Losing the peace: The Armenian-Azerbaijani stalemate in Nagorno-Karabakh

Jill Washington

13 December 2010

A boy injured by a hand grenade sits on the front porch of his home in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan. © UN Photo/Armineh Johannes

A boy injured by a hand grenade sits on the front porch of his home in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan. © UN Photo/Armineh Johannes

“If the occupier, Armenia, does not liberate our lands, a great war in the South Caucasus is inevitable.”

(Azerbaijani Defence Minister Safar Abiyev, February 25, 2010)

The Armenian-Azerbaijani ceasefire agreement and the internationally mediated Minsk Group negotiations have maintained an unsteady peace in Nagorno-Karabakh for 16 years.1 This summer, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the International Crisis Group and other respected observers highlighted the rising risk that the military stalemate between Armenia and Azerbaijan might degenerate into crisis or even renewed war.

By all accounts, the status quo greatly disadvantages Azerbaijan, which has in effect lost control of some 20 percent of its internationally recognized territory. However, both sides have steadily ratcheted up their rhetoric regarding renewed conflict. Much of this has to do with appealing to or appeasing domestic political constituencies who might favour a military resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate. Yet in Baku, the militarist discourse has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in defence procurement spending. From 2003 to 2009, the Azerbaijani authorities increased armaments expenditure by nearly 500 percent;2 in mid-October, the Finance Minister announced that 2011 defence spending would be almost 90 percent higher than in 2010.3 With Baku planning to spend 3 billion dollars next year on its armed forces, the risk of recidivism appears to be rising.

While an increase in military capabilities is not predictive of state intentions, it is safe to assume that the risk of war initiation is higher for Baku than for Yerevan. In an ideal world, Armenian officials would like an internationally legitimized settlement that partitions Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, and Karabakhi leaders—perhaps cheered by the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the secession of Kosovo4 from Serbia—aspire to international recognition of their region’s independent status. However, these aspirations are deeply unrealistic, and in comparison with Azerbaijan, Armenia is relatively satisfied with the status quo.

For Azerbaijan, the fundamental concern is the inviolability of its territorial integrity. As long as Nagorno-Karabakh exists as a de facto autonomous statelet, and as long as Armenian forces continue to occupy seven other regions of Azerbaijan, its territorial integrity and unity as a state remain deeply undermined. However, the use of military force to reintegrate Nagorno-Karabakh with the rest of Azerbaijan is neither the only nor the most likely resolution. On the contrary, the ideal solution for the Azerbaijani authorities would be the peaceful reintegration of a semi-autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh under Baku’s authority. This would buoy the tremendously solid popular support for President Ilham Aliyev, while potentially facilitating a solution for the nearly 1 million Azerbaijanis directly or indirectly displaced by the 1992-94 conflict. Yet even as Azerbaijan’s global profile rises thanks to its relative macroeconomic stability and centrality to Caspian energy exports, confidence in the probability of a favourable negotiated settlement may be waning—understandably, given that talks have yielded little progress since their inception.

Russia and the military balance

Russia is the one outside state actor with sufficient leverage to help prevent a military escalation, as well as sufficient national interests in the South Caucasus to motivate this kind of intervention. Moscow regards the maintenance of its wide-ranging political and economic initiatives in the region as essential to the security of the former Soviet space, and is highly anxious about the impact of a hypothetical conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh on its own national security. With an estimated 3,000 troops stationed in Armenia on a near-permanent basis, the Russian authorities are well aware that in the event of a new Nagorno-Karabakh war, they would face international pressure to deploy a peace-keeping force to quell the conflict—and heightened international scrutiny as to whether these forces might be used to assist actively the Armenian side.

Aside from direct security interests, Russia’s commercial ties with both Azerbaijan and Armenia are robust: Russia is Yerevan’s single-largest foreign trade partner in value terms, and among Baku’s largest. With public and private energy giants including Gazprom, Rosatom, Inter RAO UES and Lukoil heavily invested in Armenia and Azerbaijan—not to mention growing trade and investment in agriculture, manufacturing, telecommunications—Russia also has compelling reasons for ensuring that commerce is not disrupted by renewed violence.

For these reasons, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has stepped up attempts to mediate between the Armenian and Azerbaijani heads of state, hosting trilateral talks seven times since he took office in May 2008. In what may have reflected Russia’s perception that these negotiations did not yield the desired results, Medvedev shifted strategies in late summer 2010. Moscow’s new approach has focused not on economic ties and ‘soft’ power, but instead on maintaining a military balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its strategy for reducing the risk of conflict is simple but potentially powerful: by maintaining a balance of military capabilities between the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces, the costs of prospective war will (in theory) rise to a level sufficient to deter either side from provoking or launching offensive operations:

  • Armenia’s defence agreement. In August 2010, Medvedev signed a new defence agreement with Yerevan that (among other things) pledges support for Armenia’s ‘territorial integrity’ and guarantees the presence of Russia’s 102nd Military Base near Gyumri until 2044. Allies of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan have claimed that the new accord obliges Russia to support Armenia in the event of a second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The crucial question is not whether they are correct. To deter a hypothetical Azerbaijani offensive, decision makers in Baku must be convinced that Russian military involvement in such a conflict is a realistic and highly undesirable possibility. The signature of such a far-reaching defence accord with Russia was also facilitated by the breakdown in the Turkish-Armenian diplomatic rapprochement in late 2009. Moscow had been anxious that the once much-vaunted normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia would diminish the importance of the latter’s alliance with Russia. Now that this normalization is off the table, the case for Russian-Armenian defence cooperation has only been strengthened.
  • Azerbaijan’s air defence systems. Less than a month after the signature of the Russian-Armenian defence accord, respected Moscow media outlets reported the sale of two batteries of Russian S-300 air defence systems to Azerbaijan. The aim of the apparent sale is to send a warning signal to Armenia, which has little interest in restarting a war. However, in a hypothetical conflict, Armenian forces could try to expand the theatre of operations beyond Nagorno-Karabakh and the other territories they currently occupy. For international interlocutors and investors in the South Caucasus, the ‘nightmare scenario’ is that an Armenia in danger of losing control of Nagorno-Karabakh would retaliate via ballistic missile strikes on critical civilian infrastructure—for example, pipeline pumping or compressor stations, or the Mingacevir reservoir—in Azerbaijan proper. The transfer of highly capable S-300 systems to Azerbaijan would significantly complicate any Armenian contingency plans for strikes on these targets.

Is military balancing enough?

Are efforts to maintain the military balance in the South Caucasus sufficient to prevent a new war, and is this the right approach to convince both sides to maintain the status quo? The answer requires an inquiry into why states start wars in general, and what Azerbaijan’s longer-term interests might be in restarting this particular war.

One argument often deployed against conflict re-initiation is the potential for such a war to hinder long-term economic development prospects. The logic is that, in addition to the direct financial, material and human costs of war, a new Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would seriously reduce foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows to Azerbaijan, divert state resources away from infrastructure and other long-term investments, and thus hinder the country’s long-term development prospects. Regarding FDI, the assumption is that international investors in the hydrocarbons sector and elsewhere would be deterred from expanding existing projects or launching new ones if war is raging on Azerbaijani territory. With inward FDI reaching 7.4 percent of GDP in 2008, these calculations would suggest that the economic consequences of a renewed Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are a significant deterrent to such a conflict actually transpiring.

The costs of civil and inter-state wars

Yet the calculations are not as simple as they may appear. In addition to the difficulty of assessing foreign investors’ aversion to an open versus a ‘frozen’ conflict—that is, a prospective war versus the already politically uncomfortable status quo—there is reason to question the conventional assumption that a new Nagorno-Karabakh war would dent Azerbaijan’s development prospects. Paul Collier’s seminal study of civil wars indicated that while conflict itself reduces GDP by an average of 2.2 percent per capita (compared to a counterfactual model in which such a war had never happened), there is a substantial ‘peace dividend’ in the years following a protracted war, wherein ‘war-vulnerable activities experience very rapid growth’.5 Of course, it is far from clear that a future conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh could be best classed as a civil war—even though the region has never been recognized as a sovereign entity by any state (including Armenia), and even though the 1992-94 war appears to meet the Geneva Conventions’ four criteria for ‘conflict not of an international character.’

On the other hand, it is evident that the primary combatants in any realistic future conflict would be the armed forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan.6 Though the next war would be fought within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory and would centre on the fundamental question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, combat operations and any post-war settlement talks would be inter-state in nature. Yet as with civil wars, cross-border conflicts also appear not to dent economic prosperity over the long term. Indeed, most scholars of the relationship between economic growth and inter-state war suggest that such conflicts actually bolster per capita GDP expansion in the post-war years, thanks mostly to the need to rebuild infrastructure and other resources, technological innovation and an increase in corporate and personal savings rates.7 The so-called ‘phoenix effect’ is particularly pronounced for the losing side.

While it is difficult to disentangle effects directly attributable to the cessation of the 1992-94 war from the remarkable increase in output and exports from Azerbaijan’s oil and gas fields, the country’s reported per-capita GDP increased more than ten-fold between 1998 and 2008. This suggests—at a minimum—that the conflict did not do lasting damage to prospects for economic prosperity. For neighbouring Georgia, international pledges of 4.55 billion dollars in aid have undoubtedly mitigated the damage from the August 2008 war with Russia; GDP in 2010 is expected to grow by 5 percent—a higher growth rate than what is projected for Armenia, Azerbaijan, or Russia.

Outlook

From 2004 to 2009, Azerbaijan underwent one of the world’s most dramatic economic expansions. Oil wealth did not resolve entrenched problems of rural poverty, income inequality or inadequate fixed investment, but it did provide the basis for the emergence of a small middle class in the public sector, and served as a bulwark for the continued popularity of President Aliyev. Rapid growth has come to an end: the economy is expected to expand by a modest 1.8 percent in 2011, and it is not likely to return to double-digit growth until the second phase of the Shah Deniz Caspian gas field comes on stream in 2017.

This suggests that the risk of Nagorno-Karabakh reigniting is particularly acute in the next several years—when defence expenditure in Azerbaijan is at record levels (thanks in part to robust fiscal capacity), but overall GDP growth remains moderate or non-existent. Russian-led efforts to balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan’s military forces may have staved off a crisis this autumn, but Moscow’s ability to mediate between the two sides will always be hampered by its support for Yerevan during the 1992-1994 war—and understandable perceptions in Baku that Russia is far from a neutral arbiter. Multilateral talks are one helpful approach, but a longer-term strategy must focus on the need for Azerbaijan to diversify economically and to find a new, non-hydrocarbon-based engine for growth. Absent such reforms, the risk is that the authorities in Baku will bank on the ‘phoenix effect’—the expected revival of Azerbaijan’s economic development trajectory following a renewed conflict in the South Caucasus.

Sarah Michaels is the Senior Editor, Russia/CIS at Oxford Analytica and a PhD candidate in the War Studies Department, King’s College London. The views expressed herein are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of Oxford Analytica.


1 In addition to the Minsk Process, which is conducted under auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Nagorno-Karabakh has been the subject of numerous resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly (most recently UNGA resolution 62/243 of 2008), as well as of the UN Security Council (e.g., UNSC resolutions 822, 853, 874, and 884, of 1993).

2 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 2009: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 193, 227.

3  TREND News Agency, ‘Azerbaijan to double defence expenditure in 2011 – state budget’, October 12, 2010.  Accessed on 15 October 2010.

4 Hereafter referred to in the context of the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999).

5 Paul Collier, ‘On the economic consequences of civil war,’ Oxford Economic Papers 51 (1999), pp. 168-183.

6 The Nagorno-Karabakh Self-Defence Forces would certainly participate, but the Armenian armed forces are numerically larger, possess more sophisticated equipment and have superior training.

7 The best empirical study is Vally Koubi, ‘War and Economic Performance,’ Journal of Peace Research 41:1 (2005), pp. 67-82.