The protracted conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh remains a dangerous challenge for Russian, American and European mediators.

An escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh requires new approach to stabilization. Photo: RIA Novosti

On April 2, Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory located between the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia, once again became the scene of escalating military and political tension. For now, the threat of further military activity in the region appears limited.

So what actually happened over the weekend? Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of escalating the violence, and each side offered conflicting accounts about human casualties, movement of military troops and damage inflicted on military equipment. For now, there are no significant changes along the borders of the two opposing sides.

Are there any reasons to be concerned about a violation of the 1994 ceasefire agreement signed by the conflict sides? Is there any threat of wider military activity in the Transcaucasia region? And what are the chances that third parties will become involved?   

Early warning signals

In many ways, a new outburst of confrontation in the disputed region should have been expected. For the past two years, after all, leading experts in both Russia and the West have warned about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

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In November-December 2015, pundits from the Moscow-based analytical agency Foreign Policy released an analytical report dedicated to Russia’s major international challenges. In 2016 The National Interest, the American magazine, republished an English version of the report, called “How to avoid war with Russia.” The fourth chapter of the report warns, “The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains one of the most dangerous challenges in the Caucasus.”

“Each side in the conflict has entered 2016 without any sign of compromise over the key issues  namely, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and some other Azerbaijani territories controlled by Armenian forces, as well as the problem of refugees,” the report reads.

The possibility of exacerbation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict scares both Russia and the West,” the authors of the report argue. “A ‘defrosting’ that would lead to the deployment of international peacekeeping troops also bothers Iran, which claims that the conflict should be settled without the participation of any nonlocal powers. However, the Russian-Turkish confrontation, given the strategic cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey, as well as between Armenia and Russia, raises the risk of a conflict that spreads well beyond the Caucasus region.”

Indeed, there have been numerous military incidents in the conflict zone, in addition to signs of more powerful military firepower and equipment being used, including howitzers and tanks. Moreover, military incidents have not only taken place along the borders of the two sides, but also beyond Nagorno-Karabakh, along the Armenian-Azeri border.

In other words, violations of the 1994 ceasefire have been steadily increasing. So, the same type of escalation that took place in early April could happen at nearly anytime.        

The unresolved issues of Nagorno-Karabakh

Even though the current military confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh may end in the near future, political problems – including the status of the disputed territory and the refugee crisis – will remain unresolved. In addition, Azerbaijan and Armenia are likely to stick to their different approaches on how to deal with the conflict, with no compromise expected.    

As it was previously, Azerbaijan will forward its major priority – the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity and “liberating of the occupied territories,” while Armenia will insist on the national self-determination of the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan ignores the problem of the dialogue between Azerbaijan’s government and its Armenian minority and sees the challenge as the external intervention of its neighbors. Meanwhile, Armenia sees the occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory in Nagorno-Karabakh as securing “the safety zone.” Compromises between two sides are hardly likely to be expected.   

The failure of the diplomatic option

But escalation of violence is not only the result of the intransigence of both Caucasian republics. Diplomats, who are supposed to find a formula for resolving the conflict, are also failing. There are two reasons for this.

First, the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes the U.S., Russia and France, focuses on political and legal aspects of the conflict, not on preventing a military conflict. However, it’s no longer possible to separate the political and military aspects. It is necessary to take into account this lesson in the future.    

Second, the Ukrainian crisis indirectly affected the Minsk Group negotiations, even though it is not directly related to the Azeri-Armenian confrontation. Ukraine provoked a large-scale confrontation between Russia and the West. This, in turn, created a great deal of problems for effective cooperation of Russian, American and European diplomats in different fields, including the collaboration of the OSCE Minsk Group on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.

Remarkably, the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict, the incorporation of Crimea and the Donbas war didn’t significantly hamper the format of the Minsk Group negotiations. Nagorno-Karabakh hasn’t yet become another reason for confrontation between Russia and the West.

However, 2014 saw many attempts from the mediator countries to play a greater role in resolving the conflict. For example, in an attempt to pacify Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with presidents Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia in Sochi in August 2014 after an outburst of violence in the region. Likewise, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Armenian and Azeri presidents at the NATO Summit in Newport, Wales to put them at the negotiating table in September 2014.        

In December 2015, Aliyev and Sargsyan met in Paris under the mediation of French President Francois Hollande. Previously, Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy was very active in alleviating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in his attempts to be the major peacekeeper in the South Caucasus. At any rate, all this affected the Minsk Group’s reputation as a united and well-coordinated center.

The role of external players

As a result, the conflicting sides are in a situation, in which they are tempted to provoke their opponent to change the strategic configuration. The increasing military activity of Azerbaijan is not a sign of radicalism, but it results from the fact that the nation finds itself in the vulnerable position of a loser. So, Azerbaijan’s consistent rhetoric about “the return of the territory” requires confirmation and real action.    

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But does it mean that the protracted conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenian is turning into a full-fledged military confrontation? Obviously, such a threat still looms on the horizon. But there are no significant changes on the borders of the Armenian-Azeri confrontation.

If one is driven by rational calculations, nobody is interested in a full-fledged war. Armenia might be the losing side, with revanchist Azerbaijan looking for a blitzkrieg – a very fast and successful war to reclaim territory. But such a war is hardly likely to be successful either militarily or politically. The U.S., the EU and Russia are not interested in unfreezing the confrontation and don’t want to see the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as another proxy confrontation.

Turkey might be interested in minimizing the influence of Moscow in Azerbaijan, which is strategically important for Ankara. But today Turkey is much more concerned with resolving the Syrian conflict and the Kurdish challenge [the demands of Turkish Kurds for broader autonomy – Editor’s note]. Likewise, Iran is skeptical about increasing military activity in Nagorno-Karabakh because of the risks of it becoming another international challenge. 

However, in cases similar to Nagorno-Karabakh, rational choices are not the only ones possible – any unplanned incident (such as a stray sniper’s bullet) might provoke a bigger wave of violence that would be difficult to stop. External actors in such a scenario might find it attractive to use this situation to their own advantage.

In such a case, Moscow might gain another chance to consolidate its position in the region – its role as a mediator is welcomed by both Yerevan and Baku. As opposed to the situation in Eastern Ukraine, the U.S. is not challenging Russia in Nagorno-Karabakh and will not create any obstacles.

Iran, which supports the status quo, is also likely to support Moscow. The only significant challenger is Turkey. But if Azerbaijan is ready to interact with Russia in one way or another, Ankara will most likely be careful – it’s unlikely that Turkish politicians would want to fight for Azerbaijan’s interests more than Azerbaijanis themselves.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.