The long-term reasons for the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh are well known. But what caused such an extensive military intervention as the one we are seeing these days, over 25 years after the ceasefire? And what can and should be done now? An analysis
Starting from Sunday 27 September, there is again open war in Nagorno Karabakh, along the entire line of contact that separates Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Without peacekeepers on the ground and with opposing armies occupying their positions at extremely short distances, violations of the ceasefire reached in 1994 had been a daily occurrence for years. Today, however, we are witnessing a much larger military operation, which has already claimed hundreds of lives among the military involved and dozens of civilian victims. Both in Azerbaijan and Armenia, an extensive mobilisation has begun in preparation for a war that could last for a long time, or stop only to resume a few months later.
After a relatively calm 2019, with fewer ceasefire violations and some encouraging signs, including official acknowledgment by both governments of the need to prepare their populations for peace , what led to such an escalation of the conflict in the autumn of 2020?
Failure of the negotiations
Although there has been general consensus for years on the main elements of a potential peace agreement – restoration of Azerbaijan's control over the territories adjacent to the former autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh, interim status for the latter, return of the displaced, and international peacekeepers – over 25 years of negotiations have not brought any tangible results.
The responsibility for the deadlock in the negotiations does not lie with one side alone.
Armenia has an understandable structural interest in defending the status quo that was established following its military victory in the early 1990s. Without a real willingness to try to reach compromises, the nominally pacifist rhetoric promoted by the Armenian side is however very problematic. The situation that has consolidated over the past 25 years is legitimately unacceptable for Azerbaijan, and both Yerevan and Stepanakert – seat of the de facto authorities of Nagorno Karabakh – should know that such a status quo cannot be the basis for a lasting peace. In fact, the Armenian side continued to promote a maximalist position completely incompatible with a sincere commitment to seek a compromise in negotiations.
Azerbaijan's stance certainly does not help. As unacceptable as the status quo is, Baku's increasingly aggressive tones make it impossible to reach a modicum of mutual respect and trust at the negotiating table. Military actions like the one we are witnessing these days can only reinforce the belief that any territorial concession jeopardises the very survival of the Armenian community. After over 25 years of fruitless negotiations, and with no sign that the diplomatic path offers any chance of achieving anything, what options were left to Baku? "None other than war" seems to be the response of the Azerbaijani leadership – a response that fails to take into account its own strong responsibilities in making a negotiated solution impervious.
The international community, from the UN Security Council to the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group, calls to stop the clashes and resume negotiations. It is a correct message, but the appeals must be followed by a concrete commitment. In order for the negotiations to have any chance of success, there must be serious diplomatic and political commitment: strong actors who are able not only to persuade the parties to sit down at the negotiating table and to press for them to reach a compromise, but also to offer credible guarantees to protect any agreement that may emerge in this context. Unfortunately, there has been no trace of this for years. The priorities at the international level are quite different: the US is almost absent at this stage, the European Union has never played a relevant role, and Russia – which in the past has also tried to play the role of mediator – is not in the condition of convincing the parties to find a compromise. Turkey's explicitly pro-war stance that has emerged in recent days further complicates matters.
The United States organised peace negotiations in 2001 in Key West , but did not finalise an agreement. Then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev tried to lobby for a compromise by organising a meeting in Kazan in 2011, but no progress was made. Vladimir Putin hosted a new meeting in St. Petersburg after the violence in April 2016, but the circumstances were already unfit for taking concrete steps forward. Twenty years earlier, in the second half of the nineties, the parties showed signs of mutual respect and the negotiations actually discussed concrete solutions to overcome the conflict. But since then, from the point of view of the negotiations, things have gotten worse and worse. In recent years, a brief moment of hope following Nikol Pashinyan's electoral victory in Armenia in 2018 soon gave way to despair: the parties increasingly insisted on maximalist positions and in every way denied their willingness to find a compromise. In 2019, Pashinyan publicly stated that Nagorno Karabakh is Armenia . However, if there is no willingness on the Armenian side to even consider ceding territories, on the part of Azerbaijan the negotiations lose their meaning, as Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev recently reiterated .
Because of coronavirus, in recent months there have been no significant meetings between the parties, but with these premises it would still have been very difficult to achieve anything.
A new war started in September 2020
More than 25 years of unsuccessful negotiations and no hope of achieving anything in the foreseeable future are certainly the core reason that prompted Azerbaijan to initiate extensive military action against areas controlled by Armenian forces.
There are, however, other dynamics – both local and regional, and not strictly related to the conflict – that have contributed to ensuring that extensive military action would be taken at this point. Among these, there is certainly a progressive change in the balance of power determined by the significant increase in resources for the Baku budget obtained thanks to its gas and oil fields in the Caspian Sea.
In recent years, if on the one hand Armenia saw no reason to hurry to give up the status quo that emerged from the victory on the ground in the early 1990s, every year of waiting made Azerbaijan richer and militarily stronger, thanks to a considerably higher defense budget than Yerevan could afford . Overall there is awareness on Baku's part of its own economic and military strength in relation to its neighbours. Accompanied by a war rhetoric promoted at the highest levels and by a strong criticism of the international community that should act as the guarantor of any agreements, it has helped to create a public imaginary in Azerbaijan in which war is the only and inevitable solution. Broad consensus for the war was apparent in a large spontaneous demonstration last July and again in these days of war.
Moreover, in the absence of active involvement of other influential regional actors, in recent years Russia has used its influence on both countries to limit the risk of a war like the one we see these days. However, not even Russia has ever had the strength (nor the actual interest) to force a compromise. Turkey's explicit support for military intervention by Azerbaijan has turned the tables, showing that Russia is not the only major regional player in the South Caucasus.
An absent international community and Turkey's direct involvement are therefore among the elements that have contributed to making possible a war like the one we are observing these days. The long stall of the negotiation process, Azerbaijan's growing economic and military strength, and the maximalist, belligerent positions repeatedly expressed by Baku and Yerevan remain the main causes of this widely anticipated escalation.
When Azerbaijan attacked in 2016 – in the so-called "four day war" during which it gained control of some hills – the aim was not primarily military, but a – counterproductive – attempt to attract international attention and persuade the Armenian side to negotiate. The current military action that began on September 27 has instead the clear objective of changing the facts on the ground: the intention is to regain at least a significant part of the areas claimed by Azerbaijan. Even if a cease-fire were to be reached in the next few days, it would probably be just a pause before a new attempt by Baku to achieve by arms what it has so far failed to achieve by other means.
While war actions continue, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has stated his conditions to stop the military intervention: certain deadlines for the complete withdrawal of the Armenian military forces and a clear commitment to recognise Azerbaijan's sovereignty over Nagorno Karabakh and adjacent territories. These are clearly unacceptable requests for the Armenian side, which maintains its positions and indeed suggests that it could decide to formally recognise the independence of Nagorno Karabakh , a step it has never formally taken in the past in order not to derail the negotiations.
Therefore, unfortunately, there is still no trace of a military or political logic that points the way towards a lasting end to the ongoing war.
(Im)plausible peace agreement
What would need to happen, at least in theory, for a peace agreement to be reached that is to some extent acceptable to both sides? First of all, both sides should publicly acknowledge that an inevitable part of any negotiation is a compromise in which no one gets the totality of what they want. Expressing maximalist ambitions is legitimate, but declaring availability for negotiations while at the same time denying any possibility of giving up anything is nonsense.
A central element of the "Principles of Madrid" underlying the long negotiation process is the differentiation between the former autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh and the adjacent territories inhabited almost exclusively by Azeris until the war of the early 1990s, but since then under the control of Armenian forces. Basically, in line with these principles, most of the adjacent territories should pass under the control of Baku, while Nagorno Karabakh (or rather, the area that defined the autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh in Soviet times) would obtain ad interim status, which should be definitively established following a subsequent referendum. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris forced to flee their homes could therefore return and begin a long process of rebuilding. For this to be possible, there should be a solid agreement that prevents the risk of further violence as well as safeguards that effectively guarantee the safety of the people of Nagorno Karabakh.
Unfortunately, there is no trace of all this. Many of the maps used by the international media to represent the conflict show the borders of the autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh, a geographical category that has long disappeared both on the ground and on the maps used by the parties involved. With an internal administrative reform, the de facto authorities of Nagorno Karabakh have eliminated any distinction between the former autonomous region and adjacent territories, formalising a process of new settlements in these areas that has been going on for years: to date, about 15,000-17,000 Armenians live in the adjacent territories . The autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh was abolished in Azerbaijan in 1991 and never formally re-established in the Baku legislation; an administrative reform of Azerbaijan has also officially changed the geographical coverage of the districts that formed the Soviet Nagorno Karabakh, which therefore disappears in all respects from the official cartography used in Azerbaijan (on cartography, conflict, and territorial imaginaries, the articles by Toal and O'Loughlin , Toal and Broers , and Broers are of particular interest). Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has publicly declared his willingness to offer some form of autonomy to the Armenian population of Karabakh under the sovereignty of Azerbaijan, but in Baku's rhetoric the priority always remains territorial integrity, not the people who live there. In the current context, it is difficult to imagine a military solution to the conflict that does not result in ethnic cleansing.
The current situation is therefore also the result of a long process in which the parties have continued to promote maximalist positions in words and deeds, making it increasingly difficult – politically and concretely – to find a compromise. With the goodwill of the parties, until a few weeks ago, the elements at the basis of a successful negotiation process could have been the following: first of all, declarations of visible intentions and concrete actions on the ground to try to find compromise solutions, including a stop to the construction of new settlements in the adjacent territories by the Armenian side; then the formalisation of a process that would allow thousands of Azerbaijani displaced persons to return to their hometowns in the adjacent territories, thus offering the Azerbaijani side tangible and politically expendable results, in exchange for convincing promises about the long-term security and full self-government of the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh.
But if the dominant militarist rhetoric and international disinterest already made this path extremely complex and unlikely, the current war makes it appear completely implausible. It is possible to speculate that Azerbaijan is trying to implement – by force and at its own conditions – some elements of this path, conquering the territories it aspires to one piece at a time ; in any case, such a dynamic would have little chance of success and would more likely lead to a "total" war between the parties or to equally devastating scenarios.
What remains to be done
In ten days, this new war has already caused hundreds of casualties among the military and dozens among civilians. The International Red Cross denounces attacks on population centres and civil infrastructures; Amnesty International condemns in particular the use of cluster bombs; Human Rights Watch recalls the importance of not attacking civilians. There is a strong risk of a wider humanitarian catastrophe if the fighting were to involve even more significantly the large population centres of the region, some of which are already under frequent artillery attacks.
The Armenian side denounces attacks that have resulted in the death of civilians, but, at least in part out of military pride, says that it has the situation under control. Yerevan publicly denies it needs external military help, but also because, as long as the war actions remain almost exclusively on the internationally recognised territory of Azerbaijan, it could hardly get it. The scarcity of reliable information from the field makes it difficult to understand the actual dynamics of the military confrontation, but it is clear that in the medium term the risk for the Armenian community of Nagorno Karabakh is existential.
The reaction to this serious threat could therefore be sparse and involve, as we are already seeing in part these days, attacks on inhabited centres tens of kilometres from the contact line. A scenario that can lead to a spiral of violence with a disastrous humanitarian impact, in a difficult situation in which the closest regional forces – Russia and Turkey – could decide to stand by or to intervene only indirectly. Even in the event that a short-term strategic ceasefire is achieved, without broader and more direct international involvement it is difficult to imagine scenarios that do not include renewed extended hostilities with the humanitarian tragedies that would inevitably follow.
Nonetheless, international attention to this war remains extremely limited, and almost non-existent on the part of European countries and the United States. Apparently, no European leader wants to invest political capital in this conflict, at least in part because it is difficult to imagine an immediate ceasefire such as the so-called Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement which sanctioned the end of hostilities between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, at the end of the war in South Ossetia.
In a complex international context, the priorities are many. But the silence of European and international diplomacy regarding what is happening in Nagorno Karabakh is a tragic, unacceptable abdication of responsibility. No emergency diplomatic missions, no summits , no real pressure on the parties, no real offer of support for the peace process. This almost total silence on the part of diplomacy can only reinforce the already strong idea in Baku that it is useless to hope to achieve anything through international negotiations and mediation; it is therefore a silence that actively contributes to the destructive dynamics taking place in this conflict.
If the current co-presidency (France, Russia, and the United States) of the OSCE Minsk Group that should lead the negotiation process fails to intervene except through general messages, other permanent members of the Minsk Group should play a more active role: among these are Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Finland as well as Turkey, whose involvement in the negotiations in some form at this point seems unavoidable. The fact that Germany currently also holds the rotating EU presidency should push Berlin to take a more active role, just as France's rotating presidency in August 2008 helped justify Sarkozy's leading role during the war in South Ossetia. Like then, and given Brussels' slower decision-making times, the European Union could play a more prominent role in a post-ceasefire phase, offering support for humanitarian, monitoring, and reconstruction activities in the context of broader agreements. Stopping military actions at this point takes more than generic messages such as those made public, among others, by the co-presidency of the Minsk Group and by the German Foreign Ministry : to give a strong signal, figures of important countries need to take a plane and speak directly with the leadership of both sides, also involving Russia and Turkey, demonstrating real willingness to actively support the negotiation process and on this basis really ask for a ceasefire.
For now, there is no trace of all this. In recent years, Russia, Turkey, and the European Union have found themselves at odds on numerous occasions. However, given that a regional escalation or a prolonged war are both undesirable scenarios for all the actors involved (unfortunately, these are currently the most probable scenarios), it is not entirely implausible to imagine some cooperation in this juncture. As difficult as it may seem, expanding the diplomatic front may be the most effective way out of the current situation, in which a diplomatic stalemate corresponds to a spiral of violence on the ground. Without the involvement of third countries, it is difficult to imagine a functional negotiation path supported exclusively by Russia and Turkey. The choice by Western diplomacy and European countries to continue to ignore the war that is taking place in these days in the South Caucasus makes them co-responsible for a humanitarian tragedy which, perhaps, is still avoidable.
Nagorno Karabakh was an autonomous region with an Armenian majority within Soviet Azerbaijan. Since the end of the 1980s, growing tensions and demands have first resulted in localised episodes of violence, then in pogroms, and finally in an open war, which ended with a cease-fire in 1994. Since then, almost all of the former autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh as well as some surrounding areas (at the time entirely inhabited by Azeris) have been under the control of Armenian forces, and the Azerbaijani population has been forced to flee their homes; to date, there are around 600,000 displaced persons in Azerbaijan. In Nagorno Karabakh there is a de facto government whose independence is not recognised internationally by any member of the United Nations; however, it enjoys explicit and direct assistance from Armenia.
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