Twenty years ago, a ceasefire agreement went into effect for Nagorno-Karabakh. What’s changed between then and now in how we view territorial conflicts in the post-Soviet space?

A woman walks past tombstones with portraits of Azeris killed during the fighting between Karabakh and Azerbaijan forces in 1993 in the Alley of Martyrs memorial cemetery in Baku. Photo: Reuters

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a small region in the South Caucasus of only 4,400 sq. km (approximately 1,700 square miles), was one of the first of several similar conflicts that began after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Over the past two decades, this conflict has transformed from an internal confrontation within one sovereign state – the Soviet Union – into a protracted international conflict with unclear prospects for resolution.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, two new states in the post-Soviet space - Armenia and Azerbaijan – almost immediately after they gained independence became directly involved in a military and political confrontation. To this day, there are still no diplomatic relations between them, and the border has turned into a “frontline” for the conflict.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that has emerged as a result of the conflict, unlike Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the Russian-Georgian border, has not received recognition by even a single government - even by Armenia, which supports it in terms of security and provides economic aid.

Unlike other ‘hotspots’ in the former Soviet Union, in Nagorno-Karabakh and territories adjacent to it, there are no peacekeepers in place – neither Russian nor international ones. However, the armistice based on the fragile balance of the opposing parties’ forces is often violated. And this relates not only to the line of demarcation for the ceasefire that serves to separate the parties (a line that is called ’the frontline‘ by Baku and Yerevan without any sense of political correctness), but also to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border that is recognized by the international community.

Clashes along this Armenian-Azerbaijani border are fraught with additional risks, as Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). More specifically, a hypothetical assault by Baku on Nagorno-Karabakh could be considered as action against separatists (as the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is recognized by both the West and Russia), while in the case of violations of the Armenian state border, the Russian Federation and its allies would be compelled to respond somehow.

Previous attempts to resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh

Many different projects to bring the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict out of deadlock have been proposed over the past two decades, starting from plans for a ‘territorial swap’ between Armenia and Azerbaijan, to a project to establish a ‘common state’ between Nagorno-Karabakh and the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Baku and Yerevan have considered both a ’package plan‘ (resolution of all the disputes together) and a ’phased plan‘ (division of the peace process into certain stages backed by legally binding documents), not to mention such exotic proposals as the creation of the ’Caucasian Benelux‘ or the use of ’the Aland Islands model‘ (Finland’s territories compactly populated by Swedes) for Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan. 

Thus, to date, the May 1994 Agreement, signed with Russian diplomacy playing the decisive role, remains in fact the only real achievement of the peace process.

That 1994 Agreement refutes the two persisting stereotypes that have formed in Western political science and journalism circles regarding the foreign policy of the Russian Federation in the post-Soviet space. Firstly, this is the idea that the strengthening of Russian influence in areas of the former Soviet Union is probably a personal project of Vladimir Putin as well as a consequence of the strengthening of authoritarian tendencies within the country.

In fact, Moscow has always systemically considered Eurasia as a high-priority territory in terms of its interests. Due to the decisive role played by Russia, in the first half of the 1990s, the bloodshed in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the civil war in Tajikistan were brought to a halt. And if there had been no attempts to ‘unfreeze’ these conflicts with the involvement of external forces (and not in the interests of the Russian Federation), it cannot be ruled out, that in many of these cases, their development would have followed quite a different path.

Secondly, this is the view that Russian politics is something inherently anti-Western. In this case, however, Russia, the U.S. and Europe do not hold fundamentally different viewpoints on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Settlement of the conflict is a common thread linking Russia and the West

Today, the negotiation process is based on the foundation of the ‘Madrid principles’ (so named in honour of the OSCE summit in Madrid in 2007). On conclusion of the regular G8 Summit in L'Aquila (Italy) in July 2009, the presidents of Russia, the U.S. and France (the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group) revealed the basic parameters of their approaches.

Subsequently, the ‘Madrid principles’ were updated on the basis of these approaches and submitted to the parties. Adherence to these principles was confirmed at subsequent G8 Summits.

It is worth noting that, despite the severe differences between Moscow and Washington on Georgia, the Middle East and Ukraine, and the revision of the country composition of the G8 itself because of the escalation of the Ukrainian confrontation, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue remains a common thread linking Russia and the West.

Moreover, this is exactly that rare case where the U.S. and Europe are ready to welcome not only Russian participation in the OSCE Minsk Group format, but also the Kremlin’s independent mediation efforts.

The other players in the region

However, Russia and the West are far from being the only external players involved in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


Since 2008, attempts to normalize Armenian-Turkish relations have led to the increased influence of Ankara on the dynamics of Nagorno-Karabakh. A geopolitical paradox has occurred. The absolute majority of the strongest supporters of Armenian-Turkish normalization have spoken (and continue to speak) about the need to separate the two issues: the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh and reconciliation between Ankara and Yerevan.

However, in reality, these two processes have merged. By means of multilateral pressure (especially from the U.S.), Turkey has been persuaded to sign two protocols on normalization of relations with Armenia without mentioning Nagorno-Karabakh or anything to do with the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict at all.

These protocols (signed in Zurich in October 2009) have already been termed ‘historic’ and ‘breakthrough.’ In fact, the two protocols on establishing diplomatic relations and opening the land border became the first legally binding documents signed by both Ankara and Yerevan. However, without parliamentary ratification, these documents remain just pieces of paper. The Azerbaijani factor is the main obstacle to Armenian-Turkish normalization.


When speaking about the prospects for the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, we cannot forget the role of Iran, which has borders with Armenia, Azerbaijan and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh. Tehran is extremely sensitive to the appearance of any external players in its neighborhood. This explains Iran’s desire to contribute to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Iran does not want any resolution of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh that would involve any international peacekeeping forces entering the region - although this is exactly what the ‘Basic Principles’ propose. Tehran's representatives have always stated that no external players should be present in the region, except the Caucasian countries themselves as well as the three Eurasian neighbours (i.e. Iran, Turkey and the Russian Federation).

However, any negotiation process involving the ‘stakeholders’ (whether it is Russia, the U.S., Turkey or Iran) will be of little use if the parties involved in the conflict itself cannot themselves find some compromise formulae that could be put into practice.

In the meantime, over the 20 years that have passed since the end of military operations, no such formulae have been found. And, most importantly, Yerevan and Baku show no willingness to compromise. Each of the conflicting parties understands ‘conflict resolution' here not as concessions and moving towards each other, but rather as a victory over the enemy. For one party it means consolidation of the military and political success achieved in May 1994, whereas for the other, it means restoration of territorial integrity while not ruling out the use of military methods.

The influence of the Ukrainian crisis on Nagorno-Karabakh

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was one of the first of several similar conflicts that began after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Photo: Reuters

The current political crisis in Ukraine has again divided Armenia and Azerbaijan. Whereas Baku at the international level (the UN General Assembly and the Council of Europe) has supported Ukrainian territorial integrity and condemned the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, Yerevan, on the contrary, has expressed its support for Moscow.

Armenia, in addition to its alliance with Russia, had another equally important reason to make such a choice: Yerevan has consistently supported the right of Karabakh Armenians to self-determination, despite the fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) has not been recognized by Armenia. Inside the NKR itself, the Crimean referendum was interpreted as a precedent that might affect the future of Karabakhians themselves.

However, many Armenians fear that the focus of the international agenda on Ukraine could spur Baku into taking tough action in an attempt to break up the existing status quo. “The world would not be interested in us,” a well-known Yerevan-based expert pointed out at a recent conference on security held in the Armenian capital.

On the contrary, in Azerbaijan, the ‘Crimean precedent’ has been considered as a possible tool for a total revision of Soviet inter-Republican borders, which would be directed against the interests of the Caspian Republic. All this has added to the emotional tension surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh process, which is already highly charged.

Be that as it may, the negotiation process should not, however, have a predetermined outcome. Any such pre-determination of the status of disputed territories will never be productive.

It is obvious that any conversation about the future of Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be held without taking into consideration all the realities on the ground that have taken place over the past two decades. The disputed territories cannot be simply returned to the state to which they are formally ‘assigned’ by definition. At the same time, it is dangerous to provoke a unilateral process of the ethnic self-determination of the NKR.

Thus, any specific solution of the conflict should be the final result of a series of agreements that take into account political bargaining at the highest levels. Such a solution cannot be imposed on the conflicting parties in advance, which would destroy any motivation for further negotiations. In this respect, the priority should be the total elimination of force from the settlement process. Participants in the negotiations should keep in mind that there may be other solutions to the conflict other than a war.