Nagorno-Karabakh: The Thawing of the Forgotten Caucasian Conflict

Drew Cottle
Teaches History and Politics at Western Sydney University. He has a deep interest in the areas of International Politics and International Political Economy.

Paul Antonopoulos
MA Candidate doing his dissertation on the “Saudi-Iranian Geopolitical Rivalry in the Syrian War.” He is a regular contributor at Al-Masdar News.

Maram Susli
Geopolitical analyst and commentator covering Syria, the Middle East and wider regions. She is a regular contributor to Journal New East Outlook and Global Independent Analytics.

Introduction

The thawing of the frozen conflict in Artsakh (otherwise known as Nagorno-Karabkh) began on April 2, 2016 when Azerbaijan launched an offensive against the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Following the 1994 war, the republic remained internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan despite Baku holding no control over the disputed region which serves as a de facto province of Armenia. With the conflict in limbo since 1994 with only sporadic clashes occurring, why has the issue reanimated over two decades later, why is it occurring, and what role has Russia and NATO, particularly member states Turkey and the United States, played in this? This article will explore pan-Turkism as cause for the conflict, the unresolved refugee issue, the geopolitical dynamics and the failure of the Minsk Group.

Artsakh is a small enclave within Azerbaijan, however since the end of the war in 1994; Armenian irregulars and the government of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabkh hold other lands in Azerbaijan proper creating an unhinged border between Armenia and the unrecognized republic.
However, unlike the first war, Baku has had over two decades to invest its vast oil wealth into modernizing and professionalizing its military. In contrast, Armenia is a small, landlocked state without resources. By 2010 Azerbaijan’s military budget had exceeded Armenia’s entire GDP. Long term dictator Ilham Aliyev confident in the military might of Azerbaijan made continuous threats to retake the disputed region by force.

Why this is disputed must be analysed and take into consideration the historical context. Although a historically and demographically Armenian region, future Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was the acting Commissar of Nationalities and in 1921 assigned Artsakh under Azerbaijani control as a means to appease Turkey and tempt Constantinople to join the Soviet Union. So although it is believed to have been transferred as a goodwill gesture to maintain “good relations with Ataturk’s Turkey” as Kenneth Weisbrode terms it, a consistent Soviet policy of “divide and rule” must be questioned.
Stalin intentionally placed regions with an ethnic majority inside other Soviet republics. This was consistently done throughout the Union including Crimea from Russia to Ukraine, Ossetia divided into Russia and Georgia, and Artsakh to Azerbaijan.

“By placing the region (Artsakh) within the borders of Azerbaijan, the Armenian inhabitants could be used as potential ‘hostages’ to ensure the Armenian SSR’s cooperation with the wishes of the Soviet leadership. By the same token, an ‘autonomous’ Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan could serve as a potential pro-Soviet fifth column in the event of a disloyalty by the Azerbaijanis.” Effectively, the Soviet policy of “divide and rule” has led to the disintegration of stability in the region since the collapse of the Union in 1991 with conflicts in Crimea, Ossetia and Artsakh amongst others breaking out.
However, why does Azerbaijan want to keep sovereignty of a land that is historically, culturally and demographically Armenian? When explored through the context of a pan-Turkic ideology, it becomes clearer.

Pan-Turkic Ideology

Pan-Turkism as an ideology first emerged in the 1880’s amongst intellectuals of Azerbaijan, which was then a part of the Russian Empire, and intellectuals of the Ottoman Empire. The movement aims to unite all Turkic peoples into a singular state. This radical line of thinking culminated into the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocide by the Kemal Ataturk-led Young Turks movement in the aim of clearing Anatolia of its non-Muslim minorities. With the clearance of Anatolia from non-Muslim minorities, the Young Turks engaged in an aggressive policy of Turkification on its Kurdish minority, which only had limited successes.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union gave independence to the Turkic states of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. It can be questioned therefore that the only issue hindering a union of the five former Soviet republics and Turkey into a unified Turkic state is the separation that would be made because of Armenia’s location in between Turkey and Azerbaijan.
When analysed through the scope of pan-Turkic nationalism, the problem of Armenia’s existence becomes clearer. Although the Armenians were slaughtered in their millions partially due to their religion by Young Turk forces, the current conflict in Artsakh is about nationalism rather than religious sectarianism. Turkish President Erdogan announced that Turkey would stand with Azerbaijan “to the end” when hostilities first broke out. Ankara’s open support for Azerbaijan comes despite Baku starting this latest bout of conflict.

This is unsurprising when only in 2010 Erdogan in a joint speech with his Azeri counterpart stated that “Turkish-Azerbaijani cooperation is based not only on strong solidarity between our states, but also on common history and unity of our hearts. Turkish and Azerbaijani people speak the same language, have common history.” Erdogan continued by stating “Our relations built on this sound foundation and strengthening on the basis of the “one nation, two states” principle.” This brotherly sentiment was continued by Aliyev stating after Erdogan that “we are also paying tribute to the great son of the Turkic world, outstanding leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who will always live in the hearts of Azerbaijani people.”

While Turkey and Azerbaijan acknowledge a common history and language, it also means Aliyev made praise to Ataturk who was responsible for the murder of over a million Armenians. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, pogroms against Azerbaijan’s Armenian minority followed along with the destruction of Armenian historical sites.

Does pan-Turkism play a role in the greater geopolitical rivalry between Ankara and Moscow? Two days after Turkey downed the Russian Su-24 jet on 24 November, 2015 in Syria, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that “Turkey will do everything possible to liberate the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.” This suggests that Ankara would be actively engaged in defending pan-Turkic interests across the post-Soviet republics. This soft power strategy of economic and cultural cooperation is a means of undermining Moscow’s dominance in its traditional sphere of influence.
Is it conceivable that Azerbaijan renewed this unresolved conflict in order to assist its Turkish kin in the New Cold War between NATO and Russia? It may appear highly unlikely as Azerbaijan bought 85% of its weapons in the previous 5 years from Russia, accounting for over $4 billion worth of arms trade. ,
Bonn International Centre for Conversion, a German think tank, claims that Armenia and Azerbaijan are in the top 10 most militarized states in the world. Russia are taking economic advantage of the ever increasing militarization of Armenia and Azerbaijan by confirming that it will continue to sell weapons to both rival states as contracted.

By Erdogan affirming Turkey’s utmost support for Azerbaijan reclaiming Artsakh when the conflict erupted, it demonstrates Ankara’s efforts to woo Baku away from Moscow. These trade deals occur as Armenia hosts a Russian military base. Moscow is confronted with a dilemma between the economic gains through arms deals with Azerbaijan and maintaining positive relations with its traditional ally in Armenia.

However, the role the Pan-Turkic ultra-nationalist armed group, the Grey Wolves, has in this conflict cannot be overlooked. The Grey Wolves are the militant wing of the Nationalist Movement Party, the third largest in Turkey’s parliament.

The group was created and funded by NATO during the Cold War as part of its ‘stay- behind networks’ known as Operation Gladio. While NATO claimed its Gladio groups were trained to resist a potential Soviet invasion, in practice they were used as death squads and terror groups targeting NATO’s enemies. The Grey Wolves funded by Turkish secret service in the 1980s assassinated members of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). ASALA were created to target individuals who were responsible for the Armenian genocide. The Grey Wolves fought in the 1988 Nagorno-Karabakh War on Azerbaijan’s side against the Armenian forces.

After the defeat in the Nagorno-Karbakh war in 1994, the Grey Wolves attempted a coup against the Aliyev dictatorship in 1995. The coup attempt failed and the Grey Wolves were subsequently declared an illegal group in Azerbaijan where they could no longer operate openly. A spokesperson for the President of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azerbaijan of recruiting the Grey Wolves in the recent outbreak of violence, as well as ISIS only two days into the recent conflict.

While the Grey Wolves are an ultranationalist group rather than an Islamic one, this is not the first time the Grey Wolves have been accused of having connections with ISIS. A source within Russian intelligence have accused the Grey Wolves along with ISIS of being responsible for downing the Russian civilian airliner, Airbus A321, over the Sinai.

A September 2015 report claimed that ISIS had set up a special camp on the Syrian-Iraqi border specifically to train the ‘Azerbaijani mujahedeen’, funded by the Azerbaijan government. In the latest hostilities, Russian military sources claimed that an Azerbaijani ISIS Brigade consisting of hundreds of terrorists had left Syria to go to war in Artsakh. In the 1988-1994 war thousands of ‘mujahedeen’ had flocked to Artsakh to wage jihad, as ISIS forces are presently deployed, but they left for ideological reasons.

Their departure is explained through the pan-Turkic ideology that values nationalist expansionism over jihad. Shamil Basayev, a Chechen Islamist warlord said he pulled his forces out of the conflict because “the war seemed to be more for nationalism than for religion.” The present Azeri ISIS fighters are similarly fighting for pan-Turkic expansionism rather than waging a jihad.

However, this does not discount that the Grey Wolves have aligned interests with ISIS against Russia, Armenians, Kurdish Communists and the Syrian government. The Grey Wolves continue to serve NATO and Turkish expansionist aims against Russia’s influence in the Middle East and the Caucasus. The Turkmen rebel commander, Alparslan Celik, who claimed responsibility for shooting the parachuting Russian pilot after Turkey downed a Russian Su-24 over Syria, was a member of The Grey Wolves.

The Grey Wolves were also involved in organizing Tartar attempts to blockade the Crimea. Their assistance to the Tartars, was based on the strong pan-Turkic sentiment of the Grey Wolves. They remain an auxiliary force to be utilized by Ankara in its Caucasian rivalry with Moscow. This regional rivalry between Ankara and Moscow has found a new flashpoint in Artsakh where the Grey Wolves fight Armenian forces and undermine Russia’s position in the region.

Geostrategic Consequences and Understanding

The installation of Russian air defence systems in Armenia occurred as Turkish-Russo relations worsened after the downing of the Su-24. Russia’s militarization of the Caucasus blocks Turkey, a key NATO member, attempts to pursue an aggressive neo-Ottoman Empire policy. For Moscow, any NATO presence creeping towards its borders and spheres of influence represents a threat to its geo-strategic interests.

As the 2008 Georgian-Ossetian War demonstrated, Moscow will respond to neo-imperialist hostilities at its borders. Russia views NATO’s eastward expansion as a direct challenge to its national and regional interests, including Georgia’s attempts to join NATO. Tbilisi in 2008 at the prelude to war was reinvigorated by US President George Bush as he welcomed Georgia and Ukraine to the Membership Action Plan, a roadmap that prepares nations for NATO membership. Part of the preparations was to begin an offensive over the frozen conflict in South Ossetia. Moscow responded to Georgia’s aggression by claiming that Tbilisi had attacked Russian peacekeepers in the breakaway republic. Russia directly intervened in what it perceived as NATO infringing on its sphere of influence in the Caucasus.

As a NATO member, Turkey has threatened to respond aggressively to Armenia by assisting their Azeri brethren knowing that Russia and Armenia share a Joint Air Defence System. In October 2013, Andrey Ruzinsky, the chief commander of Russia’s 102nd military base, stated that “If Azerbaijan decides to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by force the [Russian] military base may join in the armed conflict in accordance with the Russian Federation’s obligations within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.” Although this did not eventuate when hostilities broke out, Moscow reinforced its military presence in Armenia with assault helicopters and anti-aircraft missiles deterring any Turkish decision to intervene in the Artsakh conflict.

Although Baku’s strong economic relations with Moscow may distance it further from the West, Azerbaijan could have resumed its aggression with the blessings of its unipolar partners. Just as Moscow has had to balance relations between Baku and Yerevan, Baku has had to balance relations between Moscow and Ankara. However, Dmitry Frolovskiy argues that “Baku skilfully utilizes the Turkish backing in order to project its willingness to act in Nagorno-Karabakh and reclaim the occupied territories with force, all while in the eyes of the Moscow political elites.” Azerbaijan did not embroil itself in the Ankara-Moscow hostilities after the downing of the Su-24 jet. However, Turkey attempted to win Baku’s approval, whilst weakening Russia’s influence, by reminding its ethnic kin two days after the incident that Turkey supported Azerbaijan’s supposed territorial integrity in Artsakh.

Vice speaker of Russia’ State Duma, Sergei Zheleznyak, stated on his Facebook that there is a “third force” causing the instability and that “it is clear that the force that continues to fan the flames of war in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus dissatisfied with the peacekeeping and counter-terror success of Russia and our allies in Syria is interested in the speedy exacerbation of the protracted conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.” It can be speculated that Zheleznyak was referring to Turkey rather than the United States as Ankara have a more immediate interest in this conflict.

The NATO policy of encircling Russia offers an alternative reason for the conflict in Artsakh. Russia’s Permanent Representative to NATO Alexander Grushko in 2014 emphasized that NATO’s deployment of personnel into Eastern Europe “would raise tensions in the Euro-Atlantic region and undermine the current security system in it. All this can throw Europe back to the times of the Cold War and trigger an arms race. NATO should realize that, if it embarks on that path, it can hardly expect Russia to reciprocate with ‘restraint’ in deployments of forces.” Although the context of the statement was of Eastern Europe, what it suggests is that Russia recognizes an aggressive NATO campaign of encirclement and is prepared to take measures to counter this aggression as the 2008 Georgian-Ossetian War demonstrated.

Ankara’s endorsement of Azerbaijani claims at the outbreak of hostilities can be seen as an attempt to inflame tensions leaving Moscow’s relations with Yerevan and Baku in an awkward, if not precarious position. While Russia recognizes Artsakh as a part of Azerbaijan, it has the flexibility to analyse irredentist or independence claims on a case-by-case basis. With the territorial changes in Georgia where South Ossetia and Abkhazia are recognized as independent republics by Moscow and the Russian annexation of Crimea, Russia has flexibility in changing its recognition status on Artsakh.
Although Moscow wants to avoid or avert conflict between its strategic and economic partners, Russia is obliged as a signatory of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to defend Armenia if it were to be attacked. CSTO does not extend to Armenians attacked in Artsakh as it is still recognized by Moscow as a part of Azerbaijan. This conundrum poses a geostrategic problem for Moscow as it continues a policy of balancing relations with Yerevan and Baku.

Two days before the succession of hostilities began, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in discussion with Aliyev in Washington over bilateral issues called for “an ultimate resolution of the frozen conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh. Is it conceivable that Aliyev had notified Kerry about Azerbaijani plans to renew its conflict with the Armenians? It can be open to suggestion that this occurred and received the endorsement from the principle NATO power, the United States.
Azerbaijan is important to Washington as its geostrategic location borders Russia to the north and Iran in the south, as well as its bounty of energy resources. Through the expansion of NATO, Washington has a consistent policy of encircling Russia and the oil rich Caspian Sea; it becomes clear why Azerbaijan is vital to Washington. A fundamental problem for Washington has been how to direct Azerbaijani oil to US markets without using Russian pipelines. The BTC (Baku to Ceyhan, Turkey) pipeline, which bypasses Armenia, provided the solution.
Aliyev stated that Yerevan would become isolated when the route for the pipeline was established. Although the pipeline bypasses Armenia and goes through a longer route via Georgia, the pipeline narrowly avoids Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh by a few kilometres and it runs through Turkey’s volatile Kurdish regions.

The volatility of the region concerns Washington as it cannot guarantee the security of the pipeline. In September 2015, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Defence Minister, Levon Mnatsakanyan, stated that “this is a very serious financial resource for Azerbaijan and we need to deprive them of these means”.Although the Armenians have never attacked this pipeline, they recognize the total reliance of the Azerbaijani economy on this flow of oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia. The security of the pipeline is of primary importance to Washington as the Azerbaijani oil provides an alternative to Europe’s over reliance on Russian energy. Although it cannot ever replace Russia as the top resource exporter to Europe, Azerbaijani oil does lessen the European reliance on Russian energy.

In 2013, gas and oil accounted for almost 75% of Azerbaijan’s revenue. However, with crude oil prices dropping by nearly 66% since 2013, the rentier Azerbaijani economy has faced mounting problems. Standard & Poor’s, the US credit rating agency, predicted that the Azerbaijani GDP will shrink by 2% a year over the next three years because of the currency’s collapse and falling oil prices. Although oil savings have kept the country afloat, it has had to tap into its sovereign wealth fund withdrawing $3.5 billion from its near $40 billion strong fund.

In January 2016, Azerbaijanis in a rare occasion of displaying discontent against the Aliyev dictatorship violently protested against the incompetence of the government and the declining economic situation. Reyhan Ghafarova, a Baku resident, told Agence France-Presse that “people are paying the price of the government’s incompetence and corruption.” Azerbaijani economic analyst Natig Jafarli continued this sentiment by stating that “it’s impossible to save the country without serious economic reforms and a political change.” With Azerbaijan scoring 6.68 Democracy Score with 7 being the worse according to Freedom House, it is easy to appease a population with a strong economy, however it becomes difficult when it weakens.

The declining economic situation in Azerbaijan and the people becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the political status quo suggests that the timing of Aliyev relaunching a conflict with the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was a means of reuniting the country behind a nationalistic sentiment. The distraction of the hostilities shifts focus away from the domestic economic situation as anti-Armenian rhetoric is revived. Baku-based analyst Anar Valiyev claimed that the latest hostilities “created euphoria” and that “the people are hungry for victories.” This would suggest that by renewing hostilities with Artsakh, Aliyev has achieved the desirable outcome of distracting Azerbaijanis from their dire economic situation whilst stirring up nationalistic feeling and anti-Armenian emotion.

This however only provides a domestic reason for resuming the conflict. It must be questioned to what degree Russia’s involvement in Syria and the Donbass region has played in timing the renewal of this conflict. With Russia receiving international condemnation because of its annexation of Crimea and its support for separatist elements in Donbass, coupled with its intervention in Syria, it is in a precarious strategic situation where it does not want to overstretch its military and economic capabilities by becoming embroiled in another conflict. Moscow’s intervention in Syria led to harsh criticism from the West that accused Russia of only targeting moderate militant forces rather than ISIS. However Moscow has demonstrated its capabilities of effectively fighting ISIS with close coordination from the Syrian Arab Army which has seen the terrorist group on the retreat in Homs and Aleppo provinces.
Nonetheless, the Russian military successes in Syria of fighting terrorists and its annexation of Crimea and involvement in Donbass are condemned in a continuous Western media and public relations campaign which may influence its hesitation in becoming embroiled in another conflict. Ankara recognizes that Russia cannot afford nor wants to become involved in another conflict and has attempted to escalate the hostilities. Did Aliyev time the resumption of hostilities in Artsakh, knowing that Russia would not militarily become involved as international condemnation and public opinion would mount pressure on it? Moscow would have paid close attention to the American overstretch of its military across the world, particularly in the neighbouring Middle East, and would not want a repeat scenario of becoming entirely bogged down in what seems to be never ending covert conflicts waged by proxies.

Demographics and Population Displacement

The demography of the contested region brings into question a new perspective on understanding the current conflict. The Russian diplomat and historian S. M. Bronevskiy claimed in the late 18th Century that Karabakh was “located in Greater Armenia” and had as many as 30–40,000 armed Armenian men in 1796. This historical perspective suggests that Artsakh was considered, at least in the Russian view, as part of an Armenian nation.

By 1921, it was estimated that Artsakh was 94% Armenian. However in 1959 and 1970 after the incorporation of Artsakh in the Azerbaijani Socialist Soviet Republic, the Azerbaijani population increased by 51% whilst the Armenian grew by just 1.6%. According to the 1989 census, Artsakh’s population was approximately 75% ethnic Armenian (145,000) and 25% ethnic Azeri (40,688). Although there was a significant increase of the Azerbaijani population in Artsakh in the 20th Century, Aliyev’s father reveals why this occurred in 2002.

He states:
“I tried to change demographics there. Nagorno-Karabakh petitioned for the opening of an institute of higher education there. [In Azerbaijan] everybody was against it. After deliberations I decided to open one, but on condition that there would be three sectors — Azerbaijani, Russian and Armenian. After [the institute] opened we no longer sent Azerbaijanis from the neighboring regions to Baku [and] instead [sent them] there. With these and other measures I tried to increase the number of Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh and the number of Armenians decreased.”

Despite these efforts of systematic demographic change, Artsakh today is 95% ethnic Armenian.
The Nagorno-Karabakh war which ended in 1994 caused an extensive population displacement of Azerbaijanis living in Armenia proper, Artsakh, and Armenians living in Azerbaijan. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan conducted pogroms against their respective Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities in the 1980s conflict. The conflict became one of the former Soviet Union’s biggest Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) and refugee problems, with Azerbaijan claiming the number of Refugees and IDPs had reached over 1 million.

During the 1988 war between 200,000 and 201,069 ethnic Azerbaijani’s in Armenia were forced to flee to Azerbaijan because of the attacks by Armenian nationalists. Furthermore, when Artsakh and adjacent regions were liberated by native Armenian forces, between 623,000 and 795,000 Azerbaijani’s had been forced to flee their homes and are now internally displaced within Azerbaijan., Of those individuals, 45,000 were from Artsakh proper. Azerbaijan’s pogroms against its Armenian minority caused the displacement of between 230,000 and 350,000 ethnic Armenians. Of these, 30,000 to 36,000 settled in Artsakh with many occupying the homes of the ethnically cleansed Azerbaijanis, with the remaining going to Armenia proper. The 1988 conflict also forced 71,000 ethnic Armenians to flee Artsakh.

Baku demands the return of these refugees; in particular, the Azerbaijani IDPs forced to leave the areas controlled by the Armenian armed forces in and around Artsakh, is central to any political settlement of the crisis.

In 2009, before the recent outbreak, Baku drafted a framework to return these IDPs to the occupied regions called “The Great Return Programme”. At the time of the drafting, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Prime Minister Ali Gasanov stated that the process would begin as soon as a peace agreement with Armenia was signed.

However in 2012, Armenia begun the settlement of Syrian Armenian refugees from the Syrian War into the Lachin corridor of Artsakh. This re-settlement program antagonised Baku which still faces a significant refugee and IDP problem with hundreds of thousands of unintegrated individuals. Baku issued an official note of protest about the settlements in Lachin. It accused the Armenian government agencies of encouraging and facilitating the re-settlement of Syrian Armenians in these areas. It stated that Armenia was recruiting the settled refugees to the Armenian armed forces deployed in Artsakh. Whilst Armenia has an ethnic majority in Artsakh, Syrian refugees are not required to maintain that majority. Instead, it could be seen as an effort to increase population and manpower in the area. No doubt this policy and the influence of the surrounding conflicts in the region have contributed to causing the recent outbreak of conflict.

Failure of the Minsk Group and the Ceasefire

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group (Minsk Group) was established in 1992 as a means of peacefully negotiating a resolution for Artsakh. It is chaired by France with Russia and the United States. Belarus, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan are participating states.

The main objectives of the Minsk Process are:

  • To provide an appropriate framework for conflict resolution in the way of assuring the negotiation process supported by the Minsk Group;
  • Conclude by the Parties of an agreement on the cessation of the armed conflict in order to permit the convening of the Minsk Conference;
  • Promote the peace process by deploying OSCE multinational peacekeeping forces.

In a 2002 meeting, Baku and Yerevan questioned the usefulness of the Minsk Group as after ten years it had not achieved a single result. However, in a meeting in Bern on 19 December 2015, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan repeated their commitment to reducing violence and a readiness to engage on a settlement. This re-commitment occurred despite Azerbaijani accusations that the Minsk group was not consistent and tended to favour the Armenian side. The Azerbaijani believe this because France, Russia and the United States have large Armenian diaspora communities and the co-chairmen favour Armenia.

Ali Ahmadov, the Deputy Prime Minister of Azerbaijan blamed the inactivity of the Minsk Group as the catalyst for the latest conflict. He states that “Had the Minsk Group chosen a fair position and not tried to equalize the invader and the sufferer, the conflict would probably have ended long ago, and this confrontation that brought about escalation in the Southern Caucasus would not have taken place. The Azerbaijani government will draw necessary conclusions from it and will consider these in its policy.”
On 9 April, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated in an interview that Ankara supported a peaceful resolution to the conflict but added, “Practice shows that Armenia permanently violates the ceasefire.” He insisted that the Minsk Group could resolve the Artsakh issue in only a week, if it actually wanted to.

The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Minister Levon Mnatsakanyan, refuted the claim that they resumed hostilities but emphasized that they will take every measure to protect the independence, security and sovereignty of the unrecognized republic. They expressed hope that the Minsk Group would respond to the Azerbaijani aggression decisively, even though the Minsk Group insisted that it would not investigate who instigated the hostilities.

Although it refused to investigate the hostilities, it has also failed in preventing conflict from re-occurring. The Russian co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, Igor Popov stated that “there is no new document on the negotiating table to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; there are the proposals of the co-chairs that have been discussed by the sides.” Only a new approach in resolving the Artsakh issue may reach a successful conclusion as it is evident that previous attempts have failed. It would seem irresponsible that the Minsk Group are not formulating new proposals to resolve this issue. The latest flare up over this contentious region has only demonstrated that over two decades of negotiations have brought neither peace nor progress. The Minsk Group has effectively failed in resolving the issue, let alone maintaining the peace.

Although the Minsk Group implemented a new ceasefire that was agreed by all warring parties on 5 April, this still does not discount their failure in avoiding the impending hostilities. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his counterpart the US Secretary of State John welcomed the ceasefire according to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement. However, how effective is the ceasefire?
The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence claimed that the Armenian side had violated the ceasefire at least 125 times after its implementation. Although this cannot be independently verified, what it suggests is that there is only a lessening of fire in the conflict, rather than a ceasefire. The Defence Ministry of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh responded to the Azerbaijani accusations by stating it had only responded after civilian and military targets were hit which had resulted in the death of two ethnic Armenian fighters.

This demonstrates that hostilities have continued at a lower intensity and that the potential for a future flare up is real as cross border shelling continues while the ineffectiveness of the Minsk Group achieves nothing. Moscow recognizes this prospect as Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called all sides to adhere to the ceasefire agreement. “We are concerned over the escalation of the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone… (and) call on the sides to comply with the agreements on an immediate cessation of armed clashes and to prevent the breach of the agreement.”

It remains problematic if this ceasefire can’t remain permanent until the Minsk Group can conclude a peaceful resolution to the conflict. With Azerbaijan impatient by the Minsk Group’s failure, perhaps it initiated a minor hostility to bring the issue back to the forefront. This can only be speculated.

Although the role of Moscow as a mediator is encouraged by both Yerevan and Baku, it is unlikely the United States will indirectly challenge Russia in Artsakh as it has in Syria and Donbass. The underlying problem to any immediate peace process would be Ankara’s unwillingness of Baku continuing to build relations with Moscow, despite CSTO spokesman Vladimir Zaynetdinov stating that “the current Azerbaijani actions led to the escalation of the situation and the conflict.” Baku did not react negatively to Russia about the accusation made by the CSTO spokesman The Minsk Group must acknowledge that if this frozen conflict is to completely thaw, it has the potential to unravel other frozen conflicts in the Caucasus such the unresolved issues in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. This is a prospect that would increase instability in the Caucasus for Russia. Its careful balancing act to maintain the present ceasefire in Artsakh is essential to its regional interests in the Caucasus.

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