Renewed Fighting In Nagorno-Karabakh Threatens U.S.-Backed Truce

Renewed fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has threatened a recent agreement brokered by the United States. Tensions escalated within minutes after the agreement took effect at 8:00am when Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry accused Armenian forces of shelling villages in the Terter and Lachin areas. Authorities in the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Ministry dismissed this allegation as “misinformation,” reporting that Azeri forces fired missiles on Armenian positions at the northeastern side, and that their warplanes violated the ceasefire. About an hour later, Armenia’s Defense Ministry also condemned Azerbaijan for violating the agreement. In a televised address, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev expressed desire for ending the conflict “by political and military means.” However, when speaking on Facebook, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan expressed skepticism about Azerbaijan’s interest in peaceful resolution, asserting that the “Armenian people are ready for mutual concessions, even painful ones, but not for the capitulation of Karabakh.”

The U.S.-sponsored treaty followed an outbreak of violence on 27 September. Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azerbaijan of launching air and artillery attacks that killed at least 16 service members and wounded over 100. Azerbaijan responded by claiming retaliation against Armenia for a shelling that killed five members of a family. Fighting also broke out in 2016, when Azeri forces launched an offensive into Armenian fortifications in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Amid multiple outbreaks of violence, each faction has repeatedly condemned the other for provoking violence and breaching agreements. Since hostilities restarted in September, almost 1,000 people have died on both sides. Despite Aliyev’s expressions for resolution, according to ABC News, he insisted that any truce “can only be temporary” until Armenia agrees to withdrawing from the Nagorno Karabakh region in a speech on Monday. Insisting that Azerbaijan is fighting to “force Armenia” into fulfilling a peace agreed upon after the war to return territories, Aliyev concluded that “[W]e are on one righteous path, clenched as a fist.”

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous region in Azerbaijan, with parts controlled by the Armenian population. This history traces back to the 1920s when both bodies integrated into the nascent Soviet Union. Despite the Armenian majority, the Soviets allocated the region to Azeri authorities. According to BBC News, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh expressed desire for jurisdiction under Armenian authority throughout the following decades. However, the Nagorno-Karabakh regional parliament did not officially vote for integration with Armenia until the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, culminating in the Karabakh nationalist movement. Although it began peaceful, after both factions declared independence from the declining Soviet Union in 1991, violence erupted, quickly escalating to full-scale war in 1992. 

Fighting killed around 30,000 people from both sides, displacing about 230,000 Armenians and approximately 618,000 Azeri before Russia brokered a ceasefire in 1994, eventually establishing the line of contact that separates the two bodies. It was mediated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), of which France, Russia and the U.S. became co-chairs.

Although peace talks have ensued since the 1994 ceasefire, a treaty still hasn’t been reached, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh an independent state lacking international recognition. Currently, about 14% of Azerbaijani territory, including seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh like Kelbajar, have been governed by Armenian nationalists. However, unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, in which 75% of the population is Armenian, the rest of these districts are mainly inhabited by Azerbaijanis and Kurds. 

Frustrated with stalled negotiations, Aliyev criticized the OSCE on Monday, “[F]or almost 30 years, the Minsk Group co-chairs have tried to reconcile Azerbaijan with the process of freezing the conflict, but we have created a new reality,” and inquired, “[H]ow long can you negotiate?” According to Hürriyet Daily News, Turkey’s National Defense Ministry announced that the Azerbaijani army has “liberated” 193 settlements from Armenian occupation. Although violence against perceived injustice is not an ideal resolution, Aliyev’s aggravation with delayed negotiations is justifiable. The prolonged peace talks over settling territory belonging to the Azerbaijani people can also be seen as infringement on their autonomy. Perhaps the two previous Russian attempts and recent U.S. treaty failed to maintain peace because they did not address these contested districts. 

Amid escalated tensions, Armenia requested Russia to consider providing security assistance to end the violence. While Russia owns a military base in Armenia and pledged to defend them against foreign aggression, they also desire to maintain amiable Azerbaijani relations and avoid open conflict with Turkey, who strongly supports Azerbaijan. On Sunday, Turkey’s NDM said on twitter, “The heroic Azerbaijan army continues to save its occupied territories by demonstrating its strength and capabilities at the front line.” Expressing openness to return Azerbaijani lands, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed “handing over these five flus two districts to Azerbaijan, alongside the provision of a specific regime for the Karabakh zone and the securing of a link with Armenia.” Acknowledging that “[We must] find a balance of interests that would suit both sides,” he concluded that each “has its own truth” and that “[T]here are no easy answers.”

The fighting that restarted in September is considered the worst escalation of violence since the 1994 ceasefire. Despite the low Armenian population in the surrounding districts, Armenia considers them buffer zones to preventing Azerbaijani attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Joshua Kucera of Eurasianet wrote that a prospective peace deal was expected to enable reallocation of these territories to Azerbaijan. Amid prolonged negotiations for a treaty, Armenia has developed a belief that these districts are part of their “homeland,” while Azeris view this as losing land for which they rightfully claim ownership. Given the volatile history between both factions since becoming soviet states, and their eventual succession, Vladimir Putin’s observations that each has their own “truths” is pragmatic. 

Azerbaijan is understandably indignant at the delayed return of their land. The OSCE should act quicker and more decisively to ensure a diplomatic return of these lands. Notwithstanding the legitimate dissatisfaction with current negotiations, Azerbaijan has resorted to warfare to achieve their goals. If talks continue without establishing a treaty that effectively reallocates the lands, Azerbaijan may conclude that violent tactics are more effective than peaceful resolution. This may further embolden violence and discourage them from embracing future negotiations. Given that Armenians are a minority presence in these districts, and that the lands were not permanently intended for their jurisdiction, Armenia should be willing to return them.

On the other hand, Armenia holds valid concern for Nagorno-Karabakh. It is important to remember that, in addition to a heavy Armenian majority population in this region, they voted to become part of Armenia. The Armenian majority residing in this region may also find the land’s allocation to Azerbaijan an infringement on their sovereignty. Therefore, to meet each faction’s desires and de-escalate conflict, the OSCE should seek to resurface provisions from a Basic Principles agreement drafted in 2007 and updated in 2009. Some crucial components included returning territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, an interim period enabling its autonomous governance and ability to determine future legal status, and establishing a corridor linking Armenia to the region. 

Another important issue from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is Azerbaijan’s oil and gas pipeline in the South Caucus. Two of the country’s main export pipelines, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the South Caucasus gas pipeline, both constructed in the early 2000s, are close to the fighting. Azerbaijan’s economy is heavily dependent on exporting oil and gas to their immediate neighbors Georgia and Turkey, which in turn rely on Azerbaijani energy supplies for heating and power generation. They may also lose transit fees for oil and gas that is transported to other markets. According to David O’Byrne of Eurasianet, cuts in gas exports would seriously impact Turkey, given the incoming winter as well as import contracts for Azerbaijani gas totaling 12.6 billion cubic meters a year or 30% of their supply.  

When brokering a treaty, President Vladimir Putin should try convincing Turkey to placate Azerbaijan. According to Aljazeera, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Armenia had “no basis” for requesting Russia’s assistance. However, Turkey has allegedly supplied weapons to Azerbaijan and recruited Syrian mercenaries to fight in their conflict. Their assistance could be encouraging Azerbaijan’s aggression. Putin should also remind Turkey of the threat continued violence poses for their energy supply. In return for Turkey’s discontinued supplying of arms and mercenaries for Azerbaijan, Russia should abstain involvement in Nagorno Karakb. Both bodies should also try to convince their combatting allies to embrace negotiations, and that concessions are inevitable in reaching a compromise to facilitate substantial and enduring peace. 

Armenia and Azerbaijan should recall their volatile history and respect the situation’s sensitivity. Given Aliyev’s previous statements, peaceful resolution seems unlikely unless the land surrounding Azerbaijan is returned to them. The OSCE must be proactive and persistent with enforcing provisions of any agreement, and acknowledge the ineffectiveness of previous talks. Continued failure to reach a comprehensive treaty will result in ongoing violence, leading to more death and displacement for people on both sides.

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