Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Moves from Frozen to Kinetic

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Richard Giragosian

About Richard Giragosian

Richard Giragosian is the founding director of the Regional Studies Centre (RSC), an independent “think tank” located in Yerevan, Armenia and serves as a visiting professor at both the College of Europe Natolin Campus and Yerevan State University’s Centre for European Studies (CES). Prior to moving to Armenia in 2006, he worked for twenty years in Washington, including service as a professional staff member of the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) of the US Congress. Twitter: Richard_RSC

The war in Ukraine stands as a pressing test of Western commitment and resolve towards European security. But another security threat is emerging, with a real risk of rapid escalation. This new threat, emanating from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, pits Armenia and the Armenian-populated Karabakh against Azerbaijan.

Long regarded as one of several “frozen” conflicts within the former Soviet space, in recent years, fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh has transformed the definition from a “frozen” to a kinetic conflict. As a rebuke for the ongoing diplomatic mediation by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), April 2016 marked the most intensive fighting since the early 1990s.

Because it is a geographically remote and simmering conflict, the geopolitical implications of the obscure Nagorno-Karabakh region have been largely underestimated. Despite a lumbering peace process endowed with neither peace nor much of a process, the conflict has been subject to a period of benign Western neglect. Such strategic inattention is particularly dangerous, for three main reasons.

First, from a broader strategic perspective, the Karabakh conflict stands out as the one local dispute with the inherent risk of quickly expanding in the event of renewed hostilities. More specifically, this conflict has the potential to compel the direct engagement of several larger regional powers, whereby a repeat of combat operations in the recent “four-day war,” in April 2016, will force Turkey, Russia and even Iran to respond. In addition, mirroring the miscalculation and forced compulsion to act, Karabakh may trigger a much wider World War I style escalation of confrontation.

The second driver for concern stems from the likely Russian response to renewed fighting. As with the fighting last year, Russia was the only player capable of reacting quickly enough to effectively halt the fighting. But unlike that experience, Russia is more prepared this time and may leverage the fighting as an opportunity to deploy Russian peacekeepers to the region. Such a scenario, of Russian power projection, could be feasible, as only Russia is in a position to respond, and this would be likely, as the lack of any Russian presence in Nagorno-Karabakh has long been seen in Moscow as an unacceptable weakness. 

From a European perspective, such a scenario would only consolidate Russian dominance over this part of the so-called “near abroad,” thereby effectively ceding the area to Russia’s sphere of influence. This third factor would also greatly endanger recent moves, by the EU, to engage both Armenia, which is set to sign a new agreement in November, and Azerbaijan, whose renewed interest in a new strategic partnership with the EU is a welcome success in salvaging the beleaguered Eastern Partnership (EaP) programme.

Against this backdrop of escalating tension and the real risk of renewed fighting, there is an imperative to de-escalate the Karabakh conflict through engagement, in two areas. First, with the promise of cooperation over confrontation, the EU could work with, rather than against Russian interests, by seeking a more ambitious policy of engaging local officials and actors in Nagorno-Karabakh. Based on a “status-neutral” approach, where any engagement in Karabakh would infer neither recognition nor recrimination, the EU could bolster the stalled diplomatic process by leveraging both Armenia’s interest in the EU and Azerbaijan’s frustration with the lack of progress from the OSCE mediation.

The second opportunity is both more tangible and more viable, and involves direct support for “track two” efforts between Armenia, Karabakh and Azerbaijan. With the synergy and success of similar “people-to-people” contact between Armenia and Turkey, this focus on track two engagement would focus on three key objectives: to elevate the level of discourse and challenge the conflict narrative in each country; to provide the political cover and widen the space for further official contacts and to invest in the preparation of each society for the necessity of compromise, an essential step that has been seriously neglected in each case.

Given the strategic significance of the emerging threat from renewed a war over Nagorno-Karabakh, the imperative is to engage now, before this kinetic conflict spirals dangerously out of control.

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The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.

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  1. The author’s resolution opportunities are very simplistic. The issues associated are so complex it would be better for Baku to simply accept a negotiated settlement based on a return of some land and announce full recognition of an independent Nagorno-Karabakh, even if this puts massive popular pressure on the Aliev regime and its associated oligarchic infrastructure. Almost any alternative would be worse for all sides. It would have been far easier for Azerbaijan to have accepted the existence of an Armenian-governed Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s than today. Of course, hindsight is 20/20.

    Azerbaijan wants jurisdiction over all of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding lands. Armenians say no – you might get some of the surrounding lands, but that comes when Azerbaijan recognizes an independent Armenian-governed Nagorno-Karabakh. This is the binary situation, black-and-white, thus defining the standoff.

    Now some reality:

    1) Azerbaijan has proposed the entire region be “awarded the highest degree of autonomy” under Baku’s jurisdiction, with existing precedents mentioned such as Italy’s Trieste and Finland’s Aland. However, such degree of autonomy would require a change in Azerbaijan’s unitary state constitution. This change would bring with it inevitable demands for similar autonomy from other geo-ethnic groups within Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh would have representation in Azerbaijan’s parliament with possible veto power over Baku’s foreign policy. Armenian would be an official language within Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh flag would be seen flying next to the Azerbaijani flag.

    2) Azerbaijan demands the return of all displaced refugees. This would clearly include the return of nearly 350,000 Armenians, expelled from Baku and other cities across Azerbaijan, displacing current residents. Many Baku Armenians lived in what is today very high-end real estate.

    3) Anti-Armenian phobia has permeated an entire generation of Azerbaijani youth and that cannot be instantly remedied by governmental decrees. Issues of equal status as citizens will be marred by discrimination across the board. This would be an extraordinary situation considering today the Aliev regime’s record of human rights abuses is one of the worst in the world. A generation of Azerbaijanis have lived in an environment that equates anything Armenian with the devil incarnate.

    These are just some of the real issues involved in the resolution of this conflict. Baku clearly understands them and many are simply insurmountable without the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent entity. However, in place of accepting the realities involved, Azerbaijan has reacted by a massive buildup of military weaponry, more than 20X that of Armenia. Most of these weapons have been purchased from Russia, higher tech weaponry from Israel. While a daunting collection, an Armenian response with much less technology could be to destroy Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon production and transport infrastructure, among other strategic acts.

    The “track two” diplomatic industry cannot possibly overcome the issues noted above. If for no other reason Azerbaijan apparently prefers to periodically remind Armenians of their wrath by ISSI-style be-heading of captured Armenian solders and mutilating Armenian civilians when they raid Armenian borders villages.

    Yerevan, Armenia

  2. Considering the Azerbaijani official narrative giving no other choice to NKR than to place itself under Azerbaijani juridiction, omnipresent armenophobia in propaganda medias, and Aliyev dynasty kleptocratic and dictatorial regime survival for whom the conflict is a great opportunity to divert public attention on a foreign “enemy”, the proposals made here are at best very naive and inefficient, but most of all very dangerous for local Armenian population.

    By torturing and mutilating a couple of elderly people, by beheading Armenian soldier, Aliyev voluntarily and consciously deepen the gap between the 3 belligerents and made sure that no compromise will ever be reached, to his satisfaction and to the benefit of his power.

    Any compromise of Armenians with Aliyev (land vs status etc…) would directly place the local population at risk of an ethnic cleansing, irrespective of the engagements made by current Azerbaijani regime who cannot be trusted. Therefore, the only possible solution to the conflict is a removal of Aliyev, replaced by a more pragmatic and less armenophobic government, then only, the “people to people” narrowing of positions would make sense.

    At this stage, the status quo is still the best option and will remain as such for a very long time.

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