Neither Peace Nor War: Why Clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Border Didn't Change the Status …

Has the July escalation brought about any significant changes? It may be too soon to tell. At the same time, it is clear that the transition from military escalation to a new diplomatic round and vice versa, known as the Nagorno- pendulum, has been delayed this time. After the four-day war, the negotiating process resumed almost at the same time as the ceasefire agreement was reached. This time, however, there could be other factors at play, writes Sergey Markedonov, Leading Researcher of the Euro-Atlantic Security Centre at MGIMO University 

The new round of military escalation along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan in July 2020 projected the South Caucasus region into the spotlight. Although sidelined in the media by the developments in southeastern Ukraine and in the Middle East over the past six years, this is still one of the most explosive regions in Eurasia. Moreover, conflicts along ethnic and political lines in the Caucasus that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union have to be placed in the context of intense international competition and rivalries between countries.

As such, the Turkish and Iranian factors are essential for understanding the prospects of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, just like the developments around Abkhazia and South Ossetia are inseparable from the confrontation between Russia and the West, especially considering NATO’s possible expansion into former Soviet republics. Some researchers have argued that the post-Soviet space is about to shift from “ethno-politics to geopolitics,”  with disputes over ethnicity-related matters supplemented over time with the competing interests of external actors.

There has been no shortage of analysis on the July escalation in the confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan today. All the commentators seem to agree that this was the largest escalation since the April 2016 four-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh. It was even more dangerous in many aspects, since this time the confrontation focused on the state border, not the line of contact. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Azerbaijan, while traditionally seeking to distance itself from integration projects, has a military and political alliance with Turkey, which has the second-largest army among NATO countries. Sifting through all these statements and comments, we need to find an answer to an essential question: was the July escalation yet another military incident (even if larger than the preceding ones), or did it upend the existing status quo? If we assume that the status quo has fallen apart, what future pathways might there be? What is the probability of Armenia and Azerbaijan sliding into a new war? Or could a diplomatic deal be possible, paving the way to a peaceful settlement? If both of these scenarios fail to materialise, would it be possible for the two countries to continue teetering on the brink between peace and war, as they have been doing for several decades?

The tenets of the Armenia-Azerbaijan status quo

The new round of military escalation along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan in July 2020 projected the South Caucasus region into the spotlight. Although sidelined in the media by the developments in southeastern Ukraine and in the Middle East over the past six years, this is still one of the most explosive regions in Eurasia. Moreover, conflicts along ethnic and political lines in the Caucasus that emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union have to be placed in the context of intense international competition and rivalries between countries. 

The answer to these questions starts with a definition of the status quo in the South Caucasus and in terms of the relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. What are its main elements and have they been violated or broken?

The dissolution of the Soviet Union made the South Caucasus republics independent, resulting in the collapse of the old order. The new status quo could not be achieved peacefully, and required four armed conflicts and the creation of three unrecognised entities, not to mention tens and hundreds of thousands of refugees and multiple casualties. Between 1992 and 1994, the ethnic and political conflicts in the Caucasus were frozen, but not resolved, with Russia taking on the exclusive role of a mediator, and recognised as such by the United States and its allies.

Not everyone was happy with the frozen state of regional conflicts in the 1990s, for example Georgia and Azerbaijan, who wanted to disrupt the balance of power that did not benefit them. They sought to find an alternative to Moscow’s privileged status, which eventually transformed conflicts raging in the South Caucasus into international issues. This quest would later unfreeze conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2004-2008, giving rise to a second status quo based on two parallel political and legal frameworks: the same territories that used to be autonomies within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic exist as independent states and Russian-occupied territories of an independent Georgia.

However, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan did not reach a similar turning point. Unlike the standoff in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the status quo has changed little between the 1990s and 2000s. Active hostilities stopped on May 12, 1994 with the coming into force of a permanent ceasefire agreement,   followed by talks mediated by an ad-hoc OSCE Minsk Group. That said, these negotiations have so far failed to produce any substantial breakthrough. To an extent, this was due to the fact that the conflict between and Baku was not regarded as a proxy-conflict between Russia and the West, unlike the incidents between Georgia and South Ossetia and between Georgia and Abkhazia. Even when Moscow decided to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and later annexed Crimea, the United States did not refuse to work with Russia on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. This explains why the Minsk Group has survived for so long, and the convergence of approaches guiding efforts by the West and Russia to resolve the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Unlike Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria, there were no Russian or international peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. The balance of power between Azerbaijan and Armenia has been and is likely to remain one of the core elements of the existing status quo.   As such, the question of deploying peacekeepers is part of the negotiating process.

Nevertheless, the conflicting sides have not been ready to make concessions on all points, including the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the de-occupation of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, and returning refugees. It is unlikely that any breakthrough ideas for settling the conflict will emerge any time soon. In fact, all the initiatives that are of any relevance have already been proposed, including package agreements, stage-by-stage approaches, the idea of a shared state and exchange of territories. In November 2020, it will be the 13th anniversary of the Madrid Principles that set out the framework for a peace settlement. Eleven years ago, in July 2009, Russia, the US and France as the co-chairs of the Minsk Group presented an updated version of the “basic principles” with a recommendation that the conflicting sides “reach an agreement.” In all these years, Baku and Yerevan have not made even the slightest step towards implementing the principles proposed by the mediators.

Without the will or desire to reach a negotiated compromise, the two sides have alternated between diplomatic rounds and military pressure. Any resurgence in the negotiating process is interspersed with ceasefire violations, even if no one has so far questioned the effectiveness of the permanent ceasefire agreement or the status of the OSCE Minsk Group, although its critics were never in short supply in both states of the South Caucasus.

There was one equally important sphere not covered by the “basic principles:” the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan outside of Nagorno-Karabakh. In fact, the July escalation took place 300 kilometres from the Nagorno-Karabakh line of contact. Except for the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, there are no territories along this border seeking to change their status. The problem, however, is that this border has not been demarcated or clearly defined, which means that there are grey areas, claimed by both Yerevan and Baku. This also makes military incidents inescapable, and detached from the negotiating process. These skirmishes can be best described as an appendix to the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.

Therefore, “neither peace nor war” is the best way the status quo in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations can be described. While not officially at war, Yerevan and Baku have been unwilling to promote diplomatic relations. What is left is an unsettled conflict and talks that have been going on for many years, with occasional ups and downs, alternating with armed incidents.

An explosive permanence

Has the July escalation brought about any significant changes? It may be too soon to tell. At the same time, it is clear that the transition from military escalation to a new diplomatic round and vice versa, known as the Nagorno-Karabakh pendulum, has been delayed this time. After the four-day war, the negotiating process resumed almost at the same time as the ceasefire agreement was reached. This time, however, there could be other factors at play. After all, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are facing public health emergencies due to the coronavirus pandemic, which makes reviving the negotiating process problematic, to say the least.

However, Yerevan and Baku refused to raise the stakes too high. Armenia has always a trump card up its sleeve, the possible recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. This topic keeps resurfacing in the Armenian media and on social networks whenever the conflict escalates, and this time was not an exception. So far, Yerevan has chosen another path, for obvious reasons: should Armenia recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state, it would be viewed as a revisionist state by international mediators, who are otherwise quite neutral regarding the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This move would have serious ramifications, which explains Yerevan’s caution and why it treats its Nagorno-Karabakh trump card as a last resort. In 2016 and in 2020 the escalation did not produce any significant territorial changes. In 2016, the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s infrastructure remained intact, and in 2020 neither side made any foray into the other’s territory, enough to refer to the incident as “occupation” or “liberation.” Furthermore, it has to be noted that escalation along the border did not cause any increase in firing incidents or sabotage in Nagorno-Karabakh, the epicentre of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The escalation did not prompt any of the parties involved to raise concerns regarding the effectiveness of the Minsk Group, although it remains quite controversial. Nevertheless, neither Baku nor Yerevan called for it to be dissolved, or for new mediators to be brought in. Outside actors remained entrenched in their positions. Moscow continued playing the role of a special or even privileged mediator, appreciated by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey, on the contrary, remained Baku’s staunch supporter, while Iran continued advocating a political settlement owned and led by the countries within the region. The confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains at the periphery of the interests of the US and the EU, at least until the failure of the current status quo becomes obvious. Washington, Brussels and Paris are ready to tolerate Moscow’s special mediating role in this part of Eurasia. If the events take a turn similar to what happened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the reaction will be different. But nothing suggests that this will happen.

Therefore, the existing status quo remains in place. The recent escalation came as a major shock, and incidents of this kind are dangerous, considering the fragility of the mechanisms that prevent Baku and Yerevan from sliding into war. Armenia and Azerbaijan have so far preserved the military and political balance in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as along their border. There will be a chance of avoiding the worst case scenario as long as they are unable to take advantage of the differences between the great powers. At the same time, the two sides are not ready to achieve a breakthrough in negotiations. Against this backdrop, it is essential to return to the negotiating table in order to push the Nagorno-Karabakh pendulum from escalation towards negotiation. This, however, would not mean that the pendulum would not swing back towards confrontation. The sides constantly test the fragile balance of power between them, but after a military escalation they are likely to resume talks, at the very least in order to manage escalations and prevent the conflict from unfreezing. As of today, the conflict will likely remain in neutral territory, teetering between peace and war. There is one caveat, though: on a scale between war and peace, at this point in time all actors, including those involved both directly and indirectly, are much closer to war than to peace.

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