More than a year and a half after the worst fighting in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh since the early 1990s, peace in the South Caucasus still seems like a distant prospect. Despite a 2020 cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia, incursions are ongoing into the mountainous enclave, which has been controlled by de facto Armenian authorities for decades yet is located inside Azerbaijan's internationally recognized borders. The 2020 war reshaped geopolitics in this region straddling the borders of Iran and Turkey, which has provided Azerbaijan with full military and political support as it tries to assert more influence in the Caucasus.
In early August, Azerbaijani drones crossed the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh and attacked Armenian positions with airstrikes. Two days after skirmishes that left at least three dead, Armenian authorities announced that the residents of Armenian-inhabited communities along the Lachin corridor, which until this month was the sole route connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, would have to evacuate their homes by Aug. 25 ahead of the closure of the corridor and the handover of the communities to Azerbaijan—presumably in response to military pressure from Azerbaijan.
In March, Azerbaijani forces previously crossed the line of contact and seized the Armenian village of Parukh. Azerbaijan's military retreated following Russian mediation after two days of intense fighting, yet retained control of the nearby and strategic Karaglukh Heights.
These border attacks follow the signing of the Russian-brokered armistice in November 2020. Six weeks earlier, Azerbaijan—with Turkey's backing—launched a wide-scale military offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh, igniting six weeks of the most intense fighting there since the first war over the territory in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. With a clear military victory, Azerbaijan captured the seven outlying territories that it lost in the first Nagorno-Karabakh War and much of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. Under the terms of the 2020 agreement, Russia deployed nearly 2,000 peacekeepers to the Lachin corridor and the remaining Armenian-controlled areas of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Since February, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has changed Azerbaijan's calculations, as it is now testing Russia's red lines by placing military pressure on Armenia to obtain concessions, according to Yerevan-based political analyst Tigran Grigoryan. "Baku tries to use this window of opportunity created by both the second Karabakh war and the war in Ukraine to get maximalist possible results," Grigoryan told Democracy in Exile.
Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have been engaged in negotiations mediated by Russia and the European Union toward a peace treaty that would normalize their long-hostile relations and resolve the longstanding conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet the standoff between Russia and the West over the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shifted the negotiation landscape, making matters like the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh—the central issue in talks—even more difficult to resolve.
The standoff between Russia and the West over the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shifted the negotiation landscape, making the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh—the central issue in ongoing diplomatic talks—even more difficult to resolve.
- Lillian Avedian
France, Russia and the United States are co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, which for three decades has served as the primary mediating platform for Nagorno-Karabakh. For many years, the frozen conflict was the sole sphere in which the U.S. and Russia shared nearly similar approaches and positions, Grigoryan said. But since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Russia and the West are no longer communicating through the Minsk Group format. While the Minsk Group previously offered Moscow a platform to communicate with its Western partners and project international legitimacy through its mediation mission, "the war in Ukraine changed that dynamic," Grigoryan said. "Russia is no longer interested in any sort of international legitimacy. It also doesn't need any kind of dialogue with the West."
With the war in Ukraine dragging on, Russian officials have repeatedly stated that the West refuses to work with Moscow within the Minsk Group format, as part of its ongoing attempt to isolate Russia internationally. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried seemed to indicate otherwise when she said recently that the U.S. is prepared to continue co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group alongside France and Russia.
"We continue to believe that it is a very important format, particularly on Nagorno-Karabakh, and it is essential that we keep various formats in play to try to advance peace. And we will continue to do that going forward," Donfried told RFE/RL's Armenian Service during a visit to Armenia in mid-June. The Russian Foreign Ministry dug in, insisting that the U.S. and France had caused "irreparable damage" to the Minsk Group over the war in Ukraine.
The European Union's diplomacy in the South Caucasus is also at stake. European Council President Charles Michel has hosted Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Brussels four times to discuss the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as the demarcation of the disputed border between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the opening of regional transportation and communication links, the two other main issues on the negotiating table. Russia, for its part, has set up two trilateral commissions with Armenia and Azerbaijan to oversee those same objectives.
Anar Mammadli, a political analyst based in Baku, believes that public opinion in Azerbaijan supports increasing the role of EU mediation, since Russia damaged its reputation in the post-Soviet sphere by launching its war on Ukraine. "Russia cannot represent itself, this current regime in the Kremlin, as a genuine peace guarantor in this process," Mammadli said.
Much of the skepticism in Azerbaijan toward Russian mediation specifically centers on the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. "From the Azerbaijani perspective, there is a concern that Russia can create its own regime in Karabakh, and after a couple of years, the Armenian government can lose its influence in Karabakh," Mammadli said.
The 2020 cease-fire agreement stipulates that the mission will stay in the region until 2025. However, it does not delineate specific responsibilities for the Russian peacekeepers. Since arriving, the peacekeepers have taken on tasks from escorting Armenian villagers to visit graves and tend their crops to fixing water pipes and mediating local disputes.
"Russia is interested in keeping the status quo, in freezing the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The EU and probably the U.S. as well are more interested in some sort of comprehensive settlement to the conflict."
- Tigran Grigoryan
The Russian government shared several drafts of a plan outlining the peacekeepers' roles and responsibilities with Azerbaijan and Armenia in December 2020 and February 2021, according to the International Crisis Group. Yet the Azerbaijani government rejected the plan on the basis that it wanted Russia to clearly state that the territory on which the peacekeepers are stationed is in Azerbaijan. Mammadli says that, especially in light of the war in Ukraine, it is time to draft a "more clear, more concrete mandate for the Russian mission, with responsibility and detailed commitment."
Grigoryan notes that, since the start of the war in Ukraine, some political figures and media outlets in Azerbaijan have been trying to discredit the Russian peacekeeping mission, currently the primary security guarantor of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. "Azerbaijan does its best to present it as some sort of occupying force, and Azerbaijan tries to convince its Western partners and the international community that sooner or later the Russians should leave the territory, which they consider to be their territory," he said.
Following Russia's February invasion of Ukraine, rumors spread on Azerbaijani media that Russian peacekeepers were leaving Nagorno-Karabakh for the battlefield in Ukraine. Videos disseminated on social media showed a column of Russian military vehicles traveling along the Lachin corridor. An article from military news website Caliber.az, published on March 9, speculated that the Russian peacekeepers are "being redeployed to Ukraine," without providing any evidence.
According to Grigoryan, ending the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh without presenting alternate security guarantees, such as an observer mission from the West, would be catastrophic for its Armenian population. "If you're not capable of offering a viable alternative, the possible withdrawal of the peacekeeping forces will lead to the ethnic cleansing of the territory."
While Western countries have an interest in maintaining the current cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh, especially given the EU's recent talks with Armenia and Azerbaijan, there is still a gap in how Russia and the West see the future status of the enclave. "Russia is interested in keeping the status quo, in freezing the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh," Grigoryan said. "The EU and probably the U.S. as well are more interested in some sort of comprehensive settlement to the conflict."
Pashinyan said in April that, in response to international pressure from Western partners, he was prepared to "lower the bar" regarding the status of Nagorno-Karabakh—and to recognize the "territorial integrity" of Azerbaijan, although he did not say whether that would include recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh within its borders. His speech diverged from the Armenian government's previous position that prioritized securing the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state. Instead, Pashinyan said that the territory's status is "not a goal, but rather a means to guarantee the security and rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh."
Grigoryan doubts the chances for a comprehensive settlement of the conflict in the near future, both due to Russia's investment in maintaining the status quo in this not-so-frozen conflict and Azerbaijan's maximalist stance. "Azerbaijan's position in this issue is so maximalist, that even Armenia's readiness to lower the bar, to accept some kind of political status for Nagorno-Karabakh, would not be acceptable to Baku," he said.
Since the end of the 2020 war, Aliyev has consistently stated that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been "resolved" by military means, touting Azerbaijan's battlefield victory in the 44 days of fighting. He has also repeated that there is no such political or territorial unit as Nagorno-Karabakh, considering the territory to be part of Azerbaijan. "It remains that the administrative territory of Nagorno-Karabakh does not exist in the territory of Azerbaijan," Aliyev said on May 27.
Mammadli sees one primary possibility at the negotiating table regarding the status of Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenia recognizing the territory's inclusion as part of Azerbaijan, but with an autonomous status that confers special political, economic and cultural rights. Yet public opinion in neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan supports this option. Instead, most Armenians support the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state or its unification with Armenia, while public opinion in Azerbaijan supports Nagorno-Karabakh being fully within Azerbaijan's borders, without any autonomy, according to Mammadli.
He is also skeptical of Russia's interest in advancing a resolution of this conflict. "Financially and politically, we don't see any kind of desire from the Russian side that they are keen to support the peace process."