Eight months after a Moscow brokered ceasefire ended a forty-four-day conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, tensions are once again reaching a fever pitch between the South Caucasus neighbors.
In the most serious escalation of violence since hostilities halted in November 2020, recent weeks have seen cross-border fire result in numerous casualties, with increasingly lethal skirmishes threatening areas previously untouched by violence.
This does not bode well.
In July of last year, similar skirmishes—provoked by Armenia—broke out across the border. Four days of hostilities followed in which at least twenty died. Then two months later, war. The current state affairs require urgent attention by world leaders, and not simply in the form of platitudinous calls for peace.
The only thing that will ease regional tensions is a formal demarcation of borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
A tense stand-off in May illustrates why demarcation is such a critical priority for the Caucasus. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of an incursion into its sovereign territory around Lake Sevlich, which the two nations share. Azerbaijan disagreed, saying it was merely reinforcing its border. Both countries were right: it simply depends on which maps one uses.
At the same time, Armenia has yet to come to terms with the loss of Karabakh—the territory it occupied for thirty years, though internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan.
With the liberal hopes of the international community resting on his shoulders, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has disappointed since the velvet revolution swept him to power in 2018. Admittedly less nationalistic than his predecessors, he is nevertheless a nationalist before he is a liberal. And his peacemaking skills have yet to be realized.
Pashinyan recognizes that turning his back on Karabakh—Armenia nationalists’ all-consuming cause—would constitute a betrayal. Yet a return to war would also be devastating. Azerbaijan after all decisively showcased its military prowess in last year’s conflict. Its army only stopped at the current ceasefire line when Moscow made it clear it would intervene on Armenia’s behalf. Had it not, Azerbaijan would have recovered all its internationally recognized land. Instead, a fraction remains in Armenian control under the watch of Russian peacekeepers.
Instead, Pashinyan and Armenian forces are treading a middle path: continuing war by other means. Low-level cross-border fire is keeping tensions high, the cause of Karabakh supposedly alive, and an enemy against which the Armenian people rally—channeling ire externally rather than domestically. Pashinyan knows winter is coming, when economic strife will bite with the fallout from Covid-19 and conflict. Distraction is becoming an issue of survival for the prime minister.
But, even if Pashinyan were a true peacemaker, it would likely make little difference. Armenians from Karabakh have traditionally held power in Armenia since independence and the first war over the territory in the 1990s. The old guard, hard-line in their nationalistic conviction, retain control of the armed forces. This is why a military coup was attempted in the immediate aftermath of Pashinyan signing the ceasefire agreement. The prime minister cannot even appoint his own defense minister.
Instead, that position, and Armenia’s posture to postwar settlement, is still controlled from the city that governed the occupied territories—what Armenians call Stepanakert, and Azerbaijanis call Khankendi. Pashinyan may rationalize that he has no choice but to go along with the provocations.
But it is a highly precarious strategy. Where there is mutual mistrust, it is far easier to escalate than deescalate. Events can take on their own logic and momentum and leaders can easily lose control. Yet a return to war would almost certainly see the reclamation of all of Karabakh by Azerbaijan.
There is no better window of opportunity for peace, despite recent clashes, than now. Armenia would benefit if it pursued renormalization of relations and borders with Azerbaijan, and Pashinyan would almost certainly gain some settlement that preserves the rights of Armenians in Karabakh—many of whom fled during the conflict.
Instead, Pashinyan’s request for more Russian boots along its national border, rather than just in Karabakh, is a recipe for an increasingly militarized border—only this time with third-party involvement. This will not ease tensions; it will only prolong them.
It also unnecessarily raises the stakes and risks the internationalization of the conflict. One need only consider the outcome of a provocation or accident involving Russian soldiers. Syria, Libya, and Yemen are but a few illustrations of how that ends.
A militarized border will also achieve little more than stalling a comprehensive peace treaty. It sounds more like the 1990s than the 2020s. Without an agreement, Yerevan will find itself in a weaker position when Russian peacekeepers do leave in five years and, with an increasingly powerful Azerbaijan relative to Armenia, history is likely to repeat itself.
An effective statesman would recognize that the time to negotiate a sustainable peace is now. If Pashinyan cannot see this, his foreign allies would be wise to convince him so.
Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at The University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.