Two weeks into a renewed war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and its environs, fighting appears poised to escalate. On 10 October, a Russian-brokered humanitarian ceasefire intended to enable combatants to retrieve the bodies of the dead and exchange prisoners appeared to fall apart as its ink was drying. Both sides have since struck towns and villages, with enormous damage to lives and livelihoods. While it may take time for the parties to return to peace talks, they and international actors must act to stem the mounting human toll. Whatever an eventual settlement entails, it will be closer to hand and more sustainable if the parties stop killing civilians and adding fresh grievances to an already intractable conflict.
As Crisis Group noted in a 2 October statement, the conflict has no simple solution. Since the 1992-1994 war, which pitted Azerbaijani forces against Nagorno-Karabakh rebels backed by the Armenian army and ended with Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto independence, decades of stalled negotiations, outbreaks of violence and hardened positions on all sides have compounded the territorial dispute. Foreign actors matter, but for now cannot impose a lasting peace. The failure of the 10 October ceasefire shows that even Russia, which has a treaty with Armenia and longstanding relationships with both Yerevan and Baku, has only limited leverage. Turkey backs Azerbaijan diplomatically and with military aid, but Baku is not sufficiently dependent on Ankara’s support that threats of its withdrawal, even if they were forthcoming, would end fighting. Europe and the United States have even less influence.
Military casualties already number high in the hundreds and the civilian toll is also mounting. Azerbaijani missile, artillery and drone strikes on Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital of Stepanakert and other towns and villages have turned homes, schools, and much of the region’s infrastructure to rubble. Credible reports indicate the use of cluster bombs, particularly dangerous to civilians and banned by an international convention (although neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are signatories). Since 10 October, fighting has spread to the streets of Hadrut, a town 40km south of Stepanakert and well within Nagorno-Karabakh itself, rather than being limited, as it was during the first days of the war, mainly to the unpopulated adjacent territories controlled by Armenian forces since the 1992-1994 war. According to the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, as of 12 October, at least 31 civilians had been killed in the region and over 100 injured, many seriously. Some 70,000-75,000 people, half the region’s population and 90 per cent of its women and children, have fled their homes. Many are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. With a continuing pandemic and rapidly cooling weather, the mass displacement could have severe public health consequences.
On the other side of the front lines, Azerbaijani officials report 42 civilians killed and 206 injured as of 12 October. Most attacks have hit Azerbaijani cities near the breakaway territory, but some have struck civilian areas hundreds of kilometres away, including the Absheron peninsula, where the capital, Baku, is located. Azerbaijan accuses Armenian forces of using cluster bombs and Scud missiles. Particularly hard hit are the country’s second-biggest city of Ganja and a town, Mingachevir, which hosts a large water reservoir and serves as a regional electricity hub. Ganja was hit again within 24 hours of the weekend’s ceasefire. Journalists tell Crisis Group that several hundred people, mostly women and children, have evacuated front-line areas.
Many outside actors have expressed alarm. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has joined calls for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds, while the European Union, Slovakia, and a variety of humanitarian organisations promise aid, though the fighting hampers aid delivery. Moreover, no international aid can reach Nagorno-Karabakh itself without Azerbaijan’s blessing, which Baku has not granted, leaving only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has maintained a permanent office in the region since the 1990s. With international borders closed due to COVID-19, if fighting escalates to engulf more of Azerbaijan and Armenia, it will result in many displaced who have nowhere to go.
With the collapse of the Russian-brokered ceasefire, both parties look set to escalate fighting, with prospectively grave consequences. Azerbaijani advances fuel Armenian fears and counter-strikes. The attacks on civilian areas to date may be mistakes or efforts by combatants to deter further escalation by the other side. If intentional or with insufficient care for protecting the civilian population, they violate international law. Even if not, they are causing tremendous suffering. They are counterproductive to an eventual peace, hardening hostility and rendering a sustainable settlement more remote.
Ideally, both sides would return to talks, but even absent that, it is critical that they cease targeting civilians and undertake efforts to prevent and alleviate humanitarian suffering. They must eschew cluster bombs, stop targeting population centres and provide corridors for the evacuation of the wounded and dead and the delivery of humanitarian aid. International actors, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which has overseen negotiations since the end of hostilities in 1994, and its co-chairs France, Russia and the U.S., other capitals worldwide and international organisations should speak in one voice and specifically call for such measures. Countries that provide weapons to the parties, including Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Pakistan and Israel, and those through which deliveries transit, including Iran and Georgia, should cease provision and transit, at least when it comes to systems credibly reported to have been used in attacks on civilian targets (Georgia has already stopped weapons transit through its territory).
The UN Security Council can play a role. First, the council, which has to date discussed the crisis in private and released a press statement calling for calm, should now convene an urgent public meeting on the escalating fighting and attacks on civilian areas. It should insist the parties abide by the 10 October Moscow agreement on a humanitarian ceasefire and facilitate the safe, unhindered and sustained delivery of lifesaving aid, including providing full and secure access to the region for humanitarian actors. Going further, the council should adopt a resolution calling for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, beyond the limited humanitarian one agreed in Moscow. The resolution should also condemn the parties for endangering the lives of civilians and call on them to return to talks under the Minsk Group co-chairs’ auspices.
As for the OSCE and its Minsk Group, they should step up efforts on the ground. Mitigating harm to civilians will require coordination across front lines even as fighting continues. The Minsk Group process has frustrated both sides (and particularly Baku) in its failure over three decades to deliver a lasting peace. Still, it provides a format for the parties to carry out such coordination. In the wake of the Moscow agreement, which called for a return to Minsk Group talks, the co-chairs reported that they and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office (OSCE CIO PR) were working with the ICRC to explore “modalities and logistics for the return of remains and detainees”. They also report that they continue to engage the conflict parties on a long-term settlement. Building upon this work, the OSCE should resume its field activity in the region, suspended in March as a result of COVID-19, and work with military and diplomatic representatives of the warring parties and the ICRC to develop guidelines and a contact mechanism to facilitate the humanitarian measures outlined above.
This expanded field activity should include means to monitor and “verify” the Moscow agreement’s or any new ceasefire, as the Russian and Armenian foreign ministers called for in a 12 October press conference. One tool might be a version of the investigative mechanism to study incidents that Yerevan, Baku and OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries agreed to put in place, along with an expansion of the OSCE CIO PR’s office, after four days of clashes in 2016. This could give OSCE monitors the unrestricted access they would need to Nagorno-Karabakh and, if expanded, any parts of Azerbaijan and Armenia under fire. In the past, Baku resisted the mechanism, despite having agreed to it on paper. At the time, Azerbaijan sought to regain control over the adjacent territories through negotiations before agreeing to new mechanisms that it feared would solidify the status quo. But Baku may be more amenable to granting monitors temporary access to its territory and that of Armenia to investigate recent attacks, while active hostilities continue. Whatever its specific tools, the OSCE should consider making its monitors’ and investigative reports public,given the lack of objective, neutral reporting on the conflict and rampant biased information and disinformation.
The UN could support the OSCE’s monitoring. The two institutions already have a strong relationship. The OSCE Minsk Group could tap UN expertise on observer missions and investigative techniques in warzones as it designs a way forward. The UN could be even more active in its support if the Security Council requests that the UN Secretary-General dispatch, in coordination with the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office’s Personal Representative, military and civilian observers to Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider conflict region. Such a mission could observe the ceasefire and document and report on violations of international humanitarian law committed during the fighting. Once the OSCE’s monitoring mission takes shape, the UN mission could withdraw. Such missions would require the conflict parties to guarantee members’ security, which in itself could help limit violence.
These steps will not, in and of themselves, end the war. But they would save lives and improve prospects for a real peace, whenever it may come.