Nagorno-Karabakh Analyzed: Impatience, Perseverance, Complacency

The simmering conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region was not and is not a so-called frozen conflict but rather conflict with its own pace and dynamics. The conflict erupted or rather ignited since Azerbaijani leadership was not and is still not satisfied with its prolonged status quo, while for the Armenian leadership maintaining the status quo was and still is the preferable solution.

The recent flare up of the conflict did not set a precedent but rather showed that the unresolved conflict can get out of control but still not develop into a full-blown war. The difference between the recent flare up and the earlier ones is that the four-day conflict was very intense, with a large number of casualties and both sides using a wide-range of weapon systems.

The international community was taken by surprise as a result of it, being preoccupied with other raging conflicts around the globe and in Syria in particular. Russia and Turkey, as the Allies of Armenia and Azerbaijan respectfully, behaved with restraint. Russia and Turkey no longer have sway over the leadership in Yerevan and Baku, while the remaining members of the OSCE Minsk Group have a rather limited mandate over resolution of the conflict that in the meantime disappeared from the headlines.

The current break in hostilities does not augur well for the near future since the Azerbaijani military failed to reach their goals, while the Armenian military are likely to reassess their strategy. As General Vitaly Balasanyan, Deputy of the Nagorno-Karabakh National Assembly, said: “The Azerbaijani military conducted a competent warfare both in terms of strategy and tactics. The fact that their operations failed does not speak of the incompetence. I am assured that they were seriously trained. They are not weak and we should not underestimate Azerbaijan.” This is the highest accolade that the Nagorno-Karabakh Defence Army General can bestow on its adversary.

Whether or not the next round of confrontation will turn into a full-blown war with hundreds of casualties and will involve Russia, Turkey and Iran is not a foregone conclusion but nor can such a scenario nor such an option be dismissed out of hand.

It needs to be remembered that compared with other unresolved conflicts around the globe, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has disappeared from the media headlines and basically been forgotten. Therefore, Azerbaijan from time to time sends a reminder note to the international community: ‘Hello there! The unresolved conflict can escalate at any time whether or not you are ready for it. Please remember that and behave accordingly.’

In addition to the Azerbaijani impatience and unhappiness about the unchangeable status quo, Laurence Broers from the London-based Chatham House think tank notes that without the ability to influence the conflict parties or credibly enforce a ceasefire, the international community has left a security vacuum in Nagorno-Karabakh. This is no proxy war but rather confrontation between two states over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. And both Armenia and Azerbaijan remain at loggerheads over the disputed territory. Furthermore, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are no longer so easily persuaded by and ready to meet each other at the request of Moscow. Meetings between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan and their counterpart in Moscow failed to produce any results. As a result, the current situation has been exacerbated and it is not surprising that Serzh Sargsyan, President of Armenia, told Dmitri Medvedev, Prime Minister of Russia that Yerevan expects from Moscow “targeted statements and concrete actions” that would keep Baku from again ratcheting up tensions in the conflict zone. Sargsyan warned that another “large-scale” Azerbaijani attack on Nagorno-Karabakh would result in a full-blown war. Sargsyan’s message should be taken seriously since thus far Armenia reacted with restraint against Azerbaijani fire. However, in the next round of confrontation all gloves will be off.

The recent flare up began with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan attending the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 1. What is more interesting is that the fighting erupted just hours after Presidents Sargsyan and Aliyev each met separately with US Vice President John Biden on the margins of the summit. Biden cautioned both presidents about the need for restraint but Biden’s advice was not taken into consideration. In other words, the United States, as one of the most important world actors, has rather limited leverage upon decisions made in Baku and Yerevan.

In a very interesting analysis of Can Kasapoglu, several important points were highlighted:

a) In military terms, it would be fair to say that Baku and Yerevan would not go into an all-out war;

b) However, a warlike rehearsal through skirmishes and the trajectory of the recent clashes hint at what the next war between Azerbaijan and Armenia would look like;

c) Russia would pretend to be a peace-mediator, while supporting Armenian defense through the back door;

d) Turkish public opinion would strongly side with Azerbaijan, and Ankara would play a supportive yet cautious role.

At the moment it appears that the Azerbaijani military operates under certain constraint since they are not interested in a spill over effect that may lead to a regional conflagration that [may, author’s note] involve not just Russia and Turkey but also Iran. Therefore, local war between Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia is the likely scenario of the potential war.

Furthermore, tensions along the Line of Contact (LoC) remain very high and the situation remains very fluid and very unpredictable. All the talks about Armenia being a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the CSTO obligation to provide military assistance to Armenia in case of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is loose talk and nothing more. What’s more, the recent flare up over Nagorno-Karabakh clearly demonstrated that the CSTO remains a neutral actor - it did not support the Armenian position. Worse, one member state, Kazakhstan, released a statement of neutrality, while another, Belarus, declared that the conflict should be resolved based on international legal principles of territorial integrity.

The same rules, namely, maintaining a position of restraint, apply to Turkey. Turkey as a member of NATO, has its own obligations and cannot rush to the assistance of Azerbaijan if Azerbaijan initiates the conflict.

We need to remember that words are cheap but actions are costly. The short-term military gains are likely to be cheered by the public in Armenia and Azerbaijan, however, the long-term consequences are likely to be painfully unpleasant. The economy in both countries is going through a difficult time and replenishment of military hardware used or lost during the recent flare up is a costly business for both countries.

To conclude, the role of Russia and Turkey over its respected allies is often exaggerated for the two countries domestic audience. The rest of the OSCE Minsk Group has a very limited lever over both parties. The political will of the OSCE Minsk Group so often emphasized was not and is not there to force a solution that is not going to be fully or even partly accepted by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Therefore, the next eruption of the conflict is unavoidable and even though the lost of human lives is terrible, the two countries’ politicians may be willing to accept the human cost.

Eugene Kogan

07 November 2016 18:40