Statement: Responding to the Nagorno-Karabakh Escalation
5 Apr 2016
Diplomats wait for the start of a meeting of the permanent council of the OSCE on Nagorno-Karabakh in Vienna, Austria, 5 April 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
On the Cusp of War
The worst combat along the Line of Contact (LoC) around Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1994 ceasefire seems to have subsided with a cessation of hostilities announced on 5 April. If Azerbaijan sustains the territorial gains and tactical advances it says it has made, President Ilham Aliyev would be able to claim a significant change in the conflict’s status quo; Armenia has strong incentive, however, to prevent this by demonstrating its capability to repulse any Azerbaijani attack. Even if the ceasefire takes hold, there is a strong risk fighting will resume periodically, both to challenge the status quo on the ground and to attract diplomatic attention.
There is little verified information to date about the immediate causes of the flare-up, casualties or precise changes in the tactical dispositions of the forces. Statements from Baku and Yerevan make clear, however, some of the dangers if the situation is not quickly calmed. Azerbaijan’s defence minister threatened that if “[the separatists don’t] stop shelling our settlements”, his troops would attack Stepanakert, the capital (50,000 residents) of the disputed majority-Armenian entity that was a part of the Azerbaijan republic in Soviet times and is formally recognised as part of independent Azerbaijan. The de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities promised a “crushing response” to such an attack, and President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia said further fighting could spark a large-scale war that would “affect security and stability not only in the South Caucasus, but Europe as well”. (See also Crisis Group Commentary, What’s Behind the Flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh?, 3 April 2016.)
No Sustainable Settlement through Military Means
Besides the loss of life – military and civilian – destruction of property and expensive military equipment, the immediate consequence is likely to be wider recognition of the potential for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to escalate. This could prove far more dangerous than the original conflict at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The arms race that Azerbaijan and Armenia have been conducting has increased the dangers in unprecedented ways and led to considerations of military options as an alternative to peaceful conflict settlement. The fighting of the past few days must be seen in the context of the parties’ strategic calculations about achieving gains through all available means – diplomatic or military. Despite Baku’s extensive military modernisation in recent years, there was a widespread belief that its army remained incapable of major combined operations. Its successful attacks at several points along the LoC, however, appear to owe much to effective coordination of land, air and special forces.
The immediate priority must be de-escalation of both the violence and revanchist/triumphalist rhetoric. Neither side can gain a significant advantage by military means without risking a catastrophic expansion of the conflict, not least because of the levels of armament in the region and because of the larger powers that might be tempted to come to the aid of one side or the other.
To prevent further resort to force by either side, a political process is needed that both can buy into and accept as a viable vehicle with which to move toward a sustainable settlement. The Minsk process, as currently constituted and managed, has lost the traction it needs to fulfill that function. Revising a conflict settlement format is fraught with difficulties and requires consensus. The Minsk process should not be replaced, but it is essential to re-energise it through sustained, high-level political leadership by its key external actors. Only this can change the logic of engagement, with its constant risk of new escalation.
International Mediators Should Seize the Moment
The Minsk Group Co-Chairs have worked for over twenty years to avoid the type of outbreak just witnessed. While both parties realise the status quo is not indefinitely sustainable, a particularly strong and concerted message is needed that their serious commitment to negotiations is long overdue. The political consultations that are underway, including today’s meeting of the Minsk Group, are an opportunity to bring new resources and refreshed political will to the table.
In recent times, the Minsk Group has not received the level of political involvement it needs. The conflict has instead largely been managed by diplomatic and bureaucratic, not political, means; Russia, one of the co-chair countries, has expended some important political capital but in only partial coordination with its French and U.S. co-chairs. The new fighting shows the need for all actors – the OSCE Minsk Group, the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office, and the EU – to join efforts to change this. Because the situation presents such clear regional risks, Western partners should ask, and Moscow should readily agree that it more meaningfully involve all these in its own efforts.
Dispelling the Fog of War – and an Opaque Process
More transparency with regard to the situation on the ground and the settlement efforts is needed, including on the part of mediators. In the heart of the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood, the fog of war should not be so thick as to prevent verifiable information from reaching the wider public for several days.
Details on the negotiation process have also been elusive, allowing Armenia and Azerbaijan to instrumentalise the conflict. Greater transparency would help enhance the accountability of the parties and allow their citizens to form more realistic settlement expectations.
Recommendations for the Minsk Group, including its co-chairs, and the EU:
- Engage on the conflict at the highest political levels and demonstrate leadership vis-à-vis Armenian and Azerbaijani partners.
- Organise early opportunities for Presidents Hollande, Obama, Putin and Tusk each to emphasise to their Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts in no uncertain terms that their commitment to a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is both essential and an integral element of bilateral relations, and push for an early meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents.
- Recognise that Azerbaijan and Armenia will only commit seriously to a political process if they see it as capable of delivering a solution. This means that the external actors must in their turn invest serious political capital in re-energising that process. Foreign ministers of co-chair countries should convene an early meeting with the Azerbaijani and Armenian ministers and then periodically continue to engage personally with the Minsk process.
- Work to accompany the process with enhanced security monitoring mechanisms. These could be more OSCE monitors and/or introduction of sensors to detect the direction of fire, but the enhancement must be part of a broader diplomatic re-engagement, not a substitute for it or a stand-alone initiative.
- Aggregate political leverage at a more operational level by establishing regular co-chair consultations with the wider Minsk Group and the EU. The co-chairs and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office should substantively report to and consult the Minsk Group on the situation on the ground and their activities.
- The EU should step up political engagement in the settlement process, pressing a unified position on the need for stability and sustainable conflict resolution. The EU currently has no formal role in the Minsk Group, and consensus is needed to change OSCE mechanisms. Given the focus in the recent review of its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), on stability, however, its political leadership should seek associate membership for the EU in the Minsk Group.
- There is no realistic public discourse on the conflict and approaches to its resolution in either Azerbaijan or Armenia, both of which restrict the media and civil society. The Minsk Group co-chairs and the special representative should accordingly undertake to meet representatives of civil society and the media from both countries on a regular basis in order to promote a more nuanced public debate.