In recent months, the ‘frozen’ Karabakh conflict has been more fire than ice. With outside powers stoking the flames, what are the chances of finally securing peace?
By Neil Melvin
During the summer months, as international headlines were dominated by the crisis in Ukraine, Eurasia experienced another serious conflict. In late July, violent clashes between the armed forces of Azerbaijan and those of the non-recognised state of Nagorno-Karabakh, supported by Armenia, escalated dangerously. By early August, the fighting reached an intensity not seen for 20 years.
Despite an official ceasefire agreed back in 1994, violence has remained a regular feature between the two opposing forces. Dozens have been killed by snipers, in small-scale exhanges of fire, and from mines in the region; and hundreds of military personnel and civilians have been injured.
The violence during the summer of 2014, however, was notably different from the previous instances of conflict. While the precise trigger for this round of violence is disputed by each side, fighting quickly intensified and soon led to the deaths of more than 20 combatants in the fiercest clashes since the signing of the ceasefire agreement.
The fighting occurred both along the ‘Line of Contact’ – the 160-mile-long, heavily militarised ceasefire line that marks the boundary between Azerbaijani forces and Armenian-held areas in and around Karabakh – and on the Armenian-Azerbaijani state border. The fighting also involved high-calibre weapons, not just small arms, as had previously been the case. As the death toll mounted, both sides became involved in fierce exchanges of rhetoric, with Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, at one point appearing to threaten war via social media, to restore his country’s ‘territorial integrity.’
Faced with the prospect of a return to full-scale warfare, international mediators, in the form of two of the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group, drawn from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – Russia and the US – called for the ceasefire to be respected, and launched urgent efforts to dampen down the violence. Concern over the fighting has been particularly acute because, increasingly, the struggle over Karabakh forms part of a destabilising regional security competition, stretching from the South Caucasus into Eastern Europe, and involving both Russia and the ‘transatlantic community.’ This raises the prospect that unless a breakthrough can be made in peace negotiations, the status quo that has existed around the Karabakh conflict since the mid-1990s may destabilise further, risking a wider regional confrontation.
An old fight
The contemporary origins of the Karabakh conflict lie in the final years of the Soviet Union, despite the fact that both sides employ arguments based on historical claims stretching back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In 1987, a group of Karabakh Armenians, the majority population of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region within the then Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, began demanding unification of the region with Armenia. At the time, Karabakh contained a significant Azeri minority community and an Armenian majority.
Tensions mounted and both sides began to mobilise politically, leading to clashes. The conflict quickly spilled beyond Karabakh into the rest of Azerbaijan and into neighbourng Armenia, precipitating widespread violence and ethnic cleansing, and, ultimately, full-scale war, from 1991-94. The conflict is estimated to have caused a total of 25,000 to 30,000 casualties on both sides. It also resulted in 750,000 internally displaced persons within Azerbaijan, and around 360,000 Armenian refugees who fled Azerbaijan.
The internationally unrecognised Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto independent state with an overwhelmingly ethnic Armenian population of 140,000, was the outcome of this war. To guarantee strategic depth and create a security buffer zone, the Armenian forces occupied seven Azeri districts (15 % of Azeri territory) surrounding Karabakh, including a land link to Armenia. Throughout the remainder of Azerbaijan and in Armenia, ancient histories and cultures of co-existence and cooperation have been destroyed, as societies have been ethnically unmixed – often at the point of a gun.
A Gordian knot
The OSCE Minsk Group (today co-chaired by France, the US and the Russian Federation) was launched in 1992 in an effort to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict. Over the last two decades there have been repeated efforts to find solutions, and the sides have even appeared close to agreement – most notably during the 2001 Key West meeting, when the US made its biggest push to resolve the conflict. More recently, in 2011, then Russian president Dmitri Medvedev led an ultimately unsuccessful dialogue that culminated in a meeting between Aliyev and Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, in Kazan.
Other efforts have been made to cut through the Gordian knot of the conflict. From 2007 to 2010, Turkey and Armenia were engaged in a dialogue to normalise relations, backed by the US, that could have significantly advanced the Karabakh peace process. But like all other high-level initiatives, the process foundered. In recent years, there have been efforts to engage civil society and develop people-to-people contacts as part of the peace process, but such relationships could take years to mature.
Despite more than two decades of international mediation efforts, the Karabakh conflict has remained immune to a political solution. By and large, the region’s leaderships and the ’international community’ have lacked the neccessary interest to find peace.
Between fire and ice
Caught in limbo between war and peace, and raised solely on state-sanctioned versions of the conflict, generations of Armenians and Azeris have grown up with an increasing hostility towards one another.
At state level, the positions of Armenia and Azerbaijan have also hardened, in part because elites in both countries have sought to manage internal dissent and to divert attention away from social problems by invoking nationalist sentiment in regard to Karabakh. An erosion of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in both countries has made challenging the official narratives of the conflict a risky business. Ideas of pluralism, cooperation, and shared interests have been framed as a lack of loyalty and even treachery.
Stepanakert (capital of Nagorno-Karabakh) authorities have come to view the seven occupied territories (deemed vital to water security) as an extension of the Karabakh region, making the return of this land to Baku even more diffcult. Azerbaijan has sought to challenge this status quo on the back of its new-found oil wealth by funding an arms race aimed at bankrupting the Armenian economy. Armenia has responded much as expected by increasing its own arms purchases. Against this backdrop, the region has become increasingly militarised. Today it is estimated that some 40,000 heavily armed Armenian and Azerbaijani troops face each other, risking military confrontation.
The popular designation of Karabakh as a frozen conflict has been based upon the absence of full-scale war, backed by conventional military deterrence and an arms race; and with a fragile self-regulation by the conflict parties. After the failure of so many peace initiatives, the ’international community’ increasingly seems to have opted for an approach to Karabakh focusing on conflict management and long-term peacebuilding.
The elements of the status quo that has operated for the past two decades around Karabakh are, however, coming under increasing pressure. A conflict that began in local ethnic and socio-economic issues, has increasingly taken on an inter-state character centred upon the rivalry between Armenia and Azerbaijan. A return to war between these two countries could quickly descend into a full-out regional conflict pulling in international powers from both East and West; powers which have long made their interests in the region known.
Almost from the outset, Moscow has played a key role in the Karabakh conflict. In the final years of the USSR and the early post-Soviet years, first the Soviet authorities and then the newly-formed Russian government sought to shape the struggle around its own interests, but largely failed, and found itself simply reacting to developments on the ground. At the same time, armed groups from the Russian North Caucasus, elements of the Soviet military under Moscow’s control, and the newly established Russian military were involved in the fighting.
As the conflict progressed, a Russian position gradually emerged, focused on support for Armenia as a key ally in the Caucasus. Military aid; the basing of Russian troops in Armenia; an expansion of Russian-owned business into the republic; and the inclusion of Armenia within Russian integration projects, became the central planks of Russia’s southern Caucasus policy. From Armenia’s standpoint, its security relationship with Russia has become even more important as Azerbaijan has built up its military forces.
The collapse of the Soviet Union opened the Caucasus up to a variety of regional and international actors that had been kept out during the Soviet era. With one eye firmly on Caspian oil resources, the US and Turkey led the way in the 1990s. Azerbaijan and Georgia emerged as the key partners for the ’transatlantic community.’ Consolidating the independence of these countries and promoting their emergence as pro-Western democracies became central goals, not least as a means of preventing the re-emergence of a Moscow-dominated regional order. This in turn paved the way for the more assertive Russian policy towards the Caucasus, evident under Putin. In this context of rising competition, the region’s protracted conflicts have become of key interest for both sides.
In the first phase of competition – during the last decade – the prospect of NATO enlargement in the region, and growing EU engagement, culminated in the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, which centred around the protracted conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The fighting around Karabakh this summer emerged within a new round of rivalry between Russia and the ’transatlantic community.’
Following the Russia-Georgia war, Russia and the EU have both sought to strengthen their positions in the region by launching political and economic integration initiatives. For the Russian Federation, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Customs Union and the emergent Eurasian Union have been developed to counter and rival the institutions of the EU (Eastern Partnership) and NATO.
This rising competition has increasingly placed countries of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus into a position whereby they are forced to take sides in this bipolar struggle, pushing them to abandon the multi-vector foreign and security policies that have allowed them to balance competing pressures from regional powers, for much of the post-Soviet period.
In 2013, Armenia found itself caught directly between these two geopolitical projects as the EU offered and encouraged Yerevan to sign up to an Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, ahead of the Third Eastern Partnership Summit in December 2013. Armenia was interested in the agreement and negotiated its terms for three years with the EU. Russia, however, concerned that its alliance with Armenia was being threatened, was less than keen on this prospect; and Moscow made sure that Armenia received the message.
On 13 August 2013, Putin made his first trip to Baku in seven years. During the visit, media reports publicised the fact that Russia would sell weapons to Azerbaijan worth an estimated $4 billion. In addition, in July, Gazprom (which controls Armenia’s main gas company ArmRosGazprom) raised gas tariffs for individual consumers in Armenia by 50%, after which Russia suggested that the price hike could be reversed if Armenia agreed to join the Customs Union.
Following an extended bilateral meeting between Sargsyan and Putin on 3 September, at which the security implications of Armenia’s decision to sign the Associated Agreement with the EU are reported to have been discussed, Sargsyan announced that Armenia had made the decision to seek accession to the Customs Union of Russia, and not to proceed with the EU Association Agreement.
Armenia’s decision to turn towards Moscow because of security considerations, and away from Brussels, did not help to stabilise the region. Following Armenia’s announcement of its intention to join the Customs Union, the question emerged as to whether Karabakh would be part of the agreement, and whether it would be integrated into the Russian-led economic union, so raising alarm in Azerbaijan.
With tensions rising in the region, violence around Karabakh began to pick up from January 2014. Uncertainties were further exacerbated following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Many in the Caucasus saw this Russian step as providing Armenia with a precedent – to formally annex Karabakh.
At the UN General Assembly vote on 27 March 2014, on the resolution ‘Territorial integrity of Ukraine,’ which called on states not to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Armenia voted with Russia to oppose the resolution while Azerbaijan voted with the ‘transatlantic community’ in support.
Despite Armenia’s decision to follow Russia’s lead on Ukraine, however, Russia appears to have signalled a readiness to rebalance its position between Yerevan and Baku by, for example, pursuing arms sales to Azerbaijan. This has caused anxiety in Armenia, which recognises its security dependence on Russia, particularly with regard to Karabakh. These overtures by Moscow, however, have failed to quell anxiety in Azerbaijan, which has remained resistant to any changes that could lead to a Pax Russica in the Caucasus.
In a situation of growing regional uncertainty, and with the EU and US focused on Ukraine, and reluctant to upset a potential supplier of gas to European markets, Baku’s elite has looked to consolidate its authoritarian order at home.
In the spring of 2014, the Azerbaijani authorities began a crackdown against the remnants of the country’s civil society, using the idea of a country besieged by enemies and traitors as its leitmotif. In April 2014, Azerbaijani journalist Rauf Mirkadirov was arrested for alleged espionage on behalf of Armenia – his crime was to collaborate with Armenian NGO colleagues. Following this, Baku launched a widespread crackdown on NGOs, human rights organisations, and independent media, targeting in particular groups that had been engaged in peace building activities toward Karabakh.
In July, the leading human rights activist Leyla Yunus was arrested, followed in August by the detention of her husband Arif Yunus, accused of treason, spying for Armenia, illegal business activities, forgery, and fraud. Both had worked on people-to-people initiatives to rebuild links with Armenia over many years.
During this period, pressure also mounted on Armenia. Sargsyan was embarrassed at the summit of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council on May 29 in Astana, where Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev read out a letter from the president of Azerbaijan in which he indicated that it was impermissible to admit Armenia to the Customs Union together with Nagorno-Karabakh.
During the previous Eurasian Economic Council summit in October 2013, Lukashenko of Belarus had stated that Armenia would have to resolve its territorial dispute with Azerbaijan, and that Customs Union members would consider Azerbaijan’s position on the issue. Despite originally intending to join the Customs Union in the spring of 2014, Armenia has repeatedly postponed the final signature.
Fighting over peace
The sudden escalation of violence in Karabakh has occurred in a political and security context that had deteriorated throughout the region over the previous year. Growing competition between Russia and the ‘transatlantic community,’ from the middle of 2013, and the wider destabilisation caused by the Ukraine conflict, are important factors in the worsening of relations, which have placed pressure on key elements of the status quo supporting the Karabakh ceasefire.
As the conflict worsened, Putin convened a meeting in Sochi with the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, but without the American and French Minsk Group co-chairs. Putin’s initiative promoted speculation that Russia was seeking to downgrade the Minsk process and assert Russia as the leading international actor in the Karabakh peace process. Some observers also saw in Russia’s initiative an effort to prepare the way to introduce Russian ‘peacekeeping’ forces into the Karabakh peace equation and, thereby, side-line the EU and the US.
On September 4, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan on the margins of the NATO Wales Summit. The attendance of the Armenian president was viewed as an important sign that, despite Russian pressure, Armenia would like to keep its options open. Kerry is reported to have underlined during the meeting that negotiations should continue in the framework of the OSCE Minsk process.
At the conclusion of the NATO Summit, NATO members issued a statement asserting that allies ‘remain committed in their support to the territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova.’ The statement reaffirming territorial integrity was welcomed in Azerbaijan but caused some anger in Armenia.
Armenia is also growing increasingly concerned by the emerging security cooperation between Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. On 21 August, the defence ministers of the three countries met trilaterally for the first time and promised to carry out joint military exercises. The focus of the military cooperation is the protection of the Caucasus energy infrastructure; elites are concerned that instability in the region might spill over and threaten the emerging east-west Caucasus energy corridor.
For Armenia, such cooperation potentially opens a new situation in its relations with Georgia. In any conflict with Azerbaijan, Georgia would be a vital corridor for military supplies from Russia – a supply route would be directly challenged by an alliance allowing Turkish military forces to transit Georgia to Azerbaijan.
Breaking the status quo
The Caucasus region is now experiencing a potentially far-reaching shift as a result of growing security tensions at the local, regional, and international level. Countries of the region are increasingly caught up in the competitive integration projects of the EU and Russia, forcing them to choose one bloc over the other. The Ukraine crisis has only accelerated these trends. Today, as the security situation in the Caucasus comes under increasing strain, there are growing signs that the fragile status quo that has kept the Karabakh conflict at a relatively low level of violence is beginning to break.
High-level statements over the summer reflect growing international concern over Karabakhh and its potential to further destabilise Eurasia. For now, there appears to be a shared awareness that, despite regional competition, a further destabilisation of the Caucasus is not in anyone’s interest.
With this in mind, President Hollande of France has invited Aliyev and Sargsyan to Paris for talks at the end of October. Ahead of the Paris meeting, the Minsk Group co-chairs face a strategic choice: should their efforts be aimed at shoring up the status quo or should they once again try to find a political solution to the conflict?
Some reports suggest that France is considering ways to include Karabakh directly in the upcoming discussions. Such a step would mark a major shift in the peace process but it would also bring with it the serious risk of confronting Azerbaijan with a situation it could not accept. Any long-term solution would also have to ensure that Russia and Turkey (and possibly Iran) did not feel threatened by the final agreement. A great deal of care would therefore be required to ensure that a new peace initiative does not trigger precisely the confrontation it is designed to prevent.
The fighting of this summer is a clear warning that Karabakh can no longer be viewed simply as a local dispute capable of being contained within existing conflict management arrangements. And with fighting in Ukraine continuing to destabilise Central Europe and Eurasia, and with crises spreading and intensifying south of the Caucasus in Syria and Iraq, new ways of thinking and fresh approaches are urgently required to thaw the supposedly ‘frozen’ conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Neil Melvin is director of the Armed Conflict and Conflict Management Programme at SIPRI.
This article was originally published on OpenDemocracy and is available by clicking here.