Talking around the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

The talks between Lavrov and Mammaydarov, in Baku. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan]

Unless diplomacy produces tangible results, an escalation similar or more serious than the four-day war in April cannot be ruled out, writes Stratfor.

Stratfor is a Texas-based global intelligence company.

Diplomatic talks over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute are proceeding apace. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Baku on 12 July to meet with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Elmar Mammadyarov, to discuss the country’s conflict with Armenia over the contentious territory. After the talks, Lavrov said the negotiations are closer to success than before but would not disclose details. Mammadyarov echoed Lavrov’s comments, saying the negotiations had reached a new intensity, while offering few specifics. It is a good sign, but without details — and especially without action — skepticism about the prospects for a long-term solution is warranted.

These unusually positive accounts could bode well for talks over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which have been at a stalemate for more than two decades. In April, dozens of soldiers on both sides of the dispute were killed and hundreds more injured when fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia briefly escalated to levels not seen since a cease-fire was reached there in 1994. The flare-up sparked fears that another large-scale military conflict between the two countries could erupt. But regional powers responded quickly, and intensive talks brokered by Russia and Western countries in the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group mostly quelled the violence in a matter of days.

While the battlefield has been fairly quiet since early April, diplomacy has remained in high gear. For Azerbaijan, which was not satisfied with the terms of the 1994 cease-fire, this is good news. The April escalation may not have won Azerbaijan much territory, but it caught Armenia off guard and revitalised negotiations to resolve the dispute. Moreover, it brought the frozen conflict back to international attention. Russia, as well as OSCE co-chairs France and the United States, have become active mediators in monthly talks between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

Of the foreign negotiators, Russia is the most important and influential. Not only does it have a 5,000-strong military presence in Armenia, but it also supplies most of the Azerbaijani military’s weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin mediated the previous meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders on 20 June in St. Petersburg. Though US and French officials also participated in those discussions, Putin held a separate consultation with Sarkisian and Aliyev — without Western representation — that, according to Lavrov, produced an “understanding” among the three presidents.

What that understanding entails or how close it is to a formal agreement is unclear. Reports from local media and comments from Russian officials, however, suggest that it would involve a phased transfer of the seven territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh under the mediation of Russian peacekeepers. This plan would have a glaring problem: Armenia wants to maintain its de facto political control of Nagorno-Karabakh and would likely balk at the prospect of territorial concessions.

Besides, the dispute’s main arbiter, Moscow, may not be truly interested in resolving it. The conflict affords Russia leverage and influence over Armenia and Azerbaijan and keeps Moscow a step ahead of regional rivals such as Turkey and the United States. Though sending Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh would give Moscow a stronger military presence in the region, it would also make Russian troops vulnerable to direct military conflict in an arena where the Kremlin has so far chosen to avoid deployments. For Russia, therefore, maintaining an active diplomatic role in Nagorno-Karabakh without reaching any grand bargain may be the optimal outcome.

That said, continuing to hold talks that produce no significant change to the status quo may not be tenable in the long term. After all, a lack of progress in negotiations precipitated the April skirmish in the first place, and Azerbaijan is unlikely to stand by indefinitely for the current round of talks. If diplomacy does not produce tangible results, a similar or more serious military escalation by Azerbaijan cannot be ruled out. This may explain Russia’s positive statements and hints of impending success. But, ultimately, resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will require actions more than words.

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