Ambassador (Ret.) Carey Cavanaugh is a professor of diplomacy and conflict resolution at the University of Kentucky Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.
Renewed military action over Nagorno-Karabakh makes clear that the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not a “frozen conflict,” but a persistent threat to stability in the South Caucasus region and beyond. Developments this week call for immediate international attention and renewed diplomatic engagement given the prospect that a wider armed clash could spiral out of control.
At sunrise on Sunday, September 27, 2020, fierce fighting erupted along the line of contact that separates Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan. Who initiated this latest clash is unknown, with each side vehemently blaming the other. Precise details regarding battlefield deployments and the exact number of casualties also remain unclear. What is certain is that military outposts, villages, and the city of Stepanakert were struck by artillery fire and missiles; Azerbaijan drones and a helicopter were shot down; armored vehicles were destroyed; an exchange of some territory occurred; and the number of military and civilian casualties in one day of fighting surpassed one hundred (with at least sixty-eight killed). All sides have declared martial law and Armenia has announced a general mobilization of its armed forces. Major international players are urging a cessation of hostilities and a return to the negotiating table, but it remains to be seen whether this round of fighting will continue and perhaps escalate.
This longstanding ethnic dispute emerged in 1988, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the Nagorno-Karabakh region sought independence from Azerbaijan. In the ensuing years, it resulted in twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand deaths, the displacement of about a million people across Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Armenians gaining control over most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven additional adjoining territories of Azerbaijan. Large-scale warfare stopped in 1994 with a Russian-brokered ceasefire which basically held for twenty-two years (despite regular ceasefire violations which occasionally led to isolated deaths of civilians and military personnel).
The long-term absence of significant military conflict, however, did not represent acceptance of the status quo. Political and economic developments in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the wider region—plus the absence of an agreed political settlement—have altered the military balance, hardened negotiating positions, and created potential domestic political incentives for aggressive action, thereby amplifying prospects for renewed fighting. In the past, all sides repeatedly expressed support for a political solution via negotiations, but when no such settlement was forthcoming, Azerbaijan increasingly insisted that, if necessary, it would restore control over its territory by force. In April 2016, a significant flare up occurred along the line of contact—dubbed the “Four-Day War”—in which Azerbaijan did recapture a small amount of land, but the war cost at least two hundred lives. A week of less intense hostilities took place this past July along the northern section of the Armenian-Azerbaijan state border resulting in at least sixteen deaths. Afterwards, tensions remained high, possibly setting the stage for the current military action.
Both Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan have made clear their nations are now prepared for war. In a televised address, Aliyev said the goal of his military operation is to regain all the [lost] territories. Pashinyan declared, “we are on the brink of a full-scale war in the South Caucasus which might have unpredictable consequences.” Those unpredictable consequences could include significant refugee flows, military strikes by both sides on civilian and economic infrastructure, and a potential spillover economic and humanitarian crisis in Georgia (which is heavily dependent upon energy imports from Azerbaijan).
The unique roles that Russia and Turkey play in the South Caucasus introduce additional complexity and danger. Russia has a military alliance with Armenia, which does not include the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and operates a major military base in the Armenian city of Gyumri, but Moscow is also the primary source of sophisticated weaponry for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey has maintained an economic blockade on Armenia since 1993 and has been increasingly vocal in vowing its complete support for Azerbaijan. In response to the current fighting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tacitly embraced the military action, declaring that international negotiations failed to solve this problem for thirty years, and calling on Armenia to immediately withdraw from Azerbaijani territories. While it is neither in the interest of Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Erdoğan to risk conflict between their two nations, the potential for miscalculation—which could even lead to questions about possible NATO involvement—certainly exists (tensions between Russia and Turkey, even if effectively managed, could lead to complications in Syria and Libya, where the two powers back opposing sides in their respective civil wars). The United States has explicitly discouraged external parties from participating in the escalating violence over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Since 1992, responsibility for the international mediation of this dispute has rested with the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group which is led by three co-chairs: the United States, France, and Russia. At several points in its long negotiating history, the Minsk Group has helped the conflicting parties move toward an agreement, but to date, apart from the general absence of conflict (a substantial achievement on its own), these negotiations have yielded little lasting progress. Relations between the three co-chair countries have diminished under the Donald J. Trump administration and the lack of stronger engagement and greater movement on the diplomatic front in recent years is clearly an underlying factor behind the renewed hostilities. The current disarray in OSCE leadership has not helped; neither has Washington’s distraction with other priorities.
While Russia has always possessed the stronger hand to push for a ceasefire in the region, it will undoubtedly take a concerted effort and greater U.S. attention to have any chance for progress on the peace front. At this dangerous moment, there could be merit in UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres making use of his “good offices” to appoint a personal representative—not to supplant the Minsk Group, but to more closely follow the conflict and peace efforts on the secretary-general’s behalf, thus immediately increasing diplomatic engagement and highlighting the strong international interest and support for a peaceful solution.