Armenia and Azerbaijan are closer to war over Nagorno-Karabakh than at any point since 1994, the International Crisis Group said in a report published on June 1. Following the deadly three-day flare-up which left over 200 casualties in April 2016, Baku and Yerevan have failed to find momentum in peace negotiations, the report said; instead, the two sides are further apart than they have ever been.
Compounding the problem is volatility along the line of contact (LoC) drawn between Azerbaijan and the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is heavily militarised. Since mid-January, deadly incidents involving heavy artillery and anti-tank weapons have occurred with various degrees of intensity, says the report. May saw a significant increase in such incidents, including reports of self-guided rockets and missiles used close to heavily populated areas.
Azerbaijan and Armenia waged a bloody war over Nakorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, which left over 20,000 victims and some one million internally displaced persons (IDPs). In 1994, the warring sides signed a ceasefire, but they have never reached a peace accord. The ceasefire has been frequently violated, most notably in April last year. Peace negotiations have since been overseen by the Minsk Group, which operates under the umbrella of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe and which is co-chaired by France, the US and Russia.
The heads of state in Armenia and Azerbaijan have met twice in the past year but have refused calls to restart negotiations, preferring instead to issue threatening public statements. In May-June, however, they agreed in principle to strengthen peace monitoring and introduce an investigative mechanism to lower tensions. However, even these small steps further prompted accusations and divisive rhetoric.
A key topic of negotiations at the moment is the seven regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenia occupied in the 1990s to create buffer zones, and the return of part of the regions to Azerbaijan.
According to the report, the deep distrust between the two sides and the lack of effective communication channels mean that "any incident is liable to spiral out of control, especially given the shared view in both societies that another conflict is inevitable".
A peace accord would comprise elements of international security guarantees and a land-for-status compromise, which are contingent on mutual concessions. These have been slow to come by, hampering the progress of negotiations.
Since last April's clash, Baku has become more assertive in emphasising the legal basis for its claims. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, although it is populated by ethnic Armenians. It is seeking international support for sanctions against Armenia.
Armenia has, in turn, threatened to advance deeper into Azerbaijan if it is attacked again in order to create a security belt around Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia has emerged as the most influential mediator in the past year. It is the only power to have successfully brought Yerevan and Baku back to the negotiating table following the flare-up. However, its duplicitous stance of selling weapons to both sides while ostensibly advocating for peace has not been lost on the leaders of either country, which are increasingly distrustful of the Kremlin.
Despite the lack of progress in negotiations, diplomatic paralysis would be costly and mediators need to push Armenia and Azerbaijan to inch closer to a resolution of the conflict, because the time for effective mediation is running out, the report concludes.