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The Nagorno Karabagh Conflict:  Moving From Complacency to Concern
Since a 1994 ceasefire suspended hostilities over Nagorno Karabagh, this unresolved or “frozen” conflict has been subject to an international mediation effort aimed at forging a daunting negotiated resolution between Armenia, Karabagh and Azerbaijan.  The mediation effort is led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – through its so-called “Minsk Group,” a tripartite body co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, working in close and effective cooperation with the parties to the conflict.  For much of the past decade, however, the Nagorno Karabagh conflict has emerged as an even more important strategic imperative for OSCE diplomacy and as both a determinant and a test of Western engagement in the South Caucasus region.
Although there has been little likelihood of any significant breakthrough over Karabagh since 2001, when the United States attempted to forge, or even force, a mediated resolution between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents.  In fact, that 2001 summit in Key West, Florida, which included the personal intervention of then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell, represented the last time the West invested any political capital in this seemingly intractable conflict.  Yet over the past three years, the Karabagh conflict has regained a sense of strategic urgency, reflecting a recognition of the dangers of a renewed war in the region, especially in the wake of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.
Moreover, the complex challenge of achieving any real progress over the Karabagh issue in general, and the problematic nature of Karabagh as a source of tension between Turkey and Azerbaijan more specifically, have further demonstrated the strategic significance of the Karabagh issue, both as a pressing imperative for strengthening regional security and stability in the South Caucasus, and as a political impediment to Turkey’s diplomatic attempt to normalize relations with Armenia.
Shifts in Diplomatic Strategy
Throughout much of the past two years, tension over the Nagorno Karabagh conflict has increased significantly, as the velocity of both aggressive and threatening rhetoric and outright confrontations and attacks have escalated, with a sharp rise in the scale and scope of ceasefire violations, all contributing to much more of a real threat of renewed hostilities and war.  Against this backdrop of rising tension and insecurity, the main focus of the OSCE Minsk Group’s diplomatic engagement has adopted a more limited and precise “back to basics” approach, moving away from outright conflict resolution and returning to a more pressing need for conflict prevention.(For more on this “back to basics” approach to diplomacy, see: Giragosian, Richard, “Back to Basics: Preventing a New War over Nagorno-Karabakh,” Caucasus Edition. Journal of Conflict Transformation, 15 February 2011.)
But the longer term outlook for this shift in diplomatic strategy is not very promising, as the diplomatic division and political distance between Armenia, which negotiates on behalf of Nagorno Karabagh, and Azerbaijan seem as profound as ever.  Even the OSCE Minsk Group mediators are hindered by this inherent divide between the Armenian/Karabagh and Azerbaijani views of even the basic parameters of the conflict.  On a fundamental level, the parties are divided over several core factors: an inherent clash of applying competing principles of international law, the right to self-determination versus territorial integrity and the inviobility of borders, to the Karabagh conflict; a differing interpretation of the need for security guarantees for the population of Nagorno Karabagh; and a general lack of accepting the need for compromise and concession.
While each of the parties engaged in the peace process, and even including Karabagh itself, are constrained by domestic political considerations, which both limits their strategic flexibility and lessens their tactical flexibility in the diplomatic negotiations, there are also several other factors that combine to make the Karabagh conflict especially intractable.  Against this backdrop, the escalation of tension has only hardened positions on all sides, exacerbated by Azerbaijani threats to resume hostilities, warning of a military option to force a resolution to the conflict.  Thus, there are mounting warning signs indicating that the Karabagh conflict could rapidly deteriorate from a simmering, but manageable “frozen” conflict, and erupt in a new “hot” stage of open hostilities and outright warfare.
Overcoming International Complacency
There is an important lesson for the danger of ignoring signs of looming conflict in the South Caucasus, and ironically, emanating from the same region.  That lesson comes from the complacency of 2008, when much of the international community was startled from the traditional summer vacation of August by the onset of war between Georgia and Russia.  Yet even in the wake of that brief but strategically destructive war in 2008, there is a similar complacency that seems to ignore the warning signs of a possible renewed war in the South Caucasus, with equally powerful repercussions for many actors in the region and with an added potential to impact energy supplies, impede the recent US-Russian “reset” of relations and impel the engagement of a wider range of players, including Turkey, Iran and the European Union (EU).
The severity of the warning signs of possible renewed hostilities over Karabagh has been increasingly markedly over the past three years, and for those that monitor the region, have included a dangerous escalation of attacks and clashes along the Karabagh border with Azerbaijan.  Despite the rather marginal geographical location of Nagorno Karabagh, the expanding geopolitical significance of the broader South Caucasus region has sparked some concern among analysts, such as Amanda Paul, a Policy Analyst with the European Policy Centre (EPC), who stressed that the Karabagh conflict now “represents the biggest threat to security in the South Caucasus,” warning that given recent developments, “it would take only one cease-fire violation to spiral out of control and explode into a full-blown warfare-spreading catastrophe over the entire region, including key energy routes.”(Paul, Amanda, “Nagorno-Karabakh: more dangerous than ever,” Today’s Zaman, 23 January 2011)
Other analysts, including Amberin Zaman, the regional correspondent for The Economist, and noted regional specialist Thomas de Waal, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have also expressed concern over the trends suggesting a greater chance for war over Karabagh.( See de Waal, Thomas, “Time to Shine a Light on a Hidden Conflict: Nagorno Karabakh in 2011,” Caucasus Edition. Journal of Conflict Transformation, 1 February 2011 and “The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Still just about frozen,” The Economist, 7 March 2011) In addition, the International Crisis Group (ICG) highlighted the dangerous and volatile situation, noting that “an arms race, escalating front-line clashes, vitriolic war rhetoric and a virtual breakdown in peace talks are increasing the chance” of war.( International Crisis Group (ICG), Armenia and Azerbaijan: Preventing War, ICG Europe Briefing No. 60, 8 February 2011) In that report, the ICG also drew greater attention and articulated more focused concern over Nagorno Karabagh, targeting EU officials and Western policymakers in particular.
Assessing the Threat of War over Karabagh
In terms of assessing the threat of war, recent developments suggest that the danger of renewed hostilities over Nagorno Karabagh is now more pronounced than at anytime since the ceasefire agreement of 1994 that effectively imposed a suspension of warfare.(The May 1994 ceasefire agreement, signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabagh, is a “self-enforcing” suspension of hostilities; see Croissant, Michael, The Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict: Causes and Implications, (London: Praeger, 1998)) More specifically, such an increasing threat of war is driven by several factors.  First, Azerbaijan has sparked a dangerous “arms race” in the region, steadily increasing its defense budget over the past several years, from $175 million in 2004 to between $3.1-3.3 billion in 2011, representing nearly 20 percent of the overall 2011 state budget and including $1.4 billion in targeted spending for modernization “through the purchase of up-to-date equipment and weaponry.” (“Azerbaijan to Nearly Double Defense Spending,” Agency France-Presse, 12 October 2010)
Although Azerbaijan’s steady increase in defense spending has tended to spark such an arms race, it also reflects a strategy to compel Armenia to match the increases as a move to pressure the much smaller Armenian budget and to exploit the perception of Armenian economic weakness and vulnerability.  Moreover, despite the serious spike in defense spending, the impact of the substantial outlays over the past several years has actually been very limited in terms of enhancing any real military capacity, mainly due to entrenched corruption within the Azerbaijani armed forces.(For background on corruption within the Azerbaijani armed forces, see: Fuller, Liz and Richard Giragosian)
More recently, however, Azerbaijan has used a significant proportion of its defense budget for the procurement of new, modern offensive weapon systems. In light of this virtual “arms race” of rising defense spending, matched by a new round of rearmament, any further deliveries of offensive weapons need to be discouraged or deterred, most logically by strengthening the currently non-binding arms embargoes imposed on the parties to the conflict by the OSCE and the United Nations.  Such a move may also help to restrain all sides from any further buildup and would reiterate that there is no military solution to the Karabagh conflict.  It would also help in “re-freezing” the Karabagh conflict and reimpose some control over the already delicate military balance of power in the region.
Expand the Stakeholders: A Greater Role for the EU
Facing such a threat of renewed war and an increasingly fragile ceasefire, there is an obvious need to ease tension and “refreeze” the situation, most notably by bringing in the EU, to become more directly engaged, not as a replacement or rival for the OSCE, but to strengthen and support both the mediation effort and the ceasefire monitoring mission.  Such a greater EU role is not only feasible; it is also desirable as a means to expand the power of stakeholders in preventing and preempting any outbreak of war in the South Caucasus.
And there has been such a call for greater EU engagement already. In September 2010, the Brussels-based European Friends of Armenia (EuFoA) released a survey of opinions among Members of the European Parliament regarding Europe’s option in Nagorno Karabagh.  That survey, prepared by Sargis Ghazaryan, found that “the most relevant finding” was that “sending a permanent non-military EU observer mission to the region and upgrading the EU’s commitment to a peaceful settlement in the region by contributing to democratic capability building are the best ways of avoiding military escalations in Nagorno Karabagh.” (Ghazaryan, Sargis, “Europe’s options in Nagorno-Karabakh. An analysis of views of the European Parliament,” European Friends of Armenia (EuFoA), September 2010, P.4.) Additionally, such an effort would also bolster the “back to basics” diplomatic approach of the OSCE Minsk Group and help in addressing the underlying lack of trust among the parties to the Karabagh conflict by introducing a greater degree of transparency in the peace process.
Thus, the Karabagh issue now poses a crucial test of the ambitions of the European Union (EU) to play a wider role in fostering security and stability.  And in a broader sense, this is also a test for the OSCE Minsk Group, as the threat of war only suggests that it may be time for the EU to step in, not to replace the Minsk Group, but to more actively support its efforts, especially as Nagorno Karabagh is the only conflict within wider Europe where the EU has no role whatsoever.
Director - Regional Studies Center (RSC) in Yerevan
5.07.2012 - Hit : 2136

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