Main Image Credit Armenian military vehicles captured during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on display at the 'Trophy Park' in Baku, Azerbaijan. Courtesy of ZUMA Press/Alamy Stock Photo
Eight months after the latest war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, a new status quo has emerged. Despite the overwhelming operational victory for Azerbaijan, little has been resolved and the political stand-off between the two countries remains as intractable as ever.
After Armenia’s defeat sparked widespread domestic condemnation of the government, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan won a snap election in June by a convincing majority of 53.9%, thereby regaining the mandate to govern. The election was also seen as a key indicator for how the post-conflict relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia might develop.
Armenia’s domestic situation must be understood. Despite presiding over Armenia’s recent defeat, Pashinyan is a progressive candidate. He won Armenia’s first internationally certified free and fair elections in 2018 on an anti-corruption, reformist ticket, and still represents a step away from previous governments which long allowed relations with Azerbaijan to fester. Yet after his 2018 election victory, Pashinyan’s stated intent to make peace with Azerbaijan failed to develop into material progress. Negotiations proved difficult and as inconclusive as ever, meeting stiff resistance from many local interest groups that never saw the need for compromise with Azerbaijan. Ultimately, Pashinyan’s progressive platform and his aim of reducing Russian influence was viewed by some as a contributing factor to Russia’s surprising lack of support for its traditional ally during much of last year’s war. And the multiple rounds of protests against Pashinyan’s perceived capitulation to end the fighting indicate that the uncompromising attitude held by many Armenians towards Azerbaijan will prove hard to change.
As for Azerbaijan, despite a sense of successful closure bordering on triumphalism at all levels of society, obstacles to true peace remain formidable. Most obviously, the resentment between the two sides festers and has not been dampened by military victory. Armenia systematically demolished many Azerbaijani towns and displaced the population in the creation of a militarised buffer zone in the territory that it controlled. The Armenians also laid between 700,000 and 1,000,000 land mines. For Azerbaijan, despite optimistic plans for smart cities, reconstruction in the territory it recovered will be a dangerous, expensive and time-consuming process likely to last decades. The destruction of historical towns such as Ağdam and the fate of internally displaced people remain a sticking point. During the conflict itself, artillery and missile fire, including cluster munitions, were directed at populated urban areas, and both sides stand accused of war crimes against both civilians and POWs. Both sides still deny the majority of the claims despite compelling evidence, though Azerbaijan has shown limited willingness to prosecute a handful of its own personnel for some breaches of international law.
The border between the two countries is therefore likely to remain unstable. The fact that Armenia was beaten so rapidly and so thoroughly on the battlefield is likely to make any negotiated deal politically unacceptable. This may force the Armenian government to continue contesting their border with Azerbaijan in any way possible in order to retain legitimacy. Thus, the conflict is likely to remain ‘frozen’, with intermittent low-level clashes that could later erupt into renewed large-scale violence. However, just as concerning is that the Azerbaijani position towards Armenia has not softened with battlefield victory. The UN has consistently recognised Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over the territory and, despite the UN’s long-standing position that Azerbaijan and Armenia should resolve their dispute through diplomatic means, Azerbaijan has avoided any substantive condemnation. Armenia had already long fallen behind Azerbaijan’s ability to fund and modernise their military, and it is questionable whether Armenia will be able to reconstitute its conventional forces after last year’s losses, which, in addition to heavy human casualties, decimated its fleet of armoured, artillery and air defence vehicles.
The conflict has largely ended the Armenian occupation of some Azerbaijani territory, so Azerbaijan is now in the ideal position to start laying the groundwork for a better future relationship with its neighbour without experiencing domestic political blowback. Yet while the official Azerbaijani position is that they are ready to make peace, in practice the unwillingness to make small steps to either build confidence or cooperate is mutual. In the months since the war ended with a ceasefire, there has been neither reconciliation nor the building of any degree of trust. The handing over of landmine maps to aid with demining has become a bargaining chip, and while Azerbaijan claims to have returned all POWs, and to only retain Armenian personnel from infiltrating ‘sabotage parties’ who were captured after the ceasefire was implemented, Armenia claims that many soldiers and civilians who were known to have fallen into Azerbaijani hands alive remain missing and unaccounted for. If continued for much longer, the lack of good faith in the negotiations risks irretrievably entrenching the difficult relationship and preventing future diplomacy or reconciliation initiatives from successfully lowering tensions or finding viable solutions towards peace.
International actors are unlikely to bridge this divide. Having been instrumental to the modernisation process that enabled Azerbaijan’s military victory, Turkey has gone beyond its long-standing cultural affinity with Azerbaijan to become a close military ally, and is in any case a historical enemy of Armenia. The US retains a great deal of influence and is a primary member of the Minsk Group, the OSCE body charged with mediating between Azerbaijan and Armenia since 1992, but after the Trump administration’s policy of disengagement, the Biden administration has yet to demonstrate that it is seriously committed to re-engaging with this particular dispute. Of all the international players, Russia has emerged as the most significant, for it retains close relations with both sides, and has also gained a physical presence in the contested border region through the deployment of peacekeeping forces. It therefore has political leverage as both a mediator and security guarantor for the remaining Armenian territory in Nagorno-Karabakh. How Russia utilises this leverage remains to be seen, but it is unlikely to involve serious peacebuilding.
The result therefore looks to be deep embitterment on the part of Armenia for a humiliating defeat, which even the renewed political mandate of Pashinyan will struggle to overcome, while Azerbaijan physically consolidates its recovered territory. The international community tacitly accepted Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Azerbaijan is demonstrating that, despite enjoying a much more favourable strategic position, it accepts that decisive operational victory in war does not necessarily translate into decisive political outcomes and may in fact entrench political problems. Baku is preparing accordingly, an example of the gulf between the operational and strategic levels of war that outside observers would do well to learn from.
The limiting factors that will for now maintain a semblance of peace are likely to be Armenia’s post-conflict lack of conventional military capacity and Russia’s ability to constrain the behaviour of either party. While Armenia will not be able to seriously contest the disputed territory any time soon, the conflict appears likely to continue in the form of diplomatic antagonism and endemic skirmishes in a fragile and unstable border region. The only viable off-ramps from such a disappointing outcome are either committed international mediation (a dim prospect), or the recognition by the Azerbaijani government that alternatives to the new status quo exist. De-escalation and confidence-building will, however, require the investment of significant political capital by both Azerbaijan and Armenia and the acceptance of risk.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Analyst, Land Warfare