The fragile 22-year ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh was shattered at the beginning of April, as four days of intense fighting resulted in dozens of deaths on both sides. The recent clashes have led to a renewed fear that a conflict which has lay dormant at the crossroads of Europe and Asia for two decades, could be about to re-emerge.
The outbreak of violence has heightened existing tensions, which had been steadily worsening over the last few years. Attempts at negotiation have repeatedly failed, leaving peace talks virtually non-existent and the region in a state of uncertainty and fear.
In the most recent wave of violence, Azerbaijan said 16 servicemen were killed, whilst the Karabakh authorities said 20 of their troops had died, along with several civilian casualties. A new ceasefire was announced on 5th April, which has so-far held firm. However, the situation on the ground remains fragile; and given the region’s complex history, a lasting solution appears to be a distant prospect.
The mountainous, land-locked region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the subject of an unresolved territorial dispute between Azerbaijan (in which it is located) and its ethnic Armenian majority, supported by neighbouring Armenia. The conflict has its roots in the 19th Century when the area was part of the Russian Empire, and during which time there was fierce competition between Christian Armenian and Muslim Turkic influences in the region. The two groups lived alongside each other in relative peace until the end of World War One and the Bolshevik Revolution, when the Soviets established Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region of Azerbaijan, but with an ethnic Armenian majority population.
Tensions increased gradually over the decades, eventually spilling over into large-scale violence following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, which resulted in Armenia and Azerbaijan becoming independent states. An all-out war ensued from 1992-1994, with fierce fighting over the territory leaving 30,000 people dead, and resulting in ethnic Armenians gaining control of the region. They also pushed into surrounding areas, occupying swathes of Azeri territory and effectively creating a ‘buffer zone’ linking the breakaway province to Armenia. During the war, more than 600,000 ethnic Azeris fled from Karabakh, whilst more than 300,000 ethnic Armenians who previously resided in Azerbaijan were displaced, and many have been unable to return home.
After a Russian-brokered truce was signed in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh was left as an enclave under Armenian control, but within the internationally-recognized sovereign state of Azerbaijan. Although Armenia has never officially recognized the region’s independence, it has naturally become its main financial and military backer. In the 22 years since the conflict ended, both sides have had soldiers killed in sporadic violations of the ceasefire. However until this year’s clashes – the most deadly since 1994 – a stalemate has largely prevailed, with both sides unwilling to compromise. The Azeri’s resent the loss of land viewed as ‘rightfully theirs’, whilst the ethnic Armenians continue to state their right to self-determination.
The truce left an inherently unstable and unsustainable situation on the ground: a ceasefire line which stretched across Azeri territory, with no international peacekeepers deployed to monitor the situation. These problems are further exacerbated by the memories of a traumatic war, which left the population mentally-scarred and fostered a legacy of hatred and animosity. In this toxic atmosphere, tensions have steadily increased beneath the surface, whilst the international community has lost interest – pre-occupied with conflicts elsewhere which are viewed as more strategically-important.
In recent years, Azerbaijan has used its Caspian Sea oil wealth to spend billions of dollars on advanced weaponry. At the same time, Armenia has strengthened its defence alliance with Moscow and bolstered its own military capacity. As a result of these developments, the ‘line of contact’ between the two sides has become one of outer Europe’s most heavily militarized zones, further increasing tensions and acting as a visible reminder that conflict could break-out at any moment.
After the April skirmishes, Azerbaijan’s defence minister Zakir Hasanov said his troops were prepared to target the breakaway region’s capital, Stepanakert, if separatist forces continued to shell settlements. In response, the Karabakh authorities promised a ‘crushing response’ in the face of aggression. There is now a considerable prospect that more frequent low-intensity fighting could derail the already fragile peace process. The danger of escalation has been further heightened by militaristic propaganda, which has maintained the level of threat perception and hugely influenced public opinion over the last two decades.
In particular, the recent surge in violence has distracted the populations of Armenia and Azerbaijan from domestic issues and economic woes, contributing to a resurgence of nationalism in both countries. This has led to fears that emotions are again running high as past memories are being evoked, creating a mood for revenge in an already tense environment.
The wider geopolitical context also provides cause for concern. Some analysts believe there is potential for this largely regional dispute to escalate into a ‘proxy war’ between Russia and Turkey, whose relations have severely deteriorated since Turkey shot-down a Russian warplane over northern Syria in November 2015, after an accusation of violating Turkish airspace. Given the current animosity between these two large powers, their potentially opposing positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute are of significant concern. Russia has defence treaty obligations to Armenia, and would be required to defend it if attacked. Turkey has traditionally supported Azerbaijan and has recently issued a number of strong statements, with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stating that Turkey will ‘’stand shoulder to shoulder with Azerbaijan’’, and will continue its support until ‘’all its lands are liberated’’.
Given the rapidly deteriorating scenario, there has been increased international pressure for renewed peace talks. However, previous attempts have proven remarkably difficult; which is unsurprising considering that Armenia and Azerbaijan have severely strained bi-lateral relations, with no formal diplomatic links. The latest attempt at peace negotiations, mediated by the Minsk Group, and initiated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), have seen little progress. The peace talks are stuck at their foundations, and remain limited to the basic objectives of avoiding all-out war and keeping the process alive. For years, momentum has been non-existent as both sides have remained far apart, unable to agree on either a basic agenda or timescale.
As clashes continue with greater severity and the region becomes more heavily militarized, a return to full-scale conflict edges dangerously closer. The risk of escalation is especially heightened in the absence of meaningful peace negotiations, which to be successful would require the involvement of all parties and significant compromise. The tragic fatalities from the clashes earlier this year serve as a reminder that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is far from dead, and highlight the enormous human consequences that would accompany a return to conflict. Despite the complexity of the situation and difficulties to be overcome, it is surely in the interests of all sides to begin a process of meaningful negotiations and seek an end to further bloodshed.