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Nov 14, 2015 | 22:31 GMT

6 mins read

Why Progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh Standoff May Be Imminent

Soldiers in Nagorno-Karabakh play checkers using a chess set at their post along the line of contact with Azerbaijan on April 21.

After a decades-long standoff, Armenia and Azerbaijan may be making diplomatic progress toward resolving their bitter dispute over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both countries claim the semi-autonomous region, which lies along the southern half of their shared border, but since the end of a six-year war over the territory in 1994, Armenia has exercised control there and in seven adjacent regions also wrested from Azerbaijani rule. For 15 years, Russian support for Armenia has kept Azerbaijan from mounting another viable challenge to retake Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Russia's increasingly fragile position amid its standoff with the West and Azerbaijan's ability to leverage this change may soon prompt deals on several of the regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh.

The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan is one of several frozen conflicts in the former Soviet space that have persisted since the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the end of the war in the early 1990s, there was a period of relative calm. But over the past year, military clashes along the border have intensified as Azerbaijan has increased cross-border raids and shootouts.

In what may be a harbinger of changes to come, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made an unannounced visit to Armenia on Nov. 9 in what some local media have billed as a "secret" trip to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia has played a significant role in the dispute, both as the main mediator in political negotiations between the two countries and as Armenia's de facto security guarantor. (Russia has 5,000 troops in Armenia.) But after years of defending Armenia's claims, Russia may be more open to negotiating with Azerbaijan now that Moscow is under increased pressure from the West.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is being seen as a potential alternative energy supplier to the Europeans, and Baku is using its newfound political clout to lobby Moscow to change its position on Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has expanded economic and security cooperation and has cultivated a more active diplomatic relationship with Russia. At the same time, it is becoming more aggressive toward Armenia, conducting cross-border raids and initiating shootouts along the line of conflict more frequently.

A Diplomatic Resolution

Stratfor has previously laid out several potential directions the Nagorno-Karabakh standoff could go. As Azerbaijan grows bolder, it may reach an agreement with Armenia that gives it control of the regions surrounding the breakaway territory. If the diplomatic route fails, Azerbaijan may increase the scale of its military activities. And of course, there is always the possibility that the tense standoff will drag on, tensions unabated.

Recent developments suggest the three major parties involved are seriously considering the first scenario: a diplomatically brokered resolution to the conflict. On Nov. 11, several Armenian newspapers, referring to their own sources as well as to media reports from Russia, ran articles and commentaries framing Lavrov's recent visit to Yerevan as an appeal for Armenia to return five out of seven territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. In exchange, Russia would place its own troops in these territories to guarantee that war would not resume and also to convince Azerbaijan to end its economic blockade of Armenia. Citing sources involved in the negotiation process, the Russian daily Kommersant added that the Lachin corridor — a key supply route into Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia proper — would remain in Armenia's control, as would the region of Kalbajar. Azerbaijan, for its part, would end military hostilities and commit itself to peace talks. 

Though neither country has confirmed these reports, there are several reasons to take them seriously. Of particular note is the specificity about the terms of the rumored negotiations. There have been alleged leaks pertaining to talks over Nagorno-Karabakh before, but none of them included this level of concrete detail. Moreover, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has on multiple occasions said that Armenia could accept relinquishing control of Nagorno-Karabakh's adjacent regions as long as a secure land link were maintained and international security guarantees were implemented — which would be the case according to the purported current deal. Russia has also recently been signaling its intention to deepen security ties with Armenia through the transfer of military helicopters and the establishment of a joint air defense system, which is an important prerequisite for Yerevan to even consider giving territorial concessions in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. The leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh have also hinted to local media that the Russian military may use the airport in the breakaway territory's capital for counter-terrorism exercises. 

Armenia's Reservations

Of course, the reports emerging in local media — no matter how credible the source may be — do not guarantee that Armenia will indeed relinquish control of the regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. The dispute is still an extremely sensitive political issue in Armenia, where the public feels a strong sense of national ownership over the territory. The last Armenian president to seriously negotiate a change to the status quo, Levon Ter-Patrosyan, was even forced to resign by popular demand. To make any concession, Armenia's current government would need guarantees it could survive a negotiated settlement. But given Armenia's weak economy and increasing social unrest, making concessions to Azerbaijan could be particularly inflammatory at the moment. Even if the government could make a negotiated settlement over Nagorno-Karabakh politically feasible, there would be extremely challenging logistical issues, including the status of the roughly 500,000 mostly Armenian residents residing in the surrounding regions (the exact number of which is disputed).

If negotiations do proceed, other external powers, notably Turkey and the United States, will likely try to shape any diplomatic resolution to align with their own strategic interests. Both Ankara and Washington are increasingly focused on the Caucasus region, as demonstrated by the U.S. naval chief's recent visit to Azerbaijan and by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's plan to visit Baku in his first foreign trip since the formation of a new government in Turkey. 

That being said, it cannot be ignored that the diplomatic activity related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has seen a marked uptick in recent months, and there are increasingly detailed elements of the negotiations that are being leaked to the local and Russian media. The constraints on both Russia and Armenia also suggest that these countries cannot maintain their position on preserving the status quo on the conflict indefinitely. Therefore, the likelihood that control of the regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh will change hands is increasing, and the parameters of a potential deal — if one is able to be made — are becoming slowly but increasingly clear. 

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