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Armenia and Azerbaijan’s collision course over Nagorno-Karabakh

Sound principles for conflict resolution over Nagorno-Karabakh exist. But mistrust, a gulf between mediators and the parties involved, as well as Baku and Yerevan's appetite for military gains render the current formula impossible. 

May 2017: Soldiers of Nagorno Karabakh army make a patrol close to Martakert frontline, less than 300 meters of the Azerbaijan army positions. (c) NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Twenty-three years after Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire deal that ended a bloody war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a steady drumbeat of armed escalation is making a return to large-scale violent conflict more likely than ever before.

Last April, a four-day flare-up killed at least 200 people. Further skirmishes continue to inflict casualties along the Line of Contact (LoC), the 200km frontline which separates Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Both sides intermittently employ heavy artillery and anti-tank weapons against each other. In May this year, there were reports of self-guided rockets and missiles falling near densely populated areas. On 4 July, a two-year-old girl and her grandmother in the Azerbaijani village of Alkhanli were killed. 

Years of military build-up have been propelled in Azerbaijan by oil and gas windfall and in economically weaker Armenia by Russia’s preferential prices of weaponry. Alongside highly-mobilised, bellicose societies on both sides, these developments risk escalating tensions into an unprecedented larger-scale conflict. The fallout of a headlong collision would likely cause immeasurable destruction and exact an enormous civilian casualty toll far worse than April’s flare-up. Such developments could even prompt the intervention of regional powers Russia and Turkey, who have defence commitments with Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively.

At present, Baku and Yerevan say they have little faith in the stalled conflict settlement process led by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group. Meetings in May and June last year between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan produced no tangible results. Baku’s frustration with the status quo is at odds with Yerevan’s efforts, in the absence of security, to cement it.

Yet after the April 2016 escalation, both sides ultimately share the conviction that the use of force may be a better means to their ends than the defunct political talks. This heightens the temptation to try and use it, or to be ready to respond decisively. 

The aftermath of April’s escalation

The April 2016 flare-up stoked up both parties’ appetite for conflict. Despite heavy casualties on the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides, waves of pro-war sentiment swept into all segments of society. The four-day escalation amplified voices calling for a necessary decisive moment in the two-decades long conflict. Many in both societies now believe that another war is not only inevitable but may be the best way to end the perpetual, stalemated tension.

Azerbaijani society, buoyed by its sense of victory after reclaiming two strategically significant heights from Armenian side’s control, felt new confidence in its armed forces. By altering the much-resented status quo on the ground, it dispelled a myth of Armenian invincibility built up in the 1992-1994 war. Baku’s heavy investment in its armed forces since 2006 gives it the feeling of a technological edge that could tip the balance. In 2015, Baku spent $3bn on its military, more than Armenia’s entire national budget. Many in Azerbaijan consequently believe that a full reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh is feasible.

The turbulence after April 2016 was most heavily felt in Nagorno-Karabakh society itself. Although the ethnic Armenian-controlled territory retains close links with Armenia and relies on its military support, much of the population remains relatively isolated

In contrast, in the aftermath of the April escalation, Armenians questioned their leadership’s ability to protect Nagorno-Karabakh and its ethnic Armenian population. At the same time, the escalation galvanised the Armenian society, which is fully behind a decisive response to any military challenges. But throughout 2016, with an upcoming election in Spring 2017, dissatisfaction about the post-April fall out was directed at politicians. A two-year constitutional transition from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary republic, due to be completed in Spring 2018, has only increased the ruling elite’s vulnerabilities and restricted its room for manoeuvrer. The political elite feels itself under significant pressure not to repeat their performance and to stand tall in the face of heightening tensions. 

The turbulence after April 2016 was most heavily felt in Nagorno-Karabakh society itself. Although the ethnic Armenian-controlled territory retains close links with Armenia and relies on its military support, much of the population remains relatively isolated. It harbours a distinct identity shaped by its experience as a society under siege. The local de facto Nagorno-Karabakh leadership has in the past years prioritised economic and administrative reforms through embarking on programs designed to stimulate the agriculture, energy and foreign investment sectors, all of which generate local income. Yet following April’s clashes the local authorities, with Armenia’s support, reoriented priorities. They shifted local financial resources toward military purposes, such as the construction of roads and tunnels; purchasing high-tech equipment; refurbishing trench structures; and improving surveillance. 

Risks of renewed war

With increasing militarism on both sides of the Line of Contact, the relative stability that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone once knew is vanishing. The danger for both sides is that another flare-up could easily spiral out of control. In the event of a full-scale outbreak of violence, neither Baku nor Yerevan are likely to secure their objectives but rather inflict severe destruction on each other. 

Summer-Autumn 2017 is viewed by both sides as a critical period during which their enemy could intensify military operations. Yerevan believes that the Azerbaijani public has high expectations after last year’s gains and thinks Baku’s goal is to re-establish full control over at least some of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh (which are now held by ethnic Armenian forces) if not all of the conflict region. For its part, Baku believes Yerevan might provoke a fight to regain the land it lost in April 2016, or otherwise improve its standing. In the absence of military communications or any dialogue between the sides, a fateful misinterpretation of both sides’ intentions and activities is ever-easier to imagine along the front line. 

A resident of Shusha displays a photo of a family member killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh War (1991-1994). CC Marco Fieber / Flickr. Some rights reserved.A new consensus emerged in the Nagorno-Karabakh’s society in the winter of 2016. In the event of an Azerbaijani attack, it is likely that Armenian forces will advance fifteen kilometres beyond the LoC into Azerbaijani territory in order to establish a larger buffer zone and secure new bargaining chips for eventual negotiations. Armenians believe such a move would break their enemy’s will to fight once and for all. Yet this would be a highly risky strategy. Baku is keen to make use of its technical and quantitative advantage in weaponry and equipment supplied by Russia, Israel, Pakistan and Turkey, as well as its ever-expanding military numbers, to inflict heavy costs. 

Keeping another flare-up remote, limited and local will be difficult. In the event that either side comes under heavy pressure, their possession of ballistic missiles – absent during the 1990s conflict – all but guarantees widespread destruction of civilian, economic and military infrastructure. Neither side can necessarily prevent triggering regional tripwires that might cause a far larger war. While Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO) led by Russia and also has bilateral defence commitments with Russia, Azerbaijan in 2010 signed an Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support with Turkey.

A sudden escalation will quickly have major humanitarian impact, widespread displacement and an unprecedented number of casualties. An Armenian advance into the Azerbaijani side of the LoC would impact numerous densely populated settlements of ethnic Azerbaijanis. Estimates suggest that anywhere between 300,000 to 600,000 residents would be displaced in the event of open conflict. Moreover, war would put the 150,000 inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh itself under huge strain. Soviet-era bomb shelters are locked or decrepit and many residents remain unclear of what to do in the event of war. Basic medicinal supplies and foodstuffs are limited. 

Unlocking the settlement process

The April 2016 hostilities clarified the risks as well as heavy costs of renewed conflict. But far from spurring the two parties to cooperate and reinvigorate the moribund negotiation process, two subsequent high-level meetings in Vienna and St

Petersburg were unable to reach any agreement. Negotiations ground to a halt in September 2016, with some indications in Spring 2017 that another meeting between presidents is being considered for later this year. 

Public opinion on both sides appears increasingly entrenched, bellicose and uncompromising. Respective leaders tread a fine line between appeasing hawkish domestic constituencies and compromising just enough to move the settlement process forward – or at least to prevent the blame for failure falling on their own shoulders. Ironically, Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders face the same dilemma. Mutual concessions that might benefit the two countries and lower tensions in the longer term could in the shorter run threaten internal stability and the survival of ruling elites. There is thus little incentive for compromise. The tactical use of force remains the dominant modus operandi to gain advantage at the negotiating table. 

October 2014: French president Francois Hollande hosts talks with his Azerbaijan' counterpart Ilham Aliyev as part of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Summit over Nagorno-Karabakh. (c) Pool/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Further compounding the stalemate is Yerevan and Baku’s deep mistrust of international mediators who they perceive as guided by the interests of major powers and incapable of ensuring the region’s security. In theory, both sides seek a more proactive mediation role of the OSCE Minsk Group. In practice, both sides want the Minsk Group to criticise and assign responsibility for stalled talks and the deteriorating security situation on the other party. So far the Minsk Group Co-Chair countries, Russia, the US and France, have remained highly cautious and only the Russian co-chair has had backing by the country’s leadership. 

The cause of peace has suffered from waning western interest over the past decade. Russia is the sole country consistently demonstrating high level political will to engage, at the same time as selling weaponry to both parties. Both Baku and Yerevan suspect that Moscow is using this leverage to buttress its geopolitical presence in the South Caucasus, an area it considers a “sphere of privileged interests”. The absence of western leadership has left the two parties at the mercy of Russian mediation. Although Moscow has been active in forwarding proposals, they have gained little traction or support. The Lavrov Plan of late 2015, predicated on the return to Azerbaijan of five or seven Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh, security arrangements and interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh, sparked Armenian anger and fears that Russia’s position was shifting toward Baku.

Outstanding issues

So long as the conflict’s core sticking points remain unaddressed, both sides treat war as a real option. Three main issues have remained unresolved on the negotiating table since the end of the 1990s war. Resolution of these are the only way to build a solid foundation for a durable peace. 

First, seven Azerbaijani districts outside Nagorno-Karabakh itself have been held by ethnic Armenian forces since 1994. While Baku insists these territories are under “occupation” – the term used in UN Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 from the 1992-1994 war – Yerevan says the territories can only be returned within a larger agreement, which will also take into consideration security arrangements and the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

In order to address the outstanding conflict issues, a first stepping stone will be to combat the profound lack of trust between leaders and the societies

Second, principles of self-determination and territorial integrity are far from a black-and-white issue. Azerbaijan insists on self-rule for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan, thus guaranteeing Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Armenia calls for self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh outside of Azerbaijan, which would in practice lead to independence for the territory, even if that may be a prelude to a union with Armenia.The precedents of Kosovo’s recognition by the West, and Russia’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as its annexation of Crimea in 2014 have particular resonance in Nagorno-Karabakh. These cases stoke fears that discussions of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status might make the conflict’s parties pawns in a larger geopolitical chess game.

For all sides, state-led propaganda has entrenched public opinion against concessions. (c) Sergei Grits / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Third, peacekeeping forces and broader international security agreements are a precondition for return of the territories around NK under Azerbaijani control, as well as for the return home of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis, displaced by the 1990s war. Aside from the two sides’ general lack of faith that international guarantees will be respected, much debate exists on the composition and mandate of such a security force. Only Russia has expressed willingness to send military personnel. But in a rare example of mutual agreement, neither Baku nor Yerevan wish to see Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone.

Troop deployment by any outside power, particularly Russia, is a hard pill to swallow for post-Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan, who have both recently celebrated a quarter century of sovereign independence. 

A way forward?

In order to address the outstanding conflict issues, a first stepping stone will be to combat the profound lack of trust between leaders and the societies.

Since the 1990s, negotiations have become the prerogative of the two sides’ presidents and foreign ministers. While all alternative channels of communications are closed, the rhetoric since April 2016 has grown increasingly provocative. The hyper-personalisation of the process means substantive positions are the sole responsibility of the individual rather than broader institutions. When relations are frosty between leaders, as present circumstances demonstrate, negotiations cannot be divorced from the prevailing political climate.

Progress will also partly depend on restoring faith in international diplomatic mediation, namely the Minsk Group. Negotiations are the only way out of the current impasse and the best way to avert another war. Sound principles for conflict resolution exist, but pervasive mistrust, a gulf between outside mediators and the parties involved, and Baku and Yerevan’s current appetite for maximal military gains render the current formula incapacitated. 

Western powers, particularly Washington and Paris, will need to reinvigorate their interest in conflict. High-level coordination with Moscow to kickstart substantive discussions on the unresolved issues is pivotal. In the short term, the Minsk Group can work on enhancing monitoring, implementing an investigative mechanism and increasing cross-party communication between political elites and militaries. Such proposals were discussed in Vienna and St Petersburg and need to proceed, but must be accompanied by the more substantive discussions of outstanding issues. 

While Yerevan favours security confidence building measures before substantive talks, Baku will balk at their implementation without the prospect of discussions. Pressure from high-level powers here is capable of bridging the divide. They can also push Armenia and Azerbaijan to tone down their hostile rhetoric, soften their negotiating position, and acknowledge – privately and publicly – that this conflict ultimately will only be resolved through negotiations. Ultimately, the mentality that currently persists, namely that stalemate, even war, are better options than compromise and negotiation, must be overcome.

 

About the authors

Olesya Vartanyan is the Europe Fellow at International Crisis Group, the independent conflict prevention organisation.

Magdalena Grono is Europe and Central Asia Program Director at International Crisis Group, the independent conflict prevention organisation.


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