Armenia, Azerbaijan on the brink – again

Conflict in the South Caucasus could break out for the third time in as many decades. But a compromise may still be possible.

The 'We Are Our Mountains' sculpture in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The 'We Are Our Mountains' sculpture in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Credit: 79Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

These are precarious days in the South Caucasus. A humanitarian crisis in the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorny Karabakh, which is effectively sealed off by the Azerbaijani authorities, worsens by the day. Azerbaijan is intent on speeding up the capture of a territory it has not controlled since Soviet times, and has given the enclave’s remaining Armenians an ultimatum to surrender and submit to its terms.

The world needs to take more notice, not just for humanitarian reasons, but also because of the risk of a new Karabakh conflict – the third in a little over 30 years – against a backdrop of unprecedented diplomatic activity, with high-level meetings between Armenian and Azerbaijani officials in Brussels, Washington and Moscow.

The conflict has always been defined by force and ethnic cleansing (by each side in turn), rather than diplomacy, and the prospects are little better than before. The first war over the Armenian-majority province of Nagorny (‘Mountainous’) Karabakh dates back to the final years of the Soviet Union in the 1990s; it ended with an Armenian victory and the mass displacement of Azerbaijanis. In 2020, Azerbaijan went back to war and re-conquered almost all the territory it had lost. Despite this, most of the Armenians of Karabakh remained in their homeland, albeit in a much weakened position, winning a reprieve with the deployment of a small Russian peacekeeping force.

Last December, Azerbaijan effectively put the remaining Armenians under siege by cutting their only access to Armenia, source of goods and energy, through the road known as the Lachin Corridor. Families were divided and deliveries gradually cut off. (The Armenians say there are 120,000 people remaining in Karabakh; the actual number is lower than that, but hard to verify.)

Only small numbers of people, with serious medical issues, were able to come and go on journeys organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (and even those convoys are disrupted). For a while, the only option was for the Karabakhis to buy supplies, at exorbitant prices, from Russian peacekeepers, who were running what is essentially a business racket. Even that option stopped working a few weeks ago. Basic supplies have been running low in Karabakh, and the shop shelves are empty

‘There is no petrol, no diesel, no gas. People are walking everywhere. If a farmer harvests something he can’t sell it,’ a local resident told me last week, especially upset about the situation for children. He was getting ready to go to the funeral of his wife’s relative on foot for lack of fuel. She herself could not attend, being stuck in Yerevan, the Armenian capital.

After the latest round of talks, the main facilitator, EU Council President Charles Michel, reiterated the call for the re-opening of the Lachin Corridor and noted Azerbaijan’s offer to open the road from the nearby Azerbaijani city of Aghdam. He said: ‘I see both options as important and encourage humanitarian deliveries from both sides.’ The option of deliveries from Aghdam has not yet been organised and, after years of conflict, the Karabakh Armenians are extremely fearful. EU High Representative Josep Borrell clarified that the Azerbaijani offer should complement the delivery of supplies from Armenia. It was not an alternative to it. The United States and United Nations human rights experts, among many others, have also called for the Lachin road to be reopened.

President Ilham Aliyev, however, believes he is on a roll. Since his military victory in 2020 he has used both diplomacy and coercion to try to complete his agenda vis-à-vis the Armenians. Already self-confident, as a non-aligned power that deals with both Russia and the West, he feels boosted by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia and the West are both preoccupied, and the brazen attack on Ukraine has strengthened the international consensus in supporting a country’s territorial integrity to the detriment of a secessionist minority. Even Armenia has bitten the bullet by renouncing its claims on the Armenians of Karabakh seceding from Azerbaijan.

Aliyev’s self-confidence is also reflected in a tightening of the screws domestically. Azerbaijan is already a one-party autocracy. Last month, Gubad Ibadoghlu, a leading independent academic and senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, was arrested in Baku, on palpably false charges. Three small opposition parties, already struggling to survive, now face an outright ban.

Aliyev’s message to the Armenians is brutally tough. In a speech delivered on 28 May, he told the Karabakh Armenians that they needed to ‘bend their necks’ and accept full integration into Azerbaijan. There is no offer of territorial autonomy on the table, the Armenians must settle for living as ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan, with as yet unspecified cultural and educational rights. If they dismantled all their local parliament and other self-governing structures they might be offered an amnesty. (But not now. On 29 July, a 68-year-old Armenian being evacuated from Karabakh to Armenia by the Red Cross for medical reasons was detained on by the Azerbaijanis and accused of war crimes.)

The threat of more war is always there. Lately there has been chatter in Baku about ‘demilitarising’ the Armenian military force that remains in Karabakh. On 24 July an Azerbaijani commentator speculated out loud about another conflict, declaring that ‘conducting a military operation to disarm the separatists is a matter of time’.

A dangerous unknown quantity is the Armenian fighting force that remains in Karabakh. Numbering around 5,000 men, it is almost certainly still in possession of heavy weapons. In the black-and-white contours of the conflict this is either a ‘self-defence army’ protecting the Armenians of Karabakh from destruction by Azerbaijan, or it is Armenian ‘illegal armed formations’, which threaten the security of Azerbaijan. The peaceful disarmament and demobilisation of this fighting force has not yet been properly discussed in negotiations. If there is a new Azerbaijani operation, many of them are likely to fight what might be a virtually suicidal battle. In Yerevan I heard the grim word ‘Masada’ used in anticipation of this scenario.

The paradox of the situation is this is also a time of dynamic diplomacy between the leaders in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The European Union has taken the diplomatic lead with Michel chairing six rounds of talks between Armenian leader Nikol Pashinyan and Aliyev. On other issues the two countries are closer than they have ever been to agreement: a deal on mutual sovereign recognition, border delimitation, the modalities for a road and rail link crossing Armenian territory between western Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. Their last meeting, in Brussels on 15 July, was reported to have been productive. Washington has joined in, by mediating discussion of a ‘peace agreement’ or, more precisely, a bilateral treaty which seeks to normalise relations between two countries, which have been at war since they gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

To complicate things, there is competitive diplomacy going on, with Moscow, traditionally the main broker in this conflict, also keeping up a mediation track. On the ground, Russia has been strangely passive since the Ukraine war began, with its peacekeeping force standing by and watching as events unfold in Karabakh. That is in contrast to Russian statements at the end of the 2020 war, when President Putin seemed determined to establish a long-term military base in Karabakh and called on Karabakh Armenians who had fled during the conflict to return to their homeland and be assured of Russian protection. This gives rise to speculation that Moscow either lacks the capacity to act, given its weakness and distraction in Ukraine, or that it has struck secret deals with Baku (which may be on other matters, not that of Karabakh).

Yet the Russians still want to be the main arbiter of the conflict. On 25 July, the Russian foreign ministry hosted talks with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers about normalising relations. The meeting was a direct copy of the US-chaired talks – the same format, the same agenda, the same document – but there was no mention of Washington. Moscow insists that a normalisation treaty will be signed on Russian soil, implying that a Western-brokered treaty might be jeopardised.

The progress in bilateral talks is mostly due to the courageous stand taken by Pashinyan. ‘We have broken all the taboos,’ one Armenian official told me in Yerevan in June. Despite the history of conflict, Pashinyan has authorised his envoys to pursue talks with both of Armenia’s historic adversaries, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Despite having no diplomatic relations with Turkey, he attended Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inauguration as president in June. In theory, Armenia could be normalising relations with both Azerbaijan and Turkey this year.

The well-known warning that half of all peace agreements break down within five years (as calculated by the University of Uppsala) looks especially pertinent with regard to a possible Armenia-Azerbaijan ‘peace treaty’. The Karabakh question lurks as the other obvious spoiler. It has been the main point of discord dividing the two nations since at least the early 20th century, and defined the history of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The biggest taboo Pashinyan has broken is to say that he recognises the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, thereby renouncing Yerevan’s claims on Karabakh. Despite this concession, no Armenian leader will sign a peace agreement with Baku that is seen to sell out the Armenian population of Karabakh. The issue, Pashinyan’s government says, is now not about sovereignty but about the ‘rights and security’ of the Karabakh Armenians and international guarantees. In the view of the Armenian official I spoke to, if this commitment is not forthcoming from Azerbaijan, ‘a peace treaty can become a war treaty’.

Yet an Azerbaijani official I spoke to emphasised that Baku is not inclined to compromise. ‘The balance of power has changed, they need to understand,’ he told me. And for sure Aliyev looks in no mood to be generous. From his perspective, Azerbaijan – and he personally – were humiliated for decades after Armenian forces not only won the war of the 1990s but occupied in whole or part seven Azerbaijan regions which have no Armenian population but from which more than half a million Azerbaijanis were forced to flee. In their view, this is a dispute where force has decided the key outcomes and they must now press home their advantage.

That most of the Azerbaijani public does not feel generous towards the Armenians is not just the result of propaganda. In 2020 and 2021, once Azerbaijan recovered the large areas of territory it had lost in the 1990s, people were able to see that the Armenians had not just occupied the lands but systematically destroyed all the towns and villages there, making them uninhabitable. The heralded ‘Great Return’ of hundreds of thousands of people displaced from these territories has been much slower than anticipated, due to the scale of reconstruction needed and the heavy mining of all these areas. Given all this, Azerbaijanis do not feel much empathy for the Armenians of Karabakh.

‘They keep everyone hostage,’ my Azerbaijani interlocutor said of the Karabakh Armenians. This is the prevailing view in Baku: that the Armenians of Karabakh are still holding out for secession from Azerbaijan and need to be taught a lesson.

Over the years, Karabakhi leaders have also talked tough over the years and rejected options that would have given them much more than they have today. Supported by influential voices in Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora, they invested in a ‘Recognize Artsakh’ project, calling for international recognition of their territory under an old Armenian name, whose use, by implication, excluded any Azerbaijani presence or identity there.

A much smaller number of Armenians argued for compromise, while their country was on top. Prominent among these was the scholar and diplomat Gerard Libaridian, who helped frame a plan in 1997 on behalf of then president Levon Ter-Petrosian, which was rejected by Armenian hardliners and Karabakhi leaders. Within a year, both he and Ter-Petrosian had been ousted.

Libaridian writes how Karabakh had risen above politics to become an untouchable topic, making intelligent compromise almost impossible: ‘The Karabakh conflict was transferred from the political/diplomatic plane to the realm of beliefs, taboos and illusions – illusions and sanctities not open to criticism. The leaders of Karabakh were thus spared any critique, their policies not subject to scrutiny or analysis as would any policy be normally.’

Even after the 2020 war, the Karabakhis continued to put their hope on outside patrons – Russia, France, or the Armenian diaspora – to come to their rescue.

In the last few months a tentative dialogue has begun between the Karabakh Armenians and Baku, but ran into trouble almost immediately. A confidential meeting in Bulgaria, organised with US facilitation, was called off after the Russians told the Karabakh Armenian representative not to attend. Another meeting in Slovakia was also called off. The two sides still cannot agree where to meet, who should attend, nor what the agenda should be.

It is hard to predict success in negotiations in which there is such a brutal asymmetry in the power relationship. International experience from different conflicts suggests that if there is to be a peace under which Karabakh and its people are integrated within Azerbaijan there is a long list of difficult issues which need to be addressed – including property rights, passports, police, local government structures, education and language rights. Tackling them would require expert international facilitation and plenty of time.

Time is certainly required to resolve a conflict whose levels of complication go as deep as those of Cyprus, Kashmir, and Jerusalem. Yet Aliyev looks like he is a man in a hurry. He may be keen to exploit a moment when the Russians are not pushing him on the Karabakh issue, and where Western opinion on Azerbaijan is at best divided as to whether it is a useful strategic partner or not.

Is the Azerbaijani president submitting to hubris? My Karabakh Armenian friend reflected, ‘Victory stops a man thinking soberly about a situation. That person loses a sense of reality. That was our leaders back then – and Azerbaijan now.’

In other words, is Aliyev trying to secure the total capitulation of the Karabakh Armenians and Armenia itself? And if so is he overplaying his hand? Or is he just playing a game of brinkmanship, while being open to a compromise in the name of a deal with Armenia that keeps his relationship with the West intact and satisfies the Russians? Western policy will be crucial here. This long hot summer, which will be consequential in the lives of many people in Karabakh – and not only there – will soon give us an answer.



Thomas de Waal