International Crisis Group reflects on causes of escalation of Armenia-Azerbaijan tension
The International Crisis Group (ICC) has published an article on the latest escalation of tension on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The authors of this article believe that there are several factors that have contributed to this escalation.
“First, Azerbaijan may be taking advantage of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has distracted not just Moscow but also Paris and Washington, the other co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, which until recently was the main sponsor of peace talks. This theory – shared by many in Yerevan – holds that with the co-chairs all looking the other way, Baku has seized the moment to improve the strategic map in its favour and position itself better for a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Consistent with this notion, Azerbaijani media outlets, including ones close to the government, as well as a prominent Azerbaijani parliamentarian, have called for Azerbaijan to take control of more land along its border with Armenia. Some describe the move they are advocating as defensive, while others appear to see it as additional leverage for negotiations with Armenia.
Secondly, Azerbaijan may be in a hurry. A pro-government analyst in Baku speculated that President Aliyev wants a peace accord in the next two to three months. One reason could be that he is looking ahead to the June 2023 Turkish elections and is worried that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – a staunch backer of Baku – may be weakened, thus sapping Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in the negotiations. “Any government in Türkiye will support Azerbaijan, but not every government will protect Azerbaijan’s interests against Russia like Erdoğan does and be independent with respect to the West”, a pro-government analyst in Baku told Crisis Group.
Thirdly, some in Yerevan link the escalation to Azerbaijan’s desire to secure a special land corridor, policed by Russian border guards, through Armenia to the Azerbaijani exclave Nakhchivan. The Russian-brokered ceasefire that ended fighting in 2020 called for opening all transport routes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the roads that connect Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan. The parties’ two leaders were close to reaching an agreement on routes in the spring of 2022, according to Western diplomats familiar with the negotiations. But hopes for a breakthrough on this issue – one that diplomats had seen as one of the easiest to resolve because of the shared economic stake in it – were dashed at the 31 August summit.
Part of the reason for the failure to move forward cooperatively is that Baku has set its goal as reaching a final omnibus peace settlement, meaning it is less interested in resolving discrete bilateral issues ahead of such a deal – even if agreement may be more easily within reach. It may believe that keeping these other issues unresolved makes arriving at a deal on everything at once more pressing. At the same time, it has not foresworn working to achieve these same objectives by force. On 15 September, Armenia’s UN envoy warned of an Azerbaijani offensive that he said would be aimed at capturing enough land for the corridor to Nakhchivan.
Finally, some in Baku say Azerbaijan wants to pressure Armenia to get back control of eight villages that are controlled by Armenia but lie on Azerbaijan’s side of the UN-recognised border, which corresponds to the Soviet-era administrative line. For its part, Armenia also has an exclave in Azerbaijan, known as Artvashen and controlled by Baku. “Azerbaijan will try to use [its control of] new areas in Armenian territory as a bargaining chip to get the exclaves back”, a local expert said, adding that the issue has been a priority for Baku since 2020.
Prospects for peace are looking increasingly dim. The difference in power between the two sides appears to be widening, which could set the stage for yet more fighting if Baku decides to press its advantage. As in other recent escalatory cycles, Azerbaijan emerged from the recent hostilities having enhanced its position and demonstrated its battlefield dominance. It is also geopolitically in a strong position, with European powers eager for the energy exports it can offer amid Russian gas cutoffs, and Armenia’s chief protector – Russia – struggling to hold its own in the Ukraine conflict it launched.
This is not lost on the Armenians. The level of force Baku deployed in the recent fighting – coming at a time when it had publicly engaged in and voiced satisfaction with peace talks – has deeply undercut Yerevan’s trust in the negotiations. “Whatever paper we sign, it will become toilet paper in a second and we will still have the war”, a senior official told Crisis Group on 16 September, adding that Armenia would want international guarantees for any peace agreement. “We are in a very bad situation, because no war is good for us. We are not able to fight back”.
Should the two sides nevertheless return to the table, there will also be new practical and political obstacles to reaching a deal. As a practical matter, the presence of additional Azerbaijani troops in border positions Armenia controlled before the latest escalation will (if they remain) add a new layer of issues to the talks, including difficult efforts to delimit the border between the long-time foes. As a political matter, Baku’s growing military dominance may encourage it to take a harder line, while in Yerevan the fresh anger stirred by the fighting will make any concessions by Prime Minister Pashinyan yet more difficult – potentially even threatening his government.
The challenges that Pashinyan faces have already manifested themselves. When he restated his commitment to making the tough compromises needed in peace talks – even as the fighting raged on 13 and 14 September – people took to the streets in Yerevan and Stepanakert to express their anger. Protest leaders drew parallels to the 2020 war, when, in their view, Armenia’s politicians surrendered after the military had fought fiercely for weeks. Anger still runs deep over the 2020 ceasefire statement, which touched off days of violent unrest, including attacks on the prime minister’s home – almost costing Pashinyan his premiership.
On the Azerbaijani side, for the first time since the 2020 war, prominent figures publicly questioned the latest clashes, voicing disappointment with the high death toll among Azerbaijani soldiers and what they described as a military incursion into Armenian territory. Such criticism of military operations, however limited, was notable in part because it was almost unheard of in the past – and indeed government supporters quickly mounted a campaign to smear the critics as “traitors”. While there is little reason to believe that these signs of dissent will change Baku’s calculations with respect to peace talks, they do suggest that further cross-border activity may create or surface divisions within Azerbaijan,” the ICC article reads, in particular.
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