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War in Nagorno-Karabakh. Why this time is different

The recent outbreak of fighting over the small mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh has a different context than previous clashes or the war in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, regardless of whether or not the current fighting will result in a long-lasting and all-out war, the conflict is poised to remain unsolvable for the foreseeable future.

October 9, 2020 - Tobias Schumacher - Hot Topics

Photo: Bumble Dee / Shutterstock

What many had predicted and most had feared has finally happened. The decades-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding districts, which are controlled by Armenia and predominantly inhabited by Armenians, but legally recognised by the international community as a part of Azerbaijan, has entered a new, hot phase. Since September 27th, the two warring South Caucasian republics and the armed forces of the internationally unrecognised Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, allied with Armenia, have been embroiled in intense fighting for already more than ten days.

This time, however, things differ significantly from the many previous skirmishes and military confrontations that have broken out in irregular intervals since the conclusion of the 1994 Russia-brokered ceasefire. This applies to the intensity and scope of the current conflict, the conflict rhetoric used by Baku and Yerevan, as well as its timing. These differences are embedded in major structural changes that have recently unfolded on the global level: the erosion of a US-led unipolar international system and the rise of a multipolar, supposedly more disordered, world have brought about the regionalisation of territorial conflicts and empowered regional and new actors, such as Turkey and Russia. 

Together, these developments indicate that the current fighting in the South Caucasus is not only of a temporary nature, but could soon reach the level of escalation that resembles the period of 1991-1994 – or possibly even go beyond, when the region was engulfed in an all-out war, with more than 30,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

But what exactly is different this time?

First, the military clashes between the rivalling countries over the past two and a half decades have mainly taken place along the so-called line of contact and in parts of the disputed territory. Since this past summer, when the two sides engaged in military clashes for a few days, the conflict has expanded. Today, Armenia and Azerbaijan, using high-tech drones mainly of Israeli (Azerbaijan) and Russian (Armenia) origin, are piercing into towns and cities in and beyond Nagorno-Karabakh, targeting populated civilian areas. Armenia is said to have launched missile strikes on Ganja and Mingechevir, two major cities in Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijani forces have been shelling Vardenis and – by allegedly using cluster bombs – most of all Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. To date, the uncompromising use of state-of-the-art, short- and mid-range weapons systems has caused hundreds of casualties on both sides. As little reliable information is available, and considering the intensity of the fighting, it can be assumed that the actual number of victims is even significantly higher.

Second, the increased potential for further escalation is a result of the assertive and openly aggressive rhetoric voiced by both Yerevan and Baku over the last years. The Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in the spring of 2018 in the wake of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, said on August 6th, 2019 during a visit to Stepanakert that “Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia. Period.” Since the outbreak of the current hostilities, he has also repeatedly emphasised that “Artsakh” (the Armenian name of Nagorno-Karabakh) is a “holy homeland” and that Azerbaijani attacks must, therefore, be viewed as a “declaration of war on the Armenian people”.

In turn, the latest statements by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev are equally telling. Statements that Azerbaijan must now “restore its territorial integrity” and that the ongoing military operation will “end the occupation” suggest that Baku is determined to change the status quo by means of military force not seen since the early 1990s.

This leads directly to the third major difference compared to past outbreaks of fighting: the issue of timing. Why does the conflict, that has always – and incorrectly – been categorised as “frozen”, escalate at this very moment? Several domestic and trans-regional factors offer helpful explanations.

In Azerbaijan, frustration within the ruling elite and in large parts of society towards the OSCE Minsk process (aimed at regulating the conflict since 1994 and led by Russia, the United States and France) runs deep. The absence of any progress at the negotiation table for more than 26 years, the brief hostilities in July this year, when Azerbaijan had to witness the loss of high-ranking military personnel, in conjunction with the recent announcement by Yerevan to construct another road from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, led to spontaneous mass rallies in Baku. These were marked by revanchist and ultra-nationalist slogans as well as explicit demands calling on the regime to go to war with Armenia. Protesters even stormed parts of the parliament in Baku, signalling to Aliyev that maintaining the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh will no longer be tolerated. Likewise, Pashinyan’s power grab in 2018 benefitted from popular disappointment with the previous Armenian regime over the loss of territory in April 2016.

Both countries are also suffering significantly from the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and their already ailing health systems are on the verge of collapse. Whereas the Armenian government managed to transform the previously impressive macro-economic successes into microeconomic growth, at least in the three years up to the outbreak of the pandemic, the corona-crisis has nearly undone all of those gains. The economic situation for oil and gas producing Azerbaijan, where the population has suffered considerable income losses over the past five years, is even more dramatic. Low market prices and corona-related decreases in demand for hydrocarbons, as well as the past depreciation of the national currency, have increased pressure on the regime, which is highly dependent on revenues from oil and gas exports.

While rebooting the decades-old conflict is associated with considerable and unforeseeable risks, it is seen from the point of view of both regimes as a useful political tool to disguise failing legitimacy, poor performance and popularity deficits, at least in the short run. In Azerbaijan, the narrative that the regime has cultivated propagandistically for decades, notably that the “lost” territory must be finally “brought home”, is virtually the only means of uniting an otherwise divided and fractious population.

At least from an Azerbaijani perspective, current trans-regional developments also seem favourable to let the conflict escalate. Perceptions, according to which Russia, which time and again, managed to contain the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, is busy preventing another revolution in the post-Soviet space – this time in Belarus – as well as the imposition of new western sanctions over the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, play a role that cannot be underestimated.

At the same time, for Russia, linked to Armenia through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) while being a major arms supplier of Azerbaijan, war in the South Caucasus may be a welcome opportunity to hit two birds with one stone: shifting international attention away from Belarus and the Navalny case; while punishing Pashinyan by not offering military support. Since Pashinyan came to power, the Kremlin has been very suspicious of his flirtations with the European Union.

Lastly, a new player has entered the conflict – Turkey. At the end of July this year, the two brotherly states – Azerbaijan and Turkey – closely linked militarily through an agreement on strategic partnership and mutual support and other defence pacts, carried out the largest military manoeuvres to date. The establishment of a Turkish military base in the Azeri exclave of Nakhchivan also appears to be imminent. Both developments serve as a powerful signal to Armenia, but also Russia, that Ankara is now willing to project and exert influence and military power in the South Caucasus. President Recep Erdoğan’s recent statement that Azerbaijan “must take matters into its own hands” as far as Nagorno-Karabkh is concerned and can “count on the support of Turkey”, together with the resolution adopted by the Turkish parliament just a few days ago accusing Armenia of violating international law, suggest that the regime in Baku feels emboldened to push ahead.

Regardless of whether the current fighting will result in a long-lasting and all-out war or not: the conflict over the small mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh is poised to remain unsolvable for the foreseeable future. Both sides are likely to balance each other out militarily and neither one of them will find it easy to sustain the financial costs incurred with protracted intense fighting. From the standpoint of the regimes in Baku and Yerevan, the domestic political benefits of keeping the conflict alive seem in fact significant, as their respective societies lack the readiness to agree to territorial concessions.

Above all, due to their pronounced nationalistic and backward-looking rhetoric, both regimes have, in a certain way, linked their political survival to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and, therefore, have limited their own room for manoeuvre with regard to hammering out compromise solutions. And lastly: as long as the international community remains unable and unwilling to exert lasting pressure on the protagonists of the conflict to engage in true peace negotiations, the current battles will be just another bloody step towards further armed conflict and more human suffering.

Tobias Schumacher is the Chairholder of the European Neighbourhood Policy Chair at the College of Europe, Natolin campus, Warsaw and the lead editor of The Routledge Handbook on the European Neighbourhood Policy (London, New York: Routledge 2018).

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