Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) is located within the south – western portion of Azerbaijan’s internationally – recognized territorial boundaries.
Until the twentieth century, these territories were largely populated by Azerbaijanis, though an increasing Armenian minority formed under the purposeful resettlement policies of the Russian Empire.
In these years, Azerbaijanis and Armenians lived under the dominion of the Russian Empire, and enjoyed little sovereignty over their own territories. Thus, territorial dispute was not an issue between the two nations.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the Russian Empire, the NK region was placed under the jurisdiction of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918-1920) that existed until the Soviet occupation.
During the entire Soviet period, NK remained under the control of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic as an autonomous oblast (region), and its status was never seriously challenged. During the 70 years of its existence under Soviet rule, the region was a peaceful home for both Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
In the late 1980s, however, Armenians, used instability in the region to claim the territory of Nagorno Karabakh as their own.
The incapability of the Azerbaijani leaders to organize a strong defense and
Russia’s support for the Armenians
determined the fate of the conflict. At the end of the war in 1994, a ceasefire agreement was reached between the sides through the mediation of numerous external players, and Baku lost control over the Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding regions.
23 Years After the Ceasefire Agreement
The ceasefire agreement launched a formal peace process under the mediation of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, the United States and France, was entrusted to mediate between the conflicting sides to produce a peaceful resolution to the problem.
Over the last 22 years, a number of proposals were made by the mediators and several times the two sides even approached a settlement, such as the announcement of
the Madrid Principles
Despite these attempts and occasional hopes for a resolution, no substantial progress has been made, and the sides have failed to reach agreements even on very basic issues.
The current situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan differs in few ways from the one the two countries found themselves in at the time of the signing of the ceasefire agreement.
The continued fighting on the line of contact and the consistent loss of lives on both sides confirm this tragic reality. The clashes have not waned over the years but on the contrary, have gradually escalated.
The fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh in April this year
was the worst escalation of the conflict since the 1994 ceasefire.
Prospects of Azerbaijan’s Regaining Control Over Nagorno-Karabakh
Since the early years of the post – ceasefire period, the Azerbaijani authorities have been promising to resolve the conflict in a favorable way either through negotiations or through force. Against the background of their unfruitful policies to fulfill this promise, a question is always on the minds of everybody in Azerbaijan: Will Baku ever be able to reinstate its control over the territories occupied by Armenia?
Prospects of a Peaceful Settlement:
The most crucial factor that one has to take into account when analyzing the peaceful resolution perspectives of the NK conflict is Russia.
For Azerbaijanis, the most tragic fact about the conflict is that it is not only a problem between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but more significantly, it is between Azerbaijan and Russia.
Since the early years of the post-Soviet period, Russia has been using the conflict as an instrument to keep Azerbaijan in check and to avert any possibility of Baku to align with Moscow’s geopolitical foes. At the time of the massive influx of energy revenues to Azerbaijan, this instrument was of paramount importance for Russia to exert political pressure on Azerbaijani leaders, who were willing to pursue an independent foreign policy and thus opposed Moscow’s offers to be re-integrated under the Eurasian Union.
Although the decline of energy prices and the growing economic crisis have hit Azerbaijan hard and diminished its ability to resist the Kremlin, it is highly unlikely that Russia will give up the NK card against Baku in the conceivable future. Russia will likely oppose any settlement of the conflict unless it builds entirely unchallenged dominance over the South Caucasus.
Analysts from Stratfor have good reason in
that, “the best chance for a settlement emerged in the early post-Soviet period, when Russia was still weak.” This chance was unfortunately missed.
In the modern period, Russia’s geopolitical leverage is on the rise, and, hence, the Russian factor will likely remain as the primary obstacle for a peaceful resolution to the NK conflict for the years to come, but it is not the only one.
As concerns Armenia, over the 23 years since 1994, the Armenian side has attempted to extend the negotiations indefinitely, and to preserve the status-quo at all costs. Some Azerbaijani experts rightly
that Armenia has even compromised its state independence to preserve NK under its control.
Last but not least, considering the impotence of the other great powers to seriously affect the negotiations and
a very limited possibility of the West to make a decisive contribution to the peace process
, one sees that there is no reasonable ground to believe that Azerbaijan will be able to reach a desired solution through negotiations in the foreseeable future.
Prospects of a Military Solution:
Although most international observers and the leaders of Russia, Iran, and Western community invariably stress that there is no military solution to the conflict, this possibility has never ceased to be a priority for Azerbaijan.
Alongside attending the negotiations for a peaceful settlement, Baku has always reiterated its right to employe force in order to reestablish control over the territories that are internationally recognized as being part of Azerbaijan.
Towards this end, Azerbaijan has allocated billions of dollars to its military and its capabilites vastly surpass those of Armenia. For a while, Azerbaijan’s defense budget was even three times larger than Armenia’s entire annual budget.
However, two key factors indicate that Baku cannot reach its objectives militarily in the foreseeable future.
Above all and perhaps unsurprisingly, the Russian factor is the decisive one in this perspective as well. In order to preserve its leverage in the region, Russia has established strong military ties with Armenia, maintaining around 5000 troops in its military base in Gyumri, supplying weapons at low costs, merging its army with Armenia’s, committing itself within the frame of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to protect Armenia in case of a military attack by third party, and recently selling Iskandar missiles to Armenia.
These developments make Baku aware that in case of a war, Azerbaijan would have to fight also against Russia. Many observers correctly
this situation the Russian factor brings about:
“Despite Azerbaijan’s claims of being able to forcibly retake Nagorno-Karabakh and Baku’s security buildup in this regard, Azerbaijan does not have the capability to confront Russia militarily over the territory.”
The second factor that prevents a military resolution from coming about is the possible catastrophic consequences for both sides. The militarization of the two countries, despite the fact that it spreads anxieties amongst the people of both nations, in fact also decreases the likelihood of an all – out war between the two.
Both Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders are well aware that such a war would destroy both of them to the ground. The recent military build – up on both sides and plans to buy more destructive weapons in the future in fact also serves as a deterrent. In a similar vein to the invention of nuclear weapons which minimized the possibility of an all-out war between great powers,
the militarization of Azerbaijan and Armenia with massively destructive weapons
, reduces their possibility to actually deploy them against each other.
Nevertheless, such a possibility cannot be entirely singled out.
This assessment of the perspectives for a peaceful or forceful settlement of the ethno-territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh leads to the conclusion that Azerbaijan does not have much potential to re-establish control over the territories occupied by its western neighbor in the foreseeable future. However, this does not mean that the status-quo will remain unchanged forever. The situation might change fundamentally in a case of a serious geopolitical upheaval in the wider region.