The fresh outbreak of fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the Line of Contact has seen around one thousand killed in action in battles concentrated on the north-eastern and southern sectors of the line. Within just two weeks, this new conflict reached an attrition rate comparable to the climax of the 1990s Karabakh war after six years of conflict.
The war has come at a moment of intense global distraction due to COVID-19, US elections, and Belarus protests. This is no coincidence. Armenians all over the world are aghast at the global silence at yet more violence against their community, while Azerbaijanis decry Western hypocrisy and neglect of their grievances. Across the divide a new descent into bitterness and toxic cynicism has taken hold.
A significant new feature of this round of violence is Turkey’s more active involvement. Turkey has shifted from moral support to Azerbaijan to active denunciation of mediation of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States.
Multiple reports, denied by both Ankara and Baku, suggest Turkey has lent military capability to Azerbaijan, most controversially in the form of mercenaries allegedly recruited from Turkish-affiliated militia groups in Syria. More significant advances than those achieved in the last major outbreak of fighting in April 2016 have been made possible by aerial attrition of Armenian land forces using Turkish and Israeli drones. While the situation remains fluid, Azerbaijani forces appear to have succeeded in breaking through the fortified Line of Contact, particularly along the southern flank.
Symbolic of a new regionalization
This more explicit entry into the conflict establishes the possibility that the conflict may be transformed into another theatre of contestation by regional powers Turkey and Russia, rather than one where an international coalition seeks to mediate and resolve conflict. Regionalization is a symptom of a wider global shift from a unipolar international order led by the US to a multipolar order contested by regional powers.
In contesting Euro-Atlantic influence and seeking their own strategic autonomy as regional or global powers, Moscow and Ankara have a common agenda. In Syria, this agenda succeeded in isolating Western powers from the Syrian peace talks through the Astana process initiated in December 2016. The ‘Astana-ization’ of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict would be a significant shift towards ‘proxification’ of the conflict.
Such an outcome could potentially see the addition of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict to a wider spectrum of regional conflict theatres in which Moscow and Ankara are engaged and can bargain trade-offs, both as rivals and partners.
But a Russian-Turkish détente risks a top-down and authoritarian conflict management model with little interest or capacity in resolving issues of voice, status and representation that go to the heart of this conflict’s grievances. Although they would be directly affected by a Russian-Turkish ‘grand bargain’, Armenia and Azerbaijan would not be at the table.
For Russia, regionalization implies Moscow’s transition from being the informal leader of an international coalition resolving the conflict into a regional power managing it in tandem with Turkey. Acceding to a Turkish bid for a duopoly on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict suggests a diminishing of Russia’s role from an arbiter transcending the conflict to just a patron of one of its parties.
Reviving a multilateral approach
Paradoxically, Russia’s alternative is to revive a multilateral diplomatic effort with the Euro-Atlantic powers with whom it is at loggerheads on a slew of other issues in Eurasia. But the four-point document issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs after a marathon 10-hour negotiation on 10 October suggests this is actually what Moscow would like to do.
In addition to a ceasefire, the announcement reiterates earlier Minsk Group commitments to ‘substantive talks’ on the basis of the Basic Principles, mediated by the co-chairs and retaining the existing negotiating format. This can be interpreted as a signal from the Kremlin that it does not wish to see Turkey’s role in the mediation process elevated.
However, a mere return to the status quo ante risks another outbreak of violence a few months or years down the line. To re-embed the conflict within a revitalized OSCE-led process action rather than just empty expressions of concern are needed, with two core agendas on which a lack of progress has debilitated the process since 2011.
The first is security, as the OSCE’s ceasefire monitoring infrastructure dates from the 1990s and is completely unsuitable to conditions now. The sides agreed to expand this infrastructure in Vienna in May 2016 but this has not been fulfilled, while the OSCE’s ‘High-level Planning Group’, tasked with devising scenarios for the deployment of peacekeepers, has been invisible.
The absence of proper international security guarantees has entrenched the security dilemma between the parties, but a more public elaboration of the scope and source of peacekeepers could make ending this absence more serious and plausible.
Credible scenarios for peacekeeping must be backed by implementation of the May 2016 Vienna agreements on new mandates for ceasefire-monitoring mechanisms, the re-opening of the OSCE field offices in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and international investigation of the alleged use of prohibited weaponry and civilian casualties in this latest outbreak of fighting.
Credible international commitments to underwriting security would open up the space for the second agenda item - to revive negotiations on the core political issues. For almost a decade, there has been no meaningful negotiation of the Basic Principles.
No side has yet rejected the Basic Principles, which among other things call for a withdrawal of Armenian armed forces from areas around Nagorny Karabakh which President Ilham Aliyev has highlighted as a condition of progress. The Principles also attempt to address Armenian concerns through an interim status giving security guarantees and certain rights to the de facto institutions currently in Nagorny Karabakh.
Holding the ‘Minsk Conference’, mandated in 1992 to discuss the conflict in Minsk but which never took place, would also demonstrate international commitment. As Sweden will assume the Chair-in-Office of the OSCE in 2021 and has an institutional history as a previous co-Chair of the Minsk Group, the conference could be held in Stockholm.
Under sustained bombardment, civilians among both the Armenian population of Nagorny Karabakh and the Azerbaijani settlements around the Line of Contact are enduring a humanitarian disaster.
Nine Azerbaijani civilians were killed in a missile strike on Azerbaijan’s second city Ganja after the ceasefire; earlier that day two Armenian civilians were reported killed in an Azerbaijani operation in the town of Hadrut, Nagorny Karabakh.
These deaths radicalise societies and make a stand-down even more politically challenging. But the alternative – a festering war in Europe – cannot be contemplated.