Few noticed when intense fighting broke out in early April 2016 in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Some 50 people were killed over four days, as tanks, helicopters and artillery lit up a long-forgotten front. The revival of the conflict briefly attracted the attention of the international community, as officials from America, the European Union, and Russia all urged calm, aiming to prevent full-scale war from reigniting. After Moscow helped broker a ceasefire, the hostilities slowed; nonetheless, lasting peace remains a fantasy. So what is the Nagorno-Karbakh conflict about? We asked this key question from Sergey Markedonov, associate professor at Russian State University for the Humanities (Moscow) and former visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) based in Washington, plus further questions about the Russian initiatives for the Conflict and the consequences of Moscow-Ankara rapprochement on the security environment of the region.
Since 1994, the Four-Day Karabakh War has been the biggest ceasefire violation between the neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan. How do you assess the political and operational consequences within the two states and the controversial Nagorno-Karabakh landlocked region?
“In many ways, a new outburst of confrontation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region should have been expected. Each side in the conflict has entered 2016 without any sign of compromise over the key issues – namely, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and some neighboring Azerbaijani territories controlled by Armenian forces, as well as the problem of refugees. Indeed, there had been numerous military incidents in the conflict zone, in addition to signs of more powerful military firepower and equipment being used, including howitzers and tanks. Moreover, military incidents had not only taken place along the borders of the two sides, but also beyond Nagorno-Karabakh, along the Armenian-Azeri border. In other words, violations of the 1994 ceasefire had been steadily increasing. Thus the April escalation last year was not a surprise. However it became the biggest violation since May, 1994 when the ceasefire agreement had entered into force.
“Nevertheless, the situation on the ground did not change radically. The conflicting sides tested each other’s limits, but no significant political changes resulted. Armenia did not hurry to recognize the independence of the Armenian-run Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Azerbaijan did not manage to recapture a significant part of its territory occupied by Armenian forces. He effectively demonstrated its military capacity confirming they became much stronger in comparison with the early 1990s. But it was more a psychological not political result. The negotiations format, the OSCE Minsk Group as well as its basic approaches were also kept. However, this does not mean that the conflict will be resolved any time soon. On the contrary, the differences between the two sides have only intensified.”
Given the level and intensity of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2016, what are your scenarios for the conflict in 2017?
“The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains one of the most dangerous challenges in the Caucasus. The violence we saw in Karabakh in early April, 2016 may therefore recur at any time. Incidents along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border taking place late December confirmed this thesis. The conflict zone has no peacekeepers, and the ceasefire has so far lasted thanks only to a balance of forces, which may change in the future. Both Yerevan and Baku still stick to their maximum demands for resolution of the conflict, while the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs mediating the conflict-France, Russia, and the United States-lack instruments to coerce the parties into making concessions.
“However, the full repetition of the April “Four-day war" seems unlikely. First of all we should take into consideration a special role of Russia in de-escalating the confrontation. Moscow has managed to increase its political influence on the parties of the conflict and both of them agree to recognize it. As for the West in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process it does not oppose Russian initiatives. Moscow clearly shows that it is not interested in the violation of status quo and negotiations process. Secondly, both Yerevan and Baku are afraid to be engaged in the full-scaled war understanding uncontrolled risks. If the normalization of Russian-Turkish relations will continue, it becomes an additional insurance factor to deter the conflicting parties and prevent a new escalation. Thus the dynamic status quo seems to be the most likely scenario in 2017. The threat of a new escalation and military incidents will co-exist with new rounds of negotiations and diplomatic initiatives. The current state of “no peace, no war” could persist for years.”
During the past two years, Russia conducts a more active diplomacy aimed at resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Some analysts believe Moscow is busy drafting a peace plan entailed Madrid Principles and Kazan Plan that is expected to implement on a multi-level basis. What is your judgment about the Russian plan?
Russia conducts an active diplomacy at resolving the conflict. However it is not a result of the past two or three years. The Nagorno-Karabakh settlement has been traditionally one of the foreign policy priorities of Moscow, and the escalation of the confrontation has been regarded as a factor of high risk threatening both the prospects of Eurasian integration and the safety of the country’s southern borders.
“Russia played a decisive role in ceasefire agreement of 1994. The trilateral negotiations format (Russia-Azerbaijan-Armenia) existed a long time before 2016. In this context we can remember on the Meyndorf Declaration of 2008. Between 2008 and 2012 the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia held 10 meetings which, unfortunately, did not result in an appreciable breakthrough. It would be naïve though to blame the lack of result on Moscow alone as the trilateral format was supported by the two other co-chair countries in the Minsk group: the U.S. and France. Moreover we have not seen any more effective ideas from the USA and EU different from the Updated Madrid Principles.
“As for the comprehensive peace plan it is not idée fixe for Russia. Moreover everyone speculating on so-called Lavrov’s Plan can quote any phrases and even demonstrate the relevant text. Moscow provides careful balancing between the sides to the conflict, Armenia and Azerbaijan, while refraining from political or ideological support of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. At that, Yerevan is Moscow’s military ally and a participant of the Eurasian integration projects, while Baku is an important economic partner of Moscow. Moreover, Russia and Azerbaijan share a stretch of the Dagestan land border that is critical for the security of both countries. Moscow understands all problems concerning the violation of status quo as well as military escalation. This is why taking into the account the mistrust between Armenia and Azerbaijan Russia is not going to accelerate the implementation of any peace plans. It prefers step by step strategy. According to Vladimir Putin the best scenario for the conflict resolution is “win-win” solution. But are the conflicting sides are ready to it? I suppose no. Thus nowadays decrease of incidents is much more important than any talks on peace plans that are not well-prepared and balanced.”
Given mixed reactions to deploying Russian peacekeeping forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, how feasible the idea of Russian forces deployment to the region and what benefits this plan could bring for the region?
“I am not sure the question on peacekeepers is the top one in the Russian agenda. Moscow understands the geopolitical realities on the ground and does not want to be more Armenian or Azerbaijani than those countries themselves. Russia does not want to carry some extra risks with its militaries. I suppose any deployments should be discussed only after the reaching of at least minimal compromise between Yerevan and Baku, not earlier.”
How do you weigh up the pros and cons of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement on the security environment in Caucasus?
“Taking a look at the development of Russian-Turkish relations over the past 25 years, it becomes clear that ups and downs are hallmark in the Russian-Turkish relationship in the Caucasus. There were periods of sharp divergences during the military phase of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (1991−1994), as well as during Russia’s counter-separatist campaign in Chechnya (1994-1996). But there were also periods marked by compromise and recognition of a new status quo in North Caucasus, as was the case in early 2000s, and after 2008 for South Caucasus (overall, it was to Russia’s advantage). Despite differences with Moscow regarding the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia or Georgia’s territorial integrity, Ankara refrained from directly confronting Russia on this issue. In fact, the Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey and business contacts between Turkish citizens of Abkhaz origin and their ancestral homeland made Ankara’s policy more nuanced.
“But despite this warming of relations, it would be naïve to think that new contradictions will not be possible. Now the most serious issues between Ankara and Moscow are in the Middle East. At the same time the differences still exist on Nagorno-Karabakh. When the Nagorno-Karabach conflict escalated in early April 2016, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported Baku and expressed condolences to the families of Azeri servicemen who died in the fighting. No other political leaders including Russian President supported only one side of the conflict that time. Nevertheless any sense of normalization is better than conflict. A modus vivendi between these two Eurasian powers, i.e. Russia and Turkey should be viewed as an important step towards resolving the regional problems of the Caucasus and Middle East as well as improving the international political system as a whole. It is not a coincidence that last October Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted the potential positive role Turkey could play in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. However the current dynamics between Moscow and Ankara does not necessarily mean that the two will work together to form a new alliance.”
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