What Negotiations Over Nagorno-Karabakh Could Look Like
Years of diplomatic efforts have failed, but the two sides will need to talk to prevent a regionwide war.
On Sept. 27, a Sunday morning, some residents of Yerevan, Armenia, woke up to find their internet hacked and their home Wi-Fi networks renamed “KarabakhIsAzerbaijan”—a direct quote from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. It was an announcement that war had begun.
Like a stalled car, decades of peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh had slowed to a stop. The OSCE Minsk Group, the sole negotiations track since 1994, had delivered no breakthroughs. It hadn’t even put out a major proposal since 2007. In the last four years, since the start of the Trump administration, it had gone almost completely quiet.
“That void in real dialogue,” as one analyst put it, set off a “downward spiral” in which rhetoric became sharper and positions hardened. Both sides had made life difficult for the OSCE Minsk Group negotiators; to date Azerbaijan and Armenia had made no room for agreement on any substantive issues, from the details of a peacekeeping or monitoring presence to the degree of self-rule for the majority Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh. (They have demanded and begun building an independent state.) Frustrated by a lack of diplomatic progress toward their goal, Azerbaijan and its allies in Turkey moved to settle the issue on the ground late last month.
Azerbaijan launched its well-coordinated operation with impeccable timing. Election cycles and the global pandemic limited the interest of other countries that might otherwise intervene to stop the violence. The intensity and duration of the fight caught the Armenians by surprise; at nine days long, this is already the deadliest skirmish over the region since the initial war in 1992-1994. If the goal was to force a military solution to a century-old dispute, the operations on the ground reflected a will to proceed to the finish. Azerbaijan’s Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan both vowed to continue the fight until Nagorno-Karabakh and the land around it is under Azerbaijan’s control. After 30 years of investment in an arsenal of weapons, including advanced drone technology, they felt confident they would wear down the Armenian forces in either a quick flash or over continued attrition.
Part of the mythology around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is that both sides—two of the most heavily armed countries in the world per capita—have enough firepower aimed at the other’s critical assets to avoid all-out war. But that hypothesis is now put to rest.
Azerbaijan, with more than three times the population and vast petroleum wealth, has more troops and better weapons than the Armenian forces. But Armenia holds mountainous terrain that’s nearly impenetrable in winter. It also has significant firepower, including Russian-made Iskander missiles that can reach strategic targets, including the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
As fighting intensifies, the potential for Armenian strikes on Azerbaijan’s energy production facilities, met by retaliatory strikes on Armenian soil, cannot be ruled out. And a strike by Azerbaijan on Armenia proper would trigger the Collective Security Treaty Organization, forcing Russia into the fight on the Armenian side. “There is an escalating potential here that is truly terrifying,” said Laurence Broers of Chatham House on Tuesday.
That prospect became even more alarming the night of Oct. 1, when an Azerbaijani drone, apparently on a reconnaissance mission, flew within 10 miles of Yerevan. (A few others were a little further away.) Armenia claims to have shot down four of them; one diplomat saw what appeared to be the flaming wreckage. A couple of days later, Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh targeted a military airport in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city. At the same time, Azerbaijan has inflicted severe damage and casualties on Armenia as well.
With both sides touting their progress on the battlefield, the details of who’s ahead are difficult to follow and nearly impossible to verify. Western diplomats say that while major ground has not changed hands, Azerbaijan’s Turkish and Israeli drone technology is taking a deep and deadly toll on Armenian soldiers. Yet to actually win territory, Azerbaijani troops would need to push forward on foot, up the difficult mountainous terrain into Nagorno-Karabakh. “We could see a stalemate between aerial attrition and territorial control,” Broers said.
That would come with devastating human losses, but the alternative—short of one side capitulating—could be a catastrophic escalation.
To avoid either escalation or a draining slog, Armenia has offered to come back to negotiations. Azerbaijan has agreed, with steep preconditions. Among them are a timetable for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh and an apology from Armenia’s leadership. In other words, the two sides remain far apart on how to get back to the table and what to do when they get there. It isn’t clear, moreover, who could press each side to make the needed concessions.
“The question is who is ready to lead the process? Who can become a leader to connect all international actors and put effort into the peace process?” said Zaur Shiriyev, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, in a phone interview from Baku. He said it has to be someone who has the access and respect to reach top leadership levels, “like a European George Mitchell”—a reference to the U.S. special envoy for Northern Ireland under President Bill Clinton who paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement that led to peace in Ireland.
In previous times, the United States could play the role of lead mediator. But given its domestic distractions, that seems unlikely. Russia was always the dominant power in the region, with leverage on both countries. It sells weapons to both sides, helps export Azerbaijan’s oil, and keeps a close relationship with the leadership in Baku. But its level of engagement has been notably lower than in flare-ups of the past. Analysts say it’s unclear whether it has the political will to lean on the Azerbaijani side this time. Turkey’s role in the conflict has meant it would take more pressure and more incentives to get Azerbaijan to back down.
“Turkey is the key player now on the ground. Its involvement gives Aliyev the feeling he can win this war, which is why he’s escalating so far,” said Stefan Meister, speaking from his post at the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s office in Tbilisi, Georgia. Now committed morally and materially to Azerbaijan’s success in the campaign, Turkey will not want it to back down without significant territorial concessions or another way to claim victory. Erdogan has made this an issue for the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, a platform of countries across Central Asia that see themselves as an ethnically continuous bloc. After making the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh common cause, he may want to tout it as a common victory.
For all those reasons, Turkey and Azerbaijan will hold fast to their demands. The swiftest way to end the fighting may be through a Russian-Turkish agreement, possibly in exchange for interests in Syria and Libya, where the two powers both have a strong hand.
Without a radical U.S. intervention or Russian-led solution, the last hope may be a higher-level and more intensive role for Europe. This would be a thorny task for an already strained Brussels, especially in the context of other disputes with Turkey (disputed gas exploration off the coast of Greece, for one). But it fits the vision of Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, for “a truly geopolitical … more outward-looking Europe.”
“My vision is of a Europe that helps reconcile those who are divided, a Europe that brings together those who are apart,” she told the Paris Peace Forum in 2019.
France, which serves as co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, could lead the European charge, but it may need another partner to add heft to its side. By calling for Turkey’s restraint in this round of conflict and chastising Azerbaijan’s use of Syrian mercenaries in the field, French President Emmanuel Macron burned some of his political capital in the eyes of Baku.
Germany may be the partner France needs. It is well regarded by both sides, bolstered by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls to leaders in Baku and Yerevan early in the conflict. It is part of the wider OSCE Minsk Group along with Sweden, Finland, and Italy. Switzerland also hosted efforts to normalize relations between Armenia and Turkey through the Zurich Protocols in 2009; however far away that era may feel to the same actors today, it did prove the potential for the sides to come together. On Oct. 8, Switzerland hosted a new round of talks among the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs in an effort to jog negotiations forward, but experts expected little to come from the discussions.
The United Nations is another actor that could add credibility and leverage to cease-fire efforts. Secretary-General António Guterres has spoken out multiple times, calling for a cease-fire and condemning any attempt at a military solution. The U.N. Security Council held emergency talks urging a halt to the fighting. A U.N. special envoy or senior official could be deployed to support negotiation efforts. The U.N. is well regarded by Azerbaijan, given that its past resolutions emphasize the territorial integrity of sovereign states. The U.N. would also be essential to both sides in managing the fallout of a final solution, from humanitarian assistance to potential peacekeeping forces.
Whether Russia unveils a quietly arranged peace deal with Turkey or a new diplomatic intervention creates a breakthrough, what do we get if the negotiations track moves forward? A slowdown in the loss of human lives and another opportunity to work out complex, thorny issues that need international energy to solve.
For Armenians and Azerbaijanis, narratives around their countries’ territorial claims run deep and emotional. Both positions are maximalist by nature. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, almost all of the newly independent republics inherited the boundaries written by the Soviet state. Azerbaijan points to its legal right to the territory within those internationally recognized borders. It wants to fully reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh, resettle displaced Azeris who left after the first war, and integrate its governance under federal rule, with final authority in Baku.
Armenians, meanwhile, hold on to geopolitically quaint but emotionally potent arguments about democracy, autonomy, and self-determination. The ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, who have built a self-declared state and de facto government that’s nearly 30 years old, want to institutionalize the status quo. The region also has its own president, fair and frequent elections, and civic structures it would like to keep. But the prospects for that are daunting.
Beyond that, there is another Armenian argument that is perhaps more practical and more urgent: the fear of ethnic cleansing under Azerbaijani rule. “For Armenians it’s a struggle for survival. If the Armenian Army leaves, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh would be killed. At least the Armenians believe that’s true, and I would agree with them,” said Raffi Elliott, a political risk analyst in Yerevan.
“I don’t blame them,” said Arzu Geybulla, an Azerbaijani journalist. She said those fears are justified after a 30-year period of social and educational conditioning, teaching a generation to kill the other side. “A lot needs to change. A lot needs to take place. A lot of confidence needs to be built. And I just don’t know if it’s going to be an easy transition.”
What could peace finally look like? Past negotiations indicate that there is room for compromise; at times, the two sides nearly agreed on peacekeeping forces and confidence-building measures. But it is unclear how the climate for negotiations has shifted now that both sides have tasted the consequences of an unchecked war.
To avoid bloodshed and appease all sides, Nagorno-Karabakh may need to come under something like a U.N. trusteeship, a shared territory with strong security guarantees. The lands adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh, currently held by Armenian forces, may have to be given back to Azerbaijan or handed over to a custodian, like Russia, for a transition period. A referendum of all residents, including the displaced, had been on the table in negotiations past. None of these options will sound appealing to the warring parties, which have hardened their views and attitudes over time. But the alternative of a larger war, with all its regional fallout, may be horrific enough to move new pieces into place.