A Close Call in the Caucasus

Just days ago, Nagorno-Karabakh almost boiled over.

That was close.

Most of the world wasn’t watching in early April when a new and destructive war very nearly broke out in the South Caucasus mountain range, an area encompassing Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. But the war that didn’t happen is still a very real possibility, and if it does, the entire region could go up in flames over a parcel of land not much larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island.

That verdant and contested piece of real estate is Nagorno-Karabakh, the storied “highland black garden” tucked into the foothills of the South Caucasus. Karabakh was the prize in an all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 and the majority Armenian population of Karabakh declared independence. The conflict that emerged, lasting until 1994, cost newly independent Azerbaijan control of Karabakh, took roughly thirty thousand lives and sent hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from Karabakh and the surrounding districts. Today’s self-declared “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” (NKR) is recognized by no one—not even its patron, Armenia—and has become a tiny, ethnically defined garrison state in the unenviable position of being under the constant threat of annihilation.

In short, Karabakh is cursed—as is the entire region—by geopolitics, ethnic and religious hatred, and the forces of nationalism and sovereignty. Just a few weeks ago, these forces came very close to blowing up the fragile pseudo-peace that has hung on by a thread for roughly twenty years. In the most serious violation of the cease-fire brokered in 1994 at the end of the war, the Azerbaijani army, in the predawn of April 2, launched a multipronged offensive that pushed back ethnic Armenian forces in what well could have spiraled into an out-of-control conflict.

After four days of intense combat and dozens of fatalities, the fighting diminished, and the two-decade status quo of “not peace/not war” had returned, more or less. But it’s clear, now that the dust has settled, that the dynamic has changed permanently. What is imperative is finding a way to avoid the wider war that nearly broke out, a conflagration that would have involved Armenians and Azeris by the thousands locked in a battle for survival. Such a war could easily drag in Russia, Turkey and Iran, igniting an arc of chaos and suffering stretching from the Black Sea to the shores of the Caspian in the largest armed conflict in Eurasia since the demise of the Soviet Union. Apart from the human cost, a major war would disrupt Europe’s small but politically important reliance on Azerbaijani oil via routes such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and throw into question Azerbaijan’s ambitions to ship large flows of natural gas to Europe in the future.

So what do we know and where do we go from here?

Very briefly, we can conclude the following from the fighting earlier this month:

• While accusations fly back and forth as to who broke the cease-fire on April 2, Armenia and the NKR have little incentive to begin an offensive since they control Karabakh and a large swath of the adjoining seven Azerbaijani districts that were taken in the first war. Further, Azerbaijan has been more eager to violate the truce in recent years. In 2010, shortly after the breakdown of peace talks, Azerbaijani troops launched an attack of unusual ferocity across the heavily fortified “Line of Contact” (LoC) that separates the military forces of the two sides. And in 2014, Azerbaijan shot down an Armenian helicopter flying parallel to the LoC. Despite the claims by the Azerbaijani government that the helicopter was on an attack vector, the available evidence indicated that the doomed helicopter had simply wandered into the no-fly zone.

• The quick movement of Azerbaijani army units in the first hours of the outbreak, and their ability to pivot and take territory, indicates a higher degree of readiness than at any time since 1994. This is a military that had long been dismissed as poorly trained, but early indications are that they can operate in a decisive fashion and achieve tactical gains. The Armenian and NKR armies are no doubt drawing similar conclusions.

• The purpose of the incursion was twofold: first, an opportunistic thrust to take a small sliver of territory and achieve at least a modest victory. But more than anything, this was a signal—that the Azerbaijani side has concluded that the status quo is unacceptable. Further negotiations will be conducted from a position of strength that they would not have previously enjoyed. At least that’s the perception from Baku, even if the overall military situation has not changed fundamentally. The critical corollary message is that the Azerbaijani side has also decided that the long mediation process sponsored by the OSCE Minsk Group (an ad hoc diplomatic effort sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and cochaired by Russia, the United States and France) has run its course. For Baku, the underlying premises of the Minsk Group process must change if it is to survive.