Karabakh: is war inevitable?

Wayne Merry
22 May 2009

In a time of shooting wars, it is easy to lose sight of wars waiting to happen. This is dangerous, especially for a new US administration with an ample international agenda. Serious attention is required on Nagorno Karabakh, the simmering dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The danger of another open war in the Caucasus - one much worse than the August conflict between Russia and Georgia - is all too real. Frustration in Azerbaijan with a seemingly endless multilateral mediation effort has led opposition factions and, more recently, even the government to speak openly of a military option to restore Karabakh to Azeri sovereignty. The country's oil and gas earnings have reequipped its military, although with untested results. Russia recently sent a massive arms shipment to Armenia, while the Karabakh Armenians reportedly interpret the failure of Georgia's military last August as proof that Azerbaijan's army would fare no better in an assault on Karabakh or in a preventive war launched by the Armenian side. These views are dangerous and are riddled with error. The prevention needed is diplomatic, from Washington and Moscow working in tandem.

The apparent reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey announced on April 23, while very positive in itself, has largely ground to a halt. Ankara is unwilling, and politically unable, to move substantively in its ties with Yerevan without at least the appearance of movement on Karabakh. Unfortunately, the positive atmospherics of the meeting of the Armenian and Azeri presidents in Prague May 7 quickly dissipated in mutual accusations of bad faith. Experienced observers have seen this on-again, off-again process many times. Without progress on Karabakh, progress between Turkey and Armenia will be limited to symbolism at best.

Unsuccessful mediation

This is not the place to review the origins or grim chronicle of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict (Thomas de Waal's "Black Garden" of 2003 is the best and most objective study in English). The problem is that the fifteen-year no-war-no-peace standoff is increasingly fragile, and its failure would entail huge costs for the two countries, for the broader region and for the interests of the United States.

The Karabakh dispute has territorial, ethnic, and confessional content, but is also a product of Stalinist divide-and-rule nationality policy which produced open war when the Soviet system collapsed. The three-year war was by no means one sided, but its outcome was. The 1994 ceasefire left Armenians in control not only of Nagorno (mountain) Karabakh but of large surrounding territories and a secure corridor to Armenia. Beyond the claims to Karabakh itself, the fate of the lowlands and their former Azeri residents - refugees for almost a generation - are key to any settlement.

Mediation and working-level diplomats have not been lacking. The so-called Minsk Group co-chairs (the United States, France, and Russia) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have several times produced a draft peace framework. In each case, the political environment in the warring countries was unfavorable. Occasional political-level interventions by one or more Minsk Group capital also could not achieve the transition from negotiation to realization.

An inherent deficiency of the Minsk Group is that the three are not neutral mediators; they are themselves interested parties and at times partisan. In different ways, Washington, Paris and Moscow all tilt in their domestic politics toward Armenia. Their economic interests tilt toward Azerbaijan. To oversimplify, Armenia has an effective diaspora, while Azerbaijan has oil and gas. In Washington, the Congress loves Armenia but the Pentagon loves Azerbaijan. At the outset of the Minsk Group, Washington and Moscow had roughly common agendas, but in recent years have increasingly operated at cross purposes.

The alternative to multilateral mediation is direct negotiation, which in truth has proceeded episodically all along. Leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia (though not of Armenian Karabakh) have met repeatedly under a variety of auspices, and more than once were near an agreement. The obstacle was the same as for the Minsk Group: any workable deal is anathema to much of the population and political establishment of each.

Doomed hopes of settlement

The outlines of a settlement have been clear for fifteen years and reflect both the realities of war and the needs of peace. These realities transcend the standard rhetoric of "sovereignty and territorial integrity" as well as that of "national self-determination". In a settlement, Armenia will get Karabakh and a land corridor to Armenia, while Azerbaijan gets back the lowland surrounding territories. This is not about justice, nor right and wrong, but is the inescapable and necessary formula for peace. To be sure, there are a multitude of details (where the devil always lurks) and implementation problems (where the costs for outside powers will be substantial). The alternative is war, which is far worse and more costly.

Clearly, the greater burden of compromise is on Azerbaijan, whose people must confront truths about diplomacy and war at odds with their hopes and expectations. Diplomacy - even that of great powers - is not itself a force in international affairs but a mechanism. Diplomacy formalises and even rationalises reality, but does not alter basic reality. Diplomacy can promulgate peace and avoid war, which are its prime goals. However, diplomacy ratifies the battlefield, it does not reverse the battlefield. In any competition between war and diplomacy, war wins.

In history there have been a few instances when concerted great power diplomacy compelled a victorious smaller power to give up its battlefield gains for the broader interests of the great powers. In the case of Karabakh, such an outcome would require the United States, Russia, Europe (basically France), Turkey and perhaps even Iran to combine against Armenia in favor of Azerbaijan. The chances of this happening are nil. America and France have powerful domestic Armenian lobbies, Russia has a centuries' long strategic partnership with Armenia, and Iran has much better ties with its Armenian neighbour than with Shi'ia, but Turkic, Azerbaijan. Of the relevant outside parties, only Turkey is clearly on the side of Azerbaijan, and Turkey is wholly unable to reverse the policies of Washington, Paris, Moscow and Tehran to conform to its own. Thus, Azeri hopes that outside diplomacy will compel Armenia to give up its wartime victory are a chimera. The Azeri people need to taste this bitter cup.

Warning to Azerbaijan

Unfortunately, in Azerbaijan the tendency has been toward resumption of the sword rather than acceptance of an unpalatable peace. In the increasingly bellicose rhetoric across much of the political spectrum, a significant detail is missing. In a renewed war, Azerbaijan would almost certainly again lose, and with even worse consequences than its defeat in 1994. How can this be true, they ask in Baku, when we have shiny new weapons purchased with our gas exports? To begin with, if money equated to military capability, neither Saudi Arabia nor the Gulf Arab states would require the military protection of the United States.

To retake Karabakh by military means, Azerbaijani forces would need to overcome five objective factors which give the Karabakh Armenians immense defensive strength in depth. First is ground or terrain, in that Karabakh is a natural highland fortress currently surrounded by the wide depth of field of the occupied territories. Second is firepower, in a man-made fortress of multiple overlapping fields of fire, employing the heavily-mined occupied territories as killing zones before any attacker could reach the edge of Karabakh itself. Third is reserves of ample weaponry and munitions so the attackers would run out of young men before the defenders would run out of ammunition, while Karabakh can call on extensive manpower reinforcement from Armenia. Fourth is operational art in which the Karabakh Armenians have a clear record of superiority they would exercise in the inherently advantageous role of defenders of a skilfully prepared position. Fifth is strategic depth in Russia, which in a showdown would support its permanent security partner, while the American military would no more come to the aid of a failing Azeri offensive than it did in Georgia.

This panoply of obstacles should persuade any rational Azeri not to resort to war. Even the most favourable battlefield outcome would leave Azerbaijan immeasurably worse off than before. Beyond the toll in blood, the country's export pipelines and foreign revenues would be cut.

Indeed, it is not out of the question that the existence of an Azeri state could hang in the balance, as in a major renewed war it might be in the combined interests of Armenia, Russia and Iran to redraw the map of the eastern Caucasus. Unlikely, but history is replete with precedents.

Warning to Armenia

Caution should also be the watchword for Armenia and its cousins in Karabakh. Even a successful war would be pyrrhic and leave Armenia immeasurably worse off than before, while victory is often a bitterly relative term. Karabakh and its people would doubtless suffer greatly from modern Azeri long-range bombardment weaponry, and there is some evidence that Karabakh's edge in operational skills has eroded. In both instances, the price would be paid in blood.

In addition, Armenia's prospects for economic development would be retarded by years if not decades, its border with Turkey even more effectively closed than now, and its Metsamor nuclear power station a potential target of enraged Azeri bombing. Thus, Armenia proper might pay a greater long-term price for a Karabakh victory than would Karabakh itself.

After another war, both Armenians and Azerbaijanis could abandon any prospects their children will live better or their countries enjoy greater rule of law or participatory government. War would empower the worst sort of people in the politics of both countries. The opportunity costs for both nations would endure for generations, with real peace a lasting casualty.

Alternatives to war

What are the alternatives? Most obvious is continuation of the status quo, along the lines of Cyprus or Kashmir (neither much of a recommendation). Karabakh remains a small garrison state. Armenia remains critically limited by its landlocked geography and closed frontiers to west and east. Azerbaijan remains a kleptocracy with its finite oil and gas wealth dissipated in corruption and malfeasance. Talented young people migrate if they can or retreat into alienation from the tasks of building attractive modern societies. These prospects are pretty much what is currently on offer on both sides. Surely, there is something better?

There is, it is acceptance of peace. Peace requires compromise, in an environment where both terms are spoken on both sides with revulsion. Azerbaijan must accept the consequences of defeat in war, while Armenia must abandon expansive territorial ambitions. Partisans will argue that a return to arms somehow "cannot be worse" than giving up national aspirations and "rights". They are wrong. A renewed war will be worse than the most distasteful compromise.

Historians have judged that halfway through the First World War all the contending parties would have been better off accepting the peace demands of the opposing side than by continuing the struggle. That is certainly true for Armenia and Azerbaijan. A renewed war would be Verdun in the Caucasus.

Great power collusion needed

As noted above, the basics of a peace settlement have been on the table for years. Peace will reflect the outcome of the war, as peace almost always does. The solution will involve de facto and ultimately de jure redrawing of international borders, the resettlement of many but not all refugees, compensation where resettlement is not an option, assistance in the returned territories for extensive de-mining and rebuilding, and an international peacekeeping force of indefinite duration.

The peacekeeping effort will be a major challenge. The manpower and money will need to come principally from North American, European and Eurasian governments. The job will not be easy. In addition to difficult logistics, there will certainly be vengeful violence when the returnees see the condition of their former homes. Lasting peace will be long in coming, but the international effort is far preferable to the current illusory stability of no-war-no-peace.

What is needed is old-fashioned great power collusion by Washington and Moscow. Mediation is not enough. Armenian and Azeri political leaders will need outsiders to blame for giving up the "national dream" and accepting reality. Even if the two great powers cannot entirely impose a peace, they can certainly move the parties away from the status quo decisively in favour of compromise and settlement.

Washington and Moscow today have far too few mutual interests; their relationship is often zero sum, in that Russian diplomacy succeeds where American fails, and vice versa. There are people in both capitals who view Karabakh as zero sum. With a thoughtful and disciplined approach by the new US Administration, this need not be the case. Washington can accomplish nothing - nothing - on this issue without Moscow, so true partnership is both a necessity and a benefit in its own right. Karabakh could be a success story not just for peace in the Caucasus but for renewed great power co-operation between America and Russia.

Danger signs in the Caucasus include an escalating arms race, mutual misperceptions of intentions, a belief on each side that time is on its side, and dreams that renewed war would "solve" the dispute. Great power diplomacy is never easy, but the benefits in this case justify the effort. It is time for the outside powers and the combatants in the Karabakh dispute to give peace a chance.

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