The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh may escalate without an immediate ceasefire

October 6, 2020 3:14 PM

In both authoritarian and democratic systems, states are in a hurry to reintegrate the troubled regions showing signs of separatism.

Azerbaijan has been preparing for an eventual war with Armenia.

By Rajan Kumar & Sandeep Tripathi

The breakdown of the liberal international order has rendered ethnic minorities vulnerable. The worst affected are the communities aspiring for statehood. International institutions and norms to safeguard their rights have been discredited. States are blatantly violating all norms to suppress separatist movements. Minorities’ claim to cultural autonomy stands discredited by the “nationalising” majoritarian politics.

In both authoritarian and democratic systems, states are in a hurry to reintegrate the troubled regions showing signs of separatism. For instance, China is harsh with the Uighurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongese; Pakistan revised its laws in occupied Gilgit-Baltistan; Turkey cannot tolerate the Kurds, and; Azerbaijan wants to reintegrate Nagorno-Karabakh. The efficacy of multilateral approaches to deal with such issues has receded significantly.

Azerbaijan decided to settle the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh disregarding norms established by the OSCE and the UN. It sent its troops to recapture the breakaway region which has an Armenian majority. An Armenian reprisal and international opprobrium did not deter the state from moving forward. For Azerbaijan, the timing was propitious because of a firm commitment from Turkey, Russia’s preoccupation in Belarus, and the American obsession with China and its presidential election.

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has been simmering for three decades. After the first dangerous escalation in the early 1990s, it flared up again in 2016. The OSCE constituted Minsk Group (1992) succeeded in instituting a ceasefire which worked for two decades. But the change of politics and emerging regional dynamics have made it appear partial and ineffective. Turkey and Azerbaijan, co-ethnic nations, view this ceasefire as legitimising Armenian occupation. They are dissatisfied with the present arrangement. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, in an earlier interview on the settlement process, criticised the OSCE Minsk Group for its inaction. From the standpoint of Azerbaijan, the status quo is unacceptable. It cannot allow Nagorno-Karabakhto either secede or remain under Armenian control.

Turkey wants to be a part of the negotiating team co-chaired presently by Russia, France and the US. Minsk-members reject Turkey’s involvement in the Group as it is not a neutral party, and has openly declared its support to one side. Azerbaijan criticised the mediators and has put a precondition of the withdrawal of Armenian troops from its territory for accepting the negotiation.

The issues in Nagorno-Karabakh are complicated by historical animosity, secessionism, a contested territory, cultural differences and involvement of external powers. In the history of the last 100 years, they existed peacefully only during the Soviet period- mainly because of a zero-tolerance policy of the Soviet leaders towards ethnic assertions. As soon as the Soviet Union disintegrated, ethno-territorial claims pushed the two independent nations to a war claiming thousands of innocent lives. Thousands of Azerbaijanis were forced to leave after the Armenian victory in 1994. Their resettlement issue has fuelled the nationalist flame in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has been preparing for an eventual war with Armenia. In the last two decades, it has purchased arms worth $25 billion. It has modernised its military training and has enhanced its power asymmetry with Armenia. Low international attention offered a unique opportunity for Azerbaijan to initiate a limited military operation. President Ilham Aliyev will use this operation to drum up domestic support at a time of flailing economy and rising dissent. Aliyev inherited his presidency from his father in 2003. His regime has been accused of violating human rights, controlling the media outlets and discrediting opposition parties on frivolous charges.

Azerbaijan counts on the United Nation Security Council resolutions which recognise its territorial integrity, while Armenia highlights the atrocities committed by Azeri forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. One of the suggestions offered by experts is that the mediation be transferred to the UN from the present OSCE framework. A long-lasting solution might require the involvement of Turkey in the negotiating process.

The immediate concern, however, is to establish a ceasefire and not allow the situation to escalate. Russia has somewhat improved its ties with Turkey compared to the earlier times. Russia allegedly informed President Erdogan of a possible Gulen’s coup earlier and has also supplied crucial S400 Triumph missile system to Turkey despite NATO objections. This is not to say that they have ironed out their differences in Syria, the Black Sea, and other regions. They will continue to remain competitors, but there are reasons to cooperate in the South Caucasus.

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh may create instability with severe security and economic repercussions for both countries. The famous Baku-Tbilisi- Ceyhan energy pipeline passes close to Mardakert, a town controlled by Armenian forces. It may come under threat if the conflict escalates. This will impact the supply of energy to Turkey. Similarly, Russian security in the South Caucasus would be threatened with growing radicalism and dislocation of people and property. A fresh wave of refugees will impact both states.

Russia is the most decisive actor in the region owing to its Soviet legacy, military presence and economic ties. It has some influence over Azerbaijan and is committed to defending Armenia under the CSTO framework. Most of the arms purchases of Azerbaijan and Armenia are from Russia. The primary concern of the US, before President Donald Trump came to power, was Russian expansionism in the Caucasus. But owing to its frayed relationship with Turkey, Russia and Iran, its influence has receded. There is no way the US can unilaterally prevent the conflict. Iran has its concerns due to the Azeri minority in its territory.

There are confirmed reports of the involvement of Syrian fighters employed by a private Turkish firm. These forces will threaten the fragile stability in the South Caucasus and spur radicalism and terrorism. Both Russia and France have criticised Turkey for allowing radical mercenaries under its watch.

Finally, it would be unrealistic to expect that the conflict can be resolved anytime soon. Ethnic conflicts are rarely managed by the conflicting parties on their own – even when they are fighting a war of attrition and exhaustion. The best possible option in Nagorno-Karabakh is to re-establish a ceasefire with stern warnings to the parties in conflict.On October 2, the OSCE Minsk Group issued a call to the conflicting parties to accept “an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.” But without an international mediation and pressure, this is unlikely to be respected by either party.

India has issued a statement asking for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Its presence is very limited in the South Caucasus. It will take the cue from Russia in disputes in the Eurasian region. Its task is made easier by the fact that Turkey and Pakistan have come out openly in support of Azerbaijan.

(Rajan Kumar teaches in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Sandeep Tripathi teaches in Centre for International Politics and Law, GLA University, Mathura, UP. Views expressed are personal.)

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