Peace in Nogorno-Karabakh May Be Just a Mirage

At this point, the war in the historically disputed territory has been going on for almost four weeks, with civilian and military casualties surpassing any of the other combat operations in the area for the past three decades. Under OSCE Minsk Group leadership, the United States, Russia, and France have teamed up in a concerted effort to coax the two sides to the negotiating table. On two occasions so far, the two sides have agreed to a ceasefire, although both of these were almost immediately thrown out in favor of renewed fighting. As hard as it may be to conceive, peace itself might not be so clear an option.

Our modern views on conflict, the competing of wills brought to action, is an attempt to find a common agreement and compromise where necessary. So much of our modern perspective is centered around a fervent desire for peace and stability, and that any conflict can and will be resolved around a table in short manner. However, one must ask, what if this is simply not feasible? What if this isn’t a technical, practical, and achievable reality on the ground? Many of the questions that arise are not in line with our modern set of philosophies, and the Nogorno-Karabakh conflict could be the latest proving ground.

First, a fundamental understanding is necessary. Exhaustive books, reports, and lengthy essays have delved into the historical and cultural issues that culminate in what we see today. The basics of which are long-standing (and arguably ancient) beliefs by each party that ancestral and cultural history is on their side to claims of the region. These are augmented by more recent agreements made in the post-Soviet demarcation agreements. Despite all this, neither side has felt that their claims were settled properly, and as a result spats of fighting and unrest have plagued the area for decades.

In the current era, a split ownership has occurred. Azerbaijan has de jure ownership of the area, while Armenia has de facto control. Armenia’s protectorate of the Republic of Artsakh has been their pet entity in control, and their claims to rightfully defend that has been a rallying cry of their armed forces. Azerbaijan has many cultural, as well as UN resolution decisions, that claim that this is a hostile occupation of their land, and an affront to their people. With this, anyone can see the tinder is laid for a deep-rooted conflict to spark.

Then there’s the conflict itself. As with many “frozen” conflicts, they only involve limited if any military operations. These range from false borderization and the construction of permanent defensive positions and bases, to a restricted use of direct and indirect fires, including sniper and artillery weaponry. This, however, is not the case. The conflict has grown to see the tactical employment of advanced weapon systems, surveillance and reconnaissance technology, and even cyberwarfare. For the first and longest time in the modern era, two technically and tactically proficient armies have clashed with little interest in stopping.

On the ground, each force has kept such momentum of operations that bringing things to a close would prove much harder than what could be outlined on paper. It’s natural for brigade and battalion leadership on the front line to exploit openings in an enemy line and capture the opportunity to use their tactical momentum to take the next proverbial hill. To reel these commanders in and prohibit the use of these strategic opportunities for success would go against everything a military leader has ingrained in them since the beginning of their careers. In civilian terms, this would be akin to asking a business leader to forsake profits and growth, and instead stagnate or even hemorrhage money and assets. At a deeper level, it could be said that it even goes against our instinct as humans.

At a human level, the cultural aversion of the two is an important factor. For decades, and in some instances even centuries, the two nationalities have viewed the others as morally, intellectually, or politically inferior. While there are certainly enclaves where this is not the case, particularly in foreign and expat communities, it is more common than not, and more so in their own respective homelands. Reports abound of Azeri men returning to their land after years of absence so as to enlist or serve in some way, and local propaganda efforts have promoted the concepts of national pride and collective defense of their ancestral territory. Armenians have likewise shown a concerted effort to drive the national message to that of defense and a protection of their kinfolk.

However, peace is not an easy thing, unlocked with the signing of a document and a shaking of hands in front of flashing cameras. Peace is not just the absence of active war. It is the absence of military aggression, combative rhetoric, and underlying hostility, and it requires a solid base consisting of a mutual desire for lasting cohabitation and a resistance to future aggressions. Many of these factors continue to plague the region, and the latter points are lacking from both side’s socio-political standing. Entrenched ideologies and deep-seated division on what visions on the future should include will infest any attempt to establish a true regional peace in the current state of affairs. Eventually, something at the very core will have to change, or be destroyed entirely.

Like a rechargeable battery, public fervor and military force have their breaking points. Despite the clearly high current levels of popular enthusiasm and support for their government and military entities, this will have to run out at some point. The military is an expensive and demanding mistress, and eventually when the wallet runs dry, her services will become prohibitively unaffordable and unsustainable. Likewise, the people will tire of their unwavering support and grow exhausted of attending a new military funeral every weekend. At this point, both nations will be forced to a ceasefire and this could be the best condition for peace. Sadly, there are times peace is only available at the current market price, and with the aforementioned conditions this could be at its highest.

While virtually every member of the international community calls for a peaceful solution, it seems more and more unlikely that this is a reality. The deeply ingrained motivations for retaining control of the region is evident by both countries, both politically and militarily. Rhetoric from both sides indicates this as well, with both staunchly declaring their commitment to the area and a resolute mission to hold or take territory. While our preternatural urges for peace are well placed, they might now be wholly attainable. At least not at the desired price. This could be the time to challenge our post-modern ideals. We may not have to embrace, but at a minimum come to terms with the icy, murky, and chilling understanding that all our problems may not be solvable by the pen.

By Michael Godwin

Tofik Babayev—Xinhua/Getty Images

22 October 2020 15:52