Armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has flared up once again. This protracted conflict is no longer referred to as ‘frozen’, given the ongoing escalation and a previous minor confrontation on July 12. And unlike previous short wars that lasted just a few days, there is currently no sign of a ceasefire agreement.
In what has become the worst escalation since the 1990s, at least 179 lives have been lost, including civilians and children on both sides of the contact line. This number is expected to be much higher, with Azerbaijan yet to release official data.
Intense fighting initially started in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. However, in just a few days, military operations expanded to officially recognised Armenian and Azerbaijani territories. On October 1, the government of Armenia issued a statement on the shooting down of four Azerbaijani drones in the provinces of Kotayk and Gegharkunik, near the capital of Yerevan. On the other hand, Baku reported an Armenian attack on four Azerbaijani villages, two of them (Sabirkend and Aghdam) far from the line of contact and its second city of Ganja. However, the main target of artillery strikes remains the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding area. Heavy shelling in Stepanakert has continued for two days, injuring at least four residents and destroying several buildings.
Both sides accuse the other of launching armed attacks. Some believe Azerbaijan has greater motive to start a military offensive as it seeks to gain control over the long-claimed territories, while Armenia’s position is in favour of maintaining the status quo. On the other hand, Baku has suggested Yerevan is hoping to use the escalating conflict as a way to distract from domestic discontent and ultimately reunite the opposition and public around the ruling party. On the day the war began, Azerbaijani officials claimed it had taken control of villages in Karabakh but this was later refuted as disinformation by the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities.
As the two sides became increasingly engaged in the armed conflict and information warfare, co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group – France, Russia, and the United States – issued a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire. Neighbouring Georgia offered a venue for peaceful negotiations. Leaders from the United Kingdom, Belgium, Estonia, France, and Germany initiated dialogue behind closed doors at the United Nations Security Council.
However, Baku and Yerevan have shown reluctance to end the violence. On Friday, Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan expressed readiness to “restore ceasefire,” but following the shelling of Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that recognising Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence is “on the agenda.” Meanwhile, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev voiced his preconditions for a ceasefire, including the withdrawal of Armenian forces from “a part of the territories on a timetable.” He also urged Prime Minister Pashinyan to refrain from reiterating a statement made in February that “Karabakh is Armenia, that’s it.”
Regional geopolitics of the conflict
A renewed war in Nagorno-Karabakh is alarming for the security of the entire South Caucasus.
Georgia, trapped between the conflicting sides and their regional supporters (Turkey for Azerbaijan and Russia for Armenia), called on the OSCE Minsk Group and other international actors to bring both sides to the negotiating table. Tbilisi offered to host a meeting between representatives of Baku and Yerevan. Having maintained good relations with both neighbours, Georgian officials have stressed Tbilisi’s neutrality on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Georgia is also home to a large number of Armenian and Azerbaijani citizens who live peacefully together but are particularly sensitive to the tense relations between Yerevan and Baku. In supporting peaceful negotiations and showing impartiality, Georgia is primarily focused on domestic and regional stability.
As the conflict spirals, Armenia and Azerbaijan have increased demand for military assistance from their regional supporters. As the main transit point, Georgia has banned the movement of any type of armament across its borders: “Since the inception of escalation, temporarily suspended the issuance of permits for transiting military cargo through its territory in the direction of both said countries, be it by air or land.” Georgia denied allegations it allowed Syrian fighters to travel from Turkey to Azerbaijan through its territory, calling it false information aimed at “escalating the situation in Georgia and the wider region.”
For Russia and Turkey, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been a source of competing interests for decades.
Ankara does not profess to be a neutral actor in this conflict. For Turks and Azerbaijanis, regional politics are defined by their ethnic kinship. It therefore came as no surprise when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared unconditional support for Azerbaijan in the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh. Until now, Ankara’s support has consisted primarily of moral and political reinforcement. But recent reports suggest Turkey is now providing intelligence and military support. President Erdogan also refused to pursue “superficial” demands for a ceasefire in response to the OSCE Minsk co-chairs joint statement. He believes achieving long-lasting peace in the Caucasus is conditioned on “the liberation of every piece of the occupied lands of Azerbaijan.”
The escalation is more complicated for Russia and its relationship with Armenia. The Kremlin has historically positioned itself as a neutral actor, intending to facilitate the conflict resolution process as a co-chair of the Minsk Group. However, Moscow and Yerevan are tied by a treaty that obliges the former to provide military support in case officially recognised Armenian territories come under attack. Moreover, Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri hosts the only consent-based garrisons of Russia in the South Caucasus. However, President Vladimir Putin has had an uneasy relationship with Pashinyan’s government since it obtained power through the Velvet Revolution of 2018. This is because Moscow does not like colourful revolutions in its neighbourhood (as demonstrated in Georgia, Ukraine, and most recently Belarus) and Prime Minister Pashinyan has taken steps to balance its politics with the West.
The Kremlin has also developed close ties with Azerbaijan and sells military equipment to both Baku and Yerevan. Evidently, Baku’s speed and expenditure for militarisation is much higher than that of Yerevan, which relies greatly on Russia’s Gyumri strongholds. In addition, Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country that raises Moscow’s interests to maintain positive relations with President Aliyev.
Moscow’s reaction to the ongoing armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has so far been unusually balanced, despite Turkey’s firm support for Azerbaijan. The Kremlin is likely waiting for further developments while observing Turkey’s engagement. It will also seek concessions from Yerevan and weigh its options before choosing a side. Moscow knows very well that its direct intervention in this war would cost its relationship with either Yerevan or Baku. The scale and stakes are too high this time to avoid disappointing one or the other. However, maintaining a neutral position and holding back military support stipulated by the treaty would cause significant discontent amongst the Armenian people and government.
Previous peace processes
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the longest running in the South Caucasus, dating back to 1988. The region had been an autonomous oblast within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan but is densely inhabited with ethnic Armenians. The conflict began with a resolution passed by the Nagorno-Karabakh legislature to integrate with Armenia following the breakup of the Soviet Union, despite its legal location within Azerbaijan’s borders. A war between 1991 and 1994 resulted in mass displacement and loss of life on both sides (around 700,000 Azerbaijanis and 235,000 Armenians were forced to leave their homes and almost 25,000 people died). Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent territories in Azerbaijan proper are wholly or partially controlled by the Armenians. A ceasefire established in 1994 under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group laid the framework for decades-long negotiation between Armenia and Azerbaijan seeking a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is incredibly complex. It is an ethno-territorial conflict, reflecting a clash between two fundamental principles: territorial integrity in the case of Azerbaijan and the right to self-determination for ethnic Armenians living in the region. The dynamic of the conflict has been heavily influenced by domestic politics and developments within both republics. One can argue the conflict is firmly rooted in Armenian and Azerbaijani society and is widely regarded as an issue of statehood. Actions taken. by both sides are defined by anger, trauma, and a recognition of a ‘zero-sum’ reality.
The conflict has also encouraged both republics to intensify militarisation. In 2019, the share of government spending on the military in Azerbaijan and Armenia amounted 11.3 per cent and 19.8 per cent respectively. Both governments have invested in modernising their weaponry. According to the International Crisis Group, approximately 176 heavy weapons were observed between 2006 and 2015, 70 special operations have been detected since 2015, and drones, including kamikaze drones, have been spotted for surveillance.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has often been regarded as ‘frozen.’ However, four days of armed clashes in April 2016 shook the “no war, no peace” atmosphere and urged both republics, along with conflict mediators, to find a way out of the deadlock.
The peace process, mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group and its co-chairs, has not resulted in a political resolution. But since the 1994 ceasefire, there have been several phases of negotiations. Among them were discussions in Paris, Key West and during the Prague Processes, after which Azerbaijan’s then newly appointed President Aliyev and former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan both pledged to continue the dialogue. Despite hopeful expectations, the Prague Process did not result in a breakthrough and was shortly followed by the Madrid Principles. The latter became known as the Basic Principles and outlined aspects such as interim and eventual determination of the region’s status, the rights of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees to return to their homes, the need for international security guarantees and the return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani’s control. Both Armenian and Azerbaijani societies showed rigid resistance toward implementing these principles for a variety of reasons. The return of IDPs and refugees before the settlement of the final status of the region was particularly alarming for Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
For Azerbaijanis and Armenians, there is growing frustration for many reasons, including recognition of a zero-sum reality, lack of tangible results following negotiation phases, and nourishing militaristic rhetoric in both republics. However, positive signs of a breakthrough in the deadlocked peace process emerged in 2018. This was connected to Armenia’s Velvet Revolution and the election of Pashinyan, as well as the appointment of a new head of Karabakh’s Azerbaijani community, who was expected to be more flexible in establishing contacts with Armenian side. In January 2019, the foreign ministers of both republics agreed on the need to adopt measures to prepare the populations for peace. Despite some changes in rhetoric, both sides have remained cautious in their assessments of the peace process and have shown little intention to compromise.
Despite international attention and calls for restraint, the war continues and lives are being lost on both sides. There remains optimism that the violence will cease and both sides can be brought back to the negotiating table. However, in discussing the importance of a peaceful resolution, two things must be considered. First, internal politics and issues of identity, which so often prevent Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders from showing willingness for compromise. Second, consistent and effective international and regional engagement is needed to create positive reinforcement and convince both sides of the need to take concrete steps toward conflict resolution.
The people of the South Caucasus know very well the cost of war and the importance of peace, even if the current armed clashes suggest the opposite. Encouraging signs can be witnessed across the region: experts and peacebuilding activists from Georgia have called for peace, anti-war statements have been delivered by the Azerbaijani Leftist Youth, and social media posts from Armenian civil society activists confirm a pro-peace spirit. These calls for peace demand not only the end of violent engagement, but also a profound transformation of the conflict to ensure lasting peace in the region.
This article was co-authored by Ketevan Murusidze, a non-resident scholar for the Middle East Institute’s Frontier Europe Initiative and a research assistant at the University of Bradford.
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