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contributor perspectives

Jul 28, 2017 | 08:00 GMT

9 mins read

A Conflict of Interests in Nagorno-Karabakh

Board of Contributors
David Shahnazaryan
Board of Contributors
Control of Nagorno-Karabakh, an effectively autonomous territory that is recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan, though it functions as a de facto part of Armenia, remains a contentious topic in and beyond the Caucasus.
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

The dispute over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh is nothing new. The conflict has been simmering, and periodically boiling over, since the end of the Soviet era. (Control of the territory, moreover, was a perennial point of contention for centuries prior.) But after Azerbaijani, Armenian and Karabakh leaders signed a cease-fire in May 1994, followed by an agreement in February 1995 to strengthen the truce under the observation of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the feud quieted down. That is, until early April 2016, when violence broke out anew in Nagorno-Karabakh, marking the most serious escalation since the cease-fire's signing.

Tensions are still running high in the conflict zone more than a year later. In fact, the dispute is the most pressing security threat facing the South Caucasus today. Cease-fire violations are a common occurrence on the line of contact between Azerbaijani and Karabakh forces, and the turmoil has given rise to clashes outside the region, including along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Under the circumstances, the OSCE's Minsk Group — co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States — has struggled to make headway toward a long-term solution and has focused instead on managing the conflict. The parties to the dispute are still at odds over how to end the hostilities. And Russia's own interests in the disagreement — the only conflict in the former Soviet Union in which Moscow has neither a military presence nor a peacekeeping force — are doing little to advance the peace process. 

A Change of Plans

In December 2015, just months before fierce fighting erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian met with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, in Switzerland. Both leaders expressed their support for the Minsk Group's efforts to reduce violence in the contested region and reaffirmed their commitment to negotiations in a statement released by OSCE mediators. They also endorsed proposals to create mechanisms for recording and investigating cease-fire violations along the line of contact — an important step toward peace — and to expand the OSCE monitoring mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet not long after the statement's release, Azerbaijan, and later Russia, rejected the measures. Baku and Moscow argued that accepting the proposals would only strengthen Armenia's de facto control of the disputed region, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, though the effectively independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic governs most of the territory.

Following Azerbaijan's offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016, John Kerry, then the U.S. secretary of state, called for talks to resume on a comprehensive settlement to the dispute. Sarkisian and Aliyev convened the next month — this time in Vienna — and the U.S. State Department held a background briefing on the conflict. A senior official stated that the United States, unlike Russia, viewed the disputed region's status as the key to compromise. Armenia, the official argued, was interested primarily in preserving the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's independence, while Azerbaijan wanted authority over the areas surrounding the region. From Azerbaijan's perspective, a settlement would be possible if Yerevan were to cede the outlying territories to Baku. Baku, in turn, would then recognize Nagorno-Karabakh's autonomy. The United States' former co-chair to the Minsk Group, James Warlick, reiterated Washington's commitment to the "status for territories" solution in an interview with Russian news agency Interfax in September 2016. Several weeks later, though, Aliyev complained of "pressure" on his country to acknowledge the disputed region's independence and said Azerbaijan would "never agree to it."

In Russia, meanwhile, speculation swirled that Moscow had hatched a strategy of its own to resolve the conflict. Dubbed the "Lavrov Plan" in honor of its architect, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the alleged proposal (whose existence the Kremlin denied) was widely presumed to entail a deployment of Russian peacekeepers to, and the withdrawal of Armenian troops from, the disputed territory. Armenia rejected the plan, insisting that a settlement would have to be based on exchanging territory for status. Turkey, on the other hand, supported it. In October 2016, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu championed the Lavrov Plan at a plenary session of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. He went on to discuss the settlement process with Lavrov himself on Dec. 1 while the Russian foreign minister was visiting Turkey. The next day, Cavusoglu made an unplanned trip to Baku, where he met with his Azerbaijani counterpart, as well as Aliyev, to discuss the proposal. Then on Dec. 5, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim visited Russia; a member of his delegation confirmed that Ankara and Moscow had agreed to step up their efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict outside the OSCE framework.

The heads of Minsk Group members' delegations — Lavrov, Kerry and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault — convened at an OSCE Ministerial Council gathering four days later. After the meeting, they issued a statement calling on Baku and Yerevan to honor the agreements they had reached during previous summits. They also urged both sides of the conflict to facilitate expanding the OSCE's mission and to take steps to establish the cease-fire investigation mechanism. But Lavrov later said the group hadn't reached an agreement on dispatching new monitors to the conflict zone, a remark doubtless intended to reassure Azerbaijan. Moscow, Baku and Ankara, after all, have long been striving to reduce or eliminate the role of the OSCE Minsk Group in settling the Nagorno-Karabakh feud.

Nagorno-Karabakh Region and Area Districts

Seeking an Alternative

Today, Armenia and Azerbaijan are as divided as ever over the issue, with no sign of a settlement in sight. France lobbied for another summit between Sarkisian and Aliyev, but its efforts failed. And Russia is interested in advancing the peace process only if doing so will enable it to send troops to the region. The move, though a bold gambit, would give Moscow an opportunity to realize its goal of establishing a military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia could still pursue this objective if Azerbaijan were to make substantial territorial gains in another flare-up, something it failed to do in the so-called Four-Day War in April 2016. Otherwise, Russia could deploy a peacekeeping force under the pretext of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or of the recent decision to form a joint Russian-Armenian military command.

Further clouding the prospects for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan has been beefing up its arsenal. The country has spent a total of $22 billion on weapons over the past decade, and between 2012 and 2016, it imported 20 times more weapons than Armenia did. What's more, Russia has been its primary arms dealer, though Azerbaijan has bought some $4.85 billion in arms from Israel, too, including licenses to manufacture Israeli drones and anti-tank missiles. Baku has even discussed the possibility of acquiring Israel's Iron Dome missile defense shield.

All the while, Armenia has become more and more isolated because of the conflict. The Four-Day War revealed the limits of Russia's support for the country, despite Yerevan's hopes that joining Moscow-led blocs such as the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union would shore up its security. Instead of springing to its longtime ally's defense, Russia offered weak, and at times indifferent, responses to Azerbaijan's attacks on Armenia. Furthermore, now that Azerbaijan has eclipsed Armenia as Russia's primary partner in the South Caucasus, concerns are growing in Yerevan that Moscow will try to restore control of the territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Baku.

In response to these developments, Armenia is working to diversify its foreign policy. The country has reacted to Azerbaijan deepening its ties to Russia, Israel and Turkey — as well as Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine — most notably by increasing its cooperation with neighboring Iran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani traveled to Armenia in December 2016, and Armenia's defense minister returned the visit a month later. Yerevan has forged stronger connections with the European Union as well. Sarkisian visited Brussels in February of this year to meet with senior officials in the Continental bloc. The visit coincided with the conclusion of talks between Armenia and the European Union on a new comprehensive and enhanced partnership deal, expected to be signed in November, that will replace their previous association agreement. To diversify his country's security partnerships, Sarkisian also met with North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg during his time in Brussels. Armenia participated in a NATO military exercise in Romania earlier in July, and the country will join two more training exercises in August and September.

Raising the Stakes

Much has changed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since April 2016. Armenian and Karabakh forces have installed military equipment along the line of contact, well aware of the risk of a sudden attack. Beyond the Caucasus, moreover, a new administration has taken the helm in the United States, and its approach to foreign policy — including its stance on Russia — will in large part determine the course of negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The risk of a new war in Nagorno-Karabakh is higher now than ever before. Even so, Azerbaijan will be loath to attempt another offensive like the one it launched in 2016 unless Russia signals its support for the campaign. The short-lived war it waged last year demonstrated that an ample stockpile of weapons isn't enough to secure the territory that Baku desires. The question is whether it will try a different approach — for instance, with military aircraft — to revive the fight over Nagorno-Karabakh. In that event, Armenia would have no choice but to deploy its missile systems, as Sarkisian has confirmed, warning that Yerevan "will not hesitate even for a second to use every means available" to respond.

Given the precarious position of the peace process, the United States and France will have to redouble their efforts to organize meetings between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan if they hope to advance negotiations. At the same time, they must engage each party to the conflict separately. Moscow is already prepared to pursue that endeavor. But if the Kremlin were to follow through with its plan to resolve the dispute, it would subject the rest of the countries in the South Caucasus, such as Georgia, to stronger Russian influence. The risk of renewed war is too high — and the threat of Russia's resurgence in the Caucasus too great — for the rest of the Minsk Group's mediators to ignore.

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