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Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh

At dawn on Sunday 27 September, the South Caucasus woke up to the noise of tanks, artillery and drones in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Azerbaijani armed forces launched an intensive counter-offensive along the contact line, having previously repelled an Armenian provocation – according to Baku.

By the afternoon of the same day, the Azerbaijani leadership announced that seven villages, as well as several heights of strategic importance, have been “liberated from occupation”. While the skirmishes are still underway, let me analyse what factors have eventually led to the escalation in the region.

Failure of negotiations

The change of government in Yerevan through the 2018 mass rallies in Yerevan that swept away the previous authorities and elevated Nikol Pashinyan to power was accepted in Baku with a mixed reaction of optimism and scepticism. Although the maximalist stance of the Armenian society toward the Nagorno-Karabakh issue was nothing new, the peace messages by Pashinyan sparked in Azerbaijan some degree of faith in a positive flow of negotiations.

Indeed, the initial interaction between Armenia and Azerbaijan seemed quite constructive, as the top leaders agreed to establish a direct contact line and to reduce the intensity of ceasefire violations and casualties along the frontline.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Pashinyan faced a struggle to consolidate power back at home against his tough political rivals, predominantly Karabakh-born. He had to resist accusations that he would compromise Armenian interests in the Nagorno-Karabakh diplomatic process.

Therefore, Pashinyan has switched his peace-oriented discourse over time to a more confrontational policy than that of previous Armenian leaders: a chain of strong rhetoric and damaging steps that came to replace the earlier messages of peace, thus, contributed to the deterioration of the situation, as well as to distrust in and to the disappointment of the Azerbaijani side.

The proposal by Pashinyan to introduce the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” as a party into the negotiation process put a halt to the format of talks and threw into disarray all the principles that the two sides had elaborated on for over twenty years.

While the idea was rejected by international mediators, Baku saw in this policy an attempt to reset the talks and protract the conflict as long as possible. The controversial aspect of the situation is that the separatist regime in Karabakh is not a self-sustaining entity and totally dependent on Yerevan. That the Republic of Armenia exercises effective control over the “NKR” and the surrounding territories was ruled upon by the European Court of Human Rights several years ago.

Despite the efforts to present Nagorno-Karabakh as a separate entity for the negotiation framework, Pashinyan’s infamous speech in August 2019 revealed his pan-Armenian irredentist ambitions: by exclaiming “Karabakh is Armenia, and that`s it” amid the crowd`s miatsum (unification) chants, Pashinyan did not hide the plans of incorporating Karabakh into Armenia, which further breached any hopes for a positive negotiation dynamics.

Pashinyan’s family members added fuel to the discussion: Pashinyan’s son went to serve in Nagorno-Karabakh, de jure Azerbaijani territory, in 2018, while Prime Minister`s wife led a few Armenian women for military exercises in September 2020, again in Karabakh. The photos of Anna Hagobian holding a Kalashnikov, albeit symbolic, were received as a sign of deep militarisation of the Armenian society and its antagonism toward the peace process.

In March 2019, Armenia`s Defence Minister David Tonoyan released his (country`s) offensive military doctrine, “new war for new territories”, through which he threatened Baku with possible military operations and put forth more territorial claims against Azerbaijan.

Most recently, in the spring of 2020, the separatist regime in Nagorno-Karabakh organised ‘a presidential election’ amid and despite the pandemic, and then held the “inauguration ceremony” in Shusha, a city with a huge moral and symbolic significance to the Azerbaijanis. This event was followed by the plans of moving the “Nagorno-Karabakh parliament” to the same town, which sparked outrage in Azerbaijan.

The chain of afore-mentioned steps accompanied by a strong rhetoric of the top Armenian leadership eventually discredited the idea of peaceful resolution and logically led to the outbreak of a new phase of hostilities, first in July, along the Armenia-Azerbaijani state border, and now in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.

Negligence of the international community

At the same time, the existing international frameworks once designed to mediate the settlement process for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had long become outdated and impractical, despite numerous calls to reform them. The back and forth flights and the routine, unsubstantial statements of the representatives from the official mediating nations (France, Russia and the United States) did not add anything valuable to the entire peace process.

The vacuum that emerged because of US disengagement from the region and the internal cracks within the European Union, has been assertively filled in by Russia, which seemed like the sole international player able to lead the negotiations to a logical conclusion.

Yet, a smouldering and protracted conflict is what the Kremlin is apparently interested in: by deepening the divide and fragmentation in the South Caucasus, supplying both belligerent parties with weapons and speculating the proposal of deploying Russian “peacekeepers” in Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow retains its dominant presence in the region.

The military escalation, the largest in scale since the 1994 ceasefire, stems from a number factors: while the fiasco of the diplomatic process is an outcome of a series of affronts by the Armenian leadership, the failure of the big powers to address the cracks in mutual trust and update the negotiation format with fresh ideas also contributed to the deterioration of the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh.

Source: Visegrad Insight

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