Nagorno-Karabakh: A severe escalation of an unresolved conflict in the Caucasus

The unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has escalated into heavy fighting involving artillery, tanks, aircraft and drones. The prospects for an immediate solution are slim but the international community needs to focus on achieving a ceasefire and returning the search for a resolution of the conflict to the OSCE Minsk Group.

On the 27th September fighting erupted between the militaries of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting is the most serious escalation of the conflict since 2016, but there is a chain of violent events and minor escalations stretching back to the 1994 ceasefire that ended the war over the region. In conflict resolution terms it is a conflict whose resolution has been postponed with any solutions left for later. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is essentially one that is intractable and effectively frozen while mediation and negotiation goes on in the search for an actual resolution. As it stands, the conflict is one in which a ceasefire has held despite relatively minor skirmishes but with an unresolved incompatibility festering away in the background. Such situations are prone to major escalation and this eventually happened at the end of September and has resulted in heavy fighting leading to hundreds of casualties and the reported displacement of half of the area’s population.

The conflict is one based on territory and identity and is located within the geography of post-Soviet space. In the simplest terms, Nagorno-Karabakh is a region within Azerbaijan that is majority-Armenian and the population seeks to be part of Armenia. The Soviet government had established Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region and put a stop to any dissent over the region until the break-up of the Soviet Union. The regional legislature then passed a resolution to join Armenia and declared independence in 1991, leading to a major conflict that was brought to a ceasefire in 1994 under Russian mediation. Under international law Nagorno-Karabakh is a part of Azerbaijan although in reality it is an autonomous region occupied by Armenian forces (other parts of Azerbaijan are also occupied). Clashes in July have escalated to the serious fighting that has seen Azerbaijan reoccupy some of this territory. Two significant factors in this appear to be a change in the military balance and political discontent in Azerbaijan over financial support related to Covid-19.

Regional support for the conflicting parties is mixed. Russia and Iran have both declared their neutrality in the matter, although Russia may lean slightly to Armenia and Iran to Azerbaijan. Neither of them stands to gain anything substantial from diplomatic and military support for either side and both of them have called for the fighting to stop. The security of oil and gas flows is a major factor in their consideration of the stability of the region. In contrast, Turkey is openly supportive of Azerbaijan and is reported to have sent Syrian fighters. There are also Turkish fighter jets in the country, purportedly there after military exercises. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been bellicose over Turkish intervention and it should surprise no one that it has been outright condemned by Armenia. Russia, the United States and the EU have all called for the fighting to stop in the hope that the parties will revert back to the status quo: de facto autonomy in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian occupation of neighbouring parts of Azerbaijan to be brought to the negotiating table. In the current scenario, Azerbaijan appears intent on reversing or diminishing the Armenian military victories of the 1990s war and in relative terms is stronger than it was back then. Turkish support may tip the balance in their favour but there is a great difference between invasion by a force seen as liberators and one by a force seen as occupiers. Observers are right to be worried: the war in the 1990s resulted in at least 30,000 casualties and the movement of ethnic Armenians and Azeris in their hundreds of thousands. Both sides accused the other of human rights violations then and are doing so now. As things stand, the Azeris have more to gain and the Armenians have more to lose. This does not bode well for resolution.

Mediation of the dispute has been taking place since the 1994 ceasefire but the situation has remained deadlocked. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group is co-chaired by France, Russia and the US but they have been accused by Azerbaijan of being pro-Armenian. At the time of writing a shaky ceasefire mediated by Russia is in place but both sides have accused the other of violating it. Prior to the escalation, the Azeri leadership in Baku and their Armenian counterparts in Yerevan had lost faith in negotiation and an indication of the intractability of the incompatibility between them is the lack of progress in talks stretching out over 26 years. This is in a situation where US and Russian rivalry is absent and the general international consensus is that things stay as they are while negotiations take place. From the perspective of Yerevan and Stepanakert (the capital of the autonomous region) this is a denial of the wish of the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to join Armenia. From the perspective of Baku, it rewards an Armenian military occupation of Azeri territory. Postponing the resolution of the conflict in 1994 was the only credible solution at the time as neither party was ready to talk but had had enough of the fighting. To not have an alternative 26 years later indicates ill-will on the part of the protagonists and a lack of commitment by the international community towards resolving the issue. A 1993 UN resolution advising countries not to supply weapons that could escalate the conflict was allowed to lapse in 2003 and both have their suppliers. By way of example, Russia supplied both.

The conflict is at danger of more serious escalation than has already taken place due to the aforementioned Turkish support for Azerbaijan and a defensive agreement between Russia and Armenia in the event that the fighting enters Armenia proper. As to whether Armenia would actually ask for help or receive it is another matter. Russia and Turkey also find themselves supporting opposing parties in Syria and Libya, meaning that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh could potentially become another theatre of a regional rivalry between them. Despite this, the more likely scenario is that a grinding conflict takes place in and around Nagorno-Karabakh as Baku attempts to solidify its gains and put an end to the autonomous region once and for all. When at least one side believes that it has the advantage and can achieve a victory the chances of a negotiated solution are slim.

Sooner or later there will be a need to return to negotiations and it is better for this if the three OSCE Minsk Group members maintain neutrality but contest aggression by the protagonists. When this happens the intractability of the conflict should be recognised and attempts made to move on from the point where conflict resolution has failed. This may entail working with both parties separately, having them explore individually what is a red line in talks and what is open for discussion. In doing so, they can return to the negotiations having explored their options and perhaps having achieved a shift in priorities of their own accord. It is unlikely that either will accept arbitration or leaving control of the disputed area to others but in the future shared control may become a realistic option and there may also be potential for horse-trading in relation to territorial control. This is unthinkable now and will probably remain so for the immediate future but in the long term, postponing the search for a solution will prove counterproductive.    

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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