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Escalating violence in Nagorno-Karabakh: Local solutions offer the main hope

Flickr/Michele Finotto.
A photo of the countryside near Stepanakert, Flickr/Michele Finotto.

While details remain scarce, the fighting that has erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan appears to be more intense than the skirmishes that killed at least a dozen people in the summer of 2020. At the time of writing, roughly 100 people, both civilians and military personnel, have been killed since Sunday, and fighting continues. 

Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan has so far been able to establish a military advantage that can be translated into significant battlefield gains. However, they have each declared martial law and begun to mobilize their national armed forces fully, with an attendant risk that fighting will escalate. Since 1992 a local self-defence force has operated in Nagorno-Karabakh and this force was fully mobilized on 27 September and participates in the fighting.

Periodic flare-ups separated by periods of relative stability has been the pattern in a conflict that stretches back to the early 1990s and beyond. However, concerns that local violence might escalate into something more serious has perhaps become more pronounced at a time when European governments appear to be less risk-averse, use militarized language and frequently link disputes to the defence of sovereignty.

International bodies, including the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union, immediately responded to the fighting with calls for restraint, respect for a ceasefire, and meaningful negotiations leading to a sustainable peace. However, to date a settlement has proved elusive and attention has increasingly focused on humanitarian relief and enhanced human security for the local population to reduce the worst impacts of a conflict that seems intractable.

The conflict

The conflict is primarily over control of the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, which lies close to its border with Armenia. At the heart of the current conflict is a failure to balance two principles intrinsic to the European cooperative security system: the inviolability of borders and national self-determination. However, other factors have also been at play, including matters of religion, culture and ethnicity, as the population of Nagorno-Karabakh is overwhelmingly of Armenian origin and Christian faith (Azerbaijan is a constitutionally secular state, but the majority of its population are Muslim). The energy geopolitics surrounding pipelines linking the Caspian Sea to Europe that pass close to the contested territory (and that have on occasion been attacked) have raised the significance of the conflict for several other states. The conflict has been a significant political factor in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the defence of what are seen as vital national interests has been used to rally political support. 

Azerbaijan has emphasized that in the Helsinki Final Act (the agreement that emerged from the 1975 summit of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which led to the OSCE’s creation), signatory European states pledged to refrain now and in the future from assaulting borders or from any seizure of part or all of the territory of any OSCE member state. According to Azerbaijan, the conflict is the result of an aggression committed by Armenia that has led to an illegal occupation of the territory.

Armenia, for its part, has emphasized the obligation to respect the right to self-determination that is also codified in the Helsinki Final Act, which states that ‘all peoples always have the right, in full freedom, to determine, when and as they wish, their internal and external political status . . .’. To Armenia, the conflict reflects the failure of Azerbaijan to recognize the legitimate call for a Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (referred to as the Republic of Artsakh by Armenia) made by the local population in a vote of the local parliament and in a subsequent confirmatory referendum.

The two countries’ were fixed in the turbulent transition that took place as the Soviet Union dissolved (both had been part of the Soviet Union, and declared their independence in the closing months of 1991). In 1994 a Russian-brokered ceasefire brought the most violent phase of the conflict to an end but left an enclave within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan outside the control of the central authorities, a situation that has remained largely unchanged ever since.  

Positions have hardened through the experience of armed conflict. Azerbaijani leaders insist that ‘not one inch’ of occupied territory—including not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also land that provides Armenia with access to it—can remain outside the control of Azerbaijan. Armenia insists on self-determination for a Republic of Artsakh ‘without any limitation’.

Militarized rhetoric linked to a zero-sum definition of sovereignty means that the risk of violence is never far from the surface. Fighting has erupted periodically, often triggered by the combination of actions by Armenia that appear to entrench and consolidate the status quo and the determination of Azerbaijan to contest such moves. A flare-up of fighting in 2016 claimed more than 200 lives. 

The current fighting appears to involve the use of more sophisticated weapons acquired from foreign suppliers, including long-range rocket artillery, unmanned combat aerial vehicles and reconnaissance and surveillance drones. Azerbaijan has used the resources provided through the sale of oil and gas to buy arms from a range of suppliers and establish a domestic arms industry, while military assistance from Russia has enabled Armenia to balance Azerbaijani military modernization. 

External partners with the potential to change the military balance have not attempted to do so up to now. Russia is a military ally of Armenia while Turkey has been a long-term supporter of the position of Azerbaijan. Military equipment supplied by Russia and Turkey is being used in the current fighting. The possibility that it will escalate carries a certain risk that larger powers will be drawn into the conflict more directly. However, Russia has made it clear that the nature of the conflict puts it outside the mandate of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at present, while statements by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey that it is now high time to resolve the conflict do not appear to signal direct military engagement to tip the balance in favour of Azerbaijan.

International diplomacy

After two years of negotiations the OSCE established the so-called Minsk Group in 1994 to help create conditions in which a durable settlement could be negotiated. Russia, France and the United States co-chair the Minsk Group, and its permanent members are Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland and Turkey, along with Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Minsk Group has consistently asserted that the only way to bridge the incompatible maximalist positions of the conflict parties is to create local conditions where the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the population are fully respected and where people can exercise their civil, political, economic, social, cultural and religious rights freely.

Resistance to compromises that would facilitate a stable political settlement could be lowered under these conditions, because the public would be reassured about their personal security. However, decades of conflict during which authorities have given military security a high priority has made the ground in which the principles codified in the Helsinki Final Act could take root less fertile. The Minsk Group’s recent statements have been limited to exhorting warring parties to respect ceasefire arrangements and abstain from provocative statements and actions. 

The wider European security context has also deteriorated in ways that tend to reduce cooperation. In the early 1990s it was generally regarded as natural that Russia would play the central role in resolving the conflicts that erupted on the territory of the former Soviet Union. However, after three decades, several of the post-Soviet conflicts remain unresolved, and the view has taken hold that this is at least in part because Russia finds unresolved conflicts politically convenient. Azerbaijan has developed a close partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) over time, and various senior Azerbaijani leaders see membership as the final objective. However, Azerbaijan has never received any commitment from NATO regarding membership and the Alliance has made the unresolved armed conflict a general barrier to entry.

The hope that presidential and parliamentary elections in Armenia in 2018 would facilitate a lasting settlement to the conflict have also dissipated, as informal bilateral meetings between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan did not improve acrimonious relations. A proposal for a negotiated settlement put forward by the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, in the summer of 2020 was rejected out of hand by Azerbaijan, which characterized the content as an act of bad faith. 

Promoting cooperation at the local level 

Unresolved conflicts multiply and exacerbate a range of indirect human security risks alongside the direct threat caused by violent clashes. The quality of life of people trapped in contested spaces is reduced by the collapse of infrastructure and denial of public services. The OSCE and the UN have both argued for apolitical and technical initiatives targeted to help the local populations maintain a degree of normal life where long-standing conflicts in Europe remain unresolved. 

Assuming the present bout of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh dies down without escalation, this approach perhaps offers the best hope for moving towards resolution of the conflict. At a time when comprehensive diplomatic solutions are elusive, a focus on commonly agreed risks and threats, which can be tackled technically without identity-based impediments, could engage grassroots actors in regional networks and platforms. Over time this might build relationships that help unlock diplomatic activities.

As the willingness to find cooperative solutions to security problems gradually evaporates across Europe, the promotion of human security initiatives is the slender reed on which hopes for progress increasingly rely.



Dr Ian Anthony was the Director of SIPRI’s European Security Programme.