The Resumption of Conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh: Geopolitical Dimensions and Likely Scenarios

​Ahmed Diab | 04 Oct 2020

On 27 September 2020, after an inconclusive ceasefire period that lasted nearly three decades, military confrontations erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan through a barrage of artillery shelling, during which heavy armour was deployed along the confrontation line separating the two countries regarding the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region and its neighboring areas. The confrontations quickly turned into an escalating military conflict between the two countries, which reinforced fears of potential destabilising repercussions in the Caucasus.

Internal dimensions and drivers of the renewed conflict

1. The political crisis in Azerbaijan

The economic downturn in Azerbaijan due to declining global oil and gas prices and frustration with the authoritarian rule of President Ilham Aliyev have fuelled popular discontent. The early parliamentary elections in Baku in 2020 resulted in the rise of a new, younger elite and the removal of the politically seasoned and veteran "old guard". The elections are believed to reflect a shift to a new strategy that relies more on the power of arms than on diplomatic dialogue. Popular calls for waging war against Armenia increased, and protesters stormed the Parliament building in Baku, demanding to fight against Yerevan. As the losing party in the first war, Baku made public calls for the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to mobilise national support.

2. The economic crisis in Armenia

According to some observers, the current Armenian leadership aims at escalating the situation against the background of the socio-economic problems that are getting worse due to the spread of the novel coronavirus epidemic in Armenia and its inefficient performance, and at diverting attention from the country’s internal problems. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's government – which came to power amid a popular uprising in 2018 that was largely opposed by Russia – is concerned about what it views as Moscow's increasingly ambivalent support to maintain the status quo. Despite some initial indications assuming that he would be more open to a negotiated solution, Pashinyan took a more hard-line stance, including calling for the formal integration of the Nagorno-Karabakh region into Armenia.

Regional dimensions and drivers

1. Failure of the Minsk Group to settle the conflict

The Minsk Group, affiliated with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and comprising Russia, France and the US, was formed in 1994 with the aim of reaching a comprehensive ceasefire between the parties to achieve a permanent settlement between the two countries. However, even the partial ceasefire brokered by the Minsk Group has been broken by both sides over the past three decades. The stalemate of the Group’s work and the failure to discuss a permanent and comprehensive solution to the crisis seem to have been among the direct causes of the outbreak of repeated fighting between the two sides where the Azerbaijani government accuses the Minsk Group of supporting "Christian" Armenia. Baku believes that Yerevan has strong lobbying groups in the US, Russia and France, and that those groups had their own influence in this regard.

2. Regional competition between Russia, Iran and Turkey

Historically, the South Caucasus has been an area of ​​conflict between major powers. Over the centuries, the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires fought against each other in wars to conquer and dominate the region.

Currently, Turkey's direct involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh has increased the stakes not only in the South Caucasus, but throughout the regions where there are differences between Ankara and Moscow. Indeed, the two countries support the conflicting parties in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts, and have incompatible ambitions in the Balkans and Ukraine. Ankara is likely to view its involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh in part as a bargaining card not only in the Caucasus, but in its broader rivalry with Moscow. The involvement of Turkmen and Armenian mercenaries brought over from Syria indicates that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may not remain confined this time to the southern Caucasus.

While Iran enjoys good neighbourly relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter has accused it of siding with Armenia in the past. This is partly due to Baku's pro-NATO stance and its intimate relations with Israel. Both Russia and Iran are concerned that Azerbaijan may become an outpost of NATO in the Caspian Sea in the future, especially if it manages to defeat its neighbour Armenia and control the territories under Armenian control. In July 2020, Moscow conducted a large-scale military exercise in the Caspian and Black Sea regions with the participation of the Chinese and Iranian navies, sending a clear signal to the West that Moscow continues to consider the Caucasus as its natural sphere of influence.

3. The role of transport projects and energy pipelines in triggering the conflict

The fact that Armenia attacked Azerbaijan in the city of Tovuz on 12 July 2020, far from the main conflict zone in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, raised questions about Armenia's intentions, considering that Tovuz is located in the area where the three strategic Azerbaijani energy pipelines (Baku-Supsa, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum) pass to Europe via Turkey and Georgia. Tovuz is also located within the new Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line, which connects pro-Western Georgia and Azerbaijan with Europe via Turkey.

The timing of the new conflict, which coincides with the imminent operation of the long-awaited energy pipelines stretching from gas-rich Azerbaijan to Europe via Georgia, gives it an international dimension that stems from geoeconomic and geopolitical implications. Bypassing Russia and Iran, the pipelines aim at reducing Europe's energy dependence on Moscow in light of US sanctions on Russia over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany.

Speculation is rife that Russian President Vladimir Putin, already dissatisfied with the perceived US and European intervention in Belarus, hit back through Armenia, which could easily bomb vital infrastructure in the Tovuz region, where more than 80 percent of Azerbaijani energy is transferred. There is also a Russian determination to have the US pay the price for opposing Nord Stream 2.

Likely scenarios

1. Second Cyprus scenario

The Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan stated that Armenia is studying the possibility of recognising the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, recognition of the independence of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh would have several consequences, the most important of which are the following:

First, if Armenia recognises the independence of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (which is unilaterally declared and has not received any international recognition), it would automatically leave the Minsk Group for settlement. In general, the entire formula for negotiations over Karabakh would collapse. Either a new formula would have to be established, or war would have to be recognized as the only alternative. Therefore, Armenia did not recognise Karabakh before in order to maintain the formal negotiation process.

Second, if Armenia not only recognises the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also makes it part of the Armenian state, a problem would arise with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Armenia's partners are unlikely to recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as part of the CSTO territories. Armenia may then have to leave the Organization.

2. The "Syrian model" scenario

On 30 September 2020, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu put forward the idea of ​​settling the Karabakh conflict the "Syrian way", i.e. by establishing "safe corridors" and conducting "joint patrols" in the areas of the proposed lines of demarcation separating the forces. On the other hand, a number of military experts believe that the Russian Gyumri military base in Armenia (which houses nearly 5,000 personnel) can play the role of the Hmeimim Base in Syria, becoming the guarantor for initiating a peaceful dialogue on resolving the conflict in Karabakh.

However, the "Syrian model" of the settlement, which Turkey is trying to transfer from Idlib to Karabakh, demonstrated Ankara's inability to fulfill its obligations. On the other hand, Moscow believes that Ankara does not have the political or moral right to demand that the Armenian side withdraw its forces from the Azerbaijani "occupied territories", given that the Turkish leadership does not facilitate in any way the return of all Syrian territories, including the northwest of the country, to the "legitimate" Damascus authority, although that was one of the main conditions of the Russian-Turkish agreements that were reached in early March 2020.

3. The Kosovo Scenario

Hypothetically, Nagorno-Karabakh could become another autonomous enclave similar to Nakhchivan, which is located between Armenia and northwestern Iran. Nakhchivan was part of Iran until the Treaty of Turkmenchay in 1828, whereby it was ceded to Russia after the military defeat of Iran. The US had submitted a proposal in this context which, despite being rejected by both countries, appears to be very realistic. The proposal provides for Azerbaijan's recognition of the independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh region in exchange for Azerbaijan's restoration of its other six occupied territories outside Karabakh, with Azerbaijan ceding the Lachin Corridor which permits the establishment of a geographical connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, and Armenia ceding a corridor that allows the Nakhchivan province to connect with the Azerbaijani territories.

However, it is unclear whether the local Armenians of Karabakh, who aspire more to the example of Kosovo in the Balkans in their current aspirations for complete independence from Azerbaijan, would agree to Baku’s control being re-imposed on them. So far, none in the international community, including Iran, has recognized the Kosovo-like efforts of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. This has led to a single result, namely: the current unstable status quo must sooner or later be changed, and this can only be achieved through coordinated international efforts, such as sending a peacekeeping force which is yet missing.

4. The "No War and No Peace" scenario

Among the most important scenarios that are put forward with regard to the outcome of this conflict is the continuation of the current "no war and no peace" situation, meaning that there would be no radical change in the conflict in the foreseeable future.

On the one hand, Nagorno-Karabakh has become an important national issue in both countries. Therefore, the failure of governments in this conflict could lead to their downfall.

On the other hand, it appears that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan has the will to continue a long-term war, considering that the two countries face an unfavourable economic situation due to their suffering from the coronavirus epidemic and other crises.

On a third front, with the exception of Turkey, the regional and international actors do not have a tendency to continue this conflict. Americans are involved in and preoccupied with the elections and internal issues, and do not want this conflict to become a new issue in the elections. Europeans are reluctant to escalate the conflict because of the economic problems caused by the coronavirus epidemic and the possibility of disrupting energy flow from Azerbaijan to Europe. Finally, Moscow has no interest in expanding or prolonging the conflict, which could force it to make difficult decisions about the extent of its commitment to Armenia and allocate additional resources to the southern Caucasus even as it is already involved on multiple other fronts.

Conclusion

While the Turkish and Russian roles are central for reaching a settlement of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, this does not mean ignoring the centrality of other roles, especially those of the US and Europe. In this context, the only way to reach a settlement in the Southern Caucasus is through negotiation, in line with the four United Nations resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh and the Minsk Group peace proposal.

Those decisions demand the restoration of Baku’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, respect for the rights of Armenians who live in the disputed territories, the return of large numbers of refugees, and the establishment of a land corridor to Armenia. This renders the Kosovo scenario the most plausible for the prospective settlement between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the foreseeable future.

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