The Karabakh conflict: stable instability

The April 2016 escalation, referred to by the press as the Four-Day War, significantly changed the situation around the Karabakh conflict. This said, two important reservations need to be made. First of all, the coinage is not entirely relevant because, arguably, the events of April 2016 were nothing like a full-scale war. For example, they were incomparable to the Karabakh war of 1991-1994.  Secondly, it was not the April 2016 escalation per se that changed the situation. The trends that the escalation exacerbated had existed and grown for quite a long time, almost for a decade. What the escalation did was bring to a close the previous stage of the conflict’s development, a stage that lasted all the way from the 1994 ceasefire and until 2016.

In my view, the Karabakh conflict itself and the negotiations process aimed at settling it are two different formats; mutually connected, but different. The two formats have different actors, parameters and toolboxes. For example, the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic plays a huge, almost central role in the Karabakh conflict. However, this entity, being unrecognized, is therefore entirely absent from the negotiations process. Another example: the military aspects of security play a key role in the Karabakh conflict but there is no such toolbox in the negotiations format, because there had never been any peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone.

Unfrozen Conflict

The changes epitomized by the April escalation took place in both formats. The conflict per se, currently manifest in the form of clashes of various types on the border between the territories controlled by the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and the territories controlled by Azerbaijan, began to escalate around 2009-2010. The sniper war that had accompanied the ceasefire from its very beginning began to increase in scope: the number of clashes grew, often abruptly. Alongside the shooting, incidents began to take place on the grown, including clashes and attempts at infiltration. After a while, ceasefire violations were no longer limited to the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh but spilled over to the borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Mortars came into use, sometimes artillery and howitzers. Shootings began to originate from Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan exclave, entirely outside the Karabakh confrontation zone, something that had not happened for over a decade and a half. Finally, in November 2014, an Armenian military helicopter was downed. It was the first time in the history of the conflict that an aircraft was shot down during the ceasefire. In late 2015, tanks were used in the clashes, also for the first time in over 20 years. The constantly escalating level of violence finally brought to the escalation of April 2016, unprecedented since the ceasefire in 1994. Hundreds of people died on both sides, including some civilians. The precise number of casualties is impossible to ascertain because the sides are circulating mutually incompatible data, but there is no doubt that the number of victims was in the hundreds.

It thus became quite clear that this conflict could no longer be called frozen. Arguably, there is a reason why some extent of violence is constantly manifested in this conflict.  There is ample proof that the violence is used as an argument and even a pressure mechanism, including in the framework of the negotiations process. If we compare the two timelines, we will see that skirmishes on the conflict’s borders are synchronized with domestic and external political developments that are relevant for the countries involved in the conflict. For example, almost all meetings in the framework of the Minsk process alternate with military escalations. 

Escalation and the negotiation process

The April 2016 escalation has also affected the negotiations process. The OSCE Minsk Group, the international format for negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh, has operated since 1992. With representatives of Russia, the US and France (i.e. indirectly the EU) as its co-chairs, the Minsk Group is a unique format of institutional cooperation between Russia, the US and Europe against the background of the current not-so favorable relationship between the West and Russia. This cooperation format is unique in the present overwrought environment. Even more, the goals of all three co-chairs coincide. No war of words or visible conflicts typical for the current stage of the Russia-West confrontation ever take place on the margins of the Minsk format. The goal of all three co-chairs is, at the very least, to prevent a new war from breaking out in the complex and sensitive region situated between Russia, Iran and Turkey. The distance from the region’s borders to Northern Syria is about 300 kilometers as the crow flies. The distance to Iraqi Kurdistan is approximately the same. As to Iran, the conflict zones borders on it directly. The same can be said about Eastern Turkey, the zone of Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds: this region also directly borders on Armenia. The stakes are too high for any of the three co-chair states to want to deal with the consequences.

The last meeting at which the co-chairs of the Minsk Group actually tried to achieve progress in the settlement process was the summit of Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s presidents held with Russian mediation in 2011 in Kazan. An agreement was not reached back then, and ever since, the Minsk process has been gradually evolving from a format of conflict resolution to a format of conflict management. Presidents and ministers of foreign affairs meet regularly enough, butthey talk more and more about maintaining the status-quo and less and less about models for a compromise-based solution to the problem. Even though they sometimes manage to keep up an optimistic rhetoric, what the co-chairs are currently trying to achieve is get the parties in conflict to establish some basic trustbuilding measures. The Minsk group is working to improve monitoring of the line of contact, to establish mechanisms of incident investigation, and to keep the violence within certain limits.  It is no longer trying to advance the final settlement of the conflict. The reasons for such a situation are also obvious: it is impossible to engage in peace negotiations as long as clashes are constantly taking place on the conflict’s borders. The positions of the parties in conflict are so far apart that there is basically no field for peace negotiations. The problem is not just that the Minsk Group consistently fails to reach every single goal on the ground, be it trustbuilding measures or the setup of an incident investigation system. The problem is that the prospect of peace has in fact disappeared from the politics around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Even if diplomatically optimistic statements are still made, they are used as a tool to reach a realistic goal, for example, to maintain the status-quo and avoid completely destroying the negotiations process.

No full-scale war to expect

Despite of all this, there is no reason to expect a full-scale war. In fact, the April escalation demonstrated the presence of a balance between the sides’ military capabilities and combat efficiency. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is unique in the post-Soviet space in that it has never involved peacekeepers. The stability of the situation is based on equilibrium between the parties in conflict. Arguably, one of the reasons for the April 2016 escalation was the rise of oil prices that increased the capacity of oil-rich Azerbaijan to purchase military hardware from Russia. After April 2016, Armenia also made purchases of weaponry, also from Russia, restoring the somewhat disturbed military balance. Russia sells arms to both sides of the conflict, and therefore both sides need Russia to keep the arms race going: there is no replacement for Russia as a source of arms in the post-Soviet space.

Once the parties in conflict have accumulated huge quantities of weapons, a deterrence system kicks in, and the problem becomes impossible to solve by military means alone. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan has a big enough advantage over its opponent to be able to count on victory, to say nothing of a victorious blitzkrieg. As a member of the CSTO, Armenia can buy Russian weapons at much lower prices that Azerbaijan, a fact that compensates for Azerbaijan’s much higher financial capacities.

Without officially recognizing the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Armenia guarantees its security and sponsors its social infrastructure. The Armenian parties in conflict are happier with the status-quo even in the situation when Karabakh remains unrecognized. The reason is Armenia’s victory in the 1991-1994 war. Azerbaijan is frustrated with its defeat in the war and the fact that the situation has remained unchanged for more than 20 years. However, it is frustration that prevents Azerbaijan’s regime from agreeing to a compromise, including the one which is currently on the table. Defined by the so-called Madrid principles, the current working model is largely based on a principle of “territories in exchange for status”. In Azerbaijan, at least in the public discourses, the dominating vision is that some territories need to be returned without definition of the status of the remaining territories controlled by the Karabakh Armenians. This approach, in its turn, is unacceptable for the Armenians.

Dead End for Peace?

One can thus argue that the April 2016 escalation has led the conflict into a dead end. The prospect of peace has practically disappeared even from discourses. The entire goal-setting of the parties in conflict has been reset. No one treats the prospect of peace as something real. Vengeance rhetoric is on the rise in Azerbaijan, whereas in Armenia, radical rejection of concessions of any kind (“not an inch of land”) used to be a marginal attitude but has now become mainstream. As to Nagorno-Karabakh itself, this view has always been mainstream there. The parties in conflict are becoming more and more convinced that they do not have a partner in the negotiations. As things stand now, they are right to believe so. The level of compromise that is suitable for Armenians does not suit the Azerbaijanis, and vice versa.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe that neither of the parties in conflict wishes or intends to drop out of the negotiations. The negotiations are a means of internationalizing the conflict and a mechanism for maintaining the status-quo. Azerbaijan is trying to combine the talks with exerting pressure on the Armenian parties in conflict by means of various types of military action. As to the Armenians, they keep reinforcing the border, purchasing weaponry and conducting retaliation operations aimed at lowering the success ratio of Azerbaijan’s attacks. It is obvious that the conflict cannot be resolved by such technical means. Within this paradigm, the international mediators cannot assist in the resolution of the conflict simply because they cannot resolve the conflict for the parties. Political pressure on the parties is clearly insufficient to achieve peace but the co-chairs cannot and do not wish to recourse to any other forms of pressure. The priority of this conflict is not high enough for the great powers to begin peace enforcement. In the third decade of its existence, the conflict is becoming apparently unsolvable, like the conflicts in Kashmir, Taiwan or Cyprus. In the paradigm in which it is unfolding now, it cannot be solved, and any peace negotiations will be perceived by the sides as a continuation of the confrontation by other means. Exactly how this un-frozen conflict will unfold will depend on a number of factors, including the extent to which domestic discourses are radicalized, the rises and falls of oil prices, the domestic political tensions, and the situation in the geopolitical environment: the Russia-West relationship, the Iran problem and so on.

While a full-scale war is hardly likely in the short- or medium-term perspective, a complete ceasefire is not likely either. The level of violence in 2017 went down to 2013 level, which is, of course, an achievement, but clashes still took place in 2017. The most serious clashes happened on February 24-25, May 15-17, June 16-17, July 4-7 and October 19 – all against the background of intensifying negotiations. The presidents of Armenia and the Azerbaijan met in Geneva in October, the co-chairs of the Minsk group met with the Armenian and Azerbaijani ministers of foreign affairs Nalbandyan and Mamedyarov in Moscow in November. However, these meetings do not and cannot lead to agreement over any existing problem, whether the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the return of refugees or the fate of the territories. It is useless to expect any progress but it is vital to work on reducing the violence and making the situation more stable. This seems to have become the goal of all negotiations efforts for at least the next few years.

In contrast to the Abkhazian or east Ukrainian conflicts, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not seen by Russia or the West as a field for strife between themselves. Refusal to continue negotiations would set the parties in conflict against Moscow, Washington and Paris at the same time. This fact also contributes to preserving the stable instability. Apparently, as long as the balance of forces in the region remains unchanged, it is irrational to expect the conflict to be settled.

The conflict is here to stay

The conflict will stay unsolvable for a long time. We need to learn to live with it. There is no hope that the conditions under which the conflict is unfolding can change abruptly and over a short time. The parties in conflict have no incentives to give up their maximalist demands and begin meaningful negotiations. External forces are consolidated in their desire to prevent escalation but the toolbox they can use to pressure the parties is limited. The stakes of the world powers in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are not high enough to make them use all resources available to them to enforce peace. This means that the stable instability will persist. Negotiations and ceasefire violations will continue taking place simultaneously but a complete disruption of the negotiations is unlikely. The situations will stay more or less as it is now.