South Caucasus in Turmoil

On November 16th, clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh left 15 Armenian soldiers killed, and according to the latest reports 24 Armenian servicemen remain unaccounted for. Azerbaijan has reported seven of its soldiers dead and 10 wounded. A year ago, Russia brokered a ceasefire agreement between the two sides after a six-week-long conflict left 6500 dead back in November 2020.

Russia even placed a military peacekeeping mission in the region, including 1,960 infantry (motor-rifle) troops with light weapons, 90 armored personnel carriers, and 380 motor vehicles. But since the conflict simmered down, Moscow has struggled to maintain peace as small incidents have kept on occurring. But this week’s clashes have been the deadliest yet since the ceasefire agreement was reached. Later on the day of the deadly clashes, Armenia announced a Russian-mediated truce.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a particularly challenging one. The territory was internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but has been settled by a predominantly ethnic Armenian population and has remained mostly under Armenian control.

In the 2020 war, Azerbaijan regained control of most of the territory, leaving thousands of Armenians displaced. Arguably Russia maintains the greatest deal of leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, but it took three tries to establish a semi-lasting ceasefire agreement, and even after that Russia is unable to effectively resolve the dispute.

What’s worse, the U.S. and E.U. have been largely absent from the peace process. A handful of statements from the West have called for both sides to practice caution and respect human rights. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights published a statement on November 11th expressing concern over the escalation situation:

“The Commissioner has received credible reports from NGOs and victims and their families about breaches of international humanitarian law as well as serious violations of human rights by the parties to the conflict. The Commissioner emphases that states have the legal obligation under international humanitarian law and the European Convention on Human Rights to hold those responsible for war crimes and serious human rights violations accountable.

Moreover, the Commissioner is particularly concerned by reports of indiscriminate shelling of populated areas resulting in deaths and serious injuries to civilians. She calls on Armenia and Azerbaijan to renounce the use of cluster munitions and to ensure effective investigations into violations of international humanitarian law, such as indiscriminate and/or disproportionate attacks, to identify and bring those responsible to account, and provide adequate and effective reparation to the victims.”

Since President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prematurely announced the end to the conflict back in October 2020 after Pompeo met with both foreign ministers, the U.S. has had a very minimal role in peace negotiations, leaving the region-wide open for Russian and Turkish involvement.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Armenia’s independence President Joe Biden shared words of support for the embattled nation: “As we mourn with the people of Armenia, we will work hand in hand with your government, including through the OSCE Minsk Group and other regional formats, to promote regional stability and conflict resolution. The United States will continue to advocate for the release of all Armenian detainees held in Azerbaijan.” The Armenian ambassador to the U.S. was quoted as saying “we do not see the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as resolved.”

The United States also serves as co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group along with France and Russia. The co-chairs issued a statement of concern regarding the November 16 clash:

“The recent increase in tension underscores the need for a negotiated, comprehensive, and sustainable settlement of all remaining issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Co-Chairs urge the sides to build on the progress made during the joint meetings of the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan held under the auspices of the Co-Chairs in New York and Paris, by continuing to engage in direct dialogue aimed at contributing to security, stability, and prosperity in the region.”

Yet Armenia’s president Pashinyan clearly understands that the power is ultimately in Moscow’s hands, and according to some sources, he has asked for Russian military assistance. According to Russian sources, the Armenian Security Council has cited a 1997 security agreement between Russia and Armenia and says it expects Russia to assist Armenia in restoring its territorial integrity. Most analysts see Russia as the ultimate winner in this situation, as through its involvement in the Black Sea/South Caucasus conflicts, Moscow has been able to once again solidify its role as the regional hegemon.

But this is only partly true. In practice, unresolved conflicts like the one in Nagorno-Karabakh may keep the West out, but also challenge Russia’s ability to serve as a security guarantor. As Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group has documented, the Russian peacekeepers have a very unclear mandate governed by only three sentences.

The two sides have refused to engage in high-level talks to work out the details regarding border demarcation, refugees access to aid, and even on troubleshooting the day-to-day issues like residents’ safe passage to farmlands. In the absence of those rules, the Russian peacekeepers find themselves doing everything from monitoring the administrative boundary lines to operating hotlines and helping the locals find their cattle. It’s no surprise that the situation has been unsustainable.

This is why greater international engagement is necessary, and additional peacekeepers and conflict monitors should be deployed to the region. No one party, even a forceful hegemon, can fully navigate the complexities of protracted ethnic conflicts, and Russia is no exception.


Read More:

No Compromise in Sight for Armenia and Azerbaijan


Why Armenia and Azerbaijan Are on the Brink of War


Why Armenia and Azerbaijan are Fighting Again