Escalating front-line clashes, a spiralling arms race, vitriolic rhetoric and a virtual breakdown in peace talks increase the chance Armenia and Azerbaijan will go back to war over Nagorno-Karabakh, with devastating regional consequences.
Armenia and Azerbaijan: Preventing War , the latest policy briefing from the International Crisis Group, highlights the deterioration of the situation in the past year. Increased military capabilities on both sides would make a new armed conflict in the South Caucasus far more deadly than the 1992-1994 one that ended with a shaky truce. Neither side would be likely to win easily or quickly. Even if neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is planning an immediate all-out offensive, skirmishes could easily spiral out of control.
“Ambiguity and lack of transparency about operations along the line of contact, arms deals and other military expenditures and even the state of the peace talks all contribute to a precarious situation”, says Lawrence Sheets, Crisis Group’s Caucasus Project Director. “ Monitoring mechanisms should be strengthened and confidence building steps implemented to decrease the chance of an accidental war”.
The past twelve months have seen more ceasefire violations across wider areas, employing more sophisticated tactics and weapons. At least 25 persons were killed in 2010 and three soldiers have already been shot dead in 2011. The more lethal weaponry both sides are acquiring puts response time on an ever-shorter hair trigger, adding to the risk of accidental conflict. The prospect that oil production that has have enabled a huge increase in its military budget will decline within a few years increases Azerbaijan’s temptation to use force if diplomacy remains blocked.
More has to be done to change a status quo that is deeply damaging to Azerbaijan, whose territory remains occupied and which accommodates large numbers of displaced persons. The Azerbaijani leadership says the primary purpose of its military build-up is to pressure Armenia into diplomatic compromise. But it should also recognise it has an objective interest to accept measures to make the situation on the line of contact more transparent, less deadly, and more controllable.
The sides should begin to reverse the dangerous trends by signing a document on basic principles for resolving the conflict peacefully and undertaking confidence building steps to reduce tensions and avert a resumption of fighting. More weapons are likely to exacerbate an already fragile situation. Russia, as the leading mediator in this conflict, should cease supplying offensive arms and technology to the parties, and others should adhere to the arms embargoes recommended by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the UN. The OSCE should encourage the parties to expand its observer mission’s mandate and staffing numbers.
“Lack of progress in the peace talks is increasing the likelihood of an accidental war at any time or an all-out offensive within the next few years”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “Russia, the U.S., Turkey and the European Union should make preventing this scenario a high priority”.