Unfreezing the status quo in the Caucasus

Nagorny Karabakh

The outbreak of fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict zone has ushered in a new period of uncertainty and confrontation in the South Caucasus.

A change in the status quo was not completely unexpected. In recent times, there have been more frequent violent incidents along the Line of Contact as well as at the internationally-recognized Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Their ceasefire violations have increased steadily, culminating in the current violence, which is the worst since the ceasefire of May 12, 1994.

In the recent clashes, Azerbaijan failed to replicate the kind of swift capture of territory performed by Croatian army units and militias in Serbian Krajina in 1995. As a result, the situation on the ground did not change radically. The warring sides tested each other’s limits, but no significant political changes resulted. Armenia did not hurry to recognize the independence of the Armenian-run Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Azerbaijan did not manage to recapture a significant part of its territory occupied by Armenian forces.

The military confrontation was contained. An intensive round of diplomacy was launched. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev—who as president spearheaded a serious effort to resolve the conflict—visited Baku and Yerevan together with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The OSCE Minsk Group held an emergency summit. However, this does not mean that the conflict will be resolved any time soon. On the contrary, the differences between the two sides have only intensified.

The violence we saw in Karabakh in early April may therefore recur at any time. The conflict zone has no peacekeepers, and the ceasefire has so far lasted thanks only to a balance of forces, which may change in the future. Both Yerevan and Baku still stick to their maximum demands for resolution of the conflict, while the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs mediating the conflict—France, Russia, and the United States—lack instruments to coerce the parties into making concessions.

The current state of “no peace, no war” could persist for years. What happens will not be dictated by repeating the mantra of the “impossibility of a military scenario” (a whole host of conflicts from the Balkans to Sri Lanka were in fact resolved through the use of force). Instead, the key determinant will be a balance of forces and interests, which will not necessarily lead to either a full unfreezing of the conflict or a full resolution of it.

The most important distinction between the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and other conflicts in the post-Soviet space is that it is not a proxy war between Russia and the West. In this case, Moscow could afford to engage in a balancing act between Yerevan and Baku, supporting the status quo in the zone of the Karabakh conflict—a position that is quite similar to that of the West.

Yet times change, and the status quo in the South Caucasus has now altered. Even though the Ukraine conflict did not change the basic approach of the United States toward the Karabakh peace process, the very fact of a confrontation between Russia and the West has tempted Armenia and Azerbaijan to test the mediators’ resolve and change the facts on the ground unilaterally.

Naturally, Azerbaijan, which has always been unhappy with the existing status quo, was the more active player in shaking up the situation. This testing exercise, incidentally, was not confined just to the Karabakh conflict; it was also evident in the way the Azerbaijani authorities treated human rights activists, media, and foreign NGOs. These actions raised the stakes and fueled tensions in the region long before the round of fighting.

The latest fighting clearly demonstrates that the combined goodwill and selective cooperation of Moscow and Washington is no longer sufficient. Another reason for the escalation is the new clash between Russia and Turkey, triggered by the shooting down of the Russian airplane on the Syrian border last November.

Of course, it is not the case that Ankara dispatched direct orders to Baku. Rather, Azerbaijan is using the factor of Turkey’s open support to contain outside forces, including both Russia and the United States. In this context, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outspoken criticism of both Russia and the entire OSCE Minsk Group looks quite deliberate. The display of public solidarity between Ankara and Baku is intended to cool off any hotheads from outside who are tempted to intervene and alter the dynamics of the Karabakh process.

The fact that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif joined Lavrov in the peace negotiations was no accident, either. Tehran doesn’t want to see a greater international presence in the Caucasus and prefers to have the fragile Karabakh equilibrium persist. From the Iranian point of view, a protracted confrontation could bring either an international peacekeeping contingent or an unwelcome boost of foreign presence into the region next to its borders.

Russia also stands to lose a lot if the conflict gets fully unfrozen. That would be a deathblow for its Eurasian integration projects. (The April flare-up already triggered an unprecedented spike of both “Eurasia skepticism” in Armenia and “Armenia skepticism” in Belarus and Kazakhstan.)

A serious escalation of violence is first and foremost a threat to both Yerevan and Baku. Armenia risks losing everything it gained under the status quo that resulted from the fighting of the early 1990s. Azerbaijan may face internal instability if a war drags on without delivering the results promised by its leaders.

All these factors mean that—somewhat paradoxically, given the clash of forces—there is a common interest in containing the Karabakh conflict within certain limits so as to prevent sudden destructive changes. This does not mean that a peaceful resolution is close. On the contrary, the condition of “no peace, no war” can last almost indefinitely.

That does not imply quiet stagnation. The parties to the conflict will continue to test each other with their military, political, and diplomatic efforts until some countervailing force offers the parties something akin to the Camp David Peace Accords. Or else a new crisis could unleash what is now a barely containable conflict.


Reprinted with permission from Carnegie Moscow Center

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