Nagorno-Karabakh: A Full-Scale War or a Political Trick?

Full armed clashes in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone began on April 2. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry declared that there had been shelling from Armenia, while the Armenian Defense Ministry reported offensive operations by Azerbaijan. These operations in the disputed area are generally believed to be the heaviest since the 1994 ceasefire. Valdai’s experts do not rule out that current events could escalate into a full-scale, protracted conflict.

Associate Professor at the Russian State Humanitarian University Sergei Markedonov told that “a full-scale conflict is likely.”

“At this point I can see two possible scenarios: first, the conflict will dissipate thanks to diplomatic efforts; or second, diplomatic efforts will prove inadequate or belated (unfortunately, we can see a certain lag now) and the military logic will prevail,” he said.

According to Markedonov, even if diplomatic efforts manage to stabilize the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, the conflict’s key problems will not be resolved anytime soon. “It’s hard to suggest that the updated Madrid Principles on settling the Karabakh conflict will be implemented in full. At best, we’ll be able to talk about a de-escalation. But these kinds of incidents may recur in the future. We should have no illusions,” he stressed.

Alexander Iskandaryan, Director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, does not believe there will be a war. Tensions will taper off within days.

“For all the intensity of current events, the beginning of a full-scale war would have looked different. The first minutes would have seen a frontal attack on Nagorno-Karabakh – not on the flanks, but along the Askeran-Stepanakert line. The offensive would have been accompanied by bombing attacks on Stepanakert, Karabakh’s main city and administrative center. In any other case, the element of surprise, Azerbaijan’s only advantage, is lost,” he said.

Iskandaryan stressed that yesterday’s attacks were on the flanks. “Given this, the Karabakh military will have time to redeploy artillery and troops from the outlying areas and, if need be, move the required equipment from Armenia. A military victory is out of the question in this situation; the only thing they can do is start heavy, if local, fighting aimed at what all the previous escalations over the two or so decades since the ceasefire, sought to achieve – reviving international interest in the conflict and consolidating the public. These are political, not military aims, albeit achieved by military means,” he said.

In this way, according to Iskandaryan, Azerbaijan is seeking world attention amid falling oil prices and waning Western business interest, something that detracts from its lobbying potential. “Besides, an escalation at the frontlines is an opportunity to showcase successes and achievements against the background of social problems, poverty and growing disaffection,” he said.

He believes that the current increase in tensions will result in a different quality of recurrent ceasefire violations. “Now these violations will be more intense and frequent, resulting in more casualties. More powerful equipment will be used; larger sallies will be launched… Intermediaries will have to put in more effort, be more convincing, turn a more powerful spotlight on the conflict…,” he said.

The Deputy General Director of Trend News Agency, political scientist Arzu Nagiyev, believes that the latest surge in tensions could lead to a protracted war if the Armenians fail to leave the territory. “As long as the Armenian forces don’t leave the occupied areas surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, this will last and new flare-ups are inevitable,” he said.

Immediately after the escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared support for Baku and criticized the intermediaries involved in the effort to settle the conflict. “Regrettably, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmen’s inactivity in an Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict settlement has left us with the picture we have now,” he said.

Given the above, the question that has to be answered now is whether Turkish interference will further escalate the conflict? Will this affect the already uneasy relationship between Turkey and Russia? According to Alexander Iskandaryan, there is no reason for Turkey to spread the Russian-Turkish disagreement to the South Caucasus and the escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh is not related to this. “Azerbaijan’s dependence on Turkey has been strongly exaggerated as well. In the context of the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation, it is more likely that Turkey depends on Azerbaijan rather than vice versa. Even if Turkey can take advantage of this conflict, it will be only by offering mediation (officially or through subtle influence). But this is unlikely to result in anything either,” he said.

Sergei Markedonov thinks we can’t rule out that Turkey will support Azerbaijan and try to exploit the situation for its own benefit. But it is important to keep in mind that the original cause of the conflict was different. “Of course, Erdogan expressed solidarity with Azerbaijan and condolences over Azerbaijani military losses. But is there anything new in this? Ankara has been blocking the land border between Armenia and Turkey since 1993, prior to Erdogan’s ascent to the presidency. This is a strategic alliance between these two countries. Regarding Turkey’s attitude toward Azerbaijan, note that it recognized Azerbaijan just one day after the signing of the Belavezha Accords in December 1991,” he said.

“The original cause of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, which has a dynamic and logic of its own, is the disintegration of the USSR and the self-determination of the two countries that had different views on the territorial claims for Karabakh. This dispute is unresolved to this day. It’s a conflict between two ethnic identities. Turkey, Russia, or the US could add something to it. They could contain or support one of the sides. But this conflict has existed before 2016, as have numerous armed incidents,” he said.

Arzu Nagiyev holds that all the superpowers should have a stake in the Karabakh conflict settlement. “I think our sister Turkey will support us in this regard as will other countries concerned with avoiding an escalation and war in the region,” he said.

Azerbaijani media reports say that the US “has recently focused on settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” and that “this gives hope for a more vigorous US settlement effort.” But is America really prepared to interfere in the conflict? And if it is, what side would it take?

According to Iskandaryan, we can hardly expect a third country, the US included, to become active in the conflict. “Outside influences will boil down to statements and diplomatic moves, but all of this will be useless. Any escalation will stop of its own accord by virtue of being a local escalation rather than a war. It can’t last long. But it can, and more likely will, recur,” he said.

Arzu Nagiyev, on the contrary, expressed certainty that the US would support Azerbaijan’s sovereignty. “Joe Biden and John Kerry made several statements in support of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty at the nuclear security summit held in the US recently. This emphasizes once again that the United States supports us on the issue of security, the most important thing for the region. But security can only be based on Azerbaijan’s sovereignty,” he said.

Sergei Markedonov sees the situation somewhat differently. “The United States is already there. Along with Russia and France, the US is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group. The US contributed diplomatically to conflict settlement in 2001, for example. We, therefore, shouldn’t see the US as a newcomer,” he said.

It is another matter that for Russia the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a painful thing, because this territory is part of its “Near Abroad.” For the United States, however, this is a remote problem, “a piece of the puzzle related to Turkey, Iran, and relations with Russia,” he said.

But an interesting point is that unlike the conflicts in Donbass, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the US has always successfully cooperated with Russia on Karabakh. This will give us a chance to bring the situation back to normal,” he said.

“This is an opportunity for Russia and the US to cooperate in a pragmatic and selective way. This partnership will be more useful than harmful,” he said.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization’s Secretariat follows the situation in the conflict zone closely. According to CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha, “everyone needs nothing but peace.” “The CSTO Secretariat has been closely monitoring the situation that has taken shape on the line of contact. The CSTO states’ position on this matter has been stated more than once. They are in favor of a ceasefire and peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A continuation is fraught with destabilization in the entire Caucasian region,” Bordyuzha said, adding that the conflict could only be settled politically within the framework of the effective international mechanisms.

The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh began in 1988, when the predominantly Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region declared that it was withdrawing from the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic.
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