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Karabakh Crisis Mounts

Analyst warns that latest violence may mean conflict has reached new ‘tipping point’.
By IWPR
  • Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre. (Photo courtesy of R. Giragosian)
    Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre. (Photo courtesy of R. Giragosian)

Fierce fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh have led to the worst bloodshed for many years.

Richard Giragosian, the director of the Regional Studies Centre in the Armenian capital Yerevan, talks to IWPR about the potential consequences of the latest round of violence and how international actors have influenced the conflict.

He began by looking at how the ongoing fighting differed from previous periods of friction between the two sides.

IWPR: How would you describe the latest developments regarding Nagorny Karabakh?

Giragosian: What is most significant now is that the fighting has not stopped.  The Azerbaijani offensive was very significant, for several reasons, ranging from the coordinated attacks against three different areas of the Karabakh “line of contact” to the increased intensity in fighting, which used much more dangerous, offensive weapons.  But another key difference from earlier rounds of escalation is that the clashes are now entering a third consecutive day.

Is the international community’s response adequate? Have statements made by US, Russia and EU officials had an impact?

To be honest, there is little that the international community can do at this point beyond issuing statements and warning “all sides” to cease and desist. Yet there needs to be a more nuanced and not artificially balanced approach in recognising who is the aggressor in these attacks.  In other words, there needs to be a punitive approach, where such egregious behavior is tolerated less.

Even if the fighting stops immediately, what has changed? Can we expect greater interference from external powers?

Once the fighting stops the question is not interference from external powers but the need for greater international engagement.  Clearly, there is no military solution to the Karabakh conflict, but Azerbaijan seems to be unable or unwilling to accept that reality. Azerbaijan’s sense of frustration and anger over the lack of any progress in the peace process has culminated in a new tipping point, whereby the Azerbaijanis have decided that the time has come to use force to alter the situation.  Although their frustration is justified, their manifestation of this through force of arms is both deadly and destabilising. 

Are Turkey and Russia transferring their differences and tensions from the Turkish-Syrian border to the South Caucasus?

No, at this point Turkey and even Russia are limited to being secondary factors and marginal actors.  It is the aftermath of the clashes that may be the time for Turkey and Russia to react and respond diplomatically, which will also be driven by their own rivalry and conflict.  In terms of Moscow, with the West having such little leverage over Azerbaijan and in light of the lack of political will to return to the negotiations, Baku sees Moscow as the key to any change.  And with Russia as the number one arms provider to Azerbaijan, there may be some grounds for that perception.  Yet Russia is the only one in a position to benefit and to exploit the conflict to even further deepen its power and influence in the region.

Turkey has declared today it will stand with Azerbaijan until the end. What does that mean for the South Caucasus?

It should mean much less than [at first it] it appears. Turkey is not able to support Azerbaijan beyond such rhetorical commitments and the escalation actually harms Turkish interests in the region.

What do you think about the OSCE Minsk Group? What can realistically be done to achieve a permanent peace? 

The lack of political will and the fact that Azerbaijan has nearly resigned from the peace process are the real challenges, and the OSCE mediators are not to blame directly  - and realistically, they can’t do much in the face of reality. Clearly, it seems unlikely that anyone except the parties to the conflict themselves can climb down and step back from the brink.  But a return to normalcy and a real de-escalation seems unlikely, especially given the rhetoric and the domestic constraints.

To what extent has Azerbaijan’s financial crisis affected its actions?

The economic crisis within Azerbaijan is of course a key component of their need to leverage the Karabakh conflict and the attacks themselves to distract from the domestic crisis and to garner greater domestic political dividends for the regime in Baku.