Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Left untended, today’s patterns of international default to the status quo and conflict party default to recursive violence make real the risk of a major regional war.

NKR Defence Army soldier carries out normal duties at a post near Martuni as the situation on the line of contact stays relatively calm, 21 May 2016. Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images.NKR Defence Army soldier carries out normal duties at a post near Martuni as the situation on the line of contact stays relatively calm. Photo via Getty Images.

Summary

  • The Nagorny Karabakh conflict, involving Armenia and Azerbaijan, poses a major threat to regional and European security. Following a surge of violence in early April 2016, international concern has shifted from stabilizing a fragile ceasefire to war prevention.
  • Negotiations have remained deadlocked, with no fundamental change in the parties’ positions, since the early 1990s. As a result the more aggrieved and now rearmed party, Azerbaijan, sees front-line violence as its sole lever of influence to counter the indefinite prolongation of a ‘frozen conflict’.
  • Azerbaijan presents its operations of 2–5 April 2016 as a tactical victory and psychological breakthrough. Although slivers of territory changed hands for the first time since 1994, little of strategic significance appears to have altered on the ground. The most important change is the erosion of the deterrent assumed to exist between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
  • Designed in the mid-1990s, the mandate of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the ceasefire is limited and obsolete. This has resulted in the delegation of security arrangements to one of the lead mediators, Russia, which has sought to create a deterrent precluding all-out war. However, there is no effective deterrent to recursive low-intensity violence, including major escalations of the sort seen in April.
  • Armenia and Azerbaijan are now suspended in a dangerous security vacuum that needs to be filled by multilateral international action. The scope for that action is defined by external consensus on averting a major new war, and by consensus between the conflict parties that they do not want exclusive Russian control over security arrangements.
  • Institutional and procedural inertia, geopolitical rivalries in neighbouring theatres, the cynicism of the parties and deep mistrust between them, and the dividends of symbolic nationalism for unreformed elites remain significant obstacles to negotiating alternatives to the status quo. These factors combine with the erosion of constraints on recursive low-intensity violence to pose significant risks that a large-scale war could occur by default.