A hill here, a village there: Nagorno-Karabakh and the salami-slicing wars

Azerbaijan and Armenia are shifting from two decades of ‘frozen conflict settlement’ to an era of ‘salami-slicing wars’ – small conflicts designed to extract diplomatic concessions or regain territory from the adversary slice by slice.

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Nagorno-Karabakh is on fire. Again. One of the increasingly forgotten post-Soviet wars is reminding everyone of its existence. In the last six years, the frequency of – and the death toll resulting from – clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region has increased exponentially. Some of these clashes – like those in 2016 or the ones taking place now – have turned into mini wars that last several days and result in casualties numbering in the lower hundreds. One of the most worrying aspects of the mini wars is that they signal a slow but irresistible slide towards a new era of hostile relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The countries are shifting from two decades of ‘frozen conflict settlement’ to an era of ‘salami-slicing wars’ – small conflicts designed to extract diplomatic concessions or regain territory from the adversary slice by slice, as if cutting a salami, rather than in one large frontal attack.

Along with the conflicts in Abkhazia, Transnistria, and South Ossetia, the confrontation over Nagorno-Karabakh has formed part of a chain of misnamed ‘frozen conflicts’ in the post-Soviet space for almost three decades. Since the signing of a fragile ceasefire agreement in 1994, Armenia has been in de facto control not only of the Nagorno-Karabakh area itself (a part of Azerbaijan with a predominantly Armenian population) but also seven other Azerbaijani districts – which Armenia has turned into a heavily militarised buffer zone protecting Nagorno-Karabakh. For most of that period, negotiations on both the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the return of the occupied territories to Azerbaijan have all but stalled.

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Exasperated that the negotiations have been completely stalled for years, Azerbaijan has increasingly turned to military operations to make its voice heard. Throughout most of the 2000s, buoyed by rising oil revenues, Azerbaijan engaged in heavy rearmament. Its strategy has been to change the balance of power and shatter the ‘frozen’ status quo. Azerbaijan has openly said that it reserves the right to regain its territories through military means if the negotiations fail. And the talks have been failing for more than two decades.

However, Azerbaijan’s strategy is not to launch a major war whose outcome would be uncertain. Another military defeat would doom the Azerbaijani ruling family. Rather, Azerbaijan seems bent on launching a series of salami-slicing wars. Thus, more frequent and more intense flare-ups in the conflict seem inevitable.

One aim of these wars is to recapture at least some territory – a hill here, a village there. This would be something to show to the Azerbaijani public. The second aim is to increase pressure on Armenia – even if operations to recapture territory fail – by making the situation uncomfortable for Armenian leaders and thereby extracting concessions at the negotiating table.

While the most influential powers in the region do not want war between the two countries, they are unlikely to form a common front.

In practice, there is not much the international community can do about this, other than shifting from offers of fair mediation to a much more aggressive effort to force a compromise between Armenia and Azerbaijan – one that involves diplomatic and even economic pressure on both sides. But the positions of Armenia and Azerbaijan are so entrenched that the international community has little practical leverage over them. And, while the most influential powers in the region do not want war between the two countries, they are unlikely to form a common front that puts equally intense pressure on Armenia to compromise in negotiations and on Azerbaijan to be less hawkish.

Such flare-ups make all other powers look either somewhat irrelevant or too aggressive. The European Union seems hapless once again – facing another conflict in its neighbourhood in which few care to hear what the Europeans have to say. The United States might be somewhat more influential, but not by much.

The situation is even more uncomfortable for Russia. On paper, Russia has a military alliance with Armenia. Russia maintains an important military base in Armenia, and Armenia is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russian-led defence alliance. However, CSTO guarantees are only supposed to apply to Armenia’s internationally recognised borders, which do not encompass either Nagorno-Karabakh or the other occupied districts of Azerbaijan. It is still unclear what happens to the Russian-Armenian collective defence arrangement in the inevitable scenario of a war that starts around – or because of – Nagorno-Karabakh, but involves military action along the internationally recognised borders of Armenia, the integrity of which is guaranteed by the CSTO. In any case, Russia is eager to avoid choosing sides. The country may be allied with Armenia, but it also has a rather constructive relationship with Azerbaijan that it does not want to lose.

In recent years, Russia might have built a reputation for sticking with and defending its allies politically and militarily – be they in Syria, Venezuela, or Libya. But, for Armenia, this image of Russia as a trustworthy ally is a mirage. Russia has been doing everything it can to avoid taking sides in Nagorno-Karabakh, supplying weapons not just to Armenia but also to Azerbaijan – much to the outrage of Armenian leaders. As the mini wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan become more frequent and intense, Russia’s balancing act will be increasingly untenable. Somewhat paradoxically (if unsurprisingly), France has been more outspoken than Russia in criticising Turkey and Azerbaijan for the escalation – even though Russia is a military ally of Armenia and, in theory, would be expected to speak up more firmly in favour of its Armenian ally .

Turkey is very vocal in its support of Azerbaijan. There have been allegations that Turkey has provided active military support to the Azerbaijani armed forces. There has also been speculation about Kurdish fighters helping Armenia, and Turkish-backed fighters from Syria and Libya being sent to help the Azerbaijani army. Turkey has been increasingly eager to flex its muscle in the Syrian war, the Libyan conflict, and territorial disputes in the eastern Mediterranean, but it is unclear how many fronts the country really wants to fight on – militarily or diplomatically.

There is little prospect that the cycle of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh will end. The current stalemate is not damaging enough to force either Armenia or Azerbaijan to seek a compromise. Foreign powers will not or cannot truly force the parties to significantly change their approaches to the conflict. And the current flare-up around Nagorno-Karabakh will certainly not be the last. It is almost inevitable that there will be other limited wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the years to come. The outcome of those wars will either be a shift in the balance of power whereby Armenia becomes more willing to compromise at the negotiating table or, alternatively, Azerbaijan’s failure to extract concessions or capture territory. And then the countries’ militaries will let the diplomats get back into the driving seat in what is called the ‘Nagorno-Karabakh peace process’. But that will not happen without at least a few more salami-slicing wars in the next few years.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Distinguished policy fellow

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