Will the Fire of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict Spread to the Middle East?

Valdai Club expert Vitaly Naumkin proposes several scenarios for managing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would be useful for external players to keep in mind, as without their help the conflicting parties are unlikely to be able to find a way out of an acute and dangerous situation for the international community.

The new Armenian-Azerbaijani war (I think that the current escalation in the armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K) can be called a war, albeit a low or medium-intensity one) has revealed two circumstances. First, there is a close connection between events in the South Caucasus and the Levant. Let me remind you that in each case, both sides have accused each other of sending Syrian and Libyan mercenaries (according to some sources, thousands of militants!), sponsored, possibly, by regional powers, which also send modern weapons to the parties in war. Some global players also have this information, and are accusing Turkey, in particular, of involvement in these actions.

Second, many external forces are highly involved in the conflict and at the same time, paradoxically, their peacekeeping capabilities are limited, even if the international community (as represented by the UN) is involved. We can say with regret that the Minsk Group, which is authorised by the OSCE to deal with the settlement of the conflict, has not conducted any noticeable activity in recent years. However, the recent call to the parties by its co-chairs from Russia, the United States and France to cease fire in Karabakh gives us cause for hope, as does the subsequent joint statement of the foreign ministers of these powers, as this demonstrates the unity of the positions of these three global players, which is rare for our time.

Of course, sooner or later one can expect another return to the ceasefire regime adopted by the parties in 1994, which will last until the next outburst of violence. In other words, the old “pendulum of violence” will start working. But without a real political process, during which practical ways of solving the Karabakh problem may be discussed in a constructive spirit, and without the manifestation of political will on the part of the ruling elites, the deeply frozen conflict will at best become not even “sleeping”, but only “dozed off for a while.”

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In this regard, I propose several purely hypothetical possible scenarios/recommendations that would be useful for external players to keep in mind, as without their help the conflicting parties are unlikely to be able to find a way out of an acute and dangerous situation for the international community. I would like to note that the Armenian-Azerbaijani war is especially dangerous for peace and security in the Middle East, given the exceptionally active role of Turkey in relation to processes both in this region and in the South Caucasus, where Ankara is unequivocally on the side of Baku. Let us not forget in this context about Iran, which supposedly offered arms supplies to Yerevan, as reported by the media.

1. The first of these scenarios / recommendations. A ceasefire is ensured with the subsequent entry of the parties into negotiations (in a bilateral format, but preferably with the involvement of N-K representatives) and then a return to the “frozen” state of the conflict. This is the minimum that can be done, but it is necessary to open the way to a real political process. It is significant to note that the Turkish Defence Minister called the statement of the Minsk Group co-chairs calling for a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh “insincere and unconvincing”, which raises a number of serious concerns about ending the escalation and returning to the ceasefire. Sergey Lavrov’s proposal to hold talks between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Moscow is a real step towards an armistice.

2. If the parties fail to do this on their own in the near future, then the temporary introduction of an armed contingent from Russia or the CIS/CSTO member states into the contact zone for the separation of the parties may be envisaged, but this requires the consent of all parties to the conflict.

3. An imposed solution. The Minsk Group, with the support of the UN, is forcing the conflicting parties through the negotiations with the participation of international representatives (of course, after a detailed discussion) to adopt one of the options for resolving the conflict, developed in compliance with international law. At the same time, the imposition, at least using sanctions and/or other pressure, of an option (existential in nature) that is unambiguously beneficial to one, but disadvantageous to the other party (or other parties, since there are still three of them), will under no circumstances cause fierce resistance, since the conflict itself is linked by the parties with the interests of their survival.

4. Among the possible settlement options, one can select the territorial exchange project, which would by no means repeat, but use elements of, the well-known American Paul Goble’s project, which was ultimately rejected by the parties. Let me remind you that the first version of the “Goble Plan” from 1992 presumed, in particular, the transfer to Armenia of a part of N-K together with the territory of the river sources located in Azerbaijan, and the transfer to Azerbaijan of the Meghri corridor separating Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan region that is part of it, but at the same time linking Armenia with Iran (which made this version of the project deliberately unacceptable for Yerevan). This plan was then supported by US President George Bush Sr. The second version — “Goble-2” from 1996 — envisaged no longer the overlap of the border between Armenia and Iran, but the exchange of the Meghri region for the western part of Nakhichevan. N-K, together with the Lachin corridor connecting it with Armenia, was supposed to enter Armenia, which would not lose the border with Iran, only transferred to the north of the current one, while the part of Nakhichevan departing to Armenia would exclude the connection of Azerbaijan with Turkey, which is strategically dangerous for Yerevan.

5. Finally, I will name one more project that was developed by the Russian and American co-chairs of the Group on Regional Conflicts of the Russian-American Dartmouth Conference, where I was previously named co-chair and retain this role today. The group, in which not only Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also Nagorno-Karabakh were represented, was unique for such dialogues (which today do not exist at all); they held regular meetings on Russian territory in 2001-2007. My late colleague, the American co-chair Harold Saunders, played an important role in developing the Framework Document to explain our plan and foster constructive American-Russian engagement, which now looks regrettable. We were well aware that the two opposing concepts of settlement — stage-by-stage and as a package deal — are in principle incompatible, given the absence of even the slightest trust between the parties. Representatives of N-K and Armenia feared that if an agreement was reached on the return of the territories occupied by each other as a “security buffer” for N-K, then Azerbaijan would achieve its goals and immediately “forget” any promises made to them about considering the status of N-K. The Azerbaijanis were afraid that if they made any concessions on N-K’s status before the territories were returned to Azeri control, then Armenia would do everything possible to keep them for itself, undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, which is recognised by the world community. Mutual fears were very deep.

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I am sure that our 15-year-old project could interest the parties amid the current conditions. I will briefly outline its main features.

It was based on several ideas that set the project apart from all other N-K concepts and proposals. First, there is the idea of a peace process. Second, there is a particularly important idea of temporary or transitional status. It was formed by granting Karabakh the right to participate in negotiations, sign documents and implement them. In fact, this way meant the creation of a process through which N-K, by its actions aimed at a peaceful settlement, would receive de facto recognition by Azerbaijan of this territory as one of the parties to the conflict, which would lay the foundations for the de jure recognition of N-K by Azerbaijan.

After the main ideas of the project were in principle approved by the participants (later this approval was disavowed), we proposed to carry out a “trial” liberation of one of the occupied regions by the Armenian armed forces, which could be considered as a confidence building measure and at the same time as a signal of the readiness of the Armenian side to compromise, in fact, in parallel with the compromise agreement of the Azerbaijani side with the idea of a transitional status for N-K. The Azerbaijani side was satisfied that at this first stage of the process, they did not need to make any promises regarding the final status of N-K. I would like to note that although the ideas of the project belonged to the co-chairs, the Framework Document was developed by the parties to the conflict themselves, who included former foreign ministers, legislators, former government officials, and leaders of political parties.

After the completion of one of the rounds, the Russian and American co-chairs went to the region to familiarise the heads of the foreign affairs agencies and parliaments of the countries with our project. It seemed to us that the matter got off the ground, but for a number of reasons did not end up happening.

Having put an end to possible scenarios, let us ask one more question: will the new South Caucasian war destroy the system of interaction between the three participants in the Astana process — Russia, Turkey and Iran? I hope that this will not happen, because none of the parties are interested in this outcome. Along the way, we note that in the Arab states of the Levant and in Iran, there are large Armenian communities (about 150 thousand Armenians live in Lebanon alone), as well as communities of Turkomans (in fact, the same Turks).

Although Russia has asymmetric relations with the conflicting parties, it maintains a partnership with both. At the same time, Armenia is also, together with Russia, a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, and Russian troops are based on its territory to protect it against external threats. Guided by the task of maintaining a balance between Baku and Yerevan, Russia has supplied arms to both sides for several years. Today Moscow maintains neutrality in relation to the conflict, calls on the parties to exercise restraint and is ready to step up constructive efforts towards reconciliation.
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Sergey Markedonov
Has the July escalation brought about any significant changes? It may be too soon to tell. At the same time, it is clear that the transition from military escalation to a new diplomatic round and vice versa, known as the Nagorno-Karabakh pendulum, has been delayed this time. After the four-day war, the negotiating process resumed almost at the same time as the ceasefire agreement was reached. This time, however, there could be other factors at play, writes Sergey Markedonov, Leading Researcher of the Euro-Atlantic Security Centre at MGIMO University
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.