• Defense and Security
    Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar: Conflict Resolution in Armenia and Azerbaijan
    Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and Philip Gamaghelyan, assistant professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, discuss the ethnic and territorial conflicts in the region, including conflict resolution strategies, regional security implications, and the role international actors have played. TRANSCRIPT FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Thank you for joining us.  As a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the audio, video, and transcript will be available on CFR’s website, CFR.org, and on the Apple Podcasts channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.  We’re delighted to have with us Aslı Aydıntaşbaş and Philip Gamaghelyan to discuss the ethnic and territorial conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. And I will introduce them briefly, their bios, before turning to them.  Ms. Aslı Aydıntaşbaş is a regular contributor to the Washington Post as a global opinions columnist. Her columns have also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Forbes, Politico, and elsewhere, as well as Foreign Affairs, our own magazine here published by the Council on Foreign Relations. She’s a visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.  Philip Gamaghelyan is an assistant professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. A conflict resolution scholar practitioner, he is the cofounder and board member of the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation. He is also the author of Conflict Resolution Beyond the International Relations Paradigms: Evolving Design as a Transformative Practice in Nagorno-Karabakh, and he’s a managing editor of Caucasus Edition: Journal of Conflict Transformation.  Thanks to both of you for being with us to talk about conflict resolution in Armenia and Azerbaijan. I was hoping that you could give us some background on the conflict, talk about the peace talks which have stalled, and where you see things going from here. So, Aslı, let’s begin with you, and then we’ll turn to Philip.  AYDINTAŞBAŞ: Thank you, Irina. And thank you for organizing this event on a part of the world that is getting very little attention but has been the scene of rather dramatic events back in September when there was an exodus of almost a hundred thousand Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, sort of an ethnic enclave, ancestral homeland, contested area between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Before we go into the details of the conflict, and some of the conflict resolution issues that my colleague Philip is really hands-on with, and, you know, has experience with on the ground, I’d like to provide a bit of a brief background on the big picture. Which is a part of the world on the periphery of Russia, almost equidistant to the two major wars that we are experiencing right now—the war in the Middle East and the war in Ukraine.   And of course, this region, South Caucasus, has historically been an arena of great-power competition. But over the past hundred years, it’s been Russia’s backyard. Really, more or less, a stable course with a firm Russian hand over all the Soviet republics. And Armenia and Azerbaijan lived side by side in multiethnic societies for much of the past hundred years, until the ’90s when both countries declaring independence and subsequently entering a war. Territory changing back and forth, Armenia occupying quite a substantial part of Azerbaijan, which—war in 2020, and, again, with the Nagorno-Karabakh incident in September Azerbaijan took back in a military offensive.  But of course, not everything is over. It’s a very volatile part of the world. There is—there is both a Russia problem that comes from Russia’s overreach and Russia’s absence. For too long, Russia had been the provider of security, both in the region but also specifically for Armenia. They’re now otherwise occupied. What you have is a situation in which alliances are shifting and presenting a huge asymmetry between the two countries. Basically, Armenia is trying to wean itself out of Russian influence, trying to approach—come closer to the West. Essentially, almost thirty years too late—steps that other countries have taken, particularly Georgia in the region, have taken twenty years ago. And doing so at a time when the price of trying to come close to the West, as we know in Ukraine, is almost too high.   On the other hand, there is a clear power asymmetry in terms of the military power between these two countries. They have had on again/off again peace talks over—since the 1990s, basically. But intensely over this past year, with no results. There has been an interest in Western—in European countries mediating, EU mediating, the administration mediating between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russia mediating, and even sort of regional players. But at the end of the day, we’ve had—we have a draft treaty. We have everything that is—that make go into a peace—fundamentally, a sustainable peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But it’s not happening. Why is it not happening? Again, the great-power rivalry that is happening everywhere in Russia’s periphery is also happening here.  There’s clearly a situation in which while Armenia wants to get close to the West, Russia does not want to do that. Russians have shown that they are—they have been very interested in regime change in Armenia, and removing the more pro-Western elements that are in government right now, at least the more liberal-leaning elements that are in power right now and replacing that with a puppet regime. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is doing an interesting balancing act between Turkey and Russia. And has now emerged as a key energy provider for Europe at a time when Europe is trying to reduce its dependency on Russia gas, providing an enormous leverage for Azerbaijan.   And this reversal of alliances is also—domestically there is—in both countries there is a situation that is dramatically different. In Armenia, you have a government that’s been elected in more or less a velvet revolution, street demonstrations. And it’s a democracy. And a democracy that is—where the government faces opposition when it wants to take steps, particularly when it wants to take steps that nationalist Armenians consider too far. Whereas in Azerbaijan, you have more of a firm hand of the Aliyev regime and, I would say, more of an illiberal, if not autocratic, system. But still a domestic constituency that is demanding victory, demanding military victory, and demanding—and has gotten used to great—the military conquest, so to speak.  I think that we have seen Turkey as an interesting element, as an interesting external factor, coming into the scene and saying: You know, we are historically, for the first time in a hundred years, ready to normalize our relations with Armenia, but with the condition that Armenia and Azerbaijan come sign a peace treaty before we do that. Turkish-Armenian border has been sealed, more or less for the past hundred years. I use hundred years as a reference to 1915, the sort of—the date that is considered by many to be the date of Armenian Genocide, the beginning of a period of massive exodus, and killing for Armenians indigenous to the Ottoman Empire. But of course, you know, Turkish government’s desire to normalize relations with Armenia is important.  Except it is predicated on a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Right now where things are, I think I would just sort of give a brief overview on that, and leave the rest of Phil. But there is—the set of negotiations and bilateral talks between the two sides has produced all the conditions for a treaty to be signed. But we have, I think, more eagerness on the part of Armenia and a bit of a foot dragging that is happening on the part of Azerbaijan. Russia is clearly not interested in seeing a peace between the two countries. The West is interested in seeing a peace treaty between the two countries, two allies at this point looking to the West, but not—doesn’t have the bandwidth to get involved and push for it.   And, of course, the situation inside Ukraine, how that war goes and whether or not Russia ends up in a year or two having more of the sort of military upper hand, is enormously important for the knock-on effect it could have in this part of the world. So there is—it is a dramatic time. It could lead to a wonderful peace treaty between these two countries, opening up a historic reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey. Or it could lead to renewed fighting based on various border disputes or issues that are still unresolved. Quite dramatic and also maybe inconvenient in the sense that everyone is distracted. There are already two wars going on, and a U.S. election that is on—that is sapping the energy from many of the stakeholders in the international scene.  FASKIANOS: Thank you very much.  Let’s go to you, Philip, to talk about the conflict resolution piece, and anything else do you want to respond to from the setup that Aslı gave us.  GAMAGHELYAN: Of course. Thank you very much, Aslı, for giving the geopolitical overview of the conflict. And thank you for inviting me to this talk as well.   As a conflict resolution scholar, I’ll give a bit of a different take, a different angle since, we already covered the geopolitical one. And also go back for a minute to the 1990s, which was the time where Armenia and Azerbaijan had their first war, a very destructive war, but in my view also the time when there was perhaps the best chance to settle this conflict. So the war in 1990s this took place immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union when you had wars also in Chechnya and other parts of—Abkhazia, Georgia—in Georgia, and other parts of the Soviet Union. An empire was collapsing and there was questions of territory and human rights and minority rights and self-determination.   And this war was very violent. Thirty thousand people died in that war, which is—for a small region is a big number. But perhaps more tellingly, the entire Armenian population of Azerbaijan was displaced and the entire Azerbaijani population of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, after Armenia took it over militarily, was displaced. So there was full ethnic cleansing for a million people for a region that has about 10 million at that point. So more than 10 percent of population was displaced. Essentially, anybody of the wrong ethnicity was ethnically cleansed. So it was a very violent war. It was also a very not compromising in terms of seeing each other in very mutually exclusive terms.   And yet, in 1990s, I am still believing there was the highest chance to solve the conflict, not because the leadership of the time was any more constructive—which is, I think, some misconception that we have. They fought this very violent war. But because there was a blueprint upon which the peace could have been established, which is essentially the liberal peace paradigm that we probably know a lot about. At that point, it was—the end of history was pronounced. Communism lost. Liberal democracies won the day. That was the assumption. And the conflict was to be solved—this and all other conflicts—were to be solved through democratization, really, of the region.   So the disagreements about the belonging of Karabakh and so on, all this remained, and why we never had a solution. But again, the blueprint was clear and accepted by everybody. So Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, all that neighborhood was democratizing and integrating with European Union at the time. And liberal peace has this very specific set of principles on which conflict was to be resolved. It starts with liberal democratic constitutions. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan accepted them in 1995.   And that includes very extensive provisions of human rights, minority rights. There was also marketization, liberalization of the markets. And the idea there is that then you have economic integration, and through economic integration that markets bring, you will have more interdependency. Another piece is institutionalization of civil society. And as you have strong civil society, then you will have conflicts that—they will be solved through or addressed through democratic means. You can see that in Scotland, in Quebec, right? So you have conflict, ethnic conflict, it doesn’t go to violence.   So this was to be the blueprint of solution in some form, right? You will have a conflict, disagreement, but it will be handled through democratic means. That clearly did not work. But why I believe in 1990s there was the highest chance to solve it. Now, we can ask why it didn’t work, and for many reasons. The ethnonationalism dominated. For example, the human rights, minority rights provisions in both countries were never applied to whoever they saw as the enemy. So Armenia never applied the human rights provisions to Azerbaijanis, never let displaced Azerbaijanis return. Same in Azerbaijan. Marketization happened, but it never led to any economic connectivity. The borders remained closed. Civil societies developed, but they never, again, took on the integration of other side or advocacy for the other side into their agenda. So essentially, the democratization never led to the assumed support for the solution of the conflict.   So that was in 1990s. Since then, the conflict steadily escalated. And in 2016, there was a very major escalation. In 2016—oh, sorry—2020 there was a second Karabakh war. The first one was won by Armenia and this one was won by Azerbaijan, that then was followed by full ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh. And we have now an interesting situation where the conflict, in a way, has been dealt with very—you know, through military violent means by Azerbaijan’s victory in the second Karabakh war. And yet, we don’t have a solution. So it’s strange situation when there is no real driver of a conflict. In a way, the cause of the conflict, disagreement about Karabakh, is removed. Armenia government, despite some displeasure from the population perhaps, is not claiming it anymore. And yet, we are not seeing any move—any serious move towards the solution.   And question is, why? And in my view, again, we go back to this question of there is no blueprint on which you can have a stable solution. Democratization didn’t work as a conflict resolution mechanism, even when it was happening. And today, it’s not even happening. So Aslı mentioned Armenia itself, as well as Georgia and Moldova and Ukraine, in that neighborhood are democratizing, or trying to stay democratic. But the rest of the neighborhood is not. You have Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia, Iran, of course—a lot of the neighboring states, big states, are actually becoming more and more autocratic. So this democratic approach to solution is not necessarily workable in the condition where most of the neighborhood is heavily autocratic.   And the democratization comes with a heavy price. While I agree that Armenia is late, in a way, to the game, but it’s not like those whose attempted democratize early didn’t pay a heavy price. So Georgia, who tried to democratize twenty, thirty years before Armenia also paid a heavy price, lost big parts of territory, faces two wars in its own territory. Ukraine, we are seeing what’s happening as a result of trying to democratize. Moldova is potentially under a threat of invasion, has its own conflict. So basically, every country that attempts to democratize and break away from autocratic Russian influence ends up facing, essentially, war or invasion in its territory.   So we have this very volatile situation that Aslı mentioned. Where to go from here? In my view, conflict resolution, as such, that was possible in the 1990s is not possible, again, because we don’t have this consensus—international consensus that everybody will become liberal democracies, and through integration to European Union structures, and in some form replicating post World War II European experience, right? So solving it through democratization and economic integration. That blueprint is not possible, given the heavily autocratization of the majority of the region.   So with that out, so my proposal has been recently to—also to governments—to think in a long term about transformation of the conflict. As I said, even when they were more democratic, they never really applied human rights provisions or anything to the other. It’s a very heavy investment by both governments throughout thirty, forty years into building enemy image and hatred towards the other side. That we need to really divest from it on both sides. And that includes the education system, it includes political speeches that could go full fascist, I would say, essentially, fully excluding the other side and advocating for violence, normalizing violence. So that has to be on unwinded as long term as that was built. Yeah, we need to completely reform the education systems, the political speech, and what else?   So one support to this region will be to invest and encourage them to move away from this kind of rhetoric and narratives in history—history education, and political speeches and media as we move forward, since, again, the drivers of the conflict are not necessarily present. But that’s longer term. In the shorter term, I believe there is an importance to invest in conflict management, not necessarily solution. But minimizing the chance for a new war emerging. If the war until recently was in international recognized territory of Azerbaijan and disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, there is now a chance of it moving into the territory of Armenia. And now we will have the reverse situation but also quite unsolvable if Azerbaijan is to take over part of Armenian territory.   So presumably that is not in the interests of Armenia, for sure, the region in general, I believe, but also the Western partners. Because as Aslı also pointed out, Russia has ruled this region essentially through keeping the conflicts alive and kind of playing the sides against each other. So in that sense, the region itself, of course, can benefit from peace, but also the Western partners should be interested in seeing peaceful region, because that helps them more to democratize and move away or at least diversify its foreign policy, and move away from full control by Putin’s Russia. And this is where we don’t see necessarily enough—perhaps we see enough investment at this point, I will say, from the West. But it’s not consistent.   So there has been heavy investment from the West towards democratization of this region during Clinton and Bush presidencies. You saw a complete pullback of the region during Obama and Trump presidencies, where the region was looked upon through the prism of relations of United States with Russia. And essentially, the region was handed over Russia as its playground to manage. For example, even the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan were always led by the United States, France, and Russia together, other than in the period when Barack Obama comes to power and effectively outsources this fully to Russia, and endorses Russian-led single track process.   So you have suddenly more investment into the region from the Biden administration. But there is this hesitation—and you have Macron, also France is very heavily involved. Very different from the past. But there is always a hesitation what’s going to happen past November, right? So can we count on essentially the United States being present in the region past November? Is it—are you waiting four years from then, and then we are on our own again? Yeah, so this more systematic investment being more part of a longer-term strategy to democratize and integrate with the West is really important. And that’s one area where more consistency could help really divest somewhat from dependence on Russia. So I will stop there and turn to questions. Thank you.  FASKIANOS: Terrific. Thank you both. That was a really great overview and update on where we are. I’m going to go to all of you now for your questions.  (Gives queuing instructions.)  Let me just look at—if we have any raised hands. Not yet. So maybe we could just dig a little bit—oh, we do—we had a question that just went away. Yes. OK, great. Peg Chemberlin.  Q: Hi.  Could you speak a little bit to the role of the faith community over these years? Whether that’s the Orthodox community, the relationship Ukrainian Orthodox and Russian Orthodox? Whether it’s the—some of the more invasive evangelicals? Where are they carrying political agendas? How are they being helpful, and so forth? Thank you.  GAMAGHELYAN: Aslı, I don’t see you coming in, so I’ll start, I guess. So coming off the Soviet era—out of Soviet Union, these have been very secular countries. Some of the countries in the neighborhoods, specifically Ukraine and Georgia, maintained bigger, perhaps, religious community. That has been changing, of course, throughout past thirty years. I mean, in Armenia specifically you see comeback of the Apostolic Church—Armenian Apostolic Church; many new churches building. And the religious community is becoming more active in domestic politics, in domestic civil society, in education matters.   In Azerbaijan, a bit less so. It has been somewhat seen as it’s been—it’s partially encouraged, but in a very government-controlled fashion, while kind of more genuine expansion of religious movements have been seen as a potential political threat and has been suppressed. But you have—I think we don’t see much of an involvement of faith communities in any form, neither from outside nor internally, in the normalization or peace process. There have been maybe one or two meetings between religious leaders, but they have been organized by Moscow actually, about maybe fifteen years ago last time, if I’m not wrong. So it was a more of, like, government organized, symbolic event rather than any kind of genuine reaching out.  And within the country, although most people of Azerbaijan, which is more the religious community I think is dealing with political repression than the conflict. In the Armenian case, currently the institutional church is positioning itself in rather opposition, I would say, to the current government that is working for peace. So interestingly, you see alignment of the church based on what is called preservation of traditional values with more the conservative traditionalist, let’s say, end of the political spectrum, that’s aligning itself with Russia, and also revanchist rhetoric towards potentially regaining control of Karabakh. So you see almost an oppositional movement from the church towards the government. In no case I’ve seen any involvement, again, in the peace process, neither from internally nor by any outside faith groups so far. It would be great to see it. It’s definitely missing angle.  FASKIANOS: Aslı.  AYDINTAŞBAŞ: So I’m an outside observer on this issue, and Phil really knows intimately closer the dynamics when it comes to faith-based organization and their involvement. But one outside observation is the reason for the weakness in ties could be a product of the fact that until very recently Armenia and its politics were strongly under Russian influence. Russians had—you know, Armenia was in CSTO, Russia controlled its borders, and wielded an enormous amount of influence over Armenian politics—handpicking governments, supporting oligarchs, and so on and so forth. Until the velvet revolution, so to speak, or the street revolutions of 2018, when you had a government that understand—that came into power democratically, through street demonstrations, and opened up Armenia’s ties with the West.  So almost too late, because some of the countries like Ukraine and Georgia had gone through this phase earlier. But it is still very important. And civil society is blossoming in Armenia. If you’ve—I was—you know, if you go to Yerevan, it’s really experiencing a sort of very colorful social and civil society scene. But it is new—relatively new. And I’m going to say maybe something slightly provocative here. It is also the case that Armenia’s relationship—Armenia, the country’s relationship with the Armenian diaspora in the West, isn’t exactly a full alignment. Much of the Armenian diaspora in this country, in the United States, is Armenians who have fled Ottoman Empire—descendants of Armenians who have fled Ottoman Empire, and therefore more focused on issues around the genocide, genocide recognition.  And of course, recently they have been involved in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but it is not—they’re not exactly the diaspora of Armenia, the country. They are the diaspora of Armenians from all the territories Armenians have historically lived. Very focused on historic reconciliation, historic issues, as opposed to the sort of Armenia—its current needs, and developments, and positioning, and vulnerability, and so on. So I see a huge difference when I look at Armenia—the relationship it has—or doesn’t have, really, with the Armenian diaspora in this country, with the type of relationship we would see between Israeli communities in politics and Israeli American communities, with the American diaspora here. So that difference is also—may also be part of the reason faith-based organizations are not really—have not really focused on what is happening in Armenia.  FASKIANOS: Thank you.  I’m going to go next to Elise Cannon. And if you could identify yourself, that would be great.  Q: Yes. Yes. So this is Reverend Dr. Mae Elise Cannon. So my first name is Mae. I’m the executive director of an organization called Churches for Middle East Peace.   And you spoke to my question a little bit in your last response, but my question is: Can you explain a little bit more about what’s happened specifically in the last year, and the displacement from Nagorno-Karabakh, but the negotiations in light of, I was going to say, the region’s history—which you started to talk about—but specifically, the Armenian perspective that I hear often from diaspora about the displacement being identified as ethnic cleansing or a continuation of the genocide. You know, this idea of connecting what’s happening today to the history of the Armenian people, you know, as an ongoing erasure not only of Armenian culture and identity, but the historical Christian identity of the region and territory.   And my question ultimately is, how legitimate is the fear that the goal of Turkey and Azerbaijan would be, or is, the complete eradication of Armenia and its Christian identity? I mean, that’s something that we hear. And is that legitimate at all? And the argument that’s used is the displacement of the population from Nagorno-Karabakh is evidence of that continued ethnic cleansing, you know, if you will.  FASKIANOS: Who would like to go first? Aslı, I see you are unmuted. And then we’ll go to Philip.  AYDINTAŞBAŞ: Yeah, I mean, I think that—I think that it would be too far to say—certainly would be an exaggeration to say the goal of Turkey and Azerbaijan is the eradication of Armenian identity or the country. I do think that Turkey would prefer normalization with Armenia and opening its border, which then provides a direct access to Azerbaijan, Central Asia, and really opens an incredibly valuable resourceful trade route for Turkey into—all the way into China. It’s called Middle Corridor. And Turkish pundits are almost obsessed with it. It is just that they have developed a very strong strategic relationship with Azerbaijan which wields enormous influence over Turkish public opinion, and they don’t want to normalize relations or open the border until there is a peace deal. This is a reality of Turkish politics, and the sort of relationship Turkey has established over the—solidified with Azerbaijan.   I think that Turkish and Azeri goals are not necessarily overlapping, but they are similar. Azerbaijan is not the—one of the issues is Azerbaijan is not desperate for peace, whereas Armenia is very vulnerable at the moment and is really eager for peace. Turkey would like peace, but isn’t going to push Azerbaijan to jeopardize its relationship with this sort of influential, oil-rich country. So there is a possibility of coming up with a framework whereby you can manage this conflict, as Phil has pointed out, and essentially open transit roads and sort of prevent further fighting and war, and really prevent a type of catastrophe that you have talked about.   I have to say that there is a maximalist narrative that is coming out of Azerbaijan that is worrisome to watchers, people who watch this conflict, including U.S. officials that have invested somewhat in the peace process—on again, off again. There are also all these issues that Phil has talked about in an earlier question—hate speech, maximalism, racism, normalization of violence. And these are deep, deep, deep, deep issues that are not necessarily addressed, but can only be done so within the context of peace treaty or sort of a de-escalation.   So I am not necessarily thinking that Turkey shares the same ideas with Azerbaijan. They would not like to see further fighting. But if Azerbaijan decides to embark on further fighting to claim territory, a part of—that is now part of Armenia, I am not—you know, I don’t think they would publicly oppose that.  FASKIANOS: Phil.  GAMAGHELYAN: Yeah. I don’t think there is any kind of monolithic answer. In general, yes, it’s not like Turkey or Azerbaijan have some specific policy that is continuation from, like, you know, nineteenth century until today. I think things change. I think there are different factions and policies and politics in each community. In 2000s, I would see this proposition as kind of very marginal, yeah, so this kind of logic that there is some kind of continuity of policy and there is an interest of ethnic cleansing. I don’t think that was the case at all. The time there was right. So there were many chances—in the 1990s and 2000s, there were many chances to solve this conflict.   The politics of the day, again, the norms of the day were very different, again, for the region. Turkey was moving towards European Union and was democratizing. So the structures—international structures within which this conflict was being addressed were very different from the ones today. But at the same time, even then you had perhaps somewhat marginal groups of nationalist Turks, nationalist Azerbaijanis, also nationalist Armenians we would like to see complete ethnic cleansing and the eradication of the other side. You always have these voices.   Now, things change. If I think in—if in, again, 1990s, 2000s, seeing this kind of takeover of a country, eradication of population was a non-starter somewhat. Yes, it will not be tolerated. There will be interventions. Things change. What we are seeing today in Gaza, what we are seeing in Ukraine, that suddenly mass violence is becoming normalized. The reaction is, yes, there, but potentially muted. And that potentially does open up a door for, you know, quite fascist type of movements that can talk about solution of a problem through full ethnic cleansing. Suddenly it’s not as unthinkable as it would have been five, ten, fifteen years ago. So again, I think the elements within Turkey, within Azerbaijan who were voicing full eradication of Armenians were there, they were very marginal. Again, I’m not excluding that possibility anymore. I would be five, ten years ago.   And I’m not also ascribing some kind of particular nationalism to Turks and Azerbaijanis only. Armenians, when they had the upper hand, had very extremely nationalist narratives and did not let any Azerbaijani return home, fully excluding any possibility of coexistence or, again, Azerbaijani rights as human rights, or minority rights of Azerbaijan has were displaced from Armenia. So essentially, both sides—both sides, the nationalism is present, sometimes has a strong political voice. At this point, Armenia being far weaker politically and militarily side if there is a conflict, you can potentially expect much more violence than we’ve seen in the past.  FASKIANOS: I’m going to go next to Bob Roberts.  Q: Thank you, Irina. Appreciate it. Three quick questions.  FASKIANOS: Bob, can you identify yourself? I’m sorry.  Q: Yes. Bob Roberts. I’m the president of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network and Institute for Global Engagement.   Three quick questions, with three quick answers. Number one, sometimes in a conflict there’s a single factor if you can get the ball rolling on that it changes everything. Is there a factor like that in this? And if so, what is it? Would it be an open channel connecting Azerbaijan to its dislocated section on the other side? As I’m sure you’re aware. Number two, what are the first three steps, you would say, if peace is going to happen, here are three things that have to happen, here the first three things I would focus on? Thank you.  AYDINTAŞBAŞ: I guess I’ll go first. There is—Azerbaijan has an exclave—an enclave closer to the Turkish border that it’s disjointed, and wants a land bridge over this territory, which is Armenia. So it’s two Azeri territories, Azerbaijan proper and this other territory, and Armenia in between. They do want to land bridge. And it is presented—the issue is, at this point, will they accept the crossroad, the transit route that Armenia is offering? Or will they not—or will they try to open it and reclaim that territory, and open that territory which is currently Armenia, which is historically Armenia, and sort of try to do it militarily?   I do think, yes, it is coming down to that land bridge, the transit corridor, or whatever we call it—the transit route. Armenia has recently put forth a proposal called Crossroads for Peace, saying—basically saying they’re willing to open this, but it is sovereign Armenian land, would have to be controlled by Armenia. And so much of the sort of recent negotiations has been around this. The problem is, in principle both countries agree that there should be this corridor, this land bridge, this sort of transit route. And that our Azerbaijan should have access to this exclave and that, you know, eventually linking it up with Turkey.   So to me, it seems like sort of really sad that there is an agreement on what needs to happen, but it is—for some reason, the details, where the passport control will be, what truck—how will trucks pass, you know, whose territory it is—we have come all this—you know, this far in negotiations, and with both sides agreeing to the existence of this transit route. So it would be a real shame if they step back and engage in fighting, just sort of thinking of this as an opportunity somehow.  I think Armenia does fear that Azerbaijan will go ahead and open this route militarily. Also, because of the more sort of maximalist language that is coming out of Azerbaijan now. But this is where international community could be helpful, important, and really put its foot down and say: You want a road? We will build it. We will provide the modality. It can be, like, this model that model, and really put the funding for it. We’re talking about a very, very small piece of territory.   But what are the first three steps? Or what is another issue that would make a difference? I think Turkey could make a difference and unlock this conundrum in a way that is more impactful than the sort of Western-led mediation efforts, if Ankara was to lean in a little bit and convince Azerbaijan to go ahead and sign a peace deal with Armenia. This benefits—this whole thing benefits Turkey enormously, strategically, in terms of sort of a really important historic reconciliation, but also trade wise. So if they could lean in and sort of provide the type of guarantees Azeris will have, this can happen.   It’s a question of, you know, convincing Turkey to go ahead and be really—play a more constructive role in this process. Right now, they’re hands-off. They’re not playing a destructive role and their position is—Turkey’s position is: We’ll support whatever Azerbaijan decides. But I think Turkey leaning in a little bit and convincing Azerbaijan could be—could really change the dynamics there. Maybe that would be my—the big sort of single issue I would highlight.  FASKIANOS: Great. Philip, we’ll go to you, and then we’ll take our next question from Margaret Kibben. So, Philip, if you want to add, and then we’ll go—we’ll move to next question.  GAMAGHELYAN: Yeah. I will actually go even further and put Turkey as that single important factor column. I think that Turkey not normalizing, not opening the border with Armenia, actually keeping it fully economically dependent on Russia, is the biggest obstacle to moving forward. Biggest obstacle, but also could have been the biggest step forward towards normalization, at least abiding by the agreements that are already reached. Last summer there was an agreement which—there were negotiators appointed at President Erdogan’s prompting between the two sides. They agreed on some small steps, such as opening the border for—between Armenia and Turkey for third party nationals only—not for Armenians and Turks, but for third parties and for diplomatic passport holders. It was supposed to open until July of 2023. It’s still not open. Turkey essentially just backtracked on that.   So there is a—so why Turkey is so important? Because from Armenian perspective, they are willing to or accepting a lot of the conditions by Turkey and Azerbaijan, but they see even whatever is agreed upon not being actually followed up upon by neither Turkey nor Azerbaijan. And that creates a lot of hesitation of it’s more essentially—any compromise Armenia makes going to be followed by further demand without even what’s agreed upon being fulfilled by the opponent. So from that perspective, Turkey is, again, very important step for Armenia to open up to the world outside Russia. It’s also important to see that what’s at least agreed upon—not more than you agreed, but what you agreed is being fulfilled.   So I put it as first—second, concrete peace agreement that come between Armenia and Azerbaijan. So I’ll put that second, not first. Second, with very concrete agreement of which map should be used for demarcation, delimitation. Azerbaijan is in favor of peace agreement but refusing to agree on anything concrete. And the history of last three years shows that that means Azerbaijan at every place is then going to be pushing further into the Armenian territory. So without a concrete map on which the demarcation can be done, it becomes essentially a paper that gives Azerbaijan and Turkey potentially a carte blanche to encroach into Armenian territory. So concrete peace agreement, with a specific map attached to it.   And then, third, I would agree, also U.S. and overall Western mechanism of guarantee of implementation of these two provisions, right? So if there is an opening, a road given by Armenia to Azerbaijan to pass, if there is a peace agreement, demarcation will be made. There should be a mechanism of arbitration in case you have disagreements that later lead to escalation. Right now there is no mechanism through which any disputes could be solved. So I’d say Turkey abiding by its already-made agreements and promises, peace agreement—concrete peace agreement. And then mechanisms for arbitration, would be three.  FASKIANOS: Thank you.  Let’s go to Margaret Kibben.  Q: Hi. Thank you both very much for this marvelous conversation. My name is Margaret Grun Kibben. I’m the chaplain of the House of Representatives.  And have been very much interested in the conversations that are taking place here in the House. And have really come to an awareness—or, a very moderate awareness of things that are going on in Armenia and Azerbaijan, particularly with Nagorno-Karabakh. But my question is—this is an amazing presentation of the geopolitical situation. You’ve talked a lot about foreign policy. You’ve talked about diplomacy. But we are at religion and foreign policy forum here. And I’ve heard a couple comments about faith-based organizations or religions. I won’t say that they are throwaway comments, but they don’t get a whole lot of depth from you.   I’m wondering if it’s probably because of what something that one of you said, which was that the diaspora—in other words, the people who are informing our media and informing us—are not in full sync with current Armenian issues, or current immediate Armenians. And so the problems that the diaspora are putting forward might have a more religious flavor to them, or that’s the lens through which they’re watching this series of events here, and the conflict. Things like, are we going to lose our Christian heritage of Armenia? Are they targeting Christians? You know, or is it the fact that they’re just targeting Armenians?  So I guess my question is, if you could in one or two sentences, what is it that the faith-based organizations are not addressing but could be? And where could there be religious dialogue in the diplomatic efforts? Where are there areas where there are clerics within Armenia or even Azerbaijan who might be able to bring something to the table to enable the peace talks, not just for trade, but for peace, and to minimalize the maximalist narrative?  GAMAGHELYAN: Can I start this one? I guess. So, yeah, I fully agree that has been very much underutilized, not really looked upon dimension. That overall the faith in both communities has been growing again. They started thirty years ago, with a relatively small percentage of population actively participating in any religion. But that has been very actively changing. And in that sense, you do—you do have many more—a much bigger part of the population in both countries that are believers and do have—there are religious leaders to whom they could listen to. And that interfaith dialogue has not been—it organically never emerged, so they never reached out to each other, other than by, again, one or two invitations to Moscow, at a very high-level leadership.   But I think that could be something that could be actively promoted by others who do have much longer experience of interfaith dialogue. In the United States, it’s certainly for me a very major—has been very active. You see in the Middle East that has been very active. So it could—but certainly could learn from it, and would be great to see, frankly, an involvement, or a push, or a prompting by those with more experience in interfaith dialogue, who can offer their know-how and their experience.  Aslı?  FASKIANOS: Aslı.  AYDINTAŞBAŞ: Can you hear me? Sorry, can you hear me?   FASKIANOS: Yes. Yes.  AYDINTAŞBAŞ: Yeah, I mean, I do—I do agree with Phil. The interfaith dialogue is missing. Civil society dialogue is missing. I think there are efforts to get it off the ground, like, Phil, your organization. But these two—the two societies have demonized each other very intensely within a very short span of time, historically speaking, from sort of a—from living in diverse, multicultural communities to living in more homogeneous societies, shaped by the sort of hate speech and racism. And that—there is a role for interfaith organizations in reversing that picture. You know, it’s a dialectical relationship between politics and society feeding off each other. And really, there needs to be a stop somewhere. And I think external organizations stepping in and initiating interfaith conversation would be very, very important.   I think the second issue is what I raised before. Armenia, the country and its people, need to be in sync with Armenian diaspora, and vice-versa. Armenian diaspora also need to be more understanding and interested in the sort of immediate concerns of Armenia, the country, and the quest for peace there, which is more or less necessity for survival. So what we’re seeing is Armenian government being extremely flexible in these negotiations, in part because Armenia is extremely vulnerable and cannot afford not to have peace with its very powerful and increasingly militarized neighbor, and Turkey. And with Russia waiting for any moment of weakness to take over the country, that’s just not an option.   I don’t see the diaspora groups here rallying behind this peace agenda. Maybe that they’re focused on Armenian identity, culture, religion, and so on, and really also have focused on Nagorno-Karabakh. But when it comes to political alignment in sort of supporting the government’s proposition that peace is an absolute necessity for Armenia to survive, I don’t see the diaspora really on board. And I think that seems to be an internal Armenian issue, but very, very important.  FASKIANOS: We have one written question from Thomas Walsh, who is president of the Universal Peace Federation: Interested to know if NATO is playing any significant role in, for example, leveraging—you know, leverage with Turkey? Or is NATO’s presence overly provocative to Russia, à la Ukraine?  AYDINTAŞBAŞ: Shall I?  FASKIANOS: Yes, go ahead.  AYDINTAŞBAŞ: I think NATO is—to be perfectly honest, I think NATO’s presence would be very provocative at this point. We should not make promises to Armenia that we cannot keep. And while everyone in Europe and here in the United States is very receptive to the message that’s coming out of Armenia now, we want to get closer to the West, we are interested. I was just watching an interview, incidentally, on Turkish channel TRT World with Armenian foreign minister. For the first time, really, something like this happened—an Armenian foreign minister saying, our societies are—basically, what we said, our societies are interested in—have European aspirations. And that is a big, big statement. It’s just an inconvenient time for that geopolitically in terms of Western countries really fully supporting Armenia and also providing the kind of immunity that might follow, if there’s a reprisal from Russia.  What can be done? What can be done is supporting Armenia in incremental steps, economically, militarily, establishing new relations. Armenia is not where Ukraine is, nor is it where Ukraine was in 2022. It is coming much, much too late into this—into this world, this game, so to speak, in terms of seeking a Western orientation. So it has to be—it has to be a deliberate, incremental, but also a decisive step. I have no doubt in my mind, after having visited Armenia, that there is an enormous determination on the part of society to break out of Russian influence, to establish relations with the West, and so on. It’s very clear on the street. Not just pro-government people, but whoever you talk to.   But we also have to be cognizant of our own limits and shortcomings. There have been U.S.-Armenian joint military exercise, which was very, very small, tiny. More symbolic. And two days afterwards, you know, Azerbaijan started a military offensive into Nagorno-Karabakh, an issue that Armenia and the West—the West has not been able to support Armenia. So that is the reminder of the kind of limits of U.S. power, of NATO power, and also the type of—sort of constraints that are out there. I think supporting Armenia, Armenian resilience, Armenian society, and supporting economically and pro-Western orientation are all very important, and steps that that could take place over the next couple of years. Maybe on to Phil from here.  FASKIANOS: Yes, Philip, you get the last word before we wrap up.  GAMAGHELYAN: In this one I fully agree with Aslı that I think both, yes, of direct NATO involvement, that may a few steps removed and alternate dangerous as we can see in Ukraine. It will not go well for Armenia. And the support is not there. Turkey in that region is not playing fully a game of a NATO member, but it has completely its own relationship with Russia. Which is different from the rest of the NATO, let’s say. So but having said that, again, on the flip side, yeah, more incremental but systematic support for Armenian integration work for the West I think is important. And an Armenian end point that, again, is a policy and is not just propagandistic move on the end of the United States, and France, and so on. I think that’s really important because they are taking a big risk trying to diversify their foreign policy and the economy.  FASKIANOS: We are out of time, but thank you both. This is really a terrific discussion. Very insightful. And we really appreciate your taking the time to be with us, Aslı and Philip. So thank you. And thanks to all the questions. We appreciate it. We hope you will send us any feedback. You can write us at [email protected]. And you can also follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program at @CFR_Religion. We will circulate the video and transcript for this call so you can share it with your colleagues. So thank you, again, for being with us. We appreciate it.   AYDINTAŞBAŞ: Thank you. Thank you so much.  FASKIANOS: Thank you.  END
  • Russia
    Russia Tests New Missile and Seeks to Rejoin UN Human Rights Council, ICJ Takes On Syria, and More
    Recent satellite imagery indicates that Russia is preparing to test a new nuclear-powered missile; the UN Human Rights Council votes on new members, with Russia vying to rejoin after its April 2022 suspension; the International Court of Justice (ICJ) begins hearings on torture in Syria; and one hundred thousand ethnic Armenians flee as Azerbaijan asserts control over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
  • Armenia
    Ethnic Cleansing Is Happening in Nagorno-Karabakh. How Can the World Respond?
    Azerbaijan’s push into the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is drawing comparisons to other episodes of ethnic cleansing. What can be done under international law?
  • Europe and Eurasia
    Has Russia Ended the War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
    Azerbaijan’s success in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh means Putin’s peace deal is likely to last. It also rules out further diplomacy.
  • Transition 2021
    U.S. Presidential Transition, Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Deal, and More
    U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden begins a turbulent ten-week transition, Armenians and Azeris react to a Russia-brokered peace agreement, and the thirty-seventh summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) goes virtual.
  • Wars and Conflict
    Eruption of Conflict Over Nagorno-Karabakh
    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.
  • Democracy
    Why We Must Never Give Up on Democracy
    In Nicaragua and Armenia today, people are rising up against tyranny and demanding human rights and democratic rights. Nicaragua has been suffering under a decade of misrule and deepening tyranny by the Sandinista Party--and by Daniel Ortega as president and his wife as vice president. And all of a sudden there are national protests. From the New York Times today: “Nicaragua changed,” said José Adán Aguerri, president of Cosep, the country’s influential business organization, which is pushing for dialogue with the government. “The Nicaragua of a week ago no longer exists.” The protests started with a relatively narrow issue — a change to the social security system — but they quickly rose to a national boil when students began to die. Human rights organizations say that dozens have been killed, including at the hands of the police.” In Armenia, protests began two weeks ago against the man who had served two five-year terms as president, Serzh Sargsyan—and was then appointed prime minister a week after his term as president ended. As CNN reported, “The move prompted thousands to take to the streets of the capital Yerevan to protest what was seen as an unconstitutional power grab.” In both cases, “people power” suddenly appeared. The streets were filled with demonstrators. We are reminded of the “Arab Spring,” which erupted when a police officer slapped Mohamed Bouazizi and knocked over his wheelbarrow full of produce to sell. His self-immolation led to protests that quickly spread and brought down the dictator Zine el Abedine Ben Ali after 24 years in power. The protests soon spread to Egypt, where they quickly brought down Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power. There were protests in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain as well. Who predicted these outbursts? No one; experts assumed the real story was “authoritarian longevity” and the stability of the regimes. And no one predicted the protests in Armenia and Nicaragua. But all these uprisings are a reminder that the taste for liberty is present even in many cases where it is nearly invisible. It would have been reasonable to believe, one month before each of these protests began, that the populace in each case was resigned to its fate and uninterested in democracy. Instead, we can see that many citizens were ready to struggle for more freedom. That is important information for the United States as it considers whether to continue, strengthen, or abandon its policy of supporting the expansion of democracy. Realpolitik is often said to counsel dealing with regimes as they are, but these uprisings remind us that regimes are temporary; populations are permanent. Why side with a regime that the people despise, and will eventually remove? Why assume that a dictator speaks for his people, or will speak for them tomorrow? Why treat the dictators in Tehran, for example, as “Iran” when they are not at all the repository of the hopes—nor will they be the permanent rulers—of the people of Iran? All those despotic regimes lack public support and lack legitimacy, which is why they never hold free elections. Experts have rarely in fact predicted the sorts of uprisings noted here, but the point is not to criticize them for lack of omniscience. It is rather to emphasize that as President George W. Bush put it, “No people on Earth yearn to be oppressed, or aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police.” Of course protests movements can fail to bring freedom; the regime may survive or a new regime may be as bad as or worse than the one it replaces. But Armenia and Nicaragua remind us that the desire for freedom, and the resistance to tyranny, are never crushed. They remind us whose side we should be on.
  • Europe and Eurasia
    Armenia’s Tricky EU-Russia Balancing Act
    Armenia’s new partnership agreement with the European Union will take effect this spring, but don’t expect it to trigger tensions with its ally Russia.
  • Armenia
    A Simmering Crisis Over Nagorno-Karabakh
    Talks later this year between President Serzh Sargsyan and President Ilham Aliyev can reduce the likelihood of renewed armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
  • Territorial Disputes
    Will Nagorno-Karabakh’s Frozen Conflict Heat Up?
    Eshani Bhatt is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. Last weekend, a firefight erupted between Azerbaijani forces and Armenian-backed separatists near the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, killing five Azerbaijanis. Nagorno-Karabakh remains a hotbed of tension after skirmishes along the line of contact, which separates Nagorno-Karabakh from the rest of Azerbaijan, escalated and killed one hundred people in April 2016, marking the worst violence since a 1994 cease-fire agreement. The contested region in the southwestern part of Azerbaijan is made up of mostly Armenians who have sought to break away since 1988 when Azerbaijan and Armenia gained their independence. Nagorno-Karabakh forces, with the support of Armenia, then waged a full-scale war against Azerbaijan and gained control of almost 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s geographic area over six years before the 1994 cease-fire was reached. Due to increased tensions since April 2016, Russia’s treaty commitment to defend Armenia, Turkey’s pledge to protect Azerbaijan, and a peace process that has stalled, increased firefight could have expansive implications for Eastern Europe and the United States’ relationship with Russia. In a new contingency planning memorandum from the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action, Carey Cavanaugh outlines in “Renewed Conflict Over Nagorno-Karabakh” that the likelihood that violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan will escalate in the next twelve months is high. Both countries have weak economies and unreliable infrastructure, and prolonged fighting could cause major disruptions in Azerbaijan’s delivery of energy resources to Western markets. New oil and gas pipelines in the South Caucasus have the potential to become critical alternatives to energy imports to the European Union, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Georgia, reducing energy dependence on Russian gas. Several contingencies, either inadvertent military action or deliberate provocation by either side, could ignite conflict and entangle outside actors, including Russia, Iran, and Turkey, which is a U.S. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, which the United States co-chairs with Russia and France, is in charge of the mediation process between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The United States has long been interested in promoting democracy and economic independence in former Soviet countries, including Azerbaijan, and is invested in preserving peace in Eastern Europe. War over Nagorno-Karabakh jeopardizes U.S. efforts over the past two decades to promote the political and economic stability within the Caucasus region. While Russia is committed to defend Armenia by treaty, it benefits from an economic relationship with Azerbaijan, supplying more than 80 percent of the country’s recent armaments purchases—four billion dollars since 2010. This contingency planning memorandum argues that working with Russia to resolve this conflict could be an opportunity to improve U.S.-Russian relations, as both countries have an interest in minimizing violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Cavanaugh offers a range of preventive options for the United States to employ in order to avoid a major escalation of violence:                       Encourage the Minsk Group to transfer mediation authority to the United Nations or threaten to withdraw from the Minsk Group leadership, in order to pressure parties to work toward a solution. Push parties to implement confidence- and security-building measures that Armenia and Azerbaijan have already agreed upon and explore more effective measures. Threaten to discourage economic support, through international financial institutions, and private investments unless both countries illustrate a willingness to compromise. Explore the possibility of including Turkey in periodic Minsk Group discussions.   Ultimately, Cavanaugh argues that the United States should pressure Armenia and Azerbaijan to compromise, adopting a more assertive approach to mediation through its role as a Minsk Group co-chair. Cooperating with Russia to resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh presents an important opportunity to improve the U.S.-Russian relationship. To learn more about what contingencies could lead increased violence and how the United States can help prevent it and work toward a resolution, read Carey Cavanaugh’s “Renewed Conflict Over Nagorno-Karabakh.”
  • Territorial Disputes
    Renewed Conflict Over Nagorno-Karabakh
    Introduction The likelihood that Armenians and Azerbaijanis will clash over Nagorno-Karabakh in the next twelve months is high. The situation remains tense following fierce fighting in April 2016 that marked the worst bloodshed since the 1994 cease-fire that established the current territorial division. Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous region in Azerbaijan populated mostly by Armenians, sought to break away from central government control in 1988. When Armenia and Azerbaijan gained their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region also declared independence. This triggered a full-scale war in which Nagorno-Karabakh forces, with support from Armenia, gained control over most of the autonomous region plus seven additional provinces, totaling 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s geographic area. Tensions have built up steadily over the past six years, as energy-rich Azerbaijan enlarged its military capability, public opposition by Armenians and Azerbaijanis to a compromise settlement grew, and cease-fire violations became commonplace. During the April 2016 military clashes, there were roughly three hundred and fifty casualties, with more than one hundred military personnel and civilians killed. Azerbaijan deployed tanks, helicopters, and assault drones to recapture two small slices of territory controlled by Nagorno-Karabakh forces. The United States, Russia, and France—co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group responsible for mediating the conflict—used diplomacy to halt the violence. They have been unable, however, to revitalize the peace process. Renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh could reverberate in dangerous ways. Russia is committed by treaty to defend Armenia, Turkey has pledged to protect Azerbaijan, and Iran borders both nations and contains an Azerbaijani minority that far outnumbers the population of Azerbaijan itself. Furthermore, the South Caucasus region has been essential to efforts to reduce the European Union’s energy dependence on Russia and has been a major recipient of Western foreign direct investment and aid. New oil and gas pipelines have benefited Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey; their economies now depend on the revenues and energy this vulnerable network provides. Renewed conflict risks triggering civil unrest or a humanitarian crisis in Armenia and Azerbaijan, or neighboring states, and could lead to even greater Russian military involvement in the region. The high level of attention Washington has paid to Nagorno-Karabakh—which includes twenty years of working alongside Russia and France as co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group—underscores the strong U.S. interest in preserving peace. The Contingencies The likelihood of another outbreak of fighting at the level observed in April 2016, or higher, is significant. That clash roused nationalist sentiments, fed growing political discontent in Armenia, and showed Azerbaijan that it can regain some territory by force. Conflict could resume as a result of inadvertent military actions or a deliberate provocation. Inadvertent military action. Heavily armed military units are presently deployed in close proximity to one another along the line of contact separating Nagorno-Karabakh from the rest of Azerbaijan (see map) as well as the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. No peacekeepers separate the warring forces, and OSCE maintains a “monitoring group” of only six observers. Given the volatility of the current situation, a random act or miscalculation along the line of contact or the Armenian-Azerbaijani border could elicit a more pronounced military response. Such exchanges have occurred frequently since 1994 without triggering further escalation, but the April 2016 clash is widely thought to have changed this dynamic. There is now a greater risk that a relatively minor military scuffle could be used to score political points or gain a battlefield advantage, which in turn could lead to further escalation. Many South Caucasus observers believe the April 2016 “four-day war” started this way. When the fighting broke out, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan were in Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit. It was not a propitious time to fight, but happenstance presented an opportunity for Azerbaijan to rally public support and marginally improve its position along the line of contact. The Armenian side could similarly escalate a future skirmish if circumstances arise in which greater confrontation would publicly reaffirm its ability to prevail in combat, especially in light of its poor military performance in April 2016. Deliberate provocation. Either side could consider taking provocative actions regarding Nagorno-Karabakh to advance military, political, or economic goals that could disturb, if not drastically alter, the general stability that has persisted over the past two decades. The Azerbaijani government insists that the status quo is unacceptable, arguing that Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be independent and stressing that the seven provinces seized in the early 1990s remain occupied in contravention of four UN Security Council resolutions. Azerbaijan is most likely to use military force to bring the issue to a head and ultimately seek to change the status quo. Since 2006, the country has been on an armaments shopping spree, spending over $22 billion to acquire a formidable arsenal of modern military equipment that Armenia cannot match. These purchases have eroded Armenia’s traditional military edge which was based on not just armaments but also superior leadership, training, and commitment. Now that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has learned that territory can be liberated by force without real political cost, he could use Baku’s perceived military advantage to affect a strategic change in the line of contact. Azerbaijan could also initiate a small-scale military operation to build popular support and dampen complaints about poor governance and continued economic weakness. The April 2016 clash demonstrated the effectiveness of this strategy. President Aliyev had been pointedly criticized for restricting opposition parties, arresting activists, and curtailing freedom of the press. These actions, coupled with a sharply declining economy, resulted in mass protests in early 2016. When fighting broke out with Armenia, however, patriotism soared, flags flew from windows, and young people declared their readiness to enlist. Today, Azerbaijan’s economy continues to sputter, energy prices remain volatile, and its currency continues to depreciate. In 2016, the country’s gross domestic product contracted by at least 3 percent. Growing poverty makes further social unrest in 2017 likely. Similar reasoning could prompt Armenia to up the ante in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia’s economy is also weak, and  protests there have included fierce criticism of the handling of Nagorno-Karabakh. Important military leaders were replaced following the fighting last April. In July 2016, dozens of Karabakh war veterans seized a Yerevan police station and held hostages, and thousands of Armenian citizens took to the streets in support. This led to the prime minister’s resignation in September. Protesters accused Armenia’s leadership of treachery for considering territorial concessions. The government is under pressure to show that it will stay tough in the OSCE Minsk Group negotiations and that it remains capable of defending Nagorno-Karabakh and retaining control of the surrounding occupied territories. Armenia could decide that the time is ripe to formally recognize an independent Nagorno-Karabakh. At the time of the April fighting, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan declared the government was prepared to take this dramatic step should “military operations continue and grow in intensity.” Azerbaijan has made clear such recognition would force it to withdraw from Minsk Group negotiations and pursue a military solution. The Armenians also have long stated that if they are attacked, Azerbaijan’s energy sector would be an immediate military objective. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is a particularly vulnerable target, closely skirting the Nagorno-Karabakh line of contact (not far from Mardakert, the site of some of the fiercest fighting in April) and the Armenian border. Another potential target could be the mammoth Sangachal Terminal, which is pivotal for processing oil and gas from Azerbaijan’s offshore platforms. Either action would cripple Georgia (which relies on Azerbaijan for 90 percent of its natural gas imports) and harm Turkey. No outside actors would obtain any significant advantage from renewed large-scale combat, so external meddling is currently not a particular concern. However, Russia derives some benefit from general instability and certainly profits by selling arms to both sides. A major confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan could bring Turkey and Russia into direct military contact or draw Iran into the conflict, but these scenarios remain less likely. Warning Indicators Because tensions are high and military forces are already deployed, there are no warning indicators for the unplanned, small-scale skirmishes that could lead to military escalation. One dangerous sign would be the increase in exchanges of fire, now primarily occurring along the line of contact, to the uncontested border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Such an incident occurred near Chinari on December 29, 2016, resulting in four military fatalities. This prompted a quick statement by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs that urged the conflicting parties to stabilize the situation and return human remains. Deliberate acts could be preceded or prompted by public declarations and other measures intended to generate domestic support, including complaints about the Minsk Group. Although Armenia’s formal recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh would cross a political red line and cause Azerbaijan to withdraw from the peace process, other statements or symbolic political moves could signal its intent to provoke conflict. Already, opposition lawmakers have submitted a draft bill to the Armenian parliament to recognize the “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.” In November 2016, the speaker of Nagorno-Karabakh’s National Assembly announced that a draft constitution was under consideration that would rename the region the “Artsakh Republic” (its Armenian name) and delineate its boundaries. A referendum on this constitution could happen in the coming months. President Aliyev’s 2017 New Year’s message reiterated that the conflict can only be settled in line with Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity; Armenia’s prime minister, in turn, declared he would not support territorial concessions for the sake of peace. Detectable signs of escalating tensions could include unusual Azerbaijani military movements and other preparations in anticipation of offensive operations. In contrast, Armenian threats to strike Azerbaijan’s energy sector would require less visible preparation. Yerevan conducted a military exercise in 2012 that possibly included a missile strike on oil facilities. In 2016, Russia provided Armenia with the Iskander mobile missile system, which could strike strategic targets deep in Azerbaijan. Moscow’s stance in the region merits close attention. Russia has a commitment to defend Armenia, provides this Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) partner weapons at a discount, and maintains a base in Gyumri with about five thousand military personnel. At the same time, Russia supplied over 80 percent of the armaments recently purchased by Azerbaijan. Moscow seeks a “strategic partnership” with the two nations and argues that it uses arms sales to maintain parity, both in absolute terms and in the quantity and quality of weapons systems. That parity, however, can be hard to measure and harder to achieve. Arms purchases or future planned acquisitions by either side could appear to offer a decisive advantage, indirectly sparking hostilities. Armenian protesters have criticized Russia for enhancing Azerbaijan’s offensive capabilities, indicating growing unease in Armenia about Russia’s loyalty and reliability as a defense partner. Azerbaijan could view with similar unease Russia’s sale of the sophisticated Iskander missiles to Armenia. In any case, that acquisition gave impetus for Azerbaijan to purchase Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in December. Implications For U.S. Interests Extensive hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh jeopardize the considerable successes the United States has achieved over the past twenty-five years in promoting the independence and autonomy of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and supporting their political and economic development. Two U.S. imperatives—deterring Russian revanchism and establishing a new transportation network to deliver energy resources from Azerbaijan and Central Asia to Western markets independent of Russia and Iran—could be imperiled. Furthermore, renewed warfare could exacerbate already problematic U.S. relations with Russia, Turkey, and Iran, each of which could become embroiled in the conflict. Large-scale combat could undermine democratic institutions and create unrest in Armenia and Azerbaijan as vital resources are diverted, infrastructure damaged, and civilian populations dislocated. The two countries already have difficulties meeting the regular needs of their people. Neighboring Georgia would be challenged to manage potential refugee flows should there be a protracted conflict. Even more troublesome for Tbilisi would be the economic troubles such warfare could bring. Georgia depends on Azerbaijan for energy, and its economy relies heavily on cross-regional trade, tourism, and revenue from pipelines; a shortfall or halt in natural gas deliveries could literally turn out the lights. The United States has made Georgia its leading regional partner, and Tbilisi would expect Washington’s political and economic support. Massive Western investments in the region’s energy sector, particularly the current $28 billion Southern Gas Corridor project, would also be threatened. Significant fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan could further complicate an already troubled U.S.-Russia relationship by providing opportunities to expand Russian political and military influence in the South Caucasus. Increased tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh already led Russia and Armenia to establish a long-planned joint defense force in November 2016. Russia could respond to warfare by enlarging its military contingent in Gyumri, deploying peacekeeping forces to quell hostilities, or becoming militarily involved in the conflict in fulfillment of its treaty and CSTO obligations. Renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh could also complicate U.S. relations with Turkey and Iran. During the April 2016 fighting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that his country would support Azerbaijan “to the end,” reflecting Turkey’s 2010 commitment to be a guarantor in case of an attack on Azerbaijan. According to both governments, Turkish-Azerbaijani relations are characterized as “one nation, two states” (like Northern Cyprus). By contrast, Iran, which was struck by errant artillery rounds, offered its “good offices” to help facilitate a resolution. Tehran reiterated this proposal in December 2016 and February 2017. Current friction in U.S. relations with both Turkey and Iran makes significant independent involvement in the settlement process or on security issues by either party problematic and more likely to impede rather than advance long-term prospects for peace. Washington has, however, worked closely with Ankara and Yerevan to improve Turkish-Armenian relations by dealing with their shared past (e.g., the Armenian genocide question), expanding bilateral trade through lifting blockades, and normalizing diplomatic relations. Active warfare would hinder U.S. objectives. Least likely, but significant for U.S. interests, would be a full-scale conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that brought both Turkey and Russia into military action, potentially along with their corresponding alliance entanglements. Finally, this dispute was the first conflict-mediation effort undertaken by OSCE. Failure would hurt the institution’s credibility to mediate other conflicts. It would also reflect poorly upon the United States, which has played a significant role in the Minsk Group process from the beginning. Preventive Options The United States cannot unilaterally prevent renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. It could, however, undertake or support a variety of diplomatic initiatives that might pressure the parties to become more involved in the peace process and attenuate prospects for renewed violence. Some of these measures would be effective in combination; others are mutually exclusive. Move to transfer mediation responsibility from OSCE to the United Nations. This action would necessitate support from Russia and France, as well as the concurrence of the other OSCE member states. This option would retain the influence of all three co-chair nations (as permanent, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council), while allowing them to distance themselves from direct responsibility for mediation. The high-level attention that Washington and Paris have heretofore given to this dispute would likely dissipate, although Moscow’s involvement (as the dominant regional power) could become even more consequential. Azerbaijan would likely welcome such action. Armenia, however, has long regarded the United Nations as biased because of the Security Council’s early support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Threaten to withdraw from OSCE Minsk Group leadership. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have relied on U.S. involvement as a counterweight to Russian influence; U.S. withdrawal would upset that balance. This prospect could compel the conflicting parties to assume more forthcoming positions. If Armenia and Azerbaijan still refused to compromise, the United States could follow through on the threat, thereby reducing its exposure to being party to a failed conflict resolution effort. However, a withdrawal could enlarge Russian influence in the South Caucasus. Many policymakers in Russia and across Europe would view this action as Washington ceding the region to Moscow as the latter’s implicit “sphere of influence.” Additionally, this step could undermine U.S. and OSCE efforts to effect conflict resolution in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Invigorate the Minsk Group co-chairs to promote a resolution, rather than manage the conflict. As is the norm, the mediation process has not sought to impose a solution but to assist the conflicting parties in their own efforts to find a mutually acceptable peace settlement. The United States could, along with Russia and France, shift from a generally passive mediation approach to an assertive one, vigorously pushing for genuine compromise from each side. Such a united stance, backed by political leaders of the co-chairing nations, could raise the political cost of military action and improve prospects for a more serious dialogue toward peace. Insist that agreed-upon confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs) be implemented. Two CSBMs advanced by the Minsk Group co-chairs were nominally accepted by Aliyev and Sargsyan last spring: increasing immediately the number of OSCE field observers (from six to fifteen) and creating an incidents investigation mechanism. Both efforts have been stalled. These steps and others like them could provide early warning of military action and help identify violators of the cease-fire. Azerbaijan has long opposed CSBMs, believing they only strengthen an intolerable status quo. Armenia has responded more positively. If Baku continues to block such measures, the co-chair nations could weigh an alternate mechanism (outside OSCE) that might assist with establishing such capabilities on the Armenian side of the border. Similarly, Minsk Group co-chairs could pressure both parties to uphold the risk reduction measures they agreed to under the OSCE Forum for Security Cooperation framework, such as providing at least forty-two days’ advance notification of large-scale military exercises. Explore more significant CSBMs. Additional measures—such as greater separation between Armenian and Azerbaijani military forces, hotlines between their civilian and military leadership, and a meaningful surge in the number of international observers—could foster greater stability by increasing transparency and predictability of military action. The current OSCE observer contingent, even if supplemented by the minor increase now under consideration, is woefully inadequate to the task at hand. The mandate of the personal representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office in the region, responsible for the limited monitoring now being carried out, could also be expanded. Actively exploring such steps could induce the parties to negotiate in good faith. Discourage economic support and private investment absent moves toward peace. The credit rating agency Moody’s has already given a negative credit outlook for the South Caucasus in 2017, identifying geopolitical conflicts as a negative influence and citing specifically the flare-up between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In this milieu, public statements of concern regarding risks due to the increased prospect of war could build leverage by warding off major investments. International financial institutions (IFIs) are particularly important in this regard; for example, in December 2016, the World Bank approved $800 million for loans to support the Southern Gas Corridor project. This option could highlight the cost of further conflict and the pressing need for progress toward resolving this dispute. In addition, the United States could exert additional pressure by curtailing Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation activities in the region. Foster an expanded dialogue between the Minsk Group co-chairs and Turkey. Ankara could play an instrumental role, supporting an eventual settlement and assisting with the subsequent economic integration of the South Caucasus. A more significant role for Turkey could boost peace efforts and help encourage Azerbaijani participation. This option could also help lessen the chance of military contact between Russia and Turkey should large-scale fighting invoke their alliance commitments. Mitigating Options The United States could employ a combination of measures to prevent further escalation should significant hostilities break out over Nagorno-Karabakh. The United States could immediately work to reestablish a cease-fire. A united front from the three co-chair nations in the past helped significantly. Supporting Russia’s lead on direct negotiations with military leadership from the warring parties has proven prudent and effective. The United States could promote a UN Security Council resolution condemning any major military action. A secondary option, if known, would be to name the instigator. Working with partners, the United States would penalize the party that initiates any major escalation—through public condemnation and potentially by withdrawing economic assistance or using sanctions. It could actively discourage economic support from IFIs and private investors. Recommendations The prospect of renewed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh presents both a challenge and a possible opportunity for the Donald J. Trump administration. President Trump’s desire to cultivate a new relationship with Russia has resonated positively with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but ignited strong criticism from influential members of Congress and the American foreign policy establishment given Moscow’s aggressive moves in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria—further compounded by Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. A critical question is how to initiate a rapprochement in such a contentious political setting. Nagorno-Karabakh could offer an answer. The Minsk Group represents the leading area of U.S.-Russian cooperation with both nations promoting common, uncontestable goals: minimizing warfare and advancing a peaceful settlement. The stakes at play here are important for the U.S. and its European partners, but not vital. More active involvement could serve as an early test of Moscow’s willingness to cooperate, with relatively low political cost. It could also showcase the Trump administration working constructively with two Muslim countries—Azerbaijan and Turkey. Collaborate With Russia to Energize the Minsk Group Peace Process A more active peace process would make it harder for either side to take steps that entailed or elicited large-scale military action. To date, the United States, Russia, and France have worked together to promote outcomes that the parties were tempted to embrace but did not because of domestic political concerns. The three co-chairs should increase political pressure on the parties to move toward a resolution, rather than continue the passive approach, which allows the conflicting parties to set the pace and course of action. To achieve this, the co-chairs should become more actively involved and perhaps make use of incentives and penalties. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s energy background could be a particularly valuable asset in this endeavor. Russia took the lead in facilitating the 2016 cease-fire; the United States should do the same to encourage a resolution. The United States should also facilitate Turkey’s inclusion in periodic discussions with the co-chairs regarding settlement efforts to accentuate the political and economic role Ankara can play. Moscow should support this action. Russian-Turkish relations, strained after Turkey downed a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in 2015, have rebounded as evidenced by Moscow’s invitation to Ankara (and Tehran) to participate in the December 2016 Syrian peace talks. There is also merit to the co-chairs developing a process to apprise Iran of developments in the region. The goal should be not to make Tehran a participant but an informed supporter of efforts to maintain stability and advance a settlement. A U.S.-Russia partnership on Nagorno-Karabakh should not be as controversial or complicated as other issues, such as Ukraine, Syria, and arms control, which are marked by sharp divisions in policy approaches and goals. By exhibiting the benefits of mutual collaboration, Nagorno-Karabakh could become a stepping stone for greater U.S.-Russia cooperation. Take Action to Prevent Conflict A troubling skirmish on the Armenian-Azerbaijan border in late 2016 resulted in almost daily cease-fire violations in January 2017. Given the high likelihood of renewed fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, all steps that might reduce the chances of conflict should be considered, such as implementing the agreed-upon CSBMs and more significant measures, as well as the potential opportunity created by the risks now posed to external economic support and private investment. Possible intelligence sharing between the United States and Russia regarding military developments in this region could be helpful, as could discussions about whether strategic parity is being maintained given the substantial arms flows into the region. The Trump administration should pay careful attention to developments related to Nagorno-Karabakh and act quickly to promote preventive measures to help avoid violence, deter military action, and engender support for this conflict’s peaceful resolution.