Interview with Dr. Ilya Roubanis
We expect a peace treaty by the end of 2023. This interview with Dr. Ilya Roubanis gives context of the conflict and evaluates the likelihood of peace after the treaty.
Can you provide some background on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh? What are the key issues and events that led to the current tensions?
The First Karabakh War resulted in a military triumph for Armenia. It was prolonged and bloody, taking place with limited resources between 1988 and 1994. Armenia ended up controlling not merely the area of Karabakh, but seven adjacent territories. Thousands of refugees left their homes at the time and there was a sense of deep-seated hate that was never addressed. Between 1998 and 2001, there were intense negotiations between [Armenian President] Robert Kocharyan and [Azerbaijan President] Heydar Aliyev with the involvement of Russia, the US, and the EU. That was the last time there was a real chance for a substantial deal. Fast forward to 2016, Azerbaijan tried out its new military capabilities, having built a qualitative edge by diversifying its military procurement with the assistance of Turkey and Israel. It became then clear that Armenia was already facing a major challenge. In 2020, Azerbaijan moved in to recapture the territories lost in the 1990s. Since then, it became abundantly clear that Azerbaijan would not move towards a peace that was anything less than a complete victory.
Many Armenians are fleeing: is it because of targeted Azeri decisions?
The Armenian population of Karabakh has not received any assurances of a minority status, and Azerbaijan will not accept any international observers in a region internationally recognised as its own sovereign territory. For Azerbaijan, this is a domestic matter. Ethnic Armenians do not feel their physical security and economic and social future can be guaranteed by the Republic of Azerbaijan.
What is the current status of Nagorno-Karabakh? Is it still considered a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan despite the last evolutions?
The self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, internationally known as Nagorno-Karabakh, has now called for its own dissolution. The local militia surrendered its arms, and the political leadership was arrested or fled. Thousands of refugees are on the road, and no more than 5,000 Armenians are expected to be left behind from a 120,000 population. Yerevan accepts Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and there is no local population that can resist the emerging status quo. No international actor is moving in to challenge this status quo. For lack of a better phrase, “it’s over.” Of course, for at least a generation, the aspiration of return will be there. That was the case with Azerbaijan, and I expect it will be the same with the Armenians.
What triggered this latest escalation of violence?
There was no “trigger”, but a systematic policy.
The land bridge linking Karabakh and Armenia proper, known as the Lachin Corridor, has been under Azerbaijani control since August 2022. The Russian peacekeepers did not maintain control over the land bridge. In December 2022, we started seeing an ever-escalating disruption of infrastructure and of supply until the enclave was completely cut off in June. There were then different schools of thought as to how this situation was to be addressed. Effectively, Armenia prioritized the security of its territory over the security of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh. Given Russia’s focus on Ukraine, it was a matter of time before the status quo on the ground changed. But this was a plan evolving over months, not an incident with “a trigger.”
How would you characterize Russia’s role in this conflict, given its close ties to both Armenia and Azerbaijan? Has Russia been actively involved in trying to mediate?
In Karabakh, we can see that Russia is changing tack, from crude military force to a more indirect approach to diplomacy. Russia is engaging economically with the Caucasus which is critical for its supply chains as the war in Ukraine unfolds. However, there is no Russian security veto. There is an economically transactional relationship – with Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran – but Russia no longer dictates diplomatic developments in that region. They have to work for it, as they do. But that is a different paradigm of diplomacy for Russia, for a country that has size, which matters, but not enough resources to replace coercion with persuasion in the long run. My prediction is that Iran and Turkey will be filling this power vacuum.
What do you see as the most likely scenarios going forward? Is further large-scale conflict inevitable or is there hope for a diplomatic solution?
We expected a peace treaty to be signed in Granada, Spain. Azerbaijan withdrew its participation, protesting the presence of France, which they no longer consider a neutral party. Germany is viewed as not objective either. Baku wanted the engagement of Turkey to balance this group, which would not be acceptable by either Berlin or Paris. So, we are moving towards an EU mediated process in Brussels.
This will consolidate the emerging status quo. Armenia wants to avoid a war where there is little chance of winning. There is no cavalry to expect. Large-scale conflict would require the involvement of Russia, Iran, Israel, and Turkey. I do not see that for the moment. However, stakeholders will remain motivated to challenge the status quo for the foreseeable future. Peace-making and peacebuilding are two separate and distinct endeavours.
The peace treaty will entail a mutual recognition of sovereignty. The two states will need a clear demarcation, which includes a decision on four enclaves: three Azerbaijani in Armenia, and one Armenian in Azerbaijan. That will be a hard bargain, because although the land area is roughly the same, the Azerbaijani enclaves are strategically positioned close to Armenia’s communication route to Georgia. Armenian being landlocked, this is quite significant.
What impact could this conflict have on the surrounding region if it escalates?
The chance of escalation in the short-to-medium term is small.
There are only two scenarios for regional escalation, and both would involve a conflict between Azerbaijan, Iran, and inevitably Turkey.
The first entails Azerbaijan venturing beyond Karabakh to control regions of Southern Armenia. That is a red line for Iran. It is not likely, but it is possible.
The second entails a political meltdown in Yerevan, with the opposition taking over with hopes to begin an armed struggle against Azerbaijan. There are many scenarios on how to draw into this Iran and Israel. That is less likely, but not impossible.
Overall, regional escalation is more likely when stakeholders perceive there is something to be won by engaging in conflict. Conflict remains a risk because it tends to have a “life of its own,” and things never quite go as planned. There seems little appetite to take the risk in my view.
Dr. Ilya Roubanis is a political analyst and journalist at New Europe.
To quote this article or video, please use the following reference: Ilya Roubanis (2023), “The Question of an Azerbaijan-Armenia Peace after Karabakh,” https://crisesobservatory.es/the-question-of-an-azerbaijan-armenia-peace-after-karabakh
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Featured Image credit: Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as of September 2022 © 2022 by Golden is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 .