An unexploded shell is seen stuck in a field near the town of Martuni, a self-proclaimed Republic of the Nagorno-Karabakh on October 11, 2020 on day two of a Moscow-brokered truce. Photo: Valeriy Melnikov / Sputnik

It would be a basic mistake to view the new Nagorno Karabakh conflict, launched on September 27, through the old lens as a simple territorial feud between two nations. 

This underestimates the radical transformation of the conflict, which began in 1988 and reached a ceasefire six years later in Bishkek, due to the combustible mix of ingredients that reflect a new level of international involvement.

The conflict is morphing into a proxy war similar to other crises such as Syria and Libya where Russia and Turkey compete for influence.

With the involvement of war-hardened non-state actors, the conflict is getting more complicated. This process will almost certainly worsen depending on how long the war lasts and how intense it gets.

A power vacuum in Nagorno-Karabakh could be fertile ground for extremist groups using the territory as a launchpad for operations in the wider region. 

The hybrid nature of the conflict makes it resistant to a peaceful resolution. Other factors also work against a solution. These are the diversification of its stakeholders due to its internationalization and the region’s polarization along pro- and anti-West fault lines at political and economic levels. 

This pessimistic conclusion does not preclude another ceasefire, after the breakdown of a Moscow-brokered truce over the weekend or even incremental progress in upcoming peace talks. However, the conclusion is drawn from the new complexity of the conflict that defies a narrow-focus resolution.

Karabakh excluded

The peace process sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe makes no distinction between Armenia and the self-declared independent Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian).

Karabakh Armenian has been excluded from the peace table following Baku’s refusal to engage in direct negotiations with the de facto authorities in Stepanakert as legitimizing the latter’s claim to statehood. 

The problem with Baku’s position is that its negotiators favor the 2007 Madrid Principles that, in essence, raise the issues of Azeri sovereignty and local self-determination and rights of the Armenian population of the upper Karabakh simultaneously. The principles call for an eventual referendum or popular vote on the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The inclusion of Stepanakert authorities in the peace talks is a logical necessity that ought to be embraced by Baku, in part to reinforce its assurance that the future rights of Armenians in the disputed territory will be guaranteed and that they will not be subjected to any of the ethnic cleansing seen in Turkish-controlled northern Syria. 

Indeed, without concrete gestures by Baku to this effect, the Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh will continue to sense an existential threat that will fuel their resistance to any peace agreement brokered behind their back.  

Iran to the table

The OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, the United States and France, and which includes Turkey, the latter of which has for all practical purposes dispensed with the peace-making effort by fully siding with Azerbaijan by recognizing its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.

It also suffers from the absence of a second-tier strategic dialogue on related substantive issues, such as Russia’s concerns about NATO’s expansion to the Caspian Sea that has clearly affected the policies and priorities of big powers involved in the stalemated peace process. 

Without an explicit pledge by Azerbaijan to refrain from joining NATO for the foreseeable future, it is given that Russia’s propensity to play the spoiler role directly and indirectly through Armenia and others will linger and affect Moscow’s policy choices and priorities in line with its national security calculations. 

A moratorium on NATO’s expansion in the South Caucasus should now be part of the new US-Russia dialogue. Without such a firm guarantee, it is a sure bet the regional polarization militating against the Minsk peace process will continue.

At a minimum, a partial re-orientation of Azerbaijan, away from Georgia’s pro-NATO model, is essential for a drastic revision of Russia’s approach to the problem in South Caucasus.

A new “linkage diplomacy” instead of the straightforward peace diplomacy of the Minsk Group, tantamount to a new Minsk Group with expanded membership (including Iran, which has interests in the conflict equal to those of Turkey) and a revised agenda is necessary for durable peace in the region.