The Nagorno-Karabakh Flare Up: Back to Frozen Conflict Status?
Nearly four weeks have passed since the April 2nd military flare up in the de facto independent region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Deadly incidents are not uncommon in this “frozen conflict” but the most recent skirmishes transcended the normal scale and scope, with hundreds of casualties and days of fighting, rather than isolated incidents. Azerbaijan maintains that Azerbaijani troops returned fire only after Armenian forces fired mortars and large-caliber machine guns at their military positions and populated areas. Yerevan, meanwhile, has accused Azerbaijan of escalating the conflict through the shelling of Armenian positions.
A ceasefire was brokered by Russian negotiators just four days later. Minor violations were reported by both sides in the following days, but Iran and Russia jointly pushed diplomatic efforts to calm the situation. The ceasefire appeared to be stabilizing until April 26th when Armenian army forces again fired on Azerbaijani territory. The fighting occurred during the night, resulting in the deaths of two Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers by return gunfire from Azerbaijani forces. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan predicted the breakdown of the most recent ceasefire, saying that war could break out “at any moment” in the Southern Caucasus. He said that Armenia finds it “unreasonable” to resume peace talks without “security guarantees.” and claimed that, “what took place now should have been expected.”
French Minister of State for European Affairs Harlem Desir responded to the overnight fighting, calling for the conflict to be resolved through the Madrid Principles, which were brought forward as a framework for settlement in November 2007. An agreement under this framework would include a return of the buffer zone territories around Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, a demilitarized corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, the right to return for Azerbaijanis displaced from the region during the 1994 war, and an international peacekeeping operation to overview an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh guaranteeing the right to self determination.
Situated within a mountainous region of territorial Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh has become one of the region’s longest enduring insecurities. Tensions have increased in recent years with Moscow selling weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and profiting from the corresponding arms race. As with most frozen conflicts, from time to time the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh intensifies, with periodic incidents of direct combat, sniper attacks, and landmine casualties. Despite its 20-odd year protraction, the sense of deep hostility surrounding the conflict has not abated, while commitment by OSCE Minsk Group members France, Russia, and the U.S. to mediate between the two sides has weakened.
Although Armenia exerts de-facto control of the region, it has no legal claim to the territory. Under the 1994 truce agreement, Armenia maintains control of the disputed province as well as a buffer zone surrounding the region. As part of this agreement, more than half a million Azerbaijanis were displaced into Azerbaijan proper. Nagorno-Karabakh is now delineated from Azerbaijan proper by a “Line of Contact” home to 6 OSCE monitors, upwards of 20,000 soldiers, barbed wire fences, and heavy weaponry provided by Russia.
While the original April offensive appears to have been launched as an Azerbaijani effort to seize and secure territory, true gains appear nominal at best. Moreover, The timing of the clashes is worth considering. Both Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan were not in their respective countries; rather, both leaders were returning from the 31 March−1 April Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, where they had met separately with Vice President Joe Biden on 1 April affirming U.S. role in the Minsk Group mediation. On April 12th, Azerbaijani Ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov blamed the recent spark on the “ongoing Ankara-Moscow rift” and called on the U.S. to increase its engagement in the conflict, saying, “Azerbaijani officials have for a long time called for a more engaged U.S. policy in the region.” He continued, “If the U.S. engages in that peacemaking effort, along with Russia, that would be very good.”
The conflict brings into question the role of regional interests in the South Caucasus. An ethnic cousin and energy partner of Azerbaijan, Turkey has had no formal diplomatic ties with Armenia since 1992 and serves as a counterbalance to Russia’s entrenched support of Armenia. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quick to express its solidarity with Azerbaijan following the initial escalation, saying, “We will support Azerbaijan until the end.” However, both President Erdogan and President Putin have called for calm in the conflict. During its mid-April meeting in Istanbul, the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) moved to establish a working group as an additional effort to solve the conflict, urging Armenia to vacate the occupied territories. Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharyan rejected the OIC effort, saying “This type of formulations do not respect the self determination rights of peoples.”
A return to outright war between Armenia and Azerbaijan would be catastrophic and risk wider regional destabilization in Georgia, Iran, or the Northern Caucasus. Regional unrest could be utilized by Russia as an opportunity to consolidate its power and influence in the region, but President Putin is unlikely to stoke an environment that could quickly escalate out of his control. For the time being the Kremlin appears committed to pursuing deescalation.
The political leadership from both Armenia and Azerbaijan garner legitimacy and support from their respective constituencies based on holding hardline positions vis-a-vis Nagorno-Karabakh. The most likely outcome is that tensions from this flare up will gradually subside and the conflict will return to its frozen normalcy. In the wake of the breakdown in early April, international commentators were quick to call for renewed efforts to solve, rather than merely stabilize the conflict. It is hard to believe, however, that these calls will result in serious action from the international community. The Minsk Group will pursue “stabilizing the ceasefire”, Moscow will continue its arms sales, and the status quo will carry on. Despite the tremendous risks involved in the case of an outright devolution into war, resolution is only of limited interest to the major players.