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Interview on Nagorno-Karabakh with Richard Giragosian

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The Elicitor: Nagorno-Karabakh is often described as one of several ‘frozen’ conflicts across the post-Soviet space. However, in April fighting broke out not seen since the 1990s, with dozens killed and hundreds more injured on both sides. What sparked this escalation in hostilities?

Richard Giragosian: From a military perspective, both the scale and the scope of the Azerbaijani offensive were as unexpected as they were unprecedented. In a well-coordinated attack, Azerbaijani units targeted three different areas along the “line of contact,” a well-entrenched and deeply fortified front line separating the Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan.

Despite a pronounced and growing risk of “war by accident,” driven by a steady spike in clashes and violations of an inherently delicate ceasefire in recent years, this four-day war was significantly different, for three main reasons.

First, the combat was not only the most serious since the 1994 ceasefire regime was reached, but was defined by a new Azerbaijani military strategy. That new, more sophisticated strategy consisted of one primary campaign objective: to seize and secure territory. This was aimed at attacking and altering the “status quo” of an entrenched Armenian defensive perimeter that spans Karabakh and beyond, with several districts of Azerbaijan proper well beyond the Karabakh enclave.

And despite a serious counter-attack by the Karabakh Armenian defenders that retook nearly all positions lost in the initial assault, the Azerbaijani side was victorious in demonstrating an enhanced combat capacity.

Against that backdrop, the second key difference was the shattering of the perception of Armenian military invincibility. Despite several years of deep defense reform, professional training and improved readiness, the Azerbaijani forces initially out-gunned the Karabakh defenders. With the purchase and procurement of modern offensive weapon systems, largely from Russia as Azerbaijan’s primary arms supplier, the recent combat in Karabakh was markedly different than the war of the 1990s.

And an equally stark contrast was also evident on the Karabakh battlefield, marked by the disparity between World War I-period trenches on the ground and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and “drones” flying overhead.

But it is the third factor, the new diplomatic context of the Karabakh conflict, which holds the widest and most serious implications. Clearly, the Azerbaijan side has reached a notable “tipping point,” losing patience for diplomacy and peace talks, and instead, preferring the force of arms to “resolve” the Karabakh conflict. For Azerbaijan, that tipping point was driven by pronounced frustration over the lack of any real progress from the peace process.

At the same time, it is now equally clear that the ceasefire was the first casualty of the April clashes. The demise of the prior 21-year old Karabakh ceasefire marked an end to a unique, but also inherently fragile standoff. The 1994 ceasefire was unique given the absence of any external security guarantor, leaving it to the parties to the conflict themselves to uphold the terms of a tenuous ceasefire.

In fact, even the Russian-brokered cessation of the recent hostilities reaffirmed the death of the ceasefire. That oral agreement, reached in Moscow on the fourth, final day of fighting, was only a basic agreement to cease firing, but was notably not a ceasefire agreement.

The Elicitor: You serve as Director of the Yerevan-based think tank Regional Studies Center. Based on your extensive engagement with Armenian civil society in recent years, how do younger generations in Armenia view the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, particularly the latest violence?

Richard Giragosian: Clearly, there has been little progress in the negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh, as the two sides are simply too far apart. Aside from the broader contradiction between two relevant provisions of international law (the opposing principles of self-determination vs. territorial integrity), the Karabakh conflict is viewed quite differently by each of the contesting parties. For Armenia, anything short of outright independence or unification with Armenia for Karabakh is unacceptable, although there has been some flexibility on the Armenian side over the terms and duration of a possible transition stage toward final status of Karabakh. On the other hand, Azerbaijan offers nothing more than a degree of autonomy for Karabakh, but premised on the return of Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

Given this divide, the real challenge now stems more from the maximalist position of Azerbaijan, which demands the return of both Karabakh and the occupied territories (Armenian-held districts of Azerbaijan proper beyond the borders of Karabakh). But rooted in the Azerbaijani sense of loss, the country remains unwilling or unable to offer any reasonable compromise.

Armenia has tried to cope, seeking to maximize its strategic options by pursuing a foreign policy of “complementarity,” aimed at bridging the contradictory divide between its “strategic partnership” with Russia and its still pro-Western orientation. Somewhat ironically, this balancing act is most evident in the area of defense reform, where Armenia has significantly deepened ties with the West, through both bilateral agreements with a wide range of countries (France, Germany, Greece, the United States, etc.) and within the context of institutional cooperation i.e. the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme.

Nevertheless, despite a dependence on Russian arms and assistance, in terms of operational training, doctrine and modernization, Armenia’s defense reforms have adopted a firmly pro-Western perspective. And Armenia has prudently sought to refrain from any move that would trigger Russian concern over Armenia’s apparent Westward shift. Such prudence is most clear in Armenia’s consistent rejection of any aspirations for NATO membership and by its commitment to the CSTO security bloc.

Although Armenia remains hostage to a wider “region at risk,” the country has largely embarked on a new course aimed at overcoming the threat of isolation. In a strategic sense, Armenia is becoming more successful in maximizing its strategic options, and is now beginning to challenge the dangers of its over-reliance on Russia as its primary security patron and partner.

Moreover, as Armenia’s “strategic partnership” with Russia has become steadily one-sided, Yerevan has begun to finally see that although close relations with Russia are essential over the longer term, the imperative is now to maximize its options and garner dividends from a more concerted embrace of the West. Thus, although Armenia has yet to graduate from this “region at risk,” the deeper trends clearly suggest a more prudent policy aimed at finally overcoming Armenia’s isolation and building a new degree of stability and security.

The Elicitor: Russia has played an outsized role in recent diplomatic talks to resolve the conflict. Can Russia be trusted to broker peace? How effective has the OSCE process been as a whole and what more should be done?

Richard Giragosian: Looking ahead, the real challenge to the Karabakh conflict now stems from the imperative to return to a “back to basics” diplomacy, focusing not on peace talks over resolving the Karabakh conflict, but rather, more limited diplomatic engagement to restore calm, regain control and rebuild an effective ceasefire.

This basic diplomacy is now driven by Russia and backed by Moscow’s influence over all sides to the conflict. And at least in part reflecting Russian leverage, the difficult agreement over a cessation of hostilities was both announced in Moscow and attained by Moscow. But as the primary arms supplier to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Russian role as mediator will be neither easy nor unchallenged.

The difficulties that lie ahead for Moscow’s mediation are surprising, however. Despite the broader confrontation with the West, Russia’s diplomatic initiative on Karabakh was largely welcomed and strongly endorsed by both the United States and the European Union. As partners in mediation, France and the United States are fellow co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) “Minsk Group,” the sole diplomatic entity empowered to manage the Karabakh conflict.

Ironically, the challenge for Russia stems not from Western opposition, but rather, emanates from an unlikely source: its “strategic partner” Armenia. Amid a deep and widening crisis in Armenian-Russian relations, Moscow will have to steer carefully and tread delicately. For Yerevan, the crisis in relations with Moscow represents deepening dissatisfaction not with the relationship itself, but over the unequal terms of the “strategic partnership.”

For many Armenians, this crisis was marked by a culmination in frustration with the asymmetry and disrespect afforded to its alliance, and was exacerbated by the sense of betrayal by Russia, which sold the weapons used by Azerbaijan against Karabakh. For his part, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev only enflamed tension when, during a visit to Armenia only days after the fighting, reaffirmed Russian plans to continue to sell arms to Azerbaijan.

This was only exacerbated when Medvedev stressed that this was no longer a Russian “business transaction,” but now represented a new Russian policy of Cold War-style “deterrence” by seeking to “balance” both sides with Russian weapons.

This has also triggered a new display of diplomatic brinkmanship by Armenia, marked by two distinct demonstrations. The first was a demonstration of Armenian independence, with the dispatch of senior Armenian military officials to a meeting with NATO, aimed at reminding Moscow that Yerevan has more options and greater opportunities beyond an institutionalized role as a “vassal” or “supplicant state” for Russia.

But the second element of Armenia’s display of diplomatic brinkmanship was far more innovative, involving the threat to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. This move came on May 5, with the Armenian cabinet adopting an opposition motion calling on Armenia to formally extend diplomatic recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent republic.

This move represented a bid to garner greater leverage and wield diplomatic pressure on both the mediators as well as Azerbaijan, especially as any such recognition would immediately and irrevocably collapse the peace process. Yet this was also designed to pressure Moscow, which was seen as dangerously shifting further away from Yerevan and closer to Baku.

Despite the seeming audacity of this gambit, however, it remains highly unlikely for Armenia to actually recognize Karabakh. Based on the recognition that the diplomatic leverage rests on the threat of recognition and that once acted upon, such leverage would degrade into diplomatic liability, Armenian policy remains prudently cautious. And with few bargaining chips and limited options in Armenian foreign policy, it is clear that such recognition would only come as a policy response to further and future Azerbaijani aggression.

Nevertheless, the outlook for the Karabakh conflict remains bleak, as the absence of any real deterrence means that there is nothing and no one preventing Azerbaijan from launching another offensive. This also suggests that as the Karabakh and Armenian forces are the only effective disincentive to discouraging renewed hostilities, any future Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan will surely do demonstrable damage to the already strained Armenian-Russian relationship.  

The Elicitor: Russo-Turkish relations deteriorated significantly after a Russian jet was shot down over the Turkish-Syrian border. Erdogan’s apology to Putin now shows signs of rapprochement. What impact if any will this development have on Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh? 

Richard Giragosian: For Armenia, the recent de-escalation of the crisis in relations between Russia and Turkey presents a mixed set of challenges and opportunities.

And the broader implications for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the April offensive are two-fold. It offers Moscow an opportunity for a unilateral Russian-led diplomatic initiative. Although most likely to be implemented through the OSCE Minsk Group format, it would reaffirm and reinforce the local perception that Russian involvement is the most essential, much to the diplomatic detriment of the two other Minsk Group co-chairs, France and the United States.

And given the collapse of the existing ceasefire agreement, the Karabakh conflict may become even more of an instrument for Moscow to enhance its power and influence, perhaps with a bid to deploy Russian peacekeepers. The outbreak of warfare also ended Azerbaijan’s precarious position of being forced to navigate the larger crisis between Turkey and Russia, and with the onset of combat operations, Baku was able to regain the upper hand, set Ankara’s regional agenda and garner blanket Turkish support.

It is the aftermath of the clashes that may be the time for Turkey and Russia to react and respond diplomatically, which will also be driven by their own rivalry and conflict. In terms of Moscow, with the West having such little leverage over Azerbaijan and in light of the lack of political will to return to the negotiations, Baku sees Moscow as the key to any change. And with Russia as the number one arms provider to Azerbaijan, there may be some grounds for that perception. Yet Russia is in the only position to benefit and to exploit the conflict to even further deepen its power and influence in the region.

Richard Giragosian is the Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent “think tank” in Yerevan, Armenia.

Photo Source: Central European University