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Is a new war in Karabakh inevitable?

The uncertainty over the future of Nagorno Karabakh is likely to reignite hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

August 21, 2019 - Benyamin Poghosyan - Articles and Commentary

Ivanovo, formerly known as Soghanli. A ruined village not far from Stepanakert/Khankendi. Photo: Vladimer Shioshvili (cc) flickr.com

The Karabakh conflict remains one of the key hot spots in the post-soviet space. In the last 12 years, negotiations have been conducted within a narrow range of basic principles. According to them, territories outside the former Nagorno Karabakh autonomous region and currently controlled by the Nagorno Karabakh Republic should be returned to Azerbaijan with the exception of some sort of corridor to connect Armenia with Nagorno Karabakh. The final legal status of Nagorno Karabakh itself should be defined through a legally binding expression of will and refugees and internally displaced persons should have the right of return; furthermore, international security guarantees, including peacekeeping operations, should be provided.

There are different interpretations regarding which of these principles should be executed first. The Azerbaijani side is convinced that the first step is for territories to be returned to Azerbaijan and then Azerbaijanis should come back; peacekeeping forces should be deployed and the last step should be the definition of Nagorno Karabakh’s final status. The Kazan document of 2011, which was the last meaningful effort to reach some sort of solution, was based on that logic. Some Armenians argue for a different sequence. They believe the first step should be the definition of Nagorno Karabakh’s legal status; only after that can other steps like issues of territories and refugees be discussed.

However, the key reason of the stalemate in the negotiation process is not the issue of sequence. For Azerbaijan, even the theoretical possibility of Nagorno Karabakh being outside of Azerbaijan is unacceptable. This was the main motive behind the Azerbaijani decision to reject the Kazan document. Even more, Azerbaijani leadership has stated many times that it strongly believes that not only Karabakh, but most of Armenia – including the capital Yerevan – is historically Azerbaijani territory and Azerbaijanis should have an opportunity to live there.

Thus, from Azerbaijani’s strategic perspective, the ideal solution is when Karabakh and some part of Armenia will be under Azerbaijani control, creating a land bridge that connects Azerbaijan with Turkey. Currently, Turkey has a small land border with Nakhijevan (an autonomous republic within Azerbaijan), but Azerbaijan and Nakhijevan have no land border because they are separated by Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.  

Meanwhile, from the Armenian strategic perspective, the sequence of actions concerning the above-mentioned principles also holds little significance. The current line of contact provides minimum acceptable security guarantees for Karabakh. Any changes of the line, regardless of if they are done before the definition of the legal status of Karabakh or after, will make Karabakh practically defenceless against any hypothetical Azerbaijani attack. Everyone, at least in Armenia and Karabakh, clearly understands that there are no guarantees that such an attack will not happen within the foreseeable future. The leadership of Azerbaijan could change and the new leaders may declare any agreement signed by their predecessors as invalid; or, some tectonic changes in regional geopolitics may create a situation where even the signatories of the agreement may easily violate it.

Thus, Armenia and Karabakh simply cannot afford any change of the current borders because it will inevitably mean not only the loss of Karabakh, but given Azerbaijani leadership statements on Armenia and Yerevan, may result in territorial losses for Armenia itself.

The current status quo is absolutely not acceptable for Azerbaijan and simultaneously is the minimum acceptable situation for Armenia and Karabakh. Of course, from a strategic perspective, Armenia and Karabakh will be more secure if there is no threat to Yerevan from Nakhijevan. Currently, the average distance between the Nakhijevan-Armenia border and Yerevan is less than 50 km, and the modern weaponry deployed in Nakhijevan makes it possible for Azerbaijan to put Yerevan under fire.

Thus, either Azerbaijan should accept the current status quo as a permanent solution and give up any efforts to change it, or Baku should resort to military force. Since neither current nor any future Azerbajani leaders will chose the first option, speaking about a new war in Karabakh has become a question of not if, but when.

It is important to consider that the decision to start war depends on multiple factors. The two key factors are military balance and the configuration of a favorable regional geopolitical situation. Currently, both do not favor Azerbaijan starting a war. According to SIPRI, in 2010, Azerbaijani military expenditure was a little bit more than 1 billion US dollars; in 2015, it peaked at almost 2.2 billion US dollars, and in 2018, expenditure was 1.624 billion US dollars. Armenia’s military expenditure was only 441 million US dollars in 2015 and 591 million US dollars in 2018. Despite the huge disparity in the amount of money allocated for defence, Azerbaijan has no overwhelming advantage over Armenia and Karabakh to definitely crush them. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani leadership understands that large scale hostilities with potentially tens of thousands killed and wounded, as well as enormous economic damage, may trigger strong anti-governmental movements that could result in a coup or revolution.

The regional geopolitics also do not bode well for Azerbaijan to start a large scale war. Neither Russia nor Turkey is interested in a war that will compel them to make hard choices and jeopardise the deepening cooperation between Moscow and Ankara in the economic and military industrial fields. Iran, currently in survival mode due to the maximum economic pressure campaign of President Trump’s administration, has no wish to see destabilisation along its northern border as the possible deployment of foreign military troops as peacekeepers could be used as another leverage on Iran. As for the US, Washington perceives the South Caucasus through three dimensions: the region’s borders with Iran, the Southern Gas corridor and containment of Russia. In all three dimensions, large-scale war could not bring Washington any benefits. War may partially or fully destroy the infrastructure necessary for bringing Azerbaijani gas to Europe, and it may result in deployment of Russian peacekeepers that will only strengthen Russian influence in the region.  It also may create chaos near the Iranian northern border, which could complicate Washington’s efforts to compel regional states to decrease their relationship with Iran.

Thus, for the short term perspective of 1-3 years, we will not see the emergence of favorable conditions for the launch of large scale hostilities in Karabakh. However, it does not mean that war is not coming. It simply means that Azerbaijan, Armenia and Karabakh have some time to better prepare for upcoming hostilities. Most probably, the borders defined by the new war will last for another 25-30 years.            

Benyamin Poghosyan is the Executive Director of the Political Science Association of Armenia.

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