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Commentary | 9 October 2020

War in Nagorno Karabakh: why now, and what to expect?

Image of Hovhannes Nikoghosyan

Hovhannes Nikoghosyan |Lecturer in Political Science and International Affairs, American University of Armenia

Russia-West Relations Security Euro-Atlantic Security
On 27th September, the “frozen conflict” between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh entered a new phase of escalation, leading to military clashes and heavy losses on both sides. As this is a conflict that has the potential to destabilize not only the South Caucasus but wider Europe – and with its dynamics and root causes largely under-addressedthe ELN has asked some of its Azeri and Armenian members to offer their views on what is happening on the ground. As of today (9thOctober), we are able to offer our readers an Armenian perspective and are continuing to seek an Azeri voice, which will be published on our website.
  1. What are the implications for regional and European security of recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh? What distinguishes the most recent fighting from previous clashes?

First of all, we have to clearly define what has been happening since 27th September and only then turn to discussions on conflict resolution and its geopolitics. This is an armed conflict of international character that was triggered by Azerbaijan’s massive offensive against Nagorno Karabakh along the entire Line of Contact, established in 1994. This all-out war quickly dragged in Armenia and, to an unprecedented degree, Turkey. Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan declared total mobilization of army reserves during the first day of armed conflict. There have already been official statements made, as well as open-intel analysis published (geolocation for example), about the enrollment of mercenaries from Syria (and possibly Libya), dragged to Azerbaijan by Turkey. Most notably, on October 6th Russian foreign intelligence confirmed this too.

These armed hostilities – with the use of both heavy weaponry, attack-drones and high-end fighter jets – are taking place both in the areas close to the border of Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh with Iran (the valley of Aras/Arax river), as well as occasional aerial attacks and UAV incursions on the territory of Armenia-proper, the latest in the evening of October 8th. The involvement of NATO-member Turkey, potential military engagement by Russia and high concerns voiced daily in Iran make this look like a powder keg that has already exploded. All these have an immediate impact on European security – of which energy security (oil and gas exports from Azerbaijan to Europe), contrary to popular wisdom, is only a minor part.

  1. What recent political developments have contributed to the outbreak of fighting, and what do we know about the spark for conflict in this case?

We have heard a certain language of frustration from Azerbaijan about the peace process ever since 1994, reiterated a few times by Ilham Aliyev during this latest conflict. Excessive political correctness and both-sideism that unfortunately has also penetrated the media and expert community worldwide has to be blamed for the failure of the international community as a whole to name and shame the party that at various final key moments backed down. The latest opportunity lost was in Kazan, Russia, in June 2011 at the mediation of then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev – when President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan backpedalled at the last moment. Before that, in 2001 his father, the late Heydar Aliyev did the same in Key West, Florida – causing diplomatic embarrassment for President George W. Bush during his first months in office. For reasons that are beyond my understanding due to the absence of any credible source, the Azerbaijani President claims to have cherished hopes for “more flexibility” by the post-revolutionary Armenian leadership since 2018. The alleged failure of these “hopes”, among other considerations, has led to the decision in Azerbaijan to start an active war – in effect ‘walking the talk’ of the past few years – completely disregarding the international community.

  1. How does the recent outbreak fit into the picture of prospects for peace and the meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year?

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and President Ilham Aliyev have met a few times since May 2018, the latest at the Munich Security Conference in 2020. The high-level panel discussion at the MSC demonstrated a complete lack of mutual understanding between the two leaders and the deadlock in the resolution process. I can recall “windows of opportunity” in the history of the conflict (two cited above), but none since 2018. In contrast to what we have been hearing since 2018, “hope for progress’’ was only a popular narrative, inflated in the media and warmed up by politicians all over the world, but chiefly by Ilham Aliyev. I will speculate that he miscalculated his ability to exert pressure on Nikol Pashinyan – which failed, among other things, due to the fact that in Armenia, all domestic politics aside, there is strong institutional memory and continuity in both Foreign (including corps diplomatique) and Defense Ministries (including the high-level military) – which warrants a greater analysis beyond this Q&A.

Azerbaijan has been preparing for this conflict, encouraged by Turkey, after the international community failed to push on the escalation prevention commitments the parties had to shoulder after the Four Day War in April 2016 – namely, introducing international mechanisms for incident investigation on the Line of Contact and a more robust ceasefire monitoring mission under the aegis of the OSCE.

Impunity always leads to double crime, so it’s said. Since the beginning of this war civilians and buildings in Nagorno Karabakh, including its capital, are being hit with aerial bombardment and heavy rockets. Reports of indiscriminate fire and shelling with the use of cluster munitions are widespread, having warranted statements by the ICRC and Amnesty International. On October 8th, a XIX century Christian Armenian church, renovated after its near-full destruction in the first war in the 1990s, was hit twice within an hour, without military necessity, injuring journalists and civilians. The Russian news agency Sputnik released photos of families with children sheltered in the Church basement, while German Bild released the full video footage.

  1. What are the implications of Turkey’s involvement in recent fighting? What are Turkey’s main interests and policy objectives in the region?

Turkey has sided with Azerbaijan against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh since early 1992, after a brief period of hesitation in the early days of conflict post-independence. There is enough evidence by now of Turkey’s full-fledged involvement in the present war, which I understand was presented to the US Ambassador to Armenia in her 5th October engagements at the Armenian Ministry of Defense. Also on October 7th, the New York Times released satellite imagery, dated October 3rd, showing at least two Turkish F-16 jets at Ganja International Airport in Azerbaijan, which Armenia claims engaged with an Armenian SU-25 on September 29th.

The role of Turkey is two-fold: transporting mercenaries from Syria (and possibly Libya) as well as command and control on the battlefield, claimed by the Armenian Ministry of Defence which also released aerial evidence. Clearly, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to expand his “sphere of influence” and assume a greater role in Azerbaijan and more significant presence in the South Caucasus as his main policy objective – to further engage in geopolitical trade-offs with Russia and the West. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who travelled to Baku on 6th October after the meeting with the NATO Secretary-General in Ankara, has previously announced that they offered a deal to the Russians to cooperate “like in Idlib”. To translate this into layman terms: Turkey aspires to have a legitimate role in the South Caucasus. To make this push harder and make the Kremlin more agreeable, the mercenaries that Turkey recruits and transports to Azerbaijan are from those segments of anti-Assad forces in Syria that are loyal only to Turkey.

The only barrier in this geopolitical gamble is the lack of any strategically significant military success on the ground by Azerbaijan, as well as colossal losses in manpower and ammunition inflicted by Armenian forces. While this is not a problem for Turkey, it may eventually crack Ilham Aliyev’s regime from inside after the ceasefire is established.

  1. The conflict is often referred to as one that has religious and cultural roots. To what extent do these aspects still play a role in the actual conflict – apart from being a justification for maintaining the status quo?

The Nagorno Karabakh conflict has no religious roots, nor is it a “product of a civilizational clash between Muslims and Christians”, to quote a recent article in Jacobin Magazine. Azerbaijan has made great efforts in the international arena, particularly in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), to rally OIC member states with calls to Muslim solidarity – but this has had only sporadic and strictly declarative results in their annual conferences.

To make this claim even more vivid: one of the states that sell high-tech UAVs and other equipment to Azerbaijan, including during this latest conflict, is Israel. Some weaponry, e.g. Israeli-made LORA short-range ballistic missiles is being used for the first time ever.

  1. Russia, the EU and the US have all called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop fighting and return to dialogue. Who can do what to de-escalate tensions?

In the past, I believed that the United States, France (EU) and Russia, despite all their controversies and problems, would prefer to maintain the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship format as an exclusive channel of cooperation (especially after the P5+1 format failed under President Trump’s policies). As of the evening of 5th October, there have already been three high-level statements by the co-chair countries of the OSCE Minsk Group, including one from the Presidents of the three Co-Chair countries on 1st October.

On 2nd October, President Emmanuel Macron of France announced to have “a new method to restart talks within the Minsk group”. The personal attacks on President Macron voiced in Azerbaijan, as well as Turkish-French complications, show that neither Baku nor Ankara have given it a serious chance, even though it was French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian who championed the efforts of first face-to-face contacts in Geneva on October 8th to mediate a ceasefire. As for the US, the national-level statements received from Washington show the lack of decisiveness to engage in more than words. No surprise that the readout of the meeting between the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Nikolay Patrushev, and US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien in Geneva on 2nd October contained only three words about Nagorno Karabakh, while O’Brien told the media his meeting agenda was only about the upcoming U.S. elections. Eloquently put by Fiona Hill, President Trump’s former national security adviser on Russia and Europe, “United States is missing in action”.

It appears that it’s up to Russia and Russia alone to stop the war. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is engaged daily, so is President Vladimir Putin. When and if this happens, it may entail a certain peacekeeping operation, inter alia headquartered on the border regions with Iran – and there we’ll see the greater game of geopolitics begin. In the late-night hours of October 8th, President Putin released a strong-worded statement inviting the Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers to Moscow on October 9th and called for a ceasefire “for humanitarian considerations” of recovering bodies on the battlefields and exchange of POWs. Armenia and Azerbaijan accepted the invitation to dispatch their Foreign Ministers without delay. At the time of writing, it remains unclear whether armed hostilities are halted in full.

Today, what is off the radar is the millions of dollars and euros spent on peacebuilding efforts since 1994 that were wasted. New efforts must be re-imagined, requiring a new philosophy. All the public figures in Azerbaijan, even those who faced incarceration and persecution by the authorities, and those that were fully engaged in peace efforts, have become ‘echo chambers’ for Ilham Aliyev – and that is not good news for anyone hoping for alternatives to a “Dayton”-style resolution. In the Armenian case – most of the peacebuilders chose to stay idle or called for peace.

When the diplomatic process resumes, the mediators have to be extremely creative in terms of new conflict resolution and/or management proposals, including considering the notion of remedial secession for Nagorno Karabakh in view of the humanitarian disaster. The present armed conflict has already caused great scars and reinvigorated deeper issues, making it impossible to return to the status quo.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Map of the region including energy supply lines, Hovhannes Nikoghosyan