Armenia faces a critical choice in Nagorno Karabakh

Benyamin Poghosyan

April 2022 was marked by significant developments around the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. When Russia launched a “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, it seemed that all other post-Soviet conflicts would enter “silent mode,” as no one would care about Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria. However, this was not the case, at least for Nagorno Karabakh. On April 6, 2022, the European Union organized an Armenia–Azerbaijan summit in Brussels. President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan agreed to form a border demarcation/delimitation commission until the end of April and take concrete steps to start peace talks. The issue of border delimitation and demarcation also was among key priorities during the November 2021 Sochi meeting facilitated by Russian President Putin. However, despite the signature of the trilateral statement, no tangible moves have been made. After returning from Brussels, PM Pashinyan made a landmark speech in the Armenian Parliament. He stated that the international community offers Armenia to “reduce the threshold on Karabakh status,” which, if translated from the diplomatic language, means that Armenia should agree to see Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan with some level of autonomy. Pashinyan also argued that Armenia should sign the peace treaty with Azerbaijan as soon as possible and reiterated that Armenia accepts the five principles of the peace treaty shared by Azerbaijan. The critical message of those principles is the recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, including Nagorno Karabakh, which goes in line with the idea “to reduce the threshold of status for Karabakh.”


The April 6 meeting in Brussels revealed the EU, and probably the US, approach to the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Armenia abandons its demand that Nagorno Karabakh will never be a part of Azerbaijan, while the West convinces President Aliyev to abandon his rhetoric that Nagorno Karabakh does not exist. As a mutual compromise, Armenia and Azerbaijan agree on Karabakh’s autonomy within Azerbaijan. No details are available regarding the borders of that autonomy (should it include the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region within its 1988 Soviet borders or only the territories currently under the protection of the Russian peacekeepers). There is uncertainty regarding the essence of autonomy (should it be a political-territorial unit, resembling the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic within Azerbaijan, or only some sort of cultural autonomy in line with the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities).


Other issues remain obscure, including the citizenship of people living in that autonomy (should they have dual Armenian/Azerbaijani citizenship, or only Azerbaijani one). No details are available regarding the composition of local law enforcement bodies, the monetary system (should the deal allow circulation of both Armenian and Azerbaijani currencies), and should Azerbaijanis have the right to live in the territories currently controlled by Russian peacekeepers.


Among these uncertainties, one issue is, perhaps, clear. Suppose Armenia and Azerbaijan sign a peace treaty that fixes their agreement on the future status of Nagorno Karabakh. In that case, it will allow Azerbaijan and the West to demand that Russia withdraw its peacekeepers from Nagorno Karabakh either immediately or at least in November 2025. Azerbaijan and the West will immediately declare Russian troops in Nagorno Karabakh as an occupational force in case of Russian refusal. Given the complete rupture of Russia–West relations, the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno Karabakh is the primary motive for the West’s efforts to facilitate the signing of a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This policy aligns with Russia’s containment and deterrence strategy, implemented by the US and its allies with the primary goal to weaken Russian influence in the post-Soviet space.


It is challenging to assess whether the West believes that it has the capabilities to secure the “prosperous life of Armenians within Azerbaijan” or it does not care about the fate of Karabakh Armenians. The West implements the classical “carrot and stick” policy toward Armenia. It offers increased financial and technical assistance if Armenia accepts the deal and threatens that in case of refusal, it cannot prevent Azerbaijan from launching another war against Armenia and cannot support Armenia if war starts. Simultaneously, Azerbaijan continues its policy of military blackmail against Armenia. During his April 22 speech, President Aliyev warned Armenia that this was Armenia’s last chance to make peace with Azerbaijan. If Armenia rejects recognizing Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, Baku will not recognize the territorial integrity of Armenia, opening the way for further military aggression against Yerevan.


Meanwhile, the second part of the equation, Russia, has its views on the future of Armenia–Azerbaijan relations. The strategic goal of Russia is to have a permanent military presence in Nagorno Karabakh, and Russia understands that it needs an Armenian population (should it be currently 100,000 or even 50,000 or less is sufficient for that goal, is uncertain) there to secure this goal. Meanwhile, Russia is interested in seeing fewer tensions along the Armenia–Azerbaijan border and the line of contact in Karabakh. Russia believes that the West is pushing Azerbaijan to escalate, hoping to trigger a military clash between Russia and Azerbaijan. It will ruin Russia–Azerbaijan relations transforming Azerbaijan into another Georgia for Russia and will create tensions in Russia–Turkey relations. Meanwhile, if Russia does not answer to the growing Azerbaijani attacks against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, the West will use it to portray Russia as too weak. It remains to be seen how Russia can claim to be a global power or hope to win the war in Ukraine if the Kremlin has to swallow the humiliation by tiny Azerbaijan. 


To avoid this choice between bad and worse, Russia wants to launch and coordinate the Armenia–Azerbaijan border delimitation and demarcation process to facilitate the opening of regional communications and the start of Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiations on a peace treaty. However, the West wants to see the signature of the Armenia–Azerbaijan peace treaty no later than the end of 2022 with a mutual agreement on the status of Karabakh. But Russia is not in a hurry. It believes that the complicated conflict with a history of more than 100 years cannot be finally settled during several months of negotiations.


The Armenian leadership faces a critical choice. It may accept the West’s offer and quickly sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, recognizing Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. As the second option, Armenia may start the negotiations on different tracks (border delimitation/demarcation, restoration of communications and peace treaty) but not hurry to sign the treaty. If Armenia chooses the second option, Azerbaijan may escalate against Armenia and Karabakh. Again, Russia is not interested in large-scale escalation, but Russia cannot prevent Azerbaijan from launching an attack. So, Azerbaijan will not seek to occupy Kapan, Yerevan or Stepanakert but may launch weekly subversive actions. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan, the EU and the US should understand that putting too much pressure on the current Armenian government to sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan may trigger a political crisis in Armenia, resulting in a change of government. It is difficult to argue that in that scenario, the next government of Armenia will be more Western neutral or more inclined to normalize relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey.