In Nagorno-Karabakh, an Old Caucasus War Flares Anew

Deadliest Fighting in 20 Years is Encouraged by Crisis in Ukraine

The often-forgotten conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh has flared this summer into the worst violence since a 1994 truce, killing at least eighteen soldiers in recent weeks. The surge in fighting not only shows that renewed, all-out warfare is a danger; it also lets Russia step in as mediator to secure its own role in the Caucasus. The government of President Vladimir Putin, driven by its nationalist, imperialist foreign policy, is unlikely to want truly to resolve the fight, which keeps the region from serving as a secure transit route for oil, gas or other Western interests.

The spate of shootouts, mortar and sabotage attacks has given autocrats in the region an opportunity to divert public attention from their coercive policies. Putin used the fighting to portray himself as a peacekeeper, calling the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia to meet in Sochi on August 9. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev used the violence to distract attention from his severe crackdown on non-government organizations, lawyers and media. Authorities detained leading human rights activists, including the longstanding leaders of Armenia-Azerbaijan dialogue efforts, Leyla and Arif Yunus, and charged them with spying, treason, fraud and tax evasion. Other prominent activists have been detained or had their bank accounts frozen.

Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian forces reported eighteen soldiers killed from July 30 to August 4. Official counts often understate the actual casualties, including civilians. This is a significant spike compared with the recent average of thirty people killed a year, mainly by episodic sniper fire or landmine explosions

This fighting comes twenty years after the 1994 ceasefire, which was to be a first step in ending the conflict. But the next steps – a pullback of forces, deployment of peacekeepers and return of displaced persons – never occurred. Ethnic Armenian troops continue to hold Nagorno-Karabakh, which declares independence from Azerbaijan, as well as seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijani territory. Azerbaijan has used its oil revenues to boost its military budget to $3.7 billion last year, twenty times the spending level of a decade ago. In Twitter messages on August 7, President Aliyev stressed Azerbaijan’s intent to recover lands it has lost, saying, “the weaponry and ammunition we have acquired in recent years suggest that we can accomplish any task.”

Much of the tension is due to the disappearance of any prospect for a negotiated settlement. Peace talks mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) since the early 1990s have made no progress since 2011. Azerbaijan and Armenia blame each other for the failure; Baku also lays some responsibility on Russia, which it says demanded deployment of Russian peacekeepers to secure the deal. Burdened with 600,000 displaced persons and with 14 percent of its territory occupied, Azerbaijan has said since 2012 that the talks are basically frozen.

How Ukraine’s Crisis Complicates Nagorno-Karabakh

The Ukraine conflict deepens the sense of hopelessness. Russia’s annexation of Crimea undermined principles that Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed would underpin any deal: non-use of force and territorial integrity. It suggests to Azerbaijan that it, too, might attempt a quick offensive to regain lost territory with only limited international opposition.

As Azerbaijan heard the EU and US voice strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, it voted against Russia in the UN General Assembly over the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea. Azerbaijan hoped to use that vote to remind the West that four UN Security Council resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh from 1993 still require implementation. But now many in Baku are disappointed with the limited effect of EU/US sanctions and consider it another example of the West’s inability to guarantee the territorial integrity principle its governments say they uphold.

Russia’s seizure of Crimea also weakens the right to self-determination, which Azerbaijan and Armenia have agreed should be the third basis of any settlement. Russia’s obvious and profound manipulation of the March 16 referendum in Crimea to support its forcible takeover has undercut the whole idea that such elections can be used as acts of self-determination, for example as part of an effort to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

The Russian takeover of Crimea set back hopes for peace-making in Nagorno-Karabakh in one other way. The Kremlin’s military invasion blatantly violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia, the US, and UK gave Ukraine a security guarantee in exchange for Ukraine’s surrender of its ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal. That makes it unlikely that Armenia will accept similar guarantees in exchange for the territories it occupies.

Providing Cover for Autocrats

For Russia, this summer’s surge in fighting helped divert attention from southeastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops are advancing against the Kremlin’s proxy forces. Moscow was very quick to assert itself as a sole mediator, summoning the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to Sochi. That act circumvented the long-standing international forum for mediation on Nagorno-Karabakh, the OSCE’s Minsk Group, which includes the US and French governments. This should sound familiar: In 2008, after Russia invaded Georgia, it also then took the lead in the Azerbaijani-Armenian talks, succeeding partly in reaffirming Russia’s centrality and influence. This summer’s Nagorno-Karabakh violence gives Moscow another opportunity to demonstrate its ability to promote war or peace in the South Caucasus.

The war also provides some cover to President Aliyev for his new crackdown on Azerbaijani NGOs and journalists. Legislation passed in February requires local NGOs to get government approval, often denied on technicalities, to accept any grant before starting a project. This is quickly sucking resources out of the country’s small, independent NGO sector. In April, journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov was deported from Turkey and immediately arrested upon his arrival in Baku, accused of spying for Armenia. On July 30, one of Azerbaijan’s most vocal human rights activists, Leyla Yunus was sent to jail despite fragile health. Her husband Arif Yunus, respected worldwide for his work on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Islam in Azerbaijan, was jailed on 5 August. Human rights activists Rasul Jafarov and Intigam Aliyev were detained in the first week of August. Local offices or partners of major international donors, including the National Endowment for Democracy, International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), Oxfam GB, the German Marshall Fund, and the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), are under investigation, or have had their bank accounts frozen, according to local press reports.

In Armenia hostility against NGOs is not as deep, but the country is more dependent than ever on Russia and elements of Moscow’s state-led crackdown on civil society are being replayed in Armenia.

This summer, conditions for the resumption of an all-out war are stronger than they have been since the late 1990s. Despite the other crises in the region, governments in Washington, Berlin, London, Paris and other major capitals, should not ignore Nagorno-Karabakh if they hope to have at least as much ability to effect regional peace and stability there as they do today in Ukraine.

Sabine Freizer is based in Istanbul as a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and the Council’s Program on Transatlantic Relations.

A 106-year-old Armenian woman sits in front of her home clutching an AK-47 assault rifle in the Armenian village of Degh, near the border with Azerbaijan, in January 1990. The war between Armenians and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been fought episodically since the 1980s and flared again in early August. (UNITED NATIONS/Armineh Johannes/CCLicense)

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Image: A 106-year-old Armenian villager clutches an AK-47 rifle at her home in Degh, near the border with Azerbaijan, in 1990. The war between Armenians and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, has flared episodically since the 1980s, and killing spiked in early August. (UNITED NATIONS/Armineh Johannes/CCLicense)