The Conflict That Never Fully Freezes: Reflecting on Recent Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenian forces in Karabakh in 1994. Photo by Wikipedia user Armdesant / CC BY-SA 3.0 (Photo was cropped).

This past month, fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces flared to its most dangerous level in decades. Nagorno-Karabakh set a bloody standard for Post-Soviet frozen conflicts, killing tens of thousands before a ceasefire ended major fighting in 1994. Since then, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group has overseen a twenty-year peace process, co-chaired by Russia, the United States, and France.

While casualty reports have varied from both countries, the recent resurgence of violence between Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers over the Nagorno-Karabakh region is said to have resulted in over 300 deaths in April alone. To any observer of the South Caucasus, the outbreak in fighting was unsurprising and just a matter of time. Yet for a few short days, the region and its hallmark conflict were once again thrust to the front page of every news outlet around the world. In light of these events, it begs the question: Why is the Karabakh a perennial thorn in the South Caucasus, and what does the future hold for the region’s people and those living in other Post-Soviet conflict zones? The answer to this complicated question lies within the flawed diplomacy following the most recent cease-fire.

Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Despite being internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, the region is surrounded and controlled by the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), which has very strong ties to Armenia and only limited international recognition.
A Failed Diplomacy and Large-Power Ambivalence

Subsequent analyses of this episode of violence have tried to tie Armenian or Azerbaijani strategy (prominent commentators laid blame on Azerbaijan) on selecting the opportune time to unfreeze the conflict amid Russian diplomatic moves, falling oil prices, and economic difficulties – or some other overly complicated explanation. In reality, this fighting was likely a series of disproportionate escalations in response to skirmishes on the line of contact, which have been commonplace over the last twenty years. When Georgia and Russia traded blows over South Ossetia in 2008, the conflict escalated in a strikingly similar fashion. This is expected when two overly militarized semi-authoritarian propaganda-happy countries have a territorial dispute between one another.

Perhaps the most baring error from the course of events this past April was U.S. inaction. The Obama administration took days to release a statement, and despite its co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group, did not send senior officials to tend to the situation, or have any hand in brokering the ceasefire. The State Department has talked about how unnecessary Russian influence is in the Caucasus, but when it comes to the Karabakh, this diplomatic emperor is undoubtedly without its clothes. U.S. leadership is not going to solve the problems in the Post-Soviet space without a more nuanced understanding of local interests and the necessity of Russia – a fact of life that is all too often lost on Capitol Hill and in Foggy Bottom.

I specifically remember sitting in the audience of Senate confirmation hearings for the now-serving U.S. ambassadors to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Paraphrasing one of the senators’ questions, he wanted to know “what the Karabakh conflict was about and what the U.S. can do about it.” It is time for Western leadership to take the ten minutes a week to catch up on the region unless Western interests are ready to sign it over to Russian diplomatic hegemony.

Looking Forward: To Freeze, or to Resolve?

In a situation where spite and hatred has festered for so long, any sustainable resolution to Karabakh seems to be unreachable. This is especially true given the authoritarian militancy in the governments on both sides of the line of control. This conflict can no longer be described as frozen. Whether we talk about Karabakh, Kashmir, or Palestine, they all have the potential to turn into highly destructive, human-rights-violating, shooting wars in a very short amount of time. Dozens are killed in each of the conflict zones every year, and to call them frozen would be an oxymoron. These conflicts are hundred-year wars of attrition, not just in money and manpower, but in their striking ability to erode any hope for democratic reform and human rights in the countries on either side of the lines.

So long as the United States remains ambivalent and aloof to the region, Russia keeps profiting, and the warring factions remain militarized pseudo-democracies, we can expect more of the same in Karabakh over the coming months and years. Resolution begets cooperation, which breeds pluralism, which, by its very nature, threatens one-party rule. In a greater sense, the implications of increased destabilization in the region, or worse yet, open war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, go much further than a disputed enclave within recognized Azerbaijani territory. Economic and diplomatic interests in the region are less focused on where lines on a map fall, and more so on the flow of energy and trade between the East and West. If conflict in the region threatens the eventual trade route of Iranian gas to Europe, forcing the Europeans to stay supplied by Russia, then we might see great powers take a larger interest in the region. Unfortunately, the global community seems to react to the outbreak of conflict and human rights violations post-factum. We should not expect anything different should Armenia and Azerbaijan descend to open war in the coming years. Without significant reform in the way large powers conduct diplomacy and promote democracy in the South Caucasus, Karabakh looks to remain a passively hot war in perpetuity. Let the next report of several dozen dead soldiers come as no surprise.


Charles Johnson is a Senior Contributor for Ramen IR focusing on Eurasia. He previously was a research fellow and development coordinator at the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. He graduated with an MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, and a BA in History an International Relations from Boise State University. He also served as an Education and Youth Development Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia with the US Peace Corps. Charles has worked in economic affairs with the US State Department and on NATO Policy with the US Department of Defense. His Twitter is @Chase_Johnson


One comment

  1. In referring to several conflicts, the author mentions “striking ability to erode any hope for democratic reform and human rights in the countries on either side of the lines.”

    With all the respect, but Israel is a full-fledged democracy functioning for decades, and so is India. Armenia has its difficulties, but progress in democratic reforms has been noted in recent years. On the other hand, the oppression in the Palestinian Authority, in Hamas-ruled Gaza strip, in dictatorial Azerbaijan have all taken a turn for the worse in the past few years. Pakistan is mired in a civil war, and is nowhere near becoming a functioning democracy.

    It seems the conflicts have a “striking ability to erode any hope” on a particular side of the lines, doesn’t it?


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