Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev will meet before the end of the year to discuss the smoldering conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, according to reports of negotiations at the UN General Assembly.

But few expect a presidential meeting to break the deadlock in negotiations over the longest-running conflict in the former Soviet space.

The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh differs from other post-Soviet conflicts in several key respects. At issue is not just the attempted secession of an Armenian-majority territory from rule by Baku. There are also seven regions of Azerbaijan that are partially or wholly under Armenian occupation—something the Armenian side says is needed to protect the security of Nagorny Karabakh itself.

Moreover, unlike in other post-Soviet hotspots, there are no peacekeepers (Russian or international) stationed in or near Nagorny Karabakh. The ceasefire is maintained thanks only to a balance of forces between Baku and Yerevan.

It would also be a mistake to call the conflict “frozen.” The military flare-up of April 2016, later termed the “Four Day War,” showed that that term is inadequate. Yet this upsurge of fighting—in which up to 200 people died—should not give the impression that the situation on the line of contact between the two armies was peaceful before that. In fact, ceasefire violations have been regular occurrences since at least March 2008.

The critical problem is that there are no negotiations on the real core issues underlying the conflict. After every flare-up there are statements about the need to “return to the negotiating table.” But even if the negotiating process is preserved, the talks never get to touch on real compromises, concessions, or exchanges of views.

So, is there no way out of this impasse? One other peculiarity of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict offers a slightly more hopeful prospect of its resolution.

The Karabakh conflict also differs from the other post-Soviet conflicts in that it is not a proxy conflict between Russia and the West. Even if it did not start out that way, in the Georgia-Abkhazia and Georgia-South Ossetia conflicts, Moscow is now the patron of the two republics while the United States and NATO support Georgia and its “territorial integrity.” We see the same division in Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, in Transnistria.

Only the Karabakh dispute does not qualify as a piece in the geopolitical contest between Russia and the West. Even after the Georgian-Russian war of 2008, American diplomats welcomed then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s mediation efforts.

Moreover, in contrast to the situation in Abkhazia, both parties to the Karabakh conflict are interested in Russia’s mediation, and President Putin enjoys a relationship of personal trust with both Aliyev and Sargsyan, something that is appreciated by Western diplomats.

The draft framework agreement known as the Basic Principles, devised by the French, Russian, and U.S. diplomats of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, is a document that Russia and the West are ready to work together on. This essentially unique opportunity for cooperation rises above ever-deepening oppositions.

“Each country—France, Russia, and the United States—has its own national policy, but that policy is congruent with OSCE policy,” said Richard Hoagland upon leaving his post as interim U.S. co-chair to the Minsk Group. It is impossible to imagine a U.S. diplomat making that comment about the conflict in Abkhazia or the Donbas.

The cooperation between Russia and the West reduces the risks in the Karabakh conflict. It means that the leaders in Baku and Yerevan must be strategic and hold back their hardliners from rash acts. In the worst-case scenario, they will not get to choose between Moscow and Washington without becoming enemies of both.

However, this understanding has not translated into systematic cooperation between the mediators. Poor overall relations between Russia and the West mean there is no trust between the two sides, and the professional mediators of the Minsk Group are limited in their capability to put joint pressure on the parties to the conflict. Confrontation between Russia and the West outside of the Karabakh process encourages Baku and Yerevan to test how united the positions of the foreign mediators really are.

Yet both Russia and Western countries know how dangerous a new flare-up of the conflict could be for them. A new conflict would very likely not be confined to Karabakh alone and would spread to the territory of the Republic of Armenia. 

Should fighting touch Armenian territory—and Yerevan call for help—it would be a difficult challenge for Moscow. Its relationship with Baku would be put under strain, and Russia would be compelled to seek a joint position with its partners in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, which have taken differing positions on Abkhazia or Crimea.

For the West, a serious conflict in close proximity to the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, and in which Iran and Turkey might be tempted to intervene, is a nightmare scenario. So, the Karabakh conflict creates a strong incentive for Russia and the West to rise above their controversies and work together—if they can and want to.

It is obvious that it is currently not worth their while for Russia and the West to demand too much from either side of the Karabakh conflict. The first step is to minimize military incidents in order to mitigate the risk of a descent into a new war. Only after that can negotiations be transformed from an imitation game into meaningful dialogue in search of compromise.

Eventually, the Nagorny Karabakh peace process could become a successful model applicable to other post-Soviet conflicts, including the one in the Donbas. But in order for this model to work, there needs to be at least a small improvement in relations between Russia and the West.

Work on a Karabakh peace process cannot, by itself, be an instrument for reversing the deterioration in relations between Russia and the West. But more constructive collaboration on an issue where the West and Russia share common goals would at least help clear the air. 

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Sergei Markedonov