Trouble in Nagorno-Karabakh

The risk for miscalculation leading to all-out war is real and cannot be ignored

ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme

The violence that erupted along the frontline in and around Nagorno-Karabakh on 2 April was the deadliest since Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire in 1994. Some 60 soldiers and civilians, possibly many more, were killed in four days of intensive fighting. For the first time in years, Azerbaijani troops managed to cross the Line of Contact and take territory. For a moment, it seemed like this was the beginning of major hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

For more than 20 years the two sides have engaged in a tense standoff along the Line of Contact. Their soldiers have been dug into trenches – separated by only a few hundred metres in some places – from where they have exchanged fire on a regular basis. While the past few years have seen an increase in deadly incidents, this flare-up was unprecedented in its intensity.

But at the same time, the fighting was contained and deliberate. It seems to have been planned rather than a spontaneous flare-up: reinforcements were moved into position in advance of the fighting and attacks were launched simultaneously on several points along the frontline. Both sides demonstrated a degree of restraint and did not target strategic infrastructure, such as critical oil and gas pipelines running through Azerbaijan or the airport in Nagorno-Karabakh. After a few days of fighting, the sides agreed to a ceasefire, brokered by Russia, and the situation returned to its tense normality.

And this is the tragedy of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – that the deadly and dangerous status quo actually suits both sides. Neither side has an interest in starting an all out war. But nor do they have any interest in actually resolving the conflict. The result is that hostilities continue in suspended animation, punctured by lethal flare-ups, and fraught with the constant risk that a full blown war could erupt.

Why violence erupted when it did remains an open question. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents were in Washington DC attending the Nuclear Security Summit when the fighting happened. One theory is that hardliners in Baku took advantage of President Ilham Aliyev’s absence to launch a limited offensive to demonstrate Azerbaijan’s military strength. Others have suggested that Baku launched the attack to divert attention away from Azerbaijan’s increasingly difficult economic situation and, in particular, the release of the Panama Papers, which implicate President Aliyev and his family, on 4 April. Others have speculated that the fighting was meant to draw the world’s attention to the conflict following years of neglect during which focus has been on other crises such as Ukraine and Syria.

Whatever the reason for the violence erupting now, it shows how volatile and unstable the standoff is in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The stakes are also increasing by the day as both sides continue to build up their armed forces. Azerbaijan has spent an average of 4.6 percent of its GDP on the military during the past five years. Armenia has not trailed far behind, spending 4.1 percent.

Nagorno-Karabakh enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. The reason for this is not so much the irreconcilable difference between the sides over who should control the enclave or that neither side has the means to win militarily over the other. Rather, the intractability stems from neither side having much interest in actually resolving the conflict. Despite what Baku and Yerevan say, they are content to let the conflict simmer with the occasional outburst of deadly violence.

Armenia wants to preserve the status quo because it provides Nagorno-Karabakh with de facto independence. Yerevan believes that any agreement would require compromises that would leave the entity with less independence than it has now. Armenia’s President, Serzh Sargsyan, and many of his closest allies are from Nagorno-Karabakh and fought in the war. They are loath to see it go back to Azerbaijan on their watch.

Azerbaijan makes much of the status quo not being sustainable. But the ruling elites in Baku are actually rather content with the current situation. The tense standoff provides a convenient diversion for the population while the elites enrich themselves from the country’s massive oil and gas reserves. As the country suffers economically from low oil prices and a decline in oil production, the elites skilfully play the nationalist and militarist card.

But most worrying is that neither society is anywhere close to being ready to accept the sort of compromises necessary for a peace agreement. Nearly 30 years after the war started, both societies have been bombarded with messages about the evil of the other side. This has created an extremely fraught relationship at a societal level.

In light of the intractable nature of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it may not be surprising that the international mediation effort has been more about preventing the conflict from spiralling out of control than actually resolving it. None of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group – Russia, United States, and France – have demonstrated the sort of political will necessary to find a solution to the conflict.

Of the three, Russia has the most leverage over Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also the least interest in seeing an actual resolution to the conflict. The unresolved conflict makes both countries dependent on Moscow and severely limits their options for geopolitical alignment.  Russia is able to play the sides against each other giving it substantial influence over the entire South Caucasus region.

Russia’s interest in not wanting to alter the status quo is also reflected in its arms sales to both countries. Moscow seeks to maintain military “parity” between the two through its arms sales. A staggering 85 percent of Azerbaijan’s total purchases come from Russia. In February, Russia announced a $200 million arms sale to Armenia, which is meant to maintain the military balance.

Following the visit of Russian Prime Minister, Medvedev, to both countries after the flare-up, he announced that Russia would continue selling weapons to the two countries arguing that if Russia stopped then other states would only take its place. And this, he said, could “destroy the existing balance of forces”.

Moscow’s influence over Armenia is particularly strong given the country’s isolation. Russia provides Armenia with security guarantees through its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia maintains two military bases in Armenia, one in Gyumri and an air base in Erebuni airport. It also patrols the border and owns strategic infrastructure, including much of the railway system and electricity grid.

A resolution to the conflict would entail a normalisation of relations between not only Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also Armenia and Turkey. This would break Armenia’s isolation and further loosen its dependence on Russia.

The EU has remained remarkably absent from efforts to resolve the conflict. The Minsk Group was set up by the OSCE in 1994 before the EU had any significant role in foreign policy. France continues to hold on to its position as co-chair. The mandate of the EU special representative for the South Caucasus's on Nagorno-Karabakh is limited and largely consists of supporting the work of the Minsk Group and promoting confidence-building measures and contacts among the sides.

If anything good can come of this flare-up it should be a reminder of how volatile the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is and how high the stakes are. The status quo may be more sustainable than is commonly believed, largely because the sides are content with it, but the risk for miscalculation leading to all-out war is real and cannot be ignored. This would not only be highly costly for the region, but also for the EU.

Fredrik Wesslau is the Director of the Wider Europe Programme. He previously worked on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for the EU

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

Author

ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will never send you any content that is not ECFR related. We will store your e-mail address and your personal data in accordance with our privacy policy.