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The Ukraine War Is Reshaping the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

With Russia unable to act as key mediator, the countries are looking elsewhere for help.

Published on April 25, 2022

With the world’s eyes fixed on Ukraine, the standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan is shifting quickly, and Russia and the United States are uncertain about how to respond. A 2020 Russian-brokered ceasefire that ended the second Karabakh war has brought neither full stability nor security to the region, and even prior to the Ukraine war, Moscow’s peacekeepers have struggled to do their jobs. But a new peace process between Baku and Yerevan may be emerging anyway with a new broker—the European Union—increasingly active. These dynamic changes over the past two months highlight how Russia’s war against Ukraine is shaking up the Eurasian landscape.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has its origins in the late Soviet period, when residents of the ethnically Armenian autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh requested that Moscow sever the enclave from the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) and attach it to the Armenian SSR. The move led to a rise in nationalist sentiment on both sides and a protracted, bloody conflict.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the independent Azerbaijan on the one side and Karabakh Armenians and independent Armenia on the other side went to war, leading to mass displacement and ethnic cleansing. In 1994, the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement, leaving the Armenian side with de facto control of the Karabakh region and surrounding territories that belonged to Azerbaijan. Attempts to negotiate a durable peace agreement by the United States, Russia, and France under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group were unsuccessful. Major fighting broke out in 2016 and 2020. In the latter, forty-five days of war ended with Azerbaijani forces taking back most of the territories it had lost two decades earlier, with Armenians in possession only of a rump Karabakh. Russia then deployed peacekeepers to Karabakh to guarantee the ceasefire it had brokered, provide for the safety of the two ethnic groups, and resolve disputes that arose between communities.

One of the positive results of the 2020 war was that it removed several impediments to reconciliation and rapprochement in the region. Turkey, for example, had closed its land border with Armenia due to the latter’s occupation of Azerbaijani territory, and most transportation links between the three countries shuttered in the 1990s. But diplomacy since the 2020 war has reopened the possibility for their restoration. Late last year, Baku and Yerevan agreed to form a delimitation commission, established a hotline between their defense ministers, and began once again talking directly with each other—all small signs of progress. 

Yet this progress has been accompanied by tension. Azerbaijan seems to be using a modified version of the intimidation model that Moscow employed against Kyiv in the run-up to the February 24 invasion—namely military buildups along the border of the two countries, coercive diplomacy, and occasional military efforts to push deeper into Armenian-held territory. Ceasefire violations now occur not only in and around Nagorno-Karabakh but also occasionally across the not-yet-demarcated boundary between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The worst incursion occurred in November and left at least six Armenians and seven Azerbaijanis dead, risking direct state-to-state conflict.

Last month, Azerbaijan intensified the pressure on the Armenian population of Karabakh itself, twice shutting off gas to population centers. Its forces have deployed Turkish Bayraktar drones, publicly called on Armenian civilians to leave the region, and temporarily taken control of a small Armenian village, causing its residents to flee. These events exacerbate threat perceptions among Armenians, expose security gaps in the 2020 ceasefire, and heighten fears of renewed war and ethnic cleansing.

Many Armenians view these incursions as attempts by Baku to gain as much territory and leverage as possible to force Yerevan to sue for peace on less-than-favorable terms. It may be working. The EU and Russia have sponsored a flurry of diplomacy to defuse the tension, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now complicates these efforts to manage the conflict jointly, and Baku has seized this opportunity to introduce a five-point proposal for a comprehensive peace. The plan includes mutual recognition of each state’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual renunciation of any future territorial claims, delimitation and demarcation of the border, the establishment of diplomatic relations, and the opening of regional transportation links. Missing from the proposal is a long-standing Armenian demand: an agreement and mechanism for determining the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh and its Armenian population.

Moscow theoretically has the most influence of any outside power to push peace forward. However, the populations of both Armenia and Azerbaijan have signaled their discomfort with Russia’s brutality in Ukraine and are supportive of the Ukrainian people, although opinion polls in the region often are unreliable. Diplomatically, both countries are trying to hedge in an increasingly complicated geopolitical space. Azerbaijan was forced to distance itself very quickly from a new partnership and “alliance” agreement it signed with Russia just before the war. It also chose not to vote in all three United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions condemning Russian actions in Ukraine, effectively keeping a low foreign policy profile. Despite its economic dependence on and long-standing alliance with Russia, Armenia has tried to remain as neutral as possible: it abstained from two UNGA resolutions condemning Russia and did not vote on the third. Nonetheless, during a recent visit to Russia, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reiterated Yerevan’s interest in boosting its alliance with Moscow—a statement that has not gone unnoticed in the West.

Russia since 2020 has used its role as a broker in the region to show up the United States, which lacked the means and desire to put boots on the ground. This provides Moscow with leverage in the South Caucasus. Yet, nobody in the region, including Turkey, really trusts Russia. Even before the Ukraine war, the Karabakh conflict was already a diplomatic and security minefield that Moscow could navigate only with difficulty. Now Russia also seems unable (or unwilling) to enforce the peace, with reports that Moscow no longer has a full contingent of peacekeepers deployed there, and the Minsk Group appears to be a casualty of the war in Ukraine.

But others are stepping up, and the two countries may still be inching toward progress. Armenia is keen to open its borders to reduce its dependence on Russia, and Pashinyan has shown a clear willingness to engage with both Azerbaijan and Turkey on the matter. He has given his preliminary agreement to Baku’s proposal, even accepting the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan with Nagorno-Karabakh inside of it, and has reportedly put the ball back in Baku’s court to flesh out details, including the rights of Armenians inside Azerbaijan. The European Council President Charles Michel appears to be taking the lead on negotiations. The two countries’ leaders met in Brussels on April 6 and agreed to “move rapidly toward” reestablishing transportation links and a durable peace agreement. On April 25, the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers agreed to establish a mechanism to create the border delimitation commission. 

Yet Russia retains enormous influence in the region and could easily play the spoiler, especially to an EU-brokered agreement. On April 21, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the West of “paralyzing” the Minsk Group and condemned the EU “appropriating” the peace process. Hardline elements in Armenia or Azerbaijan could also stymie negotiations. Internal disagreements on compromise already derailed a U.S.-negotiated settlement agreement to the conflict in 2001. Pashinyan’s recent willingness to engage with Baku stoked fierce criticism from the political opposition, former members of his government, and the de facto authorities in Karabakh. For the first time since the late Soviet period, the Armenians in Karabakh fear Yerevan no longer has their back, a perception that the opposition appears eager to play up. A peace agreement that mandates compromise imposes serious risks to the leaders of both countries, particularly Pashinyan, who now has a far weaker hand than ever before. Yet instability to the north in Ukraine is reshuffling dynamics in the South Caucasus and Eurasia overall, forcing Baku and Yerevan to talk to each other through new formats and negotiators. That is both a risk and a potential opportunity.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.