Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shifting Ground in Azerbaijan-Armenia Confrontation

Analysts examine new trends as geopolitical context evolves.
By IWPR Caucasus
  • An Armenian soldier scans the border with Azerbaijan. (Photo: Razm.info)
    An Armenian soldier scans the border with Azerbaijan. (Photo: Razm.info)

A public debate held by IWPR’s Armenia office heard how political turbulence drives periodic upsurges in fighting along the border with Azerbaijan, and examined the evolving geopolitical environment of the Nagorny Karabakh dispute.

Although there are frequent shooting incidents on the “line of control” surrounding Karabakh and across the Azerbaijani-Armenian state border, any more intense period of fighting necessarily raises fears of escalation, even a return to the full-scale conflict of the early 1990s. Each side blames the other for breaking the 1994 ceasefire that effectively froze the conflict without resolving it.

There were spikes in violence in July-August 2014 and again in January 2015. Renewed fighting in September this years was taken particularly seriously in Armenia because of allegations that the Azerbaijanis were using heavier weapons than usual – artillery, rockets and heavy mortars. Armenian officials said their forces responded using similar weapons. (See our story Armenia-Azerbaijan: More Skirmishing, Bigger Guns.)

Speakers at a debate which IWPR hosted in Yerevan on October 2 tried to unpick the reasons for the heightened levels of violence, and the possible implications. The debate was broadcast live on Armenia’s A1 television channel.

Joining the debate via a video link from London, Thomas de Waal, a leading expert and writer on the Caucasus with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned of the continuing risk of “war by accident”.

He noted that Azerbaijan was heading for hard times because of plummeting price of oil – its major export – while Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan was drawing close to the end of his second and final term in office. With that as the context, he said, “the number one task for the authorities in Yerevan and Baku is to hold onto power. There’s a danger that both have an interest in playing the Karabakh card, and that introduces an element of unpredictability.”

Manvel Sargsyan, director of the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies, said that progress on negotiations depended on Azerbaijan, but that he believed the country would only do so when it decided other options – building up its military and creating tension on the front lines – were not going to work.

De Waal agreed that the status quo – with the Armenians exerting de facto control over Nagorny Karabakh and adjoining districts – did not favour Azerbaijan and would not encourage it to adopt a more conciliatory attitude. But that did not mean Azerbaijan was tilting towards war.

“Large-scale military operations remain a huge risk to the regime Azerbaijan. It isn’t clear how that would end. I don’t think they have sufficient military capacity to start a war,” he said. “Nor is it clear how Russia would react in a situation like that.”

Russia’s regional intentions, in light of its actions in Ukraine and now Syria, naturally loomed large in the discussion.

Moscow is a historical ally of Armenia and continues to be that country’s major security and economic partner. But it also sells high-tech weaponry to Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country with far more spending power than Armenia.

Russia is at the same time one of the three co-chairs (with France and the United States) of the Minsk Group, the OSCE body that oversees the Karabakh talks process. Despite the obligation of diplomatic neutrality that this imposes, the Russians have recently caused a stir by offering – unilaterally – to send a peacekeeping force to patrol the Karabakh front lines.

While this proposal is still up in the air, some Armenian commentators are worried about the implications, especially since Azerbaijan now seems amenable to the idea after previous refusals to countenance it.

“People understand perfectly well that if a third country has troops in the [front-line] zone, they are pursuing a specific policy  line,” Sargsyan. “They aren’t there to separate [the sides], but to take regional matters into their own hands and dictate terms…. Especially since the argument will be that they are entering territory that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, and under its auspices.”

The third speaker, Agasi Yenokyan, who is director of the Armenian Centre for Political and International Studies, said that President Sargsyan had “effectively agreed” to a peacekeeping force. As for Azerbaijan, Yenokyan suspected it might be hoping to exploit the peacekeeping presence to “bite off a chunk of Karabakh” in the knowledge that the Russian troops would not stay long.

“We see how Russia has frozen the conflict in Donbass and is launching a major expansion in Syria, and potentially the South Caucasus, too,” he said. “Russian might therefore send in a limited peacekeeping force, which wouldn’t cost it a great deal but would bring immense political dividends.”

Sargsyan said recent developments had demonstrated that the Armenian government had adopted a new, more proactive stance to military operations, which might force Russia to abandon or rethink any plans to deploy in the region.

Another point on which the speakers agreed was that Western interest in the South Caucasus, including engagement in the Minsk Group process, was diminishing. This was not helped by the fact that the West was now at odds with Moscow.

“In the context of the Ukrainian conflict, we can see how countries are divided on how to achieve the objective. It’s the same with Karabakh – there is little mutual trust even though everyone wants to achieve peace,” De Waal said.

De Waal said the general contours of a peace deal were already apparent, but required mutual compromises.

“Unfortunately, we can see that the international community isn’t currently prepared to assume responsibility of Karabakh, and no one trusts Russia enough to hand it that responsibility,” he said. “Sadly, I fear that the situation will get worse. But the West is not yet paying enough attention to this.”