in Nagorno-Karabakh

Several soldiers have been killed in clashes between Azerbaijani troops and ethnic Armenian forces answering to the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, raising fears of escalation. Crisis Group experts Olesya Vartanyan, Zaur Shiriyev and Anita Mihaeljana explain what can be done to safeguard the ceasefire.

What do we know about the latest fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh?

The incidents have to do with disagreements over provisions of the Russian-backed ceasefire that ended the 2020 war over this mountainous enclave, which Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting for since the Soviet Union’s demise. At the end of their first war, in 1994, Armenian forces were in full or partial control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts. In the 2020 fighting, Baku took back the seven districts as well as part of the territory. Under the ceasefire, Russian peacekeepers deployed to the areas of Nagorno-Karabakh still held by ethnic Armenians after Armenian troops withdrew. The truce did not settle the territory’s final status or the disposition of the de facto authorities who administer the entity’s Armenian-held areas 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 and the de facto authorities want special security provisions and rights for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians.

In March, Azerbaijani forces had seized territory around Farukh, an ethnic Armenian-populated village patrolled by Russian peacekeepers as part of the 2020 ceasefire, and established new positions in the nearby mountains. Because Farukh lies in a strategic spot, the surrounding heights giving direct views deep into Armenian-populated areas, the move seeded concerns in Stepanakert and Yerevan that Baku would mount a new offensive, taking advantage of Moscow’s divided attention as it pursues the campaign in Ukraine and Azerbaijan’s much stronger military position since the 2020 war. Diplomacy briefly prevailed when EU mediation brought together the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders, who agreed to start peace talks in April.

But tensions have been on the rise again in recent weeks. Since mid-July, residents of Azerbaijani villages have told Crisis Group of additional activity by Azerbaijani forces in Lachin, near the border with Armenia, and Shusha, which lies on high ground close to Stepanakert and is thus a strategic outpost. State-controlled media in Baku have also run reports of a potential new Azerbaijani military operation. On 1 August, the de facto authorities in Stepanakert said a soldier under their command had been wounded in clashes with Azerbaijani forces at the north-eastern front – an incident confirmed by Russian peacekeepers watching over the area.

On 3 August, Baku launched a military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, saying an Azerbaijani soldier had been killed in the Lachin region in an exchange of fire with the Armenian de facto Nagorno-Karabakh forces. De facto authorities in Stepanakert reported that Azerbaijani forces were advancing in a number of locations on the western and north-western fronts and near the main road that connects the entity with Armenia. The Azerbaijani defence ministry released footage of drone attacks on a de facto Nagorno-Karabakh base, as well as another outpost. Stepanakert said two of its soldiers were killed and nineteen wounded in these strikes.

The fighting in areas that have been largely calm since the 2020 war, as shown in this Crisis Group visual explainer, has renewed fears of a broader Azerbaijani offensive in the coming days. In a conversation with Crisis Group on 4 August, the de facto authorities accused Azerbaijan of breaching the truce by retaking positions that both sides had agreed to vacate in 2021 due to their proximity to civilian settlements. On 5 August, Azerbaijan said its military had taken control of another strategic location, Mount Buzdukh and the adjacent heights.

The de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have called on residents of the entity’s Armenian-populated parts to evacuate areas north of where the 3 August drone strikes took place. One target of a wider offensive, they fear, could be the Armenian-populated village of Yeghtsahogh, which is home to more than 200 people, lying as it does near a strategic road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, known as the Lachin corridor. In another village, Vaghuhas, whose 800 inhabitants were also told to leave, a resident said few are complying because they do not know where to go. “The situation is really bad”, 23-year-old Svetlana told Crisis Group by telephone. “The thing is that there are no roads for us to leave or in emergency situations to escape. We are surrounded on four sides … People are in a panic”.

What is Azerbaijan hoping to achieve?

Baku has called the military operation a “revenge” for the death of its soldier in what it said was an Armenian assault, but its actions appear to owe as well to dissatisfaction with the situation on the ground. Baku has three goals it wants to achieve either by force or the threat thereof, which it hopes will pressure Armenia to capitulate in negotiations.

The first concerns the overland route that goes from Stepanakert to Armenia. The only road now is the Lachin corridor, which runs past the outposts where Baku staged its drone strikes and proceeds through Azerbaijan’s mountainous Lachin region to Shusha, which Azerbaijani forces retook in the 2020 war. The ceasefire agreement provides that the parties build an alternative road within three years, after which the Russian peacekeepers deployed along the current route will relocate to the new one. Completion of the new road will allow Azerbaijan to take back control of Lachin city and surrounding areas. Baku believes Yerevan is stalling on laying its several-kilometre section of the new road, although Armenia issued a tender for beginning construction in August. A senior de facto official insisted after the 3 August clashes that Stepanakert is willing, including via a temporary arrangement, to stop using the Lachin corridor as soon as possible. The de facto authorities have told the remaining residents of Lachin who moved there after Armenian forces took the town from Azerbaijan in 1992 to leave by the end of August. Baku, meanwhile, has almost completed its 32km section of the new road. “The Armenian side is trying to delay the commissioning of the new road this year, thereby purposely delaying the handover of the city of Lachin and a number of villages to Azerbaijan”, an Azerbaijani official said.

Azerbaijan says the only deal it wants is one that begins with unequivocal acceptance by Armenia of Baku’s sovereignty ... including the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s second grievance relates to what it says is Armenia’s failure to withdraw forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, as the ceasefire says it must do. Yerevan says it has done so. The issue, it says, is Azerbaijan’s concern that Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto authorities retain an armed force. Baku argues that this force is illegal, demanding that Russian peacekeepers disarm it, while Armenia and the de facto authorities say its disarmament was never part of the ceasefire deal. Baku seized upon comments Armen Grigoryan, Armenia’s Security Council secretary, made in an interview in mid-July that Armenia would withdraw forces by September as evidence of its claims. Yerevan has since furiously tried to walk back words it says were taken out of context. On 4 August, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reiterated that all Armenian armed forces have left Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said on 15 July the “Russian side had promised to our defence ministry that Armenian armed forces would withdraw from Karabakh by June, but this issue hasn’t been resolved yet”. An Azerbaijani military official told Crisis Group that it will press ahead with operations until the area is fully demilitarised.

Thirdly, Baku appears keen to proceed to talks over a treaty that it hopes will end the conflict to its advantage. At the 6 April meeting between the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders in Brussels, the two declared their readiness to start talks on such an agreement. Azerbaijan has voiced frustration that subsequent diplomacy has moved too slowly. An Azerbaijani official alleged that Armenian officials are purposely delaying talks. “They think that, by prolonging the negotiations, they can wait for the geopolitical situation to change in their favour”, the official said.

What is the view from Armenia?

For their part, officials in Yerevan blame Baku, saying its representatives, not theirs, are dragging their feet in EU-mediated talks and hoping to take advantage of the world’s focus on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Amid mutual accusations, Baku cancelled a third round of talks between high-level officials that was to take place in Brussels after meetings in March and May. In response, Prime Minister Pashinyan said, “It is clear that Azerbaijan is trying to legitimise a large-scale attack on Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia”.

From a military standpoint, Armenia and de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh view Baku’s seizure of Farukh in March, as well as positions held by the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh forces near the Lachin corridor and along the front lines in the entity’s north and north west, as an attempt to gain high ground and, thus, strategic advantage.

Armenia and the de facto authorities want special security provisions and rights for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians.

Yerevan views the escalation as an attempt to pressure it to drop any calls to sustain discussions on Nagorno-Karabakh’s future status. Baku has not been interested in exploring creative solutions for the status of Nagorno-Karabakh of the sort floated before the 2020 war that entailed a high degree of autonomy from Baku and self-governance. In April, Pashinyan said he would be ready to soften Yerevan’s long-time insistence that talks address the question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence claim if that could prevent a renewed war. The residents’ security and rights, he said, were more important. “What we are saying is that the people of Karabakh must not leave it, the people of Karabakh must live in Karabakh, the people of Karabakh must have rights, freedoms and a status”, Pashinyan said on 14 April, responding to domestic criticism that he was preparing to compromise on the entity’s status.

Can Russian peacekeepers deter Azerbaijan and enforce the ceasefire?

Amid the rising tensions, on 1 August Russian President Vladimir Putin along with his foreign and defence ministers held calls with counterparts in Baku and Yerevan to try lowering the temperature. For now, the Russian diplomatic effort appears not to have deterred Azerbaijan.

In Yerevan and Stepanakert, some have grown frustrated with what they see as the Russian peacekeepers’ inaction in stopping ceasefire violations, though it is unclear how much the Russians can actually do. The de facto entity’s president, Arayik Harutyunyan, spoke out against calls for protest by local activists and residents on social media in front of the peacekeepers’ headquarters on 3 August. Meanwhile, Pashinyan on 4 August blamed the peacekeepers' apparent inability to intervene more forcefully on Azerbaijan’s refusal to agree on a clear mandate for the Russian mission. In effect, he said, these limitations tie the peacekeepers’ hands. The mission does publish regular updates, warning on 3 August of an “aggravated situation”, in its strongest wording to date.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its peacekeeping mission has faced even greater challenges than before, with criticism mounting from both sides. In a bid to improve the peacekeepers’ image, the Russian mission’s head invited a number of local activists and politicians for a rare meeting on 4 August to discuss recent incidents. All signs point to Russian peacekeepers actively monitoring the situation in the area where the most intense clashes have taken place. Since early May, they have been conducting daily patrols on Sarybaba heights close to the Lachin corridor. The patrols stopped a couple of days before the Azerbaijani advances, however, for reasons that are unclear. A senior de facto official in Stepanakert said the peacekeepers often feel powerless. “Everyone understands that Russia is weaker than ever before in the international arena”, the de facto representative said.

A Russian checkpoint (right) stands on the Armenian road passing by Shusha and leading to Lachin. On the left side of the fence, a parallel Azerbaijani checkpoint guards the road to Shusha. July 2022. CRISIS GROUP

How can diplomacy help?

The escalation has prompted a rash of renewed diplomacy to curb the fighting and calls from Brussels, Washington, Moscow and Paris to respect the ceasefire. The UN and NATO have chimed in with the same message. Efforts by Moscow and Brussels to tamp down tensions in the spring had brought important milestones – including the first-ever talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers, which took place in Tbilisi in July, and a 15 July agreement between Baku and Yerevan to hold talks on delimiting the state borders. Even as Baku was signalling frustration with the status quo in July, a number of Western officials told Crisis Group that Armenia and Azerbaijan were on verge of finalising agreements on new, much anticipated trade routes in the region.

The parties should not allow the August clashes to slow the positive diplomatic momentum. The Armenian government, in particular, has shown itself willing to make difficult concessions in recent weeks despite fierce criticism at home and security worries among residents in Nagorno-Karabakh. Its officials dropped reservations on the format of talks, agreeing to meet anywhere with or without third-party mediation. Yerevan agreed to look into ways of signing a peace treaty with Baku that would leave the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh open. That is a big step for Yerevan although officials in Baku have dismissed it. Senior Armenian officials admit in private that they feel they have little choice but to cede some of Azerbaijan’s demands, given their weaker military position and doubts that their main ally, Russia, will come to their aid given its entanglement in Ukraine.

Western capitals and Moscow should try to ensure that their standoff over Ukraine does not bleed into mediation efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan should not waste what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has dubbed a “historic opportunity” to broker a peace treaty. It should take steps immediately to de-escalate tensions and return to negotiations. Among people in Azerbaijan, unlike in the lead-up to the 2020 war, support for the latest military operations is muted. A number of civil society representatives told Crisis Group that continued tensions will undermine the EU-mediated peace talks. Continued tensions have the potential to damage Baku’s reputation, putting at risk other aspects of bilateral cooperation with the European Union, from development funding to energy. They could also jeopardise other diplomatic initiatives, such as the rapprochement between Türkiye and Armenia, which could boost overall trade in the South Caucasus. Behind closed doors, some Azerbaijani officials appear to support opening those two countries’ long-sealed border.

President Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan missed an opportunity to publicly urge the two sides to de-escalate at their meeting in Russia’s southern city of Sochi on 5 August. Both have a stake in avoiding a broader escalation and, in particular, encouraging the sides to move ahead with the talks on new transport routes.

The clashes have once again highlighted the challenges faced by the Russian peacekeeping mission without a clear mandate for how it can engage beyond its monitoring role – a problem made worse by Russia’s loss of standing following its invasion of Ukraine. In a 2021 report, Crisis Group called on the sides to hold talks on clarifying the peacekeepers’ role. They appear increasingly unlikely to do so, particularly amid increasing criticism of the mission by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Such frustration risks undermining the peacekeepers’ ability to carry out their existing mandate of observing the ceasefire in the conflict zone. If and when the time becomes ripe, international mediators must urge the sides to revisit this issue, which will likely come to a head in any case in 2025 when Baku and Yerevan must give their assent to the mission’s continuation.

The EU, which is the only party besides Moscow to bring Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders together since the November 2020 ceasefire, has played a useful role in keeping contacts going. It should redouble its efforts, including with high-level visits, such as European Council President Charles Michel’s trip in the summer of 2021, which helped advance talks. Postponement – or worse, cancellation – of a planned meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders later in August could exacerbate the situation. Washington should also throw its weight behind attempts at diplomacy; it should remain engaged in supporting the EU’s mediation and in its own closed-door facilitation of contacts between the two countries’ officials.

Most importantly, Western capitals and Moscow should try to ensure that their standoff over Ukraine does not bleed into mediation efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia, long the leading outside power in this conflict, fears being sidelined in negotiations if it loses influence with Baku and Yerevan. Even distracted, Moscow pays more attention to Armenia and Azerbaijan than does Brussels or Washington. It remains the only country that has been willing to dispatch forces to the region and it remains a key trade partner of both countries. Working with Moscow, distasteful as it may be in European capitals, improves the odds of bringing peace to the South Caucasus. Concerted diplomacy by all outside actors might yet avert a return to war and keep nascent talks about an eventual peace settlement and new trade routes on track.

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