The four-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh
In the early hours of 2 April fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan suddenly broke out in the Karabakh conflict zone. Both sides accused each other of launching the military action, although everything indicates that Azerbaijan took the initiative, and as a result of the fighting it managed to slightly shift the front line in its favour. Both sides used heavy weapons in the clashes; dozens of soldiers from both armies were killed, and likely several civilians as well. The clashes continued until 5 April, and ended with both sides unexpectedly announcing a ceasefire. At the same time a resumption of peace talks was announced.
Regardless of whether this ceasefire will be observed or not, the intensive clashes over the four-day period revealed the balance of military power between the two sides. Although Azerbaijan’s success was merely symbolic, it has had the effect of overcoming the nation’s trauma at losing the previous war. However, the main political beneficiary of the four-day conflict is Russia, which has strengthened its position as the de facto principal conciliator and guarantor of the ceasefire (while maintaining its declared support for the Minsk Group of the OSCE, of which it is a member). It cannot be ruled out that the current phase of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is part of a broader Russian plan aimed at changing the situation around the Karabakh conflict, and at introducing Russian troops into the region as peacekeepers. This would strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position in the Caucasus, and would mean that Western influence is being marginalised.
The battle and the ceasefire
Fighting broke out in the morning of 2 April. Azerbaijan’s forces launched an offensive into the territories occupied by Armenian forces (i.e. the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, strongly supported by the army of Armenia) from the north-east and the south-east. Although Baku claimed that the attack was a response to Armenian shelling civilian sites in Azerbaijan, it was most likely an attempt to break through or test the Armenian lines of defence, although not to actually retake Karabakh from Armenian hands. In the course of the fierce fighting, both sides used all types of weapons at their disposal (tanks, heavy artillery, rocket launchers, and to a limited extent air power), including the shelling of civilian targets. The Azerbaijanis also threatened to shell Stepanakert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh), while the Armenians threatened Azerbaijan’s oil facilities. The exact number of casualties is unknown; both sides have admitted to at least 60 dead soldiers and several civilians, and it is possible that the figures have been under-reported. Baku, Yerevan and Stepanakert have also been disseminating war propaganda and deliberate misinformation campaigns, so it is difficult to verify many of the reported facts (such as the alleged murder of Armenian civilians in the village of Talysh).
The intense fighting ended as suddenly as it began. In the middle of the day on 5 April, the parties to the conflict (first the Karabakh separatists, then Armenia, and lastly Azerbaijan) stated that hostilities were being suspended. The relevant communiqués were published by Russian news agencies. After these declarations President Vladimir Putin held telephone conversations with the Presidents of Armenia, Serzh Sargsian, and Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev.
Official international reactions were limited, mainly calls for a ceasefire and for negotiations to be opened (from Russia, the USA and the EU, among others). Serious concern was expressed by Iran, which shares a border with Karabakh, and onto whose territory a few random rockets fell. Meanwhile Turkey expressed its full support for Azerbaijan.
An offensive by Azerbaijan? A provocation by Russia?
It does not seem that Armenia initiated the clashes, as it had no objective reasons to do so: since the 1994 ceasefire, the Armenians controlling Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories have been the beneficiaries of the status quo. In addition, its actions were clearly defensive, and it officially admitted to its failures (the loss of several outposts, 28 soldiers missing).
It is most likely that Azerbaijan chose to escalate the conflict, as for many years it has been promising to liberate the territories occupied by the Armenians (i.e. the area of Nagorno-Karabakh and the territories adjacent to it, which Armenians took over during the war in 1991-94) if it failed to achieve anything in the peace negotiations. Therefore the outbreak of these latest clashes was, to some extent, the logical consequence of the lack of progress in the talks being held under the aegis of the Minsk Group of the OSCE (which have been at a standstill for years), as well as the rising tension on the front line (as a result of limited outbreaks of fighting, which have become more serious over the past few years, dozens of soldiers have been killed every year). Azerbaijan may also have been pushed into deciding to escalate the conflict by the increasingly difficult socio-economic situation in the country (economic difficulties associated with the decline of oil prices have raised social frustration and sparked spontaneous protests by the population earlier this year). The regime in Baku may thus have been motivated by a desire to divert attention from its domestic problems by going into war against the hated Armenians. However, reports that Turkey instigated the latest outbreak of fighting appear to be the creation of Russian, and above all Armenian, propaganda.
Nevertheless it is possible that Azerbaijan did not act alone, and that Russia may have at least been aware of Baku’s intentions. In recent years, Russia has reactivated its policy in the Caucasus, where its main objective is to strengthen its dominance in the region. By changing the status quo and the format of the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh (including by marginalising the OSCE’s Minsk Group), and imposing a resolution on the warring parties that only Russia could guarantee (primarily involving the introduction of Russian peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone), Russia could achieve this aim. Moscow’s attitude in the current conflict, which has at the very least been ambiguous, is revealed by facts like these: the escalation occurred while the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan were in the United States in connection with the nuclear summit; Russia’s immediate reaction to the resumption of fighting (Putin called for the armed clashes to cease), followed by four days of subdued reactions from the Russian side, despite the progressive escalation of the fighting; the stoking of tensions by the Russian media (including Sputnik Armenia and Azerbaijan, Lifenews.ru, etc.); the unexpected publication by Russian (and not Armenian or Azerbaijani) sources of reports of a ceasefire; and the emphasis on the bilateral nature of the ceasefire (i.e. between Azerbaijan and the so-called Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh). In addition, as Armenia’s defence minister announced on 6 April, the ceasefire was reached during a meeting between the chiefs of staff of Azerbaijan and Armenia which took place in Moscow.
The results of the escalation, and the prospects for the development of the situation
It is currently difficult to say whether the ceasefire of 5 April will last. However, on the basis of the results of the four-day battle, a number of conclusions can be drawn. It seems that although Azerbaijan’s military successes have been merely symbolic in nature (the front lines in the battle zones were moved forward by about one kilometre), these latest clashes constitute a mental breakthrough for the nation by overcoming the trauma caused by the previous Karabakh war, which ended with Azerbaijan’s defeat. This is shown by the euphoria which prevailed in that country after successive reports from the front and the announcement of the ceasefire (for example, there were celebrations in schools). The four-day war has thus proved successful for Aliyev, and will help to strengthen his regime, at least for the time being. Meanwhile in Armenia, although the resumption of the fighting called forth a huge wave of patriotism (including an influx of several thousand volunteers), the myth of the invincible Armenian army which could easily take over more territory in Azerbaijan was undermined. The ceasefire was accepted by the Armenian public with great relief.
Yet the heavy fighting and the inability to break through the Armenian defence line, together with the inability of the Armenians to launch a rapid counteroffensive, have shown that there is a balance of forces in the area of conflict. Paradoxically, this could – although it need not –contribute to a de-escalation of tensions in the near future.
The main beneficiary of the four-day crisis, however, is Russia, which maintained an ostentatiously reserved attitude for several days, and then within just a few hours (according to press releases) most likely delivered the ceasefire. The strengthening of the Russian position contrasts with the acknowledgement of the OSCE Minsk Group’s powerlessness, which only arranged a meeting on the fourth day of fighting, and the parties announced the ceasefire before the meeting even began. In view of the above, it seems that one of the main results of the current crisis is the de facto (although not necessarily formal) end of the peace talks under the aegis of the OSCE, and their replacement by Russian mediation.
It is possible that in the near future Moscow will seek to impose a provisional solution to the conflict, involving for example the introduction of peacekeeping forces to Nagorno-Karabakh (de facto Russian, de jure under the aegis of the CSTO or CIS), and/or granting the enclave special status under the auspices of one of Moscow’s subordinate organisations covering the post-Soviet area. In this way Russia would boost its military potential in the region and gain direct influence on the conflict zone, imposing conditions for compromise and gaining a powerful instrument for affecting the domestic policies of Azerbaijan and Armenia. If such a scenario came to pass, in broader terms it would mean a change in the geopolitical system in the South Caucasus, strengthening Russia’s domination in the region and marginalising the position of the West, whose current influence on the conflict is limited, and whose future role in such a scenario would be symbolic at most; this would in effect be a return to the balance of powers as set at the beginning of the 1990s, during the period of conflicts in the post-Soviet area. Such a solution would offer Russia a new opportunity to generate tensions in relations between itself on one side, and Turkey and Iran on the other.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
In the Soviet period, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous oblast within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, covering an area of 4400 km2. 70% of the population of the perimeter were Armenians, 30% Azeris. The Nagorno-Karabakh enclave had no land border with the Armenian SSR. In 1988, in the perestroika wave, a political movement was revived demanding that the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast be joined to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Tensions rose between the Armenians and Baku, with Moscow taking Azerbaijan’s side; this led to ethnic clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, pogroms of Armenians in Azerbaijan (including Baku and Sumgait), and the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, Azeris from Armenia to Azerbaijan and Armenians from Azerbaijan to Armenia. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and independence, the conflict turned into open war between Azerbaijanis and Armenians (the army of Armenia and troops of Armenians from Karabakh). The fiercest fighting took place in the period 1992-94, in which around 30,000 people were killed. As a result of the war the Armenians, now supported by Russia (after independent Azerbaijan turned to the West and moved closer with Turkey) took over almost the entire territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as five complete (Lachin, Kalbajar, Jebrail, Zangelan, Kubatlin) and two partial (Agdam, Fizulin) regions of independent Azerbaijan. Several hundred thousand Azerbaijanis fled the territories taken over by Armenia; currently about 600,000 people in Azerbaijan have IDP status. Throughout the territory controlled by Armenians (Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent areas, referred to in Armenian terminology as ‘liberated’, and in Azerbaijan’s as ‘occupied’) the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was proclaimed in 1991, although its independence has not been recognised by any state, including Armenia. The Republic is a para-state which has some attributes of statehood (president, government, parliament, political parties, elections etc.), and its own army (which is a de facto part of the armed forces of Armenia, employing both Armenian and Karabakhi soldiers and conscripts). Despite possessing attributes of individuality, the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is in practice functionally adherent to Armenia, and cannot function without the latter’s support at the military and financial level. The current ruling team in Armenia comes from the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and President Serzh Sargsjan served as the Minister of Defence of the self-proclaimed Republic during the war between 1991-1994. In Nagorno-Karabakh there are probably 120-130,000 people (exclusively Armenians). The territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh are mostly deserted.