After a bitter three-decades-long standoff marked by sporadic violence and deadlocked negotiations, Azerbaijan and Armenia have returned to war over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Clashes on the front lines followed by an Azerbaijani dawn offensive on September 27 have spilled into days of fighting that have left dozens of soldiers and civilians dead on both sides. Despite international calls for restraint, the mood among both Armenians and Azerbaijanis is bellicose. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made his own hawkish statements in support of Baku. Absent urgent international action, fighting looks set to escalate further, at terrible cost.
Russia, potentially with European support, probably stands the best chance of brokering a ceasefire. Moscow is formally an ally of Armenia but has ties to both sides. Together with France and the U.S., Russia chairs the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group that has spearheaded peace efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. Moscow helped end the last major bout of violence over Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016. Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered to mediate again, though striking a similar deal will be harder this time around, given that both countries, but especially Baku, have lost all faith in OSCE Minsk Group-led talks, which have largely petered out. While fighting continues, the Minsk Group co-chairs and other European leaders should press both sides to respect international humanitarian law and avoid civilian suffering.
A perilous escalation
The latest violence is the worst since a Russian-brokered ceasefire quieted the 1992-1994 war. That conflict, which pitted Azerbaijan’s armed forces against Nagorno-Karabakh rebels backed by the Armenian army, ended with Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto independence and a self-proclaimed government based in Stepanakert. Armenian forces also took effective control over seven regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh. Tens of thousands lost their lives and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Since then, the two sides have maintained an uneasy coexistence, with occasional skirmishes and flare-ups over the line of contact and sometimes the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. An estimated 200 people were killed in the 2016 flare-up. In addition, Crisis Group has tracked around 300 other incidents and more than 250 casualties and wounded among military and civilians since 2015.
Exactly how fighting this time around started is unclear, though Azerbaijani forces quickly advanced on several key locations of the 200km-long front line with tanks, helicopters, infantry and drones. In the first days of fighting, Azerbaijani artillery, rockets, and drones have struck populated areas in Nagorno-Karabakh. As of October 1, there were credible reports of military strikes into Armenia proper. Fearing air strikes, Stepanakert – a city of 55,000 people – has gone dark. People have taken refuge in basements and shelters. If fighting escalates, more will be at risk: some 300,000 people in Azerbaijan live within 15km of the front line and will be vulnerable. Because Armenian forces hold the higher ground over difficult forested mountain terrain in Nagorno-Karabakh, losses among Azerbaijan’s forces will likely increase the farther they advance in the soon-to-be snow-covered mountains, even as Armenians, too, take high casualties.
A number of factors appear to lie behind the escalation. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who again bemoaned the lack of “any results” in talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs in his September 25 speech to the UN General Assembly, has repeatedly stated his nation’s desire to regain control of all the territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh as well as the region itself. In the 2016 clashes, Azerbaijan took control of two strategic points, but the vast majority remained in Armenian hands and none of the Azerbaijanis displaced in the early 1990s were able to return. Baku may have chosen to advance now in the hope of recovering more territory in the face of an inert negotiating process and a distracted international community. The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs have not visited the region since last October and have not convened face-to-face with Armenia and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers since January 2020. They also failed to bring the parties together after they last came to blows in July.
Ankara’s backing may be an additional factor. Turkey has been explicit in its support, calling on Armenia to “leave the land it occupied”. After Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed in July, Turkey and Azerbaijan held their largest-ever joint military exercises. Both Baku and Ankara deny Armenian statements that Turkey has already deployed military advisers and provides intelligence through drones and military jets. France and Russia have corroborated reports that Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) fighters have deployed to support Baku. Turkey’s more assertive foreign policy, notably its interventions in Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, makes Erdogan’s loud backing of Baku especially disconcerting, particularly to Yerevan.
Aliyev, who has ordered a partial military mobilisation, martial law, internet restrictions and curfews in several cities, may also be counting on a public opinion boost. Azerbaijan’s economy, like many others, is weak due to dropping demand for energy exports amid the pandemic. In July, the death of a popular general in clashes with Armenia brought tens of thousands of protesters to the streets, demanding Baku go to war to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
While the Armenian side thus far has been mainly on the defensive, its stance could quickly change if losses mount and Baku presses on. Armenia does not yet appear to have deployed additional forces to the front lines. Still, Yerevan is bracing for escalation: Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has also declared martial law and pledged that he himself would take up arms and die to defend Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan also fears Ankara might open a new front and attack Armenia. Turkey’s support for Baku could deter a more forceful Armenian response. That said, Armenia could counter the latest violence by recognising Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence, which thus far it has not done formally. Doing so would further infuriate Baku and Ankara.
Should fighting spill further into Armenia proper, it would, in theory, activate that country’s defence alliance with Russia, though it is unlikely that either Moscow or Yerevan want things to go that far. Moscow will not want to further complicate its relations with Turkey or sever ties with Azerbaijan, let alone get drawn into military clashes with either country’s forces. Yerevan has no desire for greater dependence on Moscow. Like Baku, it has repeatedly rejected Moscow’s offers of peacekeeping forces in the past. On 30September, Pashinyan stated that Armenia does not, at present, need Russia’s, or anyone else’s military support.
Averting the worst
Thus far, the international response has been consistent but ineffective. Russia has sought to calm tensions: Vladimir Putin has indicated that he has no plans to deploy troops in Armenia’s defence and offered to mediate. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have held telephone calls with Aliyev and Pashinyan. Washington was the last of the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries to issue a statement calling on both sides to show restraint. During the fourth day of fighting, an EU-initiated UN Security Council meeting on 29 September and a 1 October three-way call among Macron, Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump both culminated in calls on the sides to stop fighting and come back to the table. That same day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, for the second time in a week. The Russian readout of the call was that the two also agreed on the need to end fighting and expressed a will to cooperate to bring peace. Turkish state television, however, indicated that Çavuşoğlu had simply reiterated past Turkish positions.
Fighting today may well be harder to stop than in 2016. When Russia brokered that ceasefire, not only were both sides facing large losses, but Moscow was able to convince Baku that it could get at least some of the territory it wanted through negotiations. Since then, the peace process has ground to a virtual halt with a corresponding rise in angry rhetoric. The past few months have seen incidents on the front line and military contingency planning by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Baku in particular has lost any faith that it can achieve its goals by talking. As casualties mount, the appetite for war may shrink, but Armenians and Azerbaijanis will have paid a heavy price. Moreover, as of now, fighting is hardening moods on both sides. Baku may well battle to recapture as much territory as possible until it feels compelled to stop. Things look set to get worse, with grave risks of widespread killing.
While military conflict looks set to continue given present dynamics, especially in Baku, third parties should step up their diplomacy. As in 2016, Moscow probably has the best shot at brokering a ceasefire. How vested President Putin is in finding a way out is unclear, but Russia has no interest in an escalation that brings pressure for it to intervene on Armenia’s behalf. Turkey is another important player and, optimally, would work with Russia as it has tried to do (with difficulty) in other conflict arenas such as Syria and Libya. But it is unclear how much influence President Erdogan would have if he sought to persuade Azerbaijan to stop fighting. Meanwhile, the rhetoric from Ankara and its continuing material support risks further emboldening Baku.
As for Western powers, European leaders appear most ready to act. The U.S.’s slow response to date contrasts with its more vigorous involvement in the past, when former Secretary of State John Kerry took an active mediation role, speaking frequently with Armenia and Azerbaijan’s leaders in the wake of 2016 violence and America’s representative in the OSCE Minsk Group engaged in months of shuttle diplomacy. But in recent years, the region has not been a priority for Washington. That leaves European states, which could potentially partner with Moscow: President Macron has made no secret of his belief that such cooperation is essential to peace in Europe and its neighbourhood. Together, European states and Moscow could develop a package of incentives—potentially including economic aid, support for displaced and front-line communities once a ceasefire is in place, and a quick resumption of talks on a political settlement – that might help convince Baku and Yerevan to talk.
In the immediate future, alas, fighting looks set to escalate. If that is the case, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs’ representatives should engage in shuttle diplomacy to seize any opportunity that might arise to de-escalate the situation and bring the parties together. Meanwhile, the co-chairs and other European leaders should continue to press both sides to halt the fighting or, at a minimum, avoid civilian harm and respect international humanitarian law during hostilities. More broadly, this latest flare-up illustrates clearly how dangerous neglect of the OSCE Minsk Group-led negotiations has been. Lack of international attention has sent a message to the parties that the conflict matters little outside the region. In Baku, especially, this has exacerbated frustration with diplomacy. Reinvigorating efforts to find a settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict once the guns fall silent will be an urgent imperative.