Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed to a ceasefire at noon on April 5, ending three and a half days of fighting over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh that left at least 77 confirmed casualties on both sides, and hundreds more injured. But the recent escalation in hostilities marks the beginning of a new, much more dangerous phase in the 22-year long South Caucasus conflict, when the fragile ceasefire could be broken at any time.
While the reason behind the recent escalation remains a source of speculation, observers such as Thomas de Waal believe that Azerbaijan, impatient with the lack of progress in peace negotiations, had more reason to initiate the conflict, in order to draw attention to the fact that it was unhappy with the status quo. The status quo is that Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding territories remain occupied by ethnic Armenian forces following a bloody war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. The territories are internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but are inhabited by ethnic Armenians. The signing of a ceasefire in 1994 ended the war, but brought no settlement to the conflict.
A source of further speculation is the timing of the recent escalation, with attacks starting just as the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents were returning from a nuclear summit in Washington, where American authorities had failed to bring them to the negotiation table.
What is clear, however, is that the winners from this violent episode are Russia, which once again reaffirmed its leverage in mediating regional conflicts, and Azerbaijan. Baku has managed to draw the world's attention to a dormant conflict that has paled in comparison to more recent threats such as the war in Syria, the rise of IS and the war in eastern Ukraine, and it succeeded in reaffirming Ankara's unconditional support for its foreign policy. Azerbaijan has also made land grabs on this occassion, to which it is holding on.
The Minsk Group, a multinational mediator operating under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has overseen peace negotiations since 1992, held an emergency meeting on April 5 about the conflict and, once again, put out an irresolute statement.
The next day it emerged that a ceasefire had been agreed by the Armenian and Azerbaijani military chiefs of staff in Moscow. Furthermore, Russian officials such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and even President Vladimir Putin himself repeatedly intervened throughout the hostilities to broker a new ceasefire agreement, their efforts proving much more effective than those of the group tasked with the job.
Russian officials have also been the first to make their way to the region to ensure that the fragile ceasefire is respected. "Russia has taken again the initiative in this case and a ceasefire agreement was reached with the mediation of the Russian side. We believe that this is the only way in order to prevent an escalation in the region," Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told Lavrov, who was visiting Baku on April 7.
This shows that, beyond simplistic explanations that portray Russia as Armenia's most trusted supporter and therefore, by default, antagonistic to Azerbaijan, the power dynamic behind the conflict is more complex. At this point, Baku has more interest than anyone else to turn Russia into its own ally because it perceives it as being the only power with sufficient leverage to convince Armenia to liberate its territories.
Furthermore, Russia has paved the way for this dynamic by boosting its commercial ties with Azerbaijan in recent years, and by supplying it with more than $4bn worth of armament, a fact that Yerevan has repeatedly decried.
My ally "right or wrong'
The recent hostilities were also a victory for Azerbaijan with Turkey, Richard Giragosian, director at the Yerevan-based Research Studies Centre, told bne Intellinews in an interview. "For the past several months, Azerbaijan was in a difficult position trying to balance Russia and Turkey. With the launch of confrontations, Ankara was forced to back Azerbaijan, and the latter proved that it had the upper hand in bilateral relations and that the former would support it, regardless of whether it was right or wrong," he said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had indeed vowed to support Baku "until the end" as per a bilateral security agreement that the sides have signed, meaning that Nato member Turkey would be willing to go to war and perhaps risk a standoff with the western alliance for the sake of its ally.
Nato is unlikely to play a big role in the conflict, Giragosian believes, despite its increased cooperation with Armenia and particularly Georgia in recent years. The two reasons behind the alliance's weakness in the South Caucasus are the region’s high sensitivity for Russia - Russia sees it as a buffer against Nato and Iran - and because its involvement would challenge the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group. " The Russian-Western confrontation has yet to play out in Nagorno-Karabakh, but it undoubtedly increases Russia's leverage over the conflict," he opines.
A mountainous, landlocked and water-scarce republic in the South Caucasus, Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but is de facto autonomous, populated by ethnic Armenians and dependent on Armenia for financial and military support. Its economy is small at $411mn in 2013 and a GDP per capita of only $1,171, making its 146,000 inhabitants dependent on external aid from Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.
The population of the place had been predominantly Armenian since the first census was conducted in the 18th century, but has included various ethnic and religious groups such as Tatars, Persians, and Azeris.
Many date the beginning of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh to the end of the 1980s, when the then-Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh voted in a referendum to join Armenia. The referendum was boycotted by the region's Azerbaijani minority, and the conflict between the two sides escalated into a full-fledged war in 1989 that ended with a ceasefire in 1994, leaving 30,000 victims and one million displaced. However, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh had been disputed previously in the 20th century, when a two-year war in the aftermath of World War I resulted in the region being annexed to Azerbaijan in 1923.
The value of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan and Armenia does not stem from any riches or its strategic position, but rather from its symbolism. To Azerbaijan, it symbolises injustice, defeat, and the violation of international treatises that place the territory under its jurisdiction. To Armenia, it symbolises the protection of its ancestral land and people, and victory.
Furthermore, the unresolved status of Nagorno-Karabakh has enabled the authoritarian regimes of presidents Serzh Sargsyan in Armenia and Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan to come to power and to then hold on to power by using polarising and vitriolic rhetoric to rally the electorate against an external enemy.
In addition to Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia occupied seven surrounding territories in 1992-1993 that Yerevan is using as a bargaining chip in negotiations. The understanding in both Baku and Yerevan is that these territories, which border Nagorno-Karabakh and act as a buffer zone between Azerbaijan and the region, will be returned to Azerbaijan when and if there is an agreement on the status of the autonomous republic.
Playing both sides
Another war in the South Caucasus would be detrimental for all the parties involved, but the status quo is unbearable for Azerbaijan, which has been beefing up its military in recent years and has given signs of impatience with the stalemate in peace negotiations. Russian support for Armenia ensured its victory in the war in the 1990s, but in recent years Russia has played both sides by selling arms to Azerbaijan while continuing to nurture relations with Armenia, which is its main commercial and diplomatic partner in the South Caucasus.
Armenia might be a member of the Russia-led free trade organisation Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and security organisation Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), but Azerbaijan has a much larger economy and is an important link in regional trade and infrastructure schemes. Russia is also keen to counterbalance Baku’s growing ties with Turkey, with which it has been in dispute since Ankara shot down a Russian bomber in November.
Many a willing peacemaker has emerged during the recent escalation, including Iran, which has traditionally had strong ties with Armenia, but which is more interested in investing in Azerbaijan since Western sanctions were lifted on Teheran. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan met on April 6, also expressed her country's willingness to broker a settlement during its chairmanship of the OSCE.
Meanwhile, the US failure to bring the two leaders to the negotiations table in Washington has discredited its ability to mediate the conflict. "This is not only an embarrassment to American officials, but it shows that Azerbaijan decided to launch the attack while still in Washington. This means that there is no deterrent, nothing is stopping Azerbaijan from resupplying in two weeks or two months and reinitiating attacks. Their new strategy is now to occupy and maintain territory," Giragosian says.
Russia's allies Belarus and Kazakhstan have broken ranks with the leader of the CSTO and EEU and have expressed their support for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, a sign that Russia itself does not have its neighbourhood in order. To undermine Armenia, Astana asked to have a EEU prime ministerial meeting in mid-April moved to Moscow from Yerevan, while Belarus' statements about Azerbaijan's territorial integrity prompted Yerevan to call the Belorussian ambassador to the foreign ministry to explain his country's position.
The Minsk Group has been an ineffective mediator, but it is not solely to blame for the lack of a conflict resolution. Rather, Azerbaijan and Armenia's inability to compromise has hampered peace talks.
However, the Minsk Group came close to a settlement in 2007, when it almost got the sides to agree to a list of points called the "Madrid Principles", which would have ensured the restitution of the occupied territories to Azerbaijan; the creation of a corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia; an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance; future determination of its status through a legally binding expression of will; and international security guarantees.
Seeing how the Minsk Group will continue to mediate the conflict in the long term, revisiting the Madrid principles would probably be a good place to start. A change in the dynamic of negotiations is also necessary, Giragosian believes, because the current format in which three co-chairs - Russia, the US, and France - lead discussions has proven ineffective. Rather, an activation of the other members of the group - Belarus, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Turkey - might provide a much-needed change of pace in the peace negotiations.
Giragosian remains pessimistic about a short- or even medium-term resolution of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, a more effective way for long-term conflict management in his opinion would be to focus on democratising Armenia and Azerbaijan, in order to achieve a level of stability similar to that in Cyprus. "We need to focus on democratising the countries first, and then refocus on the conflict. In both countries, [non-democratic] regimes are in power because of this conflict, and their hard-line positions are weakening the more moderate voices on both sides," he concludes.