New Prospects for a Settlement in the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict
On February 18, 2023 during the Munich Security Conference, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken held trilateral talks with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The meeting came at a time of increased tensions between the two countries, who have been in conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region since before the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s. Nagorno-Karabakh has an indigenous ethnic Armenian majority but is recognized as a part of Azerbaijan by the international community.
Map demonstrating the geography of the conflict region. Source: Al Jazeera
The first war between the two nations started in the 1990s after Nagorno-Karabakh voted to leave Azerbaijan. The Armenian population claimed that they faced discrimination and did not have their autonomy respected by Soviet Azerbaijan. When a ceasefire agreement was reached in 1994, local Armenian forces had secured control of most of Nagorno-Karabakh and also gained control of seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict froze, and negotiations to reach a final agreement on the conflict were held by the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by the United States, France, and Russia. However, in the years after 1994, the sides were unable to come to a comprehensive settlement. Azerbaijan demanded the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, pointing out these regions, unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, had not had ethnic Armenian majorities in the 1990s. In exchange, Azerbaijan offered autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan, ruling out independence. Armenia and the local Karabakhi authorities refused to consider any withdrawal from the seven regions, which were seen as a buffer zone, until Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to independence was recognized by Azerbaijan.
The ceasefire agreement was continuously violated during the years of negotiation, with soldiers and civilians killed by occasional clashes. These violations became increasingly violent and eventually escalated into a four-day war between local Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan in 2016. Azerbaijan captured small but strategically important pieces of territory in the North and South of Nagorno-Karabakh. As a whole, the line of contact—the de facto border between the two sides—remained unchanged. The situation continued to deteriorate, with stalled negotiations and continuous ceasefire violations.
In September of 2020, Azerbaijan launched a new invasion of the territory with the goal of capturing it completely. After 44 days of fighting, Azerbaijan captured multiple cities including the strategically important plateau city of Shushi, a few kilometers away from the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert. After the city was captured, the Armenian side accepted a deal mediated by Russia, giving Azerbaijan control over the seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and allowing Azerbaijan to retain control of parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that were seized during the war. The deal also saw Russian peacekeeping forces deployed to the parts of Nagorno-Karabakh not captured by Azerbaijan and called for trade and transportation between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
While many expected the conflict to freeze once again, it has remained semi-active. Azerbaijani President Aliyev has sought to press his advantage, stating that the idea of any degree of autonomy for local Armenians had “went to hell” and would not be considered. Aliyev has also demanded a corridor to Nakhichevan, an exclave of Azerbaijan, through internationally recognized Armenian territory that would have no Armenian passport or customs checkpoints. Additionally, Aliyev has made greater territorial claims on Armenia and has referred to the country as “Western Azerbaijan.” He has also refused to hold negotiations with the Minsk Group, calling the group “dead.”
Despite numerous Armenian concessions including the withdrawal of Armenian military units from Nagorno-Karabakh, shifting the focus of negotiations from self-determination to the “rights and securities” of Karabakh Armenians, and signaling willingness to allow for transportation through Armenia to Nakhichevan (with Armenian passport and customs clearance), Azerbaijan has resorted to military means to achieve its ambitions.
In May 2021, Azerbaijan launched incursions into internationally recognized Armenian territory, taking strategic high ground. This was repeated in November of 2021 and again in September of 2022, when fighting killed hundreds and almost led to another full scale conflict. Azerbaijan has also launched drone strikes in Nagorno-Karabakh, killing several, and in December 2022, closed the Lachin corridor, the only route connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, only allowing the occasional Red Cross or Russian peacekeeping vehicle through. As of March 3, 2023, the road remains closed to all Armenian civilian traffic.
Expectations that Russia would put a stop to the fighting and maintain peace have not been realized. The regional superpower has military and trade protection agreements with Armenia, but has been reluctant to respond to Armenia’s request for assistance in protecting its internationally recognized borders. Russian peacekeepers have also been unwilling or unable to reopen the road between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, causing dire conditions for the residents of the region.
Children play in ruins in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2015. Source: Global Conflict Tracker
There are two possible reasons for Russia’s lack of intervention in the fighting: Since February 2022, Russia has been preoccupied with its invasion of Ukraine and is unable to spare any military resources to effectively deal with the situation on the ground. However, many of the post-2020 clashes and ceasefire violations happened before the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and also saw a limited Russian response. Another suggestion for Russian indifference is that Russia is wary of openly taking sides and putting itself in the middle of the conflict. Russia wants good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan to preserve its interests in both countries. If Russia were to take one side, then it would risk derailing its influence in the other, possibly jeopardizing its imperialistic ambitions.
In the wake of Russia’s absence, other powers have stepped in to try to mediate a solution. During the September 2022 attack against Armenia, the US, France, and the EU called on Azerbaijan to cease its offensive and withdraw its troops from Armenia. The US was able to broker a ceasefire, and the EU sent an observer mission to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border for a period of two months. In January, it was extended for another two years. Both EU and American officials have also been holding more talks with Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders and appear to be trying to overtake Russia as the mediators of this conflict. But will this be enough to end the conflict?
While the US, EU, and Armenia share democratic systems of government as opposed to the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan, the EU has begun to import more Azerbaijani gas as a way to decrease its dependence on Russia. There is a risk that the EU could ultimately choose its gas interests over ensuring peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is also important to note the EU observers on the border are unarmed. In the case of an attack, they will not be able to respond immediately. It will be up to the EU to decide on potential consequences and responses, none of which have been outlined at this time.
The US also has a presidential election coming up in 2024. While President Joe Biden has maintained an active foreign policy, the question remains, if he does not run or loses in 2024, will his successor ultimately continue with his mediation efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan? Even assuming the EU and US remain actively involved, will they be able to facilitate or even force a peace treaty that will be accepted and abided by? Ultimately, time will tell if peace will come to the mountains of the South Caucasus or if the conflict will continue to claim the lives of more people.