War or Peace in the South Caucasus?

Analysis 5 August 2022
War or Peace in the South Caucasus?

In their report “The South Caucasus from war to peace: 30 measures between now and 2030”, published last April, Armenian and Azerbaijani experts made a stark statement: “All the ingredients for peace exist in the South Caucasus. All the ingredients for war exist too. What is in front of us is a choice.” Never have these words sounded so pertinent as in these last days when in Armenia and in Azerbaijan the sounds of war and the sounds of peace competed with each other, with little sign of compromise. Yet neither war, nor peace, is inevitable. It is a choice, and one that both sides can neither make lightly nor take for granted.

The spectre of war again rears its ugly head

Since the signing of the 10 November 2020 trilateral declaration between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia that ended the 44-day Karabakh War, there have been sporadic incidents, some of which were fatal. But the incidents around the Lachin Corridor in the last days were more significant, politically if not militarily, since they put into question the very trilateral declaration on which the end of the war, and the start of a peace process, has been based. The violence also raised even more questions about the role of the Russian peacekeepers, hastily deployed under the provisions of that declaration, and the commitment of the sides to lasting peace.

What happened and why

At the heart of this week’s problems was the Lachin corridor, a piece of land that connects Armenia to the Armenian population of Karabakh. The importance and significance of this corridor has been recognised in all discussions of the Karabakh conflict since the early 1990s. The Trilateral Declaration provides clearly an alternative to the present road to be built. This will allow the Azerbaijanis to assume full control over the Lachin District, whilst still giving the Armenians the vital land link between Yerevan and Stepanakert.

The Azerbaijanis have accused the Armenians of procrastinating, a claim denied by Armenia. Whilst Azerbaijan had already built the main part of the road, the smaller part that was supposed to be built by the Armenians is far from finished. On Monday, it appeared that the Azerbaijani military were moving to unilaterally re-assert their position amid Baku’s insistence on another provision of the trilateral declaration, namely the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Karabakh.

Throughout Monday (1 August), Armenian media carried stories of incidents involving the Azerbaijani Army and elements of the military formations of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the northern sector of the line of contact. The Armenian sources said that "Azerbaijani units resorted to provocation by making attempts to cross the contact line, which were stopped by the forces of the Defence Forces". The news was denied later in the day by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence who said categorically that their soldiers "had not opened fire".

The story however took on a life of its own on social media, where whatever had happened was amplified, and reports spoke of an imminent Azerbaijani invasion, with incidents spreading to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Both the Armenian Ministry of Defence, as well as officials of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic had to intervene to deny the false rumours and to appeal to people to rely only on official information.

NKR sources said one of its soldiers was injured in the melee. He was named as Albert Vladiki Bakhshiyan, but there were no details of the nature of his injuries. During the day Armenian media also published a picture of the self-styled president of NKR, Arayik Harutyunyan, huddled with his military and security officials. It was also not clear what role was being played by the Russian forces, that, as a result of the trilateral declaration, have the mandate to keep the peace.

On Tuesday (2 August), there was a flurry of Russian diplomatic activity: President Putin spoke to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan; Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, spoke with his Azerbaijani counterpart General Hasanov, and the Armenian and Russian foreign ministers also had a conversation. In the meantime, there were continued reports of tension in the region. Whatever it is the Russians said or did, it appeared that they had not appeased the sides, and that their action or indeed lack thereof may have even thrown fuel on the fire.

The following Wednesday morning (3 August), the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence announced that one of its soldiers was killed earlier in the morning in the Lachin region by fire from elements of the self-styled Nagorno-Karabakh Defence Army. The deceased soldier was named Anar Rustam Kazimov.

A statement by the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry later in the day said that “the bloody incident that took place on August 3 once again demonstrates that Armenia is grossly violating the Tripartite Agreement, and also undermines efforts to normalize relations between the two states. This is also an indicator of Armenia's disrespect for the efforts of international mediators. All responsibility for the incident on the territory of Azerbaijan lies with the military-political leadership of Armenia, which still does not withdraw its illegal armed formations from the territory of the neighbouring state. All necessary measures will continue to be taken to ensure the security of the territories and the integrity of the borders of Azerbaijan.”

Things escalated considerably throughout the day. At around 15.00 hours local time, Azerbaijan launched an attack by armed drones which hit various Armenian targets. In what Azerbaijan dubbed “Operation Retribution”, two Armenians of the self-styled NKR Defence Army were killed and nineteen injured. The Azerbaijani army moved to take control over a number of strategic hills around the Lachin corridor. In Stepanakert, the NKR leader ordered a partial mobilisation. The sounds of war could be heard once more. But then, by the evening, the situation had calmed down.

This week’s incidents, whilst important in themselves, raise wider questions about Armenia-Azerbaijan relations, the role of Russia, the interpretation of the trilateral declaration, and the prospects for peace.

Whilst the 10 November 2020 trilateral declaration is clear on some issues, and its spirit is a call for turning a page in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations, as well as opening up the region’s transport and communication routes, the devil is in the detail. The declaration was agreed amidst high drama as Azerbaijani forces broke through Armenian defences, and the Armenian army was in practice, defeated. Russian President Vladimir Putin personally led the negotiations on the text of the declaration. As such he is probably the only one who can tell exactly the meaning and nuance of the various clauses. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan say they are adhering to the trilateral declaration but it is clear that both sides have a different understanding of its content.

That these ambiguities continue to exist nearly two years after it was signed is a failure of Russian diplomacy. This ambiguity is apparently also reflecting itself in the conduct of the Russian forces on the ground. Anecdotal evidence suggests that they are sometimes nowhere to be seen at particularly sensitive moments and situations, and sometimes are not sure what to do when faced with determined local actors. The Russian side has been largely silent on this week’s events, except for a statement on Wednesday (3 August) in which they accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire.

This week, however, both Azerbaijani and Armenian sources were critical of and clearly dissatisfied with the role of the Russian forces. Prime Minister Pashinyan spoke openly about this dissatisfaction on Thursday (4 August), listing a series of situations where he felt the Russians had failed. Keeping the peace is never easy, and the Russians’ task may be a thankless one. But, on the other hand, Russia’s style of peacekeeping leaves much to be desired, and some of the problems could be anticipated.

Expressing optimism for long-lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan at a time when a return to serious combat appeared so close may seem at best naïve. Yet as the drums of war sounded again, other developments were much more encouraging.

Preparing the populations for peace

It used to be a mantra of the now defunct OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair process that the Governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan must start preparing their populations for peace. Such appeals were regularly ignored by both sides, and usually followed instead by another spate of militarism or military rhetoric. It now appears that the process of preparing the populations for peace has started. The leaders of both sides have in recent weeks made clear that they were committed to a peaceful end to the long-running disputes between them. The message appears to be louder on the Armenian side, not least because it is also where it is being challenged strongest domestically.

A Facebook post this week by Arsen Torosyan, an MP and one of the leaders of Armenia’s ruling party, questioned Armenia’s war strategy of the last thirty years. It was an important statement, and despite the fact that it was overshadowed by the incidents in Lachin, it remains a landmark moment.

Another Armenian official, Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan, stated on 29 July that the separation of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue from the wider Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process was something which was worth discussing.

Speaking to Armenpress, Grigoryan stated that Armenia was fully committed to the peace process as a state strategy, and that the government was taking responsibility for the implementation of the agenda. He noted that the road map to peace was already known, and that it included the delimitation and demarcation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, followed by the opening of regional communications. The first meeting of the border demarcation committees has already taken place, and Grigoryan announced that the second session is set for the second half of August in Moscow.

During his interview, he also touched upon the recognition of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, re-affirming the Armenian government’s position that it has no territorial claims against Azerbaijan, but that it views the guarantee of the security and rights of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh as fundamental. He added that the idea of separating the Nagorno-Karabakh issue from the issue of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations was now something which should be actively discussed and assessed. While he noted that it was too early to talk about a full resolution of all other problems, he accepted that disconnecting the two issues might entail signing a peace treaty with Azerbaijan without having agreed a final solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. Finally, he said that Armenia was heading in the right direction, towards a deal with Azerbaijan, though he highlighted the importance of resolving certain humanitarian issues such as the return of Armenian detainees and the preservation of cultural heritage.

On Thursday morning (4 August), Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said at a governmental meeting, “I have to officially record that there are no servicemen of the Republic of Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Armenia has also taken some important steps. It was reported this week that, even as events in Lachin were unfolding, the Armenian Army withdrew its conscripts deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh – a key Azerbaijani demand. It was announced that none would be deployed there forthwith. In a further goodwill gesture, on Wednesday (3 August) Armenia returned an Azerbaijani soldier who had been captured after getting lost and inadvertently crossing the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

A statement by the Armenian Defence Ministry said that at around 13.30 hours on 23 July, in the border area in the Gegharkunik region, Armenian security guards discovered a soldier of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces, private Kamiz Mubarizi Ibaev, who had crossed the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. As a result of clarifying the reasons for crossing the border by the latter, it was found that he got lost. The soldier has now been returned to the Azerbaijani side.

There is a realisation on the Azerbaijani side too that a historical opportunity for peace exists, and that this should not be lost. Writing on on 26 July, Vasif Husseynov from Baku’s AIR Centre wrote, “For peace and security in the South Caucasus, it is vitally important that this positive atmosphere is preserved, the commitments undertaken in the trilateral declaration are fulfilled, and that this unique historic chance for peace and reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not taken for granted.”

Five steps

- As this week has shown, the choice between war or peace is indeed one that is facing Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Both governments have now declared unequivocally that peace is their only - or at least their preferred option. Going forward, five things should happen:

- The Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships need to remain focused on reaching a negotiated agreement on all outstanding issues between them, and to then move forward to signing a visionary peace agreement that could give the whole South Caucasus region a new brighter future; to achieve this Baku and Yerevan should use all the platforms at their disposal;

- Incidents, as happened in Lachin this week may be unavoidable in a situation which, in some respects at least, remains fluid and uncertain. The mechanisms to deal with such incidents need to be strengthened;

- There is an urgent need for more transparency of the work of the Russian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, and of the situation on the ground in general; the sides must recognise that such transparency is ultimately in their own interest;

- Regardless of the endgame Baku needs to establish communications with the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh through the existing structures in Stepanakert, despite Baku's distaste of their nomenclatures; the sustainability of peace in Karabakh depends on the success of this dialogue; on its part, Stepanakert needs to take a reality check, and adjust its rhetoric accordingly;

- There is an urgent need to start implementing confidence-building measures at all levels and across various sectors.

This week has once more shown that Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Armenians and Azerbaijanis, face a choice between war and peace. The death and injury of yet more Armenians and Azerbaijanis should focus minds, and increase mutual determination to work for lasting peace and to avoid any steps that can bring another war nearer.