A soldier of the army of Nagorny Karabakh walks past tanks at a field position outside the village of Mataghis on 6 April 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

A soldier of the army of Nagorny Karabakh walks past tanks at a field position outside the village of Mataghis on 6 April 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

With its early-April offensive against Nagorny Karabakh, Azerbaijan might have sought to prove its long-standing rhetoric that it can take lands by force. Gaining control over some territories would allow Baku to speak from a position of strength at the peace talks, whose format and principles it is unhappy with.

With over 200 fatalities on both sides, the flare-up reportedly ceased upon Azerbaijan’s request and with Russia’s brokering, when a Karabakhi counter-offensive was underway and most positions that changed hands were restored. The Russian diplomatic intervention prevented the army of Nagorny Karabakh from shifting the Line of Contact beyond its established borders.

While parallel shuttle diplomacy by both Russia and the OSCE Minsk Group ensued to drag the sides back to talks, the battle has created a dangerous precedent for resorting to arms − leaving both sides with a sense of advantage over the other.

Lessons learned

The escalation seems to have broadly confirmed the military balance between the sides that has kept the ceasefire since 1994. Armenians have had Azerbaijan’s quantitative advantage confirmed, now with enhanced weaponry. The Azerbaijanis, for their part, have learned that the Karabakhi qualitative advantage − higher level of combat readiness and favourable terrain positioning − still holds.

The sources of Baku’s confidence in challenging the status quo may be more political than military. Armenia has failed to keep Azerbaijan at the negotiation table, and Yerevan’s international clout has been diminished by its Eurasian economic and military partnerships. The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), along with its bilateral alliance with Russia, have essentially turned into alliances of inconvenience. Russia has supplied advanced weaponry to Azerbaijan against the spirit of the so-called strategic partnership with Armenia. Its other fellow members in the EEU and CSTO − Belarus and Kazakhstan − offered thinly veiled support to Azerbaijan, suggesting it was a more important partner for them than Armenia. The flare-up drove a wedge in the already shaky Armenia−Russia alliance – perhaps the biggest takeaway for Azerbaijan from the escalation. Yerevan’s disillusionment with its Eurasian allies leaves it with the imperative for a wholesale revision of its foreign policy.

The flare-up has also spurred a debate among the Armenian public: sacrificing democracy for security has resulted in less, not more security. Corruption has marred Armenia's democratic transition and bled the state of funding for defence, thus failing to raise the cost of war for Azerbaijan.

The escalation also reconfirmed a fundamental flaw in the peace process – the absence of the de facto republic of Nagorny Karabakh from the negotiation table. Azerbaijan continues to reject direct contact with the people whose rights it promises to respect were they under its jurisdiction. The de facto republic has long maintained it will not accept any document where its signature is not featured. Nagorny Karabakh will have to be included in the process of solving its own future − the sooner, the better. Yerevan’s influence over Nagorny Karabakh should not be overestimated: back in 1994, the Karabakhi position was crucial in rejecting the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone.

Moscow’s role

Russian policy-makers have argued that their arms deals with Azerbaijan are pure business transactions, balanced by arms sales to Armenia. Moscow believes this keeps the conflict in check. While periodic escalations do serve Moscow’s interests, an all-out war does not: it may result in Moscow losing clout over one or both sides. However, the Kremlin’s levers are non-existent in Karabakh; its clout is based on Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s perceptions. By pursuing its own interests, Moscow is underestimating the conflict’s dynamics and explosive potential.

The South Caucasus rumour mill has long speculated about a Moscow−Baku bargaining behind the back of Armenians. Moscow has pushed to deploy its own peacekeepers in the conflict zone since 1994, and is also hoping to bring Azerbaijan into the EEU. Baku might be seeking guarantees that Moscow will continue to arm Azerbaijan and not intervene on behalf of Armenians in case of a full-scale war.

Azerbaijan may be overestimating Moscow’s power. Baku’s reasoning is affected by its perception of Moscow’s role in the outcome of the 1988−94 war. If a new war explodes, Moscow will not get to decide who wins; it will do what it did before – back the winning side.

Peace at risk

The four-day flare-up has challenged the logic of the Nagorny Karabakh peace process: the 1994 ceasefire is breached, the OSCE Minsk Group is side-lined and there is no international deterrence in place to prevent war. The inability of international diplomacy to contain the conflict has put the entire burden of averting an all-out war on the 18-20 year-old conscripts serving in the armed forces of Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh.

The biggest deterrent of a full-scale war is the risk for Azerbaijan of losing it again – this would cost Azerbaijan’s political leadership domestic instability and, eventually, power. But there is a ‘new normal’ where the status quo will be tested militarily more often, incurring the risk of escalations spiralling into a war − if not by intention, then by accident.

At this critical juncture, a more assertive diplomacy needs to step in. Before the sides can talk peace, effective ceasefire violation monitoring mechanisms need be installed. Regional security in the South Caucasus cannot afford more feeble statements calling on all sides for restraint. Resorting to arms again should incur political costs. Otherwise, any restarted peace talks will continue to do what they have done so far – buy time to prepare for a new war.