July 14, 2023
IntelBrief: On Shaky Ground: Washington Talks Marred by Renewed Violence in Nagorno-Karabakh
Amidst U.S.-led peace talks in Washington D.C., violent skirmishes in the historically disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh erupted again between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops toward the end of June. Tensions between the two countries remain high after the violence, which left four Armenian servicemen dead. These attacks followed allegations by Azerbaijan of an Armenian assault that wounded one of its soldiers, while Armenia reported breaches of the ceasefire by Azerbaijan. This tit-for-tat escalation is not new in a region that has remained a hotbed of conflict dating back to the 1990s. Despite the fighting, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that further progress has been made toward a peace agreement during the negotiations. Azerbaijan and Armenia’s foreign ministers provided vague comments echoing Blinken’s sentiment, stating that the countries have an advanced mutual understanding of a draft agreement. These statements have stoked skepticism among experts about the feasibility of achieving a successful settlement between the two states and longtime adversaries. Admittedly, Blinken also acknowledged that substantial work lies ahead. Armenia aims to delimit the territory’s border based on 1975 Soviet-era maps, a position at odds with Azerbaijan's, which advocates for the “analysis and examination of legally binding documents instead of relying on a particular map.” Further, Armenia has consistently maintained a hard line surrounding international mechanisms to ensure the rights of Armenians in the territory, while Azerbaijan argues that these are internal issues, and as such, refuses to consider these demands.
The Washington-held negotiations came on the heels of Moscow’s own peace talks on May 25th, where Russian President Vladimir Putin also touted further progress toward a peace agreement, with both countries publicly recognizing each other’s territorial integrity. Both Russia and, more recently, the U.S. continue to be major players in this frozen conflict, a term used to describe this and three other unsettled disputes in the South Caucasus. The U.S.’s growing role in peace negotiations has reportedly increased tensions with Russia, which has historically acted as a mediator. Nagorno-Karabakh, a de jure territory of Azerbaijan, is predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians. Although the region is internationally recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan, it is governed by the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, referring to the Armenian name of the territory. This conflict spans several centuries but was reignited during the Soviet era due to its "nationalities policy," which designated the region as an autonomous oblast, strengthening the ethnic identity of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh while situating them within the borders of Azerbaijan and assimilating them under the Soviet Union's hegemony. Many historians believe that this was a deliberate policy designed to increase the territory’s vulnerability and dependency on Moscow. This peace proved fragile, however, demonstrated by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As former Soviet republics sought to define borders and reaffirm national identities, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh flared anew, resulting in two deadly wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994 and 2020. In between these wars, the conflict remained in an unstable or "frozen" state, with sporadic episodes of violence mediated by Russian peacekeeping troops.
Despite Moscow’s role in mediating the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, its intentions have long been suspect to many regional experts, who believe that Russian interests benefit from the ongoing nature of this frozen conflict. Russia has been a key player in the region, in charge of administering peacekeeping troops, but has never been considered impartial. Armenia is a close ally of Russia, while Azerbaijan has long been wary of Russia’s hegemony over the South Caucasus, often closely aligning with Türkiye. Despite Russia’s lack of neutrality, Armenia has recently experienced little advantage from its alliance. Nikol Pashinyan, the Prime Minister of Armenia, has been a vocal critic about the perceived shortfall in support Armenia received from Moscow during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Recently, fresh tensions have emerged between the Armenian government and the Russian-backed state minister of the Armenian separatist region in Nagorno-Karabakh. The separatists had called on the Armenian government to halt negotiations in Washington following the violent clashes and held Pashinyan responsible for the attacks. It is widely believed that Russia benefits from a loyal but weak and dependent Yerevan. Easing border restrictions with Armenia's neighbors, Azerbaijan and Türkiye, would likely introduce new trade and energy opportunities for Armenia, a country that currently relies heavily on Russian exports. Notably, the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the territory further solidifies Russia’s influence over its “backyard” and traditional sphere of influence in the region.
On the other hand, Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine has presented an opportunity for Western nations, primarily the U.S., to increase its involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh. Peace in this region aligns with Western interests, as it could significantly bolster energy security, particularly for Western Europe, which has recently struggled with energy supply issues after heavily reducing its dependency on Russian oil. Rising energy costs have served as a flashpoint in Europe, causing political instability and providing fodder for far-left and far-right populist messaging. Peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan would also potentially curb Russia’s influence over the South Caucasus and quite possibly deter further invasions similar to Ukraine. Many experts have noted Russia's displeasure with increased Western intervention in the dispute. They suspect any peace agreement will favor Azerbaijan, which has acted unfavorably to Moscow, such as constructing a checkpoint in the Lachin corridor. This corridor, a perennial conflict flashpoint that connects Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, falls under the jurisdiction of Russian peacekeepers as per the November 2020 ceasefire agreement. By closing the corridor, Azerbaijan directly violated the agreement. Moreover, Armenia, increasingly frustrated with Moscow's perceived lack of intervention, requested the deployment of an EU monitoring mission to the shared border with Azerbaijan, which became operational in February. At the same time, Armenia postponed the deployment of forces from the Russian-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization.
However, even with increased negotiations, the recent eruption of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh during the Washington-led talks does not inspire confidence in the prospect of sustainable peace between the two nations. The lack of further substantial progress since May contributes to a ubiquitous ambiguity surrounding peace, as many experts agree that these intermittent violent escalations will persist until a formal peace agreement is reached. With Russia's role in this conflict prompting questions among observers, and the West’s growing involvement in negotiations raising tensions, Nagorno-Karabakh could very well be another proxy battleground for escalation, complicated by existing tensions related to Ukraine and other geopolitical flashpoints.