Armenia + 3 more

Briefing N°93 Nagorno-Karabakh: Seeking a Path to Peace in the Ukraine War’s Shadow

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What's new? In the shadow of Russia's war in Ukraine, escalating hostilities in and around Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh -- including the Azerbaijani capture of an ethnic Armenian village in late March -- have sparked both fears of renewed conflict and hopes for peace talks.

Why does it matter? If it escalates, the uptick in fighting could reverse tentative progress toward normalisation of relations -- and, eventually, peace -- between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The war in Ukraine may distract both Russia and other states whose engagement will be necessary to facilitate talks and forge a durable resolution.

What should be done? Armenia, Azerbaijan and the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities should continue national and local talks on economic and other issues where there may be common ground. The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs (Russia, France and the United States), the European Union and Turkey should help keep these dialogues going.

I.Overview

Seventeen months after a Russian-brokered ceasefire ended the second Armenia-Azerbaijan war in 30 years, renewed fighting could undermine the truce. Officials in Yerevan and de facto authorities in Stepanakert fear that Baku will take advantage of Russian and Western preoccupation with the war in Ukraine to recapture more land in Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan sees the whole territory as its own under international law. It insists that the de facto authorities' armed forces are illegal and wants Russian peacekeepers to disarm them. Russia is wary of escalation, which could dash its hopes to play a leading role in a stable South Caucasus. But the Ukraine war may diminish Moscow's leverage and block the Kremlin from collaborating openly with France and the U.S., the other co-chairs of the main forum for talks on peacemaking. Given the costs of fresh conflict, these powers and others -- like the European Union and Turkey -- should cooperate quietly to sustain a range of dialogue formats and encourage continued national and local talks to explore economic issues and steps to lower tensions.

The roots of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict stretch back decades. In 1988, ethnic Armenians living in what was then the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) -- a majority-Armenian enclave inside the territory of Soviet Azerbaijan -- demanded its transfer to Armenia. As the Soviet Union collapsed, frictions grew into outright war. The first Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in a Russian-sponsored ceasefire in 1994, with Armenian forces in control of NKAO, which declared independence, as well as seven Azerbaijani territories to the west, south and east of Nagorno-Karabakh. This status quo held until the second war, which began in September 2020. At that conflict's end, Azerbaijan had the upper hand. In another ceasefire forged by Moscow, it took control of part of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the towns Shusha and Hadrut, and the seven adjacent territories it had lost in 1994. Russian peacekeepers deployed to patrol the portions of the former NKAO that remained in the hands of ethnic Armenians, as Yerevan's troops withdrew.

The region has seen some fighting in the period since the ceasefire, in particular near Nagorno-Karabakh's perimeter and along the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border. Since Russia's 24 February invasion of Ukraine, however, the risk of an escalation that could bring the region back to open conflict may have increased. The most recent clash between Azerbaijani forces and those of the de facto authorities in late March resulted in Azerbaijan claiming control of the village of Farukh, which lies in an Armenian-populated district of Nagorno-Karabakh that had been under the administration of the de facto authorities there. (Crisis Group uses Soviet-era place names for locations in Nagorno-Karabakh.)