Shadows of the April 2016 War: Armenia and Azerbaijan Back in a Deadlock?
The third anniversary of the April 2016 “Four-Day War” between Armenia and Azerbaijan is fast approaching (see EDM, April 6, 2016). That deadly clash along the Karabakh Line of Contact ultimately catalyzed the transition of power in Armenia, through a popular revolution, from long-ruling Serzh Sargsyan to current reformist Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. But as experts reflect on the consequences of the armed exchange that broke out three years ago, concerns simultaneously mount about the effectiveness of the ongoing Azerbaijani-Armenian peace process. The democratic regime change in Armenia, in May 2018, had initially inspired some hope that a peaceful settlement of the conflict with Azerbaijan could finally be possible. However, ten months into Pashinyan’s leadership, contradictory messages with more pessimistic scenarios are now emerging. If left unchecked, a re-escalation of the war is quite possible.
Initially, the regime transition in Yerevan inspired some limited optimism regarding the prospect of resolving the conflict (see EDM, May 15, 2018). And in response, Azerbaijan did not attempt to retake any portion of its occupied territories while internal unrest consumed Armenia. Baku’s rationale was to not interrupt Pashinyan’s efforts to clean up the Sargsyan clan, widely seen as responsible for numerous grave crimes against Azerbaijani civilians and inherently uninterested in actually reaching a peace deal. The thinking in Azerbaijan went that, since Pashinyan’s focus was on Armenia’s development, he might be open to more constructive engagement in the conflict resolution process. This was supported by a widely shared belief that Pashinyan would work to achieve normalcy with neighbors in order to underpin his promises of democracy, reforms and economic growth (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 10, 2018; Caucasus Edition, December 13, 2018; EurActiv, December 18, 2018). The United States’ National Security Advisor John Bolton also called for this breakthrough in negotiations during his visit to Armenia in October 2018 (Am.usembassy.gov, October 25, 2018). Consequently, President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan agreed, in Dushanbe, in September 2018, to reduce tensions and establish a joint hotline, which helped reduce ceasefire violations and largely holds to this day (Pfp-consortium.org, December 7, 2018).
However, having now consolidated his power, Pashinyan seems to have reverted back to a “business as usual” approach, both in terms of relying on Russian backing in Armenian foreign and security policy decisions as well as in dragging out the conflict-resolution process with Azerbaijan. First, Yerevan is again realigning itself closer with Moscow: Armenia is sending a military-humanitarian mission to Syria (TASS, March 28, 2019) and has accepted a new Russian loan for four Su-30SM supermaneuverable fighter jets (Kommersant, February 1). Second, the Armenian Prime Minister and his team are sending conflicting messaging to Azerbaijan. Notably, Yerevan officials have publicly rejected the basic tenet of the ongoing negotiations—Armenia’s withdrawal from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Armenian National Security Service Director Artur Vanetsyan publicly stated, “This is our clear message to all Armenians and the whole world: not an inch of land will be conceded,” while the occupied territories will be resettled (Mediamax.am, March 1). Furthermore, the Armenian leadership is pushing to change the established format of negotiations within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk process, in which Armenia and Azerbaijan are the main parties to the conflict, while Armenian and Azerbaijani communities of the Karabakh region are considered “interested parties,” as explicitly implied by a recent Minsk Co-Chairs statements (Osce.org, March 9). Even prominent Armenian expert Richard Giragosian, the director of the Yerevan-based independent Regional Studies Center, notes that, this time, Armenia is seen as “responsible for undermining the confidence” of the peace process (Commonspace.eu, March 4).
It is possible to deduce that Baku interprets Yerevan’s calculations in at least two ways. First, Pashinyan is moving closer to Moscow because he sees the Russian military bases in Armenia and their security guarantees as critical to blocking military options for Azerbaijan. Indeed, last February, Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan stated that the “Russian military presence in the Caucasus region is the most important factor for a non-resumption of military hostilities” (Armeniasputnik.am, February 21). Though, in another statement, he asserted that Armenia would go on the offensive if hostilities resume (Massispost.com, February 26). Second, Baku believes that Pashinyan’s government is trying to capitalize on the “democracy argument” as a vehicle for launching sustained efforts to shape international perceptions around the conflict to its liking. In part, this has involved broader public diplomacy efforts accentuating positive notions of peace, engagement and stability without going into the contentious issues, such as the return of the occupied territories.
As a result, the Azerbaijani government is increasingly losing confidence in the new Armenian leadership as a dependable partner to make a deal with, though pockets of hope remain, as illustrated by this past Friday’s (March 29) face-to-face meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan (Azertag.az, Azernews.az, March 30). But as Armenia returns to pre–“Velvet Revolution” policies and negotiating tactics, Azerbaijan, in turn, is again looking for new ways to block Armenian participation in various beneficial regional projects as well as seeking to raise the costs on Yerevan for sustaining its occupation. Notably, last month, Azerbaijan conducted a large-scale military exercise, in which the scenario included “tasks for preparing an offensive operation” (Azernews.az, March 8).
On the third anniversary of the Four-Day War, despite glimpses of hope after the transition of power in Armenia, the main takeaway is that the path forward in the conflict-resolution process might again become deadlocked if the emerging narratives are not reversed. While the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs are mostly concerned with keeping the process within manageable boundaries, the logic of trench warfare may be increasingly coloring the direction of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. 44