By Paul Goble
Wars often begin suddenly, but they rarely end that way, even when the sides commit to doing so. That is especially true in the case of ceasefires where far from all the parameters have been defined. Some on each side are likely to see how far they can go while the situation remains undecided and fluid.
Armenian attacks on Azerbaijani positions and Azerbaijani attacks on Armenian positions are thus something anyone familiar with conflicts would expect. The real questions are whether the two sides in the next several days will move to end the fighting and whether ending the fighting with a ceasefire of this kind will open the way to moves toward a peace.
Given the history of this conflict, the likelihood is that the situation will quiet down over the next few days but that this ceasefire, like all others in the past, won’t open the way to peace but rather simply represent a kind of time-out for months or years until one or the other side decides to move or misreads what its opponent is doing and reacts accordingly.
In short, the violence of the last 24 hours does not mean that the war will continue unabated now; but the ceasefire, once it is more firmly established, does not mean that the two sides will move toward peace. Indeed, each new conflict results in more victims and rhetoric that makes such moves more rather than less difficult.
Ending the killing is always something to be welcomed, and it is what the international community almost invariably supports. But no one must be under any illusions that ceasefires or even armistices will lead to peace. If the underlying causes remain in place, a new outbreak of war remains likely.
The ceasefire agreement brokered by Moscow contains two provisions which both explain why there is likely to be more violence for the next few days at least and why the accord is unlikely to lead to a broader agreement or prevent the outbreak of violence in the coming months and years.
On the one hand, the ceasefire agreement says that “the specific parameters” of the ceasefire are to be agreed upon separately, a virtual invitation for each side to try to show that it controls more territory than it now has (business-gazeta.ru/article/484051). And on the other, it recommits the sides to the failed Minsk Group (ekhokavkaza.com/a/30886355.html).
Russia and some Western governments will see this as a sign of stability because it prevents the introduction of new players into the process, but the Minsk Group has achieved little precisely because it has been headed by Moscow which did not and does not want a peace but rather a continuing conflict.
Azerbaijan would like to have Turkey become part of the process, something Armenia will never accept; and Armenia would like to include Nagorno-Karabakh as a separate official actor, something that would prejudge the outcome of any talks and that Azerbaijan will never accept.
Stanislav Pritchin, a senior specialist on the post-Soviet space at Moscow’s IMEMO institute, argues that the recent escalation and its outcome show that “relations between Baku and Yerevan” are proceeding in a vicious circle, with stagnation in talks leading to violence leading to efforts to promote talks to more stagnation (profile.ru/politics/pochemu-obostreniya-armyano-azerbajdzhanskogo-konflikta-budut-prodolzhatsya-416608/).
“Without a significant change in approaches to talks about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven occupied districts adjoining it, Baku and Yerevan are condemned again and again to seeking to clarify their relations on the field of battle, despite the human, image and economic losses they suffer there,” he argues.
There are four primary regions why this is so, Pritchin says. First of all, “diplomatic instruments have ceased to work here.” Second, the development of the two countries is leading to ever greater imbalances with Azerbaijan gaining the upper hand. Third, there are ever more reasons Baku and Yerevan feel compelled to act, including changes in the ethnic composition of the population on both sides of the separation line.
And fourth – and this is “the most serious” reason why the current situation is unlikely to change anytime soon, the Moscow scholar says – neither side is prepared to compromise given that the Karabakh issue remains at the center of their national ideologies. Both define their nationhood in terms of control of Karabakh.
Western powers have little interest in doing anything about this now as they are facing their own domestic problems, Pritchin continues; and Moscow which wants to maintain its influence in both places at one and the same time is hardly in a position to promote a genuine settlement.
As a result, there is likely to be less violence a week from now; but there is unlikely to be any settlement anytime soon.