Living on the Edge: Fragile Stability in Nagorno-Karabakh

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The dog that did not bark: why there has been no repetition of April 2016

In early 2016 I was interviewing policy-makers and policy analysts on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Though some experts warned of “un-freezing of the conflict”, there seemed to be a consensus among the majority of observers that a major escalation of the conflict was unlikely. Then, in April 2016, came the “four day war”. Several months later, in summer 2016, I was interviewing experts again, and some of them warned of a possible repetition of April events, probably in autumn 2016 or spring 2017. Indeed, since then numerous violent incidents in the zone of conflict took place, and dozens of people on both sides lost their lives. However, so far the predictions about a possible repetition of April events have failed to materialize. So, what have been the factors that, in spite of all the tension, have prevented the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from a new major escalation, and how durable are these factors?

There were good reasons why in the aftermath of the April events some observers were worried about the possibility of a renewed fighting. As it usually happens at times of war, the fighting in April 2016 led to a wave of radicalization on both sides, accompanied by nationalist rhetoric from the top leadership and media to “common people” on social networks. After the fighting was over, there were attempts to revive the peace process, including the meetings in Vienna and in St.Petersburg, as well as shuttle diplomacy carried out by officials from Minsk Group Co-Chair countries. However, all this activity produced little tangible results, as even the limited preliminary agreement regarding establishment of incident investigation mechanisms remained on paper.  Incidents on the contact line and on the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan continued, sometimes they even took place immediately before or after meetings of the presidents or the visits of Minsk Co-Chairs. However, while these incidents continued in the course of the year and cost the lives of dozens of soldiers on both sides, they did not lead to a new escalation.

Calculations of Local Actors

Probably the most important reason why a new escalation did not happen was that both sides, as it turned out, had a reason to avoid a new round of fighting. Obviously, a new campaign would go against the interests of Yerevan and Stepanakert, as, with some reservations, status quo is relatively preferable for the Armenian side. In addition, both Yerevan and Stepanakert had important internal political benchmarks ahead of them: parliamentary elections in Armenia and constitutional referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh. The incumbents, both in Yerevan and Stepanakert, were focused on preserving their power through elections and constitutional changes and a renewed fighting could have led to unpredictable consequences. Hence, the Armenian side was careful not to allow a new escalation to take place, while focusing on re-arranging and strengthening its defenses. Even though Armenian authorities widely used “patriotic” rhetoric to consolidate support and to de-legitimize opponents (e.g. the concept of “nation-army” put forward by the Minister of Defense Vigen Sargsyan), they at the same time emphasized their commitment to peaceful resolution.  

As for the Azerbaijani side, after the April war, many in Armenia were worried that Baku would attempt a new campaign to develop what it presented as military and diplomatic success in the April war: the government and media in Azerbaijan presented the April events as a major victory. Indeed, when it comes to internal politics, the authorities in Baku had good reasons to be satisfied. The social-economic difficulties caused by the falling oil prices, which had led to protests in winter 2015-2016, were overshadowed by the events in Nagorno-Karabakh, as the Azerbaijani society consolidated around the government’s patriotic agenda.

As a result, since the April events the Azerbaijani government has had no reason to up the stakes in Nagorno-Karabakh, at least before it had exhausted all the opportunities to exploit “the four day war” for its internal political goals. The outcome of a new military campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh could be unpredictable, especially taking into account that there would no longer be an element of surprise, and that the April war prompted Yerevan and Stepanakert to work on strengthening their defenses. A failure to achieve significant results could hurt the standing of the incumbent government and boost government critics and adversaries inside Azerbaijan. Therefore, a new escalation will be possible either in case Baku is be confident of its ability to achieve success, or if it considers that the PR effect of the April war has already evaporated. That moment when the calculation in Baku changes, can come at any time: if the socio-economic and political situation deteriorates, the option of “a little victorious war” might again appear on the table. But so far, this has not happened.

International Involvement

Another factor that has helped to prevent a new escalation, at least so far, is the return of the Karabakh issue into the international agenda. Before the April 2016 escalation, it seemed almost forgotten, as global powers were busy with the crises in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere. The conflict was considered to be frozen, even in spite of the many signs that an escalation was imminent. Even though the meetings that took place after the April war produced little result, the continued international activity around the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has helped to avoid a new escalation, at least to a certain extent. In addition, there are signs that the mediators are now more willing to apply pressure to the sides, in order to prevent them from taking steps that might lead to a new escalation. Thus, when recently an Armenian anti-aircraft defense unit was taken down by Azerbaijani forces, the co-chairs, whose statements normally avoid blaming one of the sides explicitly, reacted by calling out the side that initiated incident (obviously, the statement also said that “actions by both sides” violated the ceasefire and were cause for alarm).

Of course, there are differences in the degree of involvement between the major international players. April events, particularly the Russian-brokered ceasefire, as well as the activity of high-level Russian officials in the aftermath of the fighting, showed that it is Russia that is most actively interested in the conflict. Moreover, it seems, the “Western partners”, to use a term preferred by Russian diplomats, do not mind that Russia may be playing a leading role at this stage. While the limited escalation of the kind that took place in April 2016 allowed Russia to assert its role as the most influential player in the region, renewed hostilities, especially a full-blown war, would put Moscow in a difficult situation. So far Russia has maintained a balance between Armenia, “a strategic ally”, and Azerbaijan, “a strategic partner”. However, a new escalation, if it goes out of control, could force Russia to make a reluctant choice between the sides: if fighting spreads to the internationally recognized territory of the Republic of Armenia, Russia would be obliged to intervene in the conflict.

Moreover, a new escalation, if it spreads to the internationally recognized territory of the Republic of Armenia, could create a crisis in the Russian-dominated security organization CSTO. CSTO is obliged to aid its member Armenia in case of attack on its territory, however some CSTO members, particularly Belarus and Kazakhstan may break ranks in order to preserve relations with Azerbaijan. Already in April 2016 Belarus and Kazakhstan expressed positions that were more sympathetic to Azerbaijan than to Armenia, which created tension within the CSTO. A new escalation in Karabakh could lead to a more serious crisis in CSTO, undermining its role as the main security alliance in the post-Soviet space, a development that Russia is anxious to avoid. Thus, Russia is also today interested in preventing an escalation in Karabakh.

Another factor at work may be the fact that Turkey and Russia, it seems, have managed to reconcile some of their differences. The confrontation between Russia and Turkey, which started after the shooting down of the Russian plane in 2015, was among the factors that led to the April escalation. While, the theory that the April events were a conspiracy organized by Turkey in order to hurt Russia, expressed at the time by some observers seems far-fetched, it is true that the overall level of tension in the region increased as a result of the Turkey-Russia confrontation. Besides, during that period, Ankara, in a competition with Russia over influence in Azerbaijan, actively supported Baku, which may have encouraged Azerbaijan’s government to take decisive steps. Current détente between Russia and Turkey, even though it makes many Armenians nervous, has reduced the tension in the region, and thus has so far helped to maintain the balance.

What Can Go Wrong?

While everything said above explains why so far an escalation has not happened, it would be an exaggeration to say that these factors can be considered a ground for optimism in the long-term or even medium-term perspective. It is true that a major all-out war is unlikely, as that would mean massive destruction on all sides, of a scale that is unacceptable for both parties. A full-scale war could also lead to involvement of Russia and other powers from the region and beyond, so global and regional players have an interest in preventing that from happening. However, as the time passes, the likelihood of a new limited campaign, similar to “the April war” is increasing. The internal PR effect of the April war in Azerbaijan is warning off, precisely at a time when there are signs of trouble in Azerbaijani economy. As the recent incidents on the contact line, as well as the closure of the OSCE office in Yerevan due to Azerbaijani veto suggests, Baku is increasing the pressure both in military and diplomatic spheres. On the other hand, after each incident on the line of contact, voices appear in Armenia that are calling for an “asymmetric” retaliation, to force Azerbaijan to abandon its tactic of attrition. All this means that the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh can explode at any moment, and more than ever, there is need for the efforts of the international community to prevent this negative scenario from unfolding.