As one of the four ‘’frozen-conflicts’’ in the post-Soviet space entered its fourth decade, an unprecedented eruption of violence threatens the status quo of the last decades, confirming the belief that Nagorno-Karabakh is actually nowhere near as ‘’frozen’’. More specifically, on September 27, the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan once again broke out around the contested territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijan declared state of war and Armenia martial law. This time, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, named Armenia’s withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh as the only precondition for terminating the offensive. According to reports, more than 230 people have already lost their lives from both sides during the first week of the fighting. As of now, the presence of drones, missile strikes and the shot down of an Armenian helicopter have been reported. Unlike usual violations of the ceasefires, the situation has yet to be shifted back towards diplomatic means, and the fighting has been prolonged.
A strained atmosphere
The status quo-imposed by the Russian brokered cease-fire in 1994, favored Armenia, since Yerevan managed to keep the disputed area and its surrounding districts under its control. All these years there were a plethora of ceasefire violations, and over the last decade at an increasing rate. The highlight of these violations was in 2016, when more than 120 people lost their lives from both sides, at an incident that reminded the volatility of the current status quo. In what is known today as the ‘’Four-day war’’, Azerbaijan managed to seize small yet strategically valuable land, and up to 200 people on both sides were killed.
For years, the momentum has been increasingly favorable for Baku, due to its rapidly rising economy. Despite its economic overdependence on oil and gas exports, accounting for more than 90 % of its total exports and 75% of government’s revenues, and the rapid decline of oil prices in the last decade, its GDP growth averaged 8.54% since 2000. This has been reflected on its massive military expenditure. Indicatively, in 2015 Azerbaijan become the 2nd highest arms importer in Europe. As a result, the balance has fundamentally shifted since 1994, with Azerbaijan enjoying the upper hand both in military and economic means. Moreover, Baku remains the least isolated actor, given its multidimensional foreign policy. On the contrary, landlocked Armenia suffers from economic exclusion from regional projects due to Azerbaijan’s blockade. Diplomatically, remains relatively isolated and defensively relied on Russia, thanks to the presence of 5,000 Russian military personnel in its territory.
Overall, the rapid militarisation, the rise of war rhetoric by both sides and increasing fire violations have not only stalled the resolution process but also led into a toxic and increasingly volatile atmosphere.
An unprecedented situation
Nevertheless, the current conflict should be considered as the gravest event since the implementation of the ceasefire in 1994, having two fundamental qualitative differences that should not be omitted, compared to the ‘’four-day war’’ of 2016.
First, even though Azerbaijan’s previous offenses, including the one in 2016, appeared to serve mostly political goals, attempting to press Armenia towards a more flexible approach in the negotiations, the ongoing clash seems to serve primarily military goals. It demonstrated an active attempt to terminate the deadlock, following the refutation of early hopes brought by Pashinyan’s rise in power as the prime minister of Armenia. Indeed, the large scale of the current operation and the accelerating pace of the fighting indicate the prioritisation of military over political goals, and the most possible goal is the recapture of the two territories surrounding the disputed area that have witnessed the heaviest fighting, the districts of Fuzuli and Jabrayil.
Second, Turkey has stepped up with a direct involvement in the conflict, departing from its previous restrained stance as a political and diplomatic backer of Azerbaijan. Armenia announced that a Turkish F16 shot down an Armenian SU-25 last Tuesday. Despite Ankara’s denial, President Macron himself has vocally condemned Turkey’s role, explicitly stating that Syrian rebel fighters have been deployed by private Turkish security companies in support of Azerbaijan’s forces, confirming the early reports of the Syrian observatory for human rights . Turkey’s active role in South Caucasus should not be examined in a vacuum. Instead it should be analysed under the broader prism of its current ongoing military presence in three other regional theaters: Iraq, Libya and Syria. Likewise, Libya and Syria, Turkey finds itself supporting opposite sides with Russia. Nagorno-Karabakh is expected to be added as another bargaining chip in its transactional foreign policy vis-a-vis both EU and Russia.
The way forward
The current international context and the lack of serious and credible US involvement has emboldened Erdogan’s ambitious leadership. Meanwhile, the EU or OSCE, through its intergovernmental Minsk group, have yet to achieve any tangible steps towards a lasting resolution. The EU has avoided applying any conflict-related conditionality, when dealing with Azerbaijan and Armenia through its ENP. While Russia remains the primary mediator, in an area long considered part of its near abroad doctrine, Turkey will continue exploring ways of increasing its leverage and its regional influence, in line with AKP’s ambitious pro-Islamic doctrine. However, its leadership is aware of Russia’s primacy in south Caucasus and will avoid risking any direct confrontation. Instead, Ankara will keep relying mostly on hybrid warfare tactics, seeking concrete trade-offs in other open fronts by either EU or Russia in exchange of a more constructive role toward conciliation.
As the fighting continues, the absence of talks creates an unprecedented situation. Therefore, it is necessary for the international community, the major mediators (France, Russia, USA) but also the EU to step up and move beyond verbal condemnation, presenting both leaderships with the concrete incentives that will force them back to the negotiating table. Long omitted by the West, despite its strategic interest in terms of energy, migration and counter-terrorism, the situation in the South Caucasus presents the EU with a unique opportunity for ad-hoc coordination and selective re-engagement with Russia, on the grounds of common interest and in line with EU’s newest doctrine of ‘’principled pragmatism’’ and without downplaying its unresolved issues with the Kremlin.