Wars often begin suddenly, but they rarely end that way, even when the sides commit to immediately laying down arms. That is especially true in the case of ceasefires where far from all the parameters have been defined and where some on each side will explore how far they can go while the situation remains fluid. In the early morning of Saturday, October 10, Russia helped broker a new ceasefire with the government representatives of the warring South Caucasus neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, locked in several weeks of clashes over the territory of Karabakh. Yet almost immediately, heavy fighting resumed across the front line (TASS, Al Jazeera, October 12). Continued mutual Armenian and Azerbaijani strikes on each other’s positions were something anyone familiar with this long-running conflict could expect. The real questions are whether, in the next several days, the two sides will actually move to end the fighting and whether the latest brokered ceasefire can open the way to eventual peace (see EDM, September 28, October 1, 8).
Given the history of this conflict, the situation is likely to quiet down again over the next few days; however, because of the extent of the latest attacks, that process may take longer this time around, and the perceived absence of progress could in turn trigger new violence. So despite the hopes of many, the new ceasefire is unlikely to represent a real step toward peace. Instead, it will probably represent a kind of time-out for months or years. That pause will last only until one or the other side decides to move or misreads what its opponent is doing and reacts accordingly—in large part because the participants in the process and their views remain virtually unchanged. Indeed, given that the rhetoric on both sides has escalated, the level of violence has spiraled and the number of victims has surged (AZERTAC, October 13; The Armenian Weekly, October 10), any progress in the near term seems certain to be even more difficult, and the chances of a new outbreak of fighting remain high.
In short, the violence of the last several days does not mean that the Azerbaijani-Armenian war will continue unabated; but the ceasefire, even once it becomes more firmly established, does not necessarily portend a joint move toward peace. Indeed, each new armed exchange results in additional victims and sharper condemnations, making any progress on conflict resolution more rather than less difficult. The October 10 ceasefire agreement brokered by Moscow contains two provisions that, together 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 agreement states that “the specific parameters” of the ceasefire are to be decided separately—a virtual invitation for each side to try to show that it controls more territory than it now has and an occasion for each to try to ensure that it has advanced as far as possible, albeit under the radar screen of many of the great powers (Biznes Online, October 10). And on the other hand, the Moscow accord recommits the sides to the failed Minsk Group (co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States) conflict resolution process as presently constituted. Azerbaijan would like to see Turkey become part of the process, something Yerevan will never accept; and Armenia would like to include Karabakh as a separate official actor, which would prejudge the outcome of any talks and which Baku will never consent to. Moscow, meanwhile, has ensured that there will not be any change in the Minsk Group participants or in their positions, thus making it the only real “victor” in this round of fighting (Glavred.info, October 12; Ekho Kavkaza, October 10).
Russia and some Western governments will read this reaffirmed status quo as a sign of stability because it prevents the introduction of new players into the negotiation process. But in truth, the Minsk Group has achieved little in the 26 years of its existence (Kasparov.ru, October 11) precisely because it has been co-headed by Moscow, which did not and does not want peace but rather a continuing conflict. In the current round of fighting, it became clear yet again that the Russian government is not opposed to seeing Armenia punished, because of its differences with Moscow. But at the same time, Russia is not willing to allow Azerbaijan to outright win, because that would reduce Moscow’s leverage across the entire South Caucasus.
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: stagnation in the talks leads to violence, which leads to renewed efforts to promote talks within the same worn-out negotiations format, culminating in further stagnation. “Without a significant change in the approach to the 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 (Profile.ru, October 10).
According to Pritchin, there are four main reasons why the current situation is unlikely to reach a breakthrough anytime soon. 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,” the Moscow scholar writes—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 over Karabakh.
Amidst their own domestic problems, Western powers appear to have little interest in doing anything more than calling for an end to the violence, Pritchin continues. Whereas, Moscow, concerned with maintaining its influence in both Yerevan and Baku, wants to avoid any genuine settlement that might shift the balance in the South Caucasus. Ending combat in which people are dying can only be welcomed, but an accompanying absence of changes in positions makes it highly unlikely there will be a lasting settlement for the foreseeable future.