The story so far: The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has been at the centre of three major wars and multiple clashes for decades. The recent flare-up began on August 3 after Azerbaijan claimed that it had captured the territory in Karabakh in a retaliatory campaign, after an Armenian attack killed one Azerbaijani soldier.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains stalemated despite the several ceasefire agreements reached in the past. Both Baku and Yerevan claim absolute historic ownership of the region which is located within the boundaries of Azerbaijan but is populated largely by ethnic Armenians.
Following Azerbaijan’s announcement of capturing Karabakh, the military in Nagorno-Karabakh disputed the claim and accused Azerbaijan of killing two soldiers, declaring a “partial mobilisation” in response to the clash. Armenia has called on the international community to help stop Azerbaijan’s “aggressive actions” claiming that it continues its “policy of terror” against the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia has also accused Azerbaijan of breaking the ceasefire agreement of 2020 and claimed that it was “taking measures to stabilise the situation” with Armenian and Azerbaijani representatives.
The nine-point agreement of November 10, 2020 was signed by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The agreement imposed an immediate ceasefire, a timeline for withdrawal from Azerbaijan’s occupied regions, the introduction of Russian peacekeepers, and the need for new transport corridors. However, this failed to initiate a peace agreement because it altered the power balance between the two countries and lacked clarity on several issues resulting in the subsequent ceasefire violations on both sides.
The recurring ceasefire violations have been triggered due to several unresolved issues. The major issues include delimiting the border between the two countries, the nature of new transportation corridors in the region, and the future of Nagorno-Karabakh and its current ethnic Armenian population.
First, the issue of delineating the shared international border. Following the 2020 agreement, a substantial amount of territory was handed over from Armenian Karabakh to Azerbaijan making the once soft border between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, a hard international border. However, Armenia and Azerbaijan have never agreed upon a boundary between them in the past and the 2020 ceasefire statement did not make it clear on how exactly the border should be drawn out.
Second, the dispute over transport routes. The overland route that goes from Stepanakert (a city within the Nagorno-Karabakh region) to Armenia has become an issue between the two countries. The 2020 agreement states that the parties should build an alternative road within three years, after which the Russian peacekeepers deployed along the current route would relocate to the new one. Presently, there is only one road which is the Lachin corridor, which runs past the outposts through Azerbaijan’s mountainous Lachin region to Shusha, which Azerbaijani forces retook in the 2020 war. The construction of the road would allow Azerbaijan to take back control of Lachin city and surrounding areas. However, Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of stalling operations of laying its several-kilometre section of the new road.
Third, the difference over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is also known as the Republic of Artsakh, has expressed frustration over Armenia’s willingness to make concessions to Azerbaijan as part of a larger prospective peace settlement. While Armenia supports the aspirations for independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan seeks to preserve its national and territorial integrity.
According to the 2020 agreement, point one claims that the parties to the conflict must “stop in their current positions” while point four states that the Russian peacekeeping forces would be deployed concurrently with the withdrawal of the Armenian troops. However, the two sides interpret these points differently with Armenia stating that the first point allows them to keep their forces in Karabakh and that they have complied with the fourth point by withdrawing armed forces from the seven Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh. Conversely, Azerbaijan says that Armenian forces should have withdrawn from Karabakh as soon as the Russians were deployed on the ground, arguing that the force is illegal and has urged the Russian peacekeepers to disarm it.
Fourth, the dispute over the exchange of prisoners. According to the eighth point, the two sides were to exchange prisoners of war, hostages and other detained persons, and dead bodies. While there has been a series of prisoner exchanges in the last two years, the Azerbaijan side still has many captives while Armenia has just a few.
Since 2020, the negotiation process has been slow. The diplomatic initiative taken by Armenia and Azerbaijan has not yielded any substantial gains with both sides accusing each other of delaying negotiations. It was only in 2022, two years after the war, that the two leaders expressed their intention to discuss a peace plan for Nagorno-Karabakh. The two leaders met in Brussels during which Azerbaijan voiced its frustration that subsequent diplomacy has moved too slowly, claiming that Armenia was prolonging the negotiations with the aim of waiting for the geopolitical situation to change in their favour. Meanwhile, PM Pashinyan has received domestic criticism that he was preparing to compromise on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, the negotiations between the two countries are nowhere close to reaching a peace agreement.
The presence of Russian peacekeeping forces in the region has also become a matter of concern. According to points three and four of the 2020 agreement, the Russian peacekeeping forces are to be deployed for five years making it the first time Russian troops were deployed on the ground in almost thirty years. However, their mandate is yet to be defined, questioning their presence in the region. Additionally, the frustration over the peacekeeping forces has intensified due to their inaction in stopping ceasefire violations.
While the 2020 agreement has the potential to open opportunities for new transport connections and economic cooperation, the discord between Armenia and Azerbaijan would hinder this process. Further, the agreement has been criticised for being biased. Apart from this, the agreement also fails to address unresolved issues between the two countries. Thus, until these lacunae are filled the recurring ceasefire violations are likely to continue.
Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a Research Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru