As episodes of mass violence grab our attention in Syria, Iraq or, more recently, Ukraine, it’s easy to forget a slow but steady casualty list from a conflict that is sometimes mistakenly referred to as “frozen.”

This week marked the 20th anniversary of the Russian-brokered ceasefire of May 12, 1994 that halted the war over Nagorny Karabakh. Fighting stopped, the Armenians secured a de facto victory on the ground and a 160-mile front line was drawn across what is internationally regarded as the territory of Azerbaijan. Without peacekeeping forces, a “self-regulating ceasefire” came into force.

Since then, Karabakh’s Line of Contact, as it is called, has developed into a World War I battle-zone with trenches sometimes less than 100 meters apart—and the ceasefire has been broken with grim regularity.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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The Azerbaijani and Armenian armed forces each have up to 70,000 men under arms. Around one half of them are positioned along the Line of Contact, with most of the rest deployed along the internationally recognized Armenia-Azerbaijan border, which is only marginally less dangerous.

What is the accumulated death toll of 20 years? Sometimes the parties to the conflict have an interest in talking up the numbers, sometimes in concealing them. This week, an Azerbaijani journalistic organization called Doktrina came up with depressing figures. They are higher than anything I have seen, but worth taking seriously, as they have been compiled from both military sources and soldiers’ families in Azerbaijan.

Doktrina said that over this period Armenian fire had killed 610 Azerbaijani soldiers and 15 civilians and wounded 710 soldiers and more than 40 civilians. They reported that mines had killed 120 soldiers and 18 civilians and wounded more than 200 soldiers and 40 civilians.

I have not seen overall casualty figures from the Armenian side but they are almost certainly very similar to those of Azerbaijan. Almost no Armenian civilians live near the Line of Contact but there are reports of Armenian villagers dying near the Azerbaijani frontier—including one fatality last month.

If these deaths are barely recorded and hard to verify that is largely because there are only six international monitors from the OSCE covering the entire front line.

In his speech at the Carnegie Endowment last week, U.S. Karabakh negotiator James Warlick stressed that the OSCE needs to have a stronger presence on the ground for the casualty figures to go down. The monitors, he said, currently “have neither the mandate nor the resources to put a stop to the frequent casualties, or even to identify responsibility.”

Azerbaijan has traditionally resisted a stronger ceasefire monitoring mandate on the grounds that this would only “normalize” a status quo it does not like. Although Baku does not put it in quite these words, as the losing side in the conflict it sees its ability to destabilize the Line of Contact as one rare bit of leverage over the Armenians.

But a deal could be done. Extra OSCE monitors could have a mandate that extends beyond the Line of Contact. For example, they could monitor the ceasefire more vigilantly, as the Armenians want, and they could also report on the situation in the occupied Azerbaijani territories around Karabakh—an issue of concern to Baku.

Whatever the merits of the arguments of each side, ordinary soldiers and civilians are the ones who pay the price for a lack of agreement on this front line.

  • Thomas de Waal