Thursday, 08 October 2020 07:31

Can America Stop a Wider War between Armenia and Azerbaijan?


Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

October 6, 2020


Read at National Interest Website 

The resumption of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan threatens a broader regional conflict that threatens Western interests. While America has paid growing attention to Central Asia, it has forgotten to do the same in the South Caucasus, the Western gateway to Central Asia.

by Svante E. Cornell

For the second time in three months, Armenia and Azerbaijan are involved in heavy fighting. To even casual observers of the region, this is nothing new: flareups in this supposedly “frozen” conflict have been commonplace in the past decade. The only problem seems to be that they tend to get worse over time. But reality is much more worrisome. The conflict is all but “frozen.” In the past few years, the entire premise on which the uneasy balance in this conflict rested has essentially been razed, paving the way for a new logic of escalation in which the likelihood of a major war is increasingly obvious.

Much of the coverage of this conflict centers on who started whichever spat. This is largely irrelevant. Much more important are three major changes to the conflict’s underlying logic. The first is the broader erosion of a norms-based international system based on international law and institutions. The second is the merger of the region’s geopolitics with the Middle East. And the third is Armenia’s shift to a revisionist approach to the conflict and negotiations since the 2018 Velvet revolution.

Even prior to these shifts, there was always a major factor of instability in this conflict. The original war in the 1990s saw Armenia, the smaller and poorer of the two countries, coming away with a victory. Exploiting Azerbaijan’s domestic troubles and enjoying Russian support, Armenia did not stay at taking control over the main disputed territory—the mainly Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Instead, Armenian forces conquered much larger areas to the south and east that were compactly settled with Azerbaijanis. As a result, in the name of protecting 150,000 co-ethnics, Armenian forces drove away over 750,000 people from their homes and occupied over a sixth of Azerbaijan’s territory.

This had two effects. First, it changed the international perception of Armenia from that of a victim to that of an aggressor. Second, it ensured that Azerbaijan would never come to terms with the result of the conflict. Instead, revanchism became a prominent element of the Azerbaijani psyche. When Azerbaijan was able to begin producing large volumes of oil a decade later, it spent a significant amount of this windfall on its military. For several years, Azerbaijan’s defense spending exceeded Armenia’s entire budget, and Azerbaijan’s rhetoric intensified accordingly.

But then there were changes in regional geopolitics. The most prominent shift in the past decade is the gradual weakening of international institutions and international law. Great powers that were once bound by certain norms of behavior now essentially do what they can get away with and engage in various adventures on other countries’ territories, increasingly not bothering to disguise it. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, then annexed Crimea, and invaded Ukraine in 2014. China is unilaterally expanding its control over the South China Sea. Iran, ignoring national boundaries, is building an arc of Shi’a militias from Yemen across Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia is meddling in Yemen’s civil war, and Turkey is arming and training militias in Syria and Lebanon. The list goes on. The point is that the main method used to resolve disputes has shifted from international diplomacy to the covert or overt use of force. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev in 2019 recognized this shift, commenting that “today, the ‘might is right’ principle prevails in the world. This is a new reality. We must be ready for it.”

This has huge implications for the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, because Baku had built its entire effort to restore its territorial integrity on appeals to international law, and diplomacy in international institutions—albeit with its growing military capability serving as enhanced motivation to change Armenia’s calculus. Over the past few years, however, Baku has come to conclude this policy has reached a dead end. That forces the Azerbaijani leadership either to accept the loss of its territory—an impossible choice in the face of an increasingly nationalistic and revanchist public opinion—or to do something about it. Had the international mechanism to mediate the conflict been functional, things might have been different. But the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States, has done little except shuttling between capitals and holding meetings. The perception that the Minsk Group has degenerated into a process for the sake of process, or an excuse for inaction, is widespread across the region.

The second shift is that in regional geopolitics. For long, the logic of South Caucasus geopolitics was entirely within the post-Soviet logic: Russia’s efforts to dominate the region faced growing Western efforts to open up the corridor to Central Asia across the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. But all this changed in the past decade, with the region’s geopolitics gradually merging with those of the Middle East. This happened for several reasons. The first was America’s gradual disengagement, which began in the late George W. Bush administration but deepened during the Obama era. The second was Russia’s decision to exploit the vacuum Obama created, by making a bid for a key role in the affairs of the Middle East, particularly in Syria. This resulted in a situation where Russia, Turkey and Iran emerged as the key brokers in regional hotspots in the South Caucasus and Syria. Similarly, Turkey and Russia found themselves supporting warring sides in the Libyan conflict.

As a result, the interactions among those powers in Middle Eastern theaters began to affect Armenia and Azerbaijan directly. This was clear already in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over Syria—and Moscow responded by beefing up its military presence in bases in Armenia near the Turkish border. But as Turkey and Russia have once again fallen out over Syria and Libya, the impact on the region has become even more pronounced. When fighting erupted in July, it happened on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border—far north of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh but very close to the pipeline infrastructure carrying Azerbaijani oil and gas to Turkey. Both Ankara and Baku interpreted this as a Russian-inspired threat against them both. This, in turn, triggered an unprecedented Turkish endorsement of Azerbaijan, including the rapid deployment of Turkish forces for military exercises in Azerbaijan. Turkey, a NATO member, now suggests it may get directly involved in a conflict against Armenia, a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty.

The third and final shift is in Armenia’s approach to the conflict. When Nikol Pashinyan came to power following a Velvet Revolution in 2018, Azerbaijan tacitly welcomed the transition and markedly refrained from taking advantage of Armenia’s internal turmoil on the frontline. Aliyev welcomed the arrival to power, for the first time in twenty years, of an Armenian leadership that did not have its roots in Nagorno-Karabakh even though both Pashinyan’s predecessors hailed from there. Baku seemed to expect that once Pashinyan consolidated power, he would be amenable to work toward a compromise solution to the conflict.

What happened was quite the opposite. Under Pashinyan, Armenia’s position has hardened. In 2019, Pashinyan repudiated the “Madrid Principles,” which have served the basis for negotiations since 2007. Yerevan also sought to change the very format of negotiations, demanding the involvement of the local leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh in the talks. This appeared to be an effort to advance the fiction that Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are not a united front, flying in the face of the 2015 conclusion of the European Court of Human Rights that Armenia exercises effective control over the territory. Incidentally, it contradicted Pashinyan’s own 2019 statement that Karabakh “is Armenia, and that’s it,” which seemingly removed any space for discussion of the territory’s status. Not staying at that, Armenians began to speak of the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as “liberated” territories. This was another shift because Armenia had previously indicated it held these territories—historically populated by Azerbaijanis—as bargaining chips that would be returned in a peace deal that would settle the conflict. Defense Minister David Tonoyan’s statement that Armenia rebuked the land-for-peace idea to a strategy pursuing “new wars for new territories” did not help matters. Finally, Armenia’s efforts to resettle ethnic Armenians from Syria and Libya into the occupied territories were a clear effort to create new facts on the ground.

Of course, Azerbaijan has not been passive or blameless. With every year of failed negotiations, Azerbaijani rhetoric threatening a military solution has grown more prominent. In 2016, Azerbaijan actually reasserted control over smaller areas of the occupied territories, in the first meaningful shift of territorial possession since 1994. This certainly appears to have had a powerful effect on Armenian planners and contributed to the more bellicose Armenian rhetoric. Furthermore, the lack of direct contact except occasional top-level meetings ensures that each side interprets the other side’s words in the most ominous way possible, leading to frequent misunderstandings. What is eminently clear is that it is the failure of international efforts to make the negotiations even remotely meaningful that has pushed both sides in an unconstructive direction.

All of these factors have undermined the fragile balance preventing a resumption of full-scale war in the conflict. But strangely, Western powers have seemed to ignore the conflict and the South Caucasus. Over the past two years, the European Union and the United States both released thoughtful and assertive new strategies for Central Asia. That was a welcome step given positive developments in that region and its obvious growing importance in a time when the U.S. government sees “strategic competition” with Eurasian great powers as the key challenge to U.S. national security. What is mystifying is that both the United States and EU appeared to ignore that the South Caucasus is their gateway to Central Asia. Without that gateway, their ambitions of strengthening their presence in the heart of the Eurasian continent may well be moot.

A reason for this inaction is, perhaps, that there are no easy solutions. Getting involved in the South Caucasus implies involvement in highly contentious conflicts—including those in Georgia—that overwhelmed Western powers might prefer to ignore. It also means challenging conventional wisdom. While Westerners have welcomed the domestic reform efforts of Armenia’s new government, which are very real, they seem to have forgotten that a more democratic government does not mean a more peaceful one. In fact, as political scientists like Jack Snyder have long shown, countries in transition to democracy are at the greatest risk of involving themselves in armed conflict, given the government’s need to respond to nationalist sentiments. The fact that Russia and Iran have cooperated in supplying Armenia with weaponry in the midst of the fighting should also give western leaders pause about the structure of power relationships in the region, and the interest of those powers in destabilizing the east-west corridor connecting Europe with Central Asia.

By contrast, getting involved in the South Caucasus will imply the difficult task of managing recalcitrant partners like Turkey. While Turkey has turned increasingly anti-Western in recent years, the crises in Libya and in the Caucasus have clearly shown that more often than not, Turkish interests align with the West and not with Russia. Turkish leaders may not yet fully realize this, upset as they are over Western support for Kurdish groups in Syria aligned with the anti-Turkish PKK terrorist organization. Still, the recent flareup provides an opportunity to work to restore cooperation with Ankara to safeguard the common interest in the security of the South Caucasus as a transit corridor.

The ongoing fighting is a reminder to America and Europe that they ignore security in the South Caucasus at their own peril. Much is at stake, and the conflict’s path of escalation can only be reversed by rebuilding a credible international mediation effort that aspires not only to maintain the status quo but to actually resolve this conflict once and for all. That can only be done by the Western powers and will require a broader re-engagement of the South Caucasus. If that does not happen, then the current flareup risks being only a precursor to much larger wars.

Svante E. Cornell is the director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Strategy.

Read 15469 times Last modified on Thursday, 08 October 2020 07:48





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.