The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

9th October 2020

After initial rumblings of conflict in July, the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has once again ignited with the worst fighting since the 1990s, and has seen United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, call for a de-escalation of tensions and a resumption of talks between the two sides.1 The conflict, a legacy of the Soviet Union, has left Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognised as belonging to Azerbaijan, with more landmine accidents per capita than anywhere else in the world and threatens to destabilise the region if fighting continues with a risk of drawing in other regional actors.2 This article will investigate the origins of the conflict and the reasons for its most recent escalation. In addition to this, it will look at the wider ramifications of a protracted conflict.

The Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict has been described as the longest running conflict of the former Soviet Union and originates from Stalin giving the autonomous enclave of NK, which is 95% ethnically Armenia, ‘arbitrarily and illegally’ to Soviet Azerbaijan.3 4 In the final stages of the Soviet Union, when the centralised system of the Soviet Empire was weakening, the legislature in NK were able to pass a resolution in 1988 in an attempt to join Armenia and, whilst swiftly suppressed by Soviet troops deployed to the region, it demonstrates the attitudes of citizens within the enclave. Months before the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Armenia was able to declare its independence with NK following suit, before finally being able to take full control of the enclave in 1993, as well as what amounted to 20% of surrounding Azerbaijani land.5 6 It is estimated that between 1988 and 1994 an estimated 30,000 people were killed and a further million (600,000 of whom were Azerbaijani) were displaced by the conflict before a ceasefire could be introduced, facilitated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the USA.7 Established in 1994 to help find a resolution to the dispute, the Minsk Group have yet to make meaningful progress; negotiations in the region have been ongoing since 1992.8

Whilst a ceasefire between the two sides has largely been observed since 1994, minor isolated skirmishes have taken place over the years, largely as a result of each sides military forces being positioned so close to each other along the contact line, including one in 2016 killing 200 as well as one earlier this year in July killing 16.9 However, this latest escalation, which began on 27th September, is proving to be more than just a small skirmish and has seen the use of heavy weaponry being deployed by both sides, with the capital of NK, Stepanakert, and Azerbaijan’s second city, Ganja, both being hit by shelling; the first time since the 1990s that populated areas have been hit by bombardments.10 11  In addition to this, both sides have declared martial law in preparation for the conflict with full or partial mobilisation of their armed forces.12 There have also been reports of Azerbaijan advancing past the line of contact and taking several towns and villages using tanks, helicopters and drones as well as reports of military strikes being conducted into Armenia also.13

Although initially Armenia were keen to come to the negotiating table, Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev has since vowed to ‘continue the military campaign until Armenian forces leave Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts’.14  Ostensibly, this has become a committed position with the government in Baku being described as ‘meticulously investing plenty of its petro-revenues into equipping its armed forces with modern weapons’.15 It would also appear that the Minsk Group have dropped the ball in their role of dispute resolution, with Crisis Group reporting that the co-chairs have not visited the region since October 2019 and that they had not convened a face-to-face talk with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers since January 2020; even failing to bring the two sides together after the most recent July skirmishes.16 Whilst this is somewhat understandable considering that the USA is currently preoccupied with its November presidential elections, Russia is distracted by the current situation in Belarus and France, along with the Europe Union, who is dealing with the outcome of Brexit, not to mention that the international community in general, is dealing with a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, but as co-chairs it does not make the dropping of the ball any less negligent.17

It would seem that this latest escalation in the NK conflict also has added scope to extend beyond the region of NK due to Turkey, in the words of Richard Giragosian, ‘empowering Azerbaijan, if not assisting them’.18 From the viewpoint of Armenia, the optics of this do not look good and would appear to only reinforce Armenia’s belief that ‘Turkey and Azerbaijan are pursuing not only military-political goals, their goal is Armenia; their goal is continuation of the genocide of Armenians’ as put by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.19 In reference to the ‘continuation of the genocide’ it is important to note that Armenia suffered what scholars consider to be ‘the first genocide of the 20th century’ at the hands of Ottoman Turks and involving mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, something which has understandably left a mark on the Armenian psyche.20 In addition to this, Azerbaijan and Turkey share a strong relationship having been referred to as ‘two states, one nation’ due to their close ethnic, cultural, historic and economic links.21 In light of this, whereas having taken the role of mediator in previous escalations, Turkey has now given their explicit support to Azerbaijan and have called on Armenia to ‘leave the land it occupied’, cementing this position after the July skirmish with the largest ever joint military exercises between the two countries.22  In their support of Azerbaijan, Turkey have also been accused of crossing ‘a red line’ by French President Emmanuel Macron who has received intelligence reports that ‘300 fighters from ‘jihadist groups’ in Syria had passed through Turkey on the way to Azerbaijan’ on top of a reported 1,000 Syrian fighters deployed to the country by Turkish private security firms.23 Further to Turkey’s run-in with France, they also risk coming into confrontation with Russia in another theatre of war, already facing off from different sides in both Syria and Libya.24  

The role of Russia in this conflict is an interesting one due to Moscow considering the Caucuses to be within their sphere of influence. As a result of this Russia has enjoyed a level of relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and has sold weapons to both sides under the pretext that this would keep the conflict balanced. However, where Armenia is an official ally of Russia, Azerbaijan is not. This can be shown in a variety of ways, not least by the fact that Armenia is entitled to preferential subsidised ‘internal rates’ when buying arms whilst Azerbaijan is forced to pay market price.25 Further to this, Armenia, who hosts a Russian military base in the country, is also a member of both the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (Russia’s attempts at copying NATO and the EU respectively).26  The membership of the CSTO has the, albeit distant, potential to cause problems due to its employment of the same principle of collective defence that is seen in NATO. Whilst this treaty does not apply to NK due to its disputed ownership, if the fighting should substantially spill into Armenia there is a possibility that this defence pact could be activated and subsequently turn the NK conflict into a proxy war between Russia and Turkey for regional dominance. However, it is believed that Armenia would be reluctant to call upon the CSTO for fear of what strings would come attached to the aid offered by Russia.27

In general there is a large capacity for the conflict to gain worldwide exposure due to the large Armenian diaspora in the USA, France and Russia, and the large Azeri minority in Iran. Further to this, there is also the topic of oil from which the Azerbaijan economy is largely dependent, producing 800,000 barrels of oil a day.28 Due to the proximity of the conflict to oil and gas lines linking the Caspian Sea to Europe there are fears that potential attacks on the pipelines, which have happened in the past, could unsettle the markets further in an already volatile period.29 30

Unexpected advancements in the peace-building process has previously happened with promising progress being made in December 2018 when incumbent Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan first came to power. This new shift saw both countries promise to ‘prepare the populations for peace’ as well as the establishment of a military hotline between the two countries and the releasing of a prisoner captured in conflict by each side.31 32 However, these have since proven to be largely symbolic acts devoid of meaning with the latest bout of violence appearing to be far more serious. A case in point that further suggests this has been the decision by Azerbaijani President Aliyev to dismiss his Foreign Minister, Elmar Mamedyarov, whose tenure was dominated by a ‘search for peaceful solutions with Armenia’.33 Further evidence which points towards a more serious episode of violence this time is the lack of a front-runner to lead any attempts at mediation, with the Turkish-Russian rivalry tainting the process and the Minsk group being accused of having ‘neglected this problem for nearly 30 years’ by Turkish President Recep Erdogan.34 There is also the issue that, like in all conflicts, both sides claim legitimacy, with Azerbaijan pointing to the four UN Security Council resolutions recognising their territorial integrity, and Armenia citing the 1975 Helsinki Final Act which states that ‘all peoples always have the right, in full freedom, to determine, when and as they wish, their internal and external political status’.35 36 This they say gives legitimacy to an independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh due to a vote by parliament and subsequent referendum in 1988.37

In spite of the continued animosity between the two sides, there have been solutions presented as a means of ending the conflict over the years. One such solution was presented at the 1996 OSCE Summit in Lisbon which put forward a ‘statement of principles’ comprising the basis of a settlement. The principles included in this statement were the territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan; legal status for Nagorno-Karabakh based on ‘self-determination which confers on Nagorno-Karabakh the highest degree of self-rule within Azerbaijan’; and guaranteed security for Nagorno-Karabakh and its whole population. Unfortunately, these principles were quickly rejected by Armenia who accused them of reversing the status quo that currently favoured them. A counter-proposal put forward by Armenia, with Russian backing, suggested giving Nagorno-Karabakh ‘common state’ status which is described as ‘a concept of government between independence and self-government’. However, this solution was rejected by Azerbaijan who claimed that the common state concept was without proper international precedent and would give Nagorno-Karabakh de facto independence.38

The organisation, International Alert, have argued that the lack of progress in resolving the conflict has come from a lack of mechanisms for dialogue between official and unofficial actors involved in the conflict. The marginalisation of civil society in favour of official institutions has also been identified as a key aspect of why the peace process has become stagnant by both International Alert and Conciliation Resources.39 The integration of civil society is integral to the health and longevity of a peace process and is vital in preparing populations for peace at the grass roots level, allowing figures in policy-making positions to better make effective decisions by tapping into the local knowledge and needs of communities throughout both countries. A failure to engage with civil society during peace making processes can also result in under-skilled and unknowledgeable influential local actors and organisations which brings us to an issue raised by Conciliation Resources; the underuse of ‘official’ track-one diplomacy and ‘unofficial’ track-two diplomacy in which leading civil society organisations can be very influential in back channel negotiations. Conciliation Resources have also pointed to the need for thematic track-two processes in order to tackle specific issues which are prioritised by each side and would allow each other ‘to respond quickly to new developments and changes in the political environment’.40  However, there is of course the issue of getting people talking in the first place, with the added complication of the pandemic preventing the full effectiveness of shuttle diplomacy.41

It would appear that, despite previous escalations in its 30 year history, this new bout of violence in the NK conflict could have the most potential to generate regional instability, with the added elements of a new developed Turkish-Russian rivalry and a distracted Minsk group dealing with their own domestic issues. The emerging lack of neutrality and lack of interest also shines a light on the desperate need for the development of an active civil society, in both countries, which has long been suppressed by authoritarian rule. Even if we see a de-escalation of tensions or the intervention of the Minsk Group, it is inevitable that in the present situation another escalation may not be far off.