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The 2020 war in Nagorno Karabakh: Lessons Learned for the European Security

Габриелян Акоп[i]
Совет Европы; Российско-Армянский университет
Ассистент; преподаватель кафедры политологии

Тема: «Система европейской безопасности: новые реалии в меняющемся мире»

Наименование работы: «The 2020 war in Nagorno Karabakh: Lessons Learned for the European Security»

The 2020 outbreak of war in Nagorno Karabakh changed the face of the South Caucasus completely, as the hostilities were considered to be a failure of all previous diplomatic and peacebuilding efforts [1], and served as a precedent to cast a shadow on the meaningfullness of the OSCE Minsk Group [2]. At the humanitarian level, the war caused a new violent watershed, which replaced the fragile balance of powers lasting for decades between Armenia, Armenia-backed Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan, dividing thousands of families, causing destruction of almost 10 thousand lives on both conflicting sides and prompting hundreds of thousands to seek shelter [3].

Geopolitically, the 44-day war has been widely characterised as the last nail in the coffin of the term “post-Soviet space” [4], highlighting decrease in dependence of the former Soviet republics from the remaining geopolitical legacy of the USSR. The emerging strength of Azerbaijan, deviating towards fully-fledged and unconditional alliance with Ankara, undermined not only Russia’s strategic positions of the mediator and guarantor of regional peace and stability, as it has been traditionally viewed by Russia’s only regional ally Armenia. It also signalled the significant shift in regional geopolitical fundamentals, according to which Russia and Russian-backed integration and security initiatives, such as Collective Security Treaty Organisation [CSTO], were the only game in town. The 2020 war illustrated Russia’s readiness to negotiate geopolitical matters even in the zone historically considered by Moscow as an area of own unique priority. For almost 200 years since the Turkemnchay and Adrianople treaties Russia kept its status of the only great power in the South Caucasus; however, proactive efforts from Turkey during the 2020 war and, as a result, the Russian-Turkish memorandum on the establishment of joint monitoring centre near Karabakh, symbolised direct and game-changing engagement of Turkish military to the region [5].

While Turkey is gaining momentum to strengthen its positions in the Caucasus even further [6], the November 2020 agreement to stop hostilities allowed Russia to form and dispose a very limited peacekeeping contingent to the northern area of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) with a strictly defined period of service. The fate of the peacekeeping mission after its 5-year term remains unclear: mutatis mutandis, this circumstance creates additional threats for the Armenian population of Karabakh, while for Azerbaijan it presumes a possibility to become even less dependent from political will of Kremlin, despite seeming serenity. At the same time, developments in the relationship between Turkey and Russia, including on Crimean and Central Asian tracks, allow to infer that the key NATO member and the first violin of CSTO are far off from geopolitical consensus in the Caucasus.

On the one hand, the 2020 outbreak and its consequences indicate the tendency toward gradual but firm revisionism in international affairs: where the old ethno-territorial conflicts are fuelled anew, one can see a possibility to return to the pre-Potsdam era, meaning the growth of imperialism in the times of great uncertainties. On the other hand, the longer uncertainty prevails, the higher becomes the risk and temptation to revise the architecture of international security by military means. Ergo, it is exactly this pivotal moment, when the resources, support towards and unity around the European system of undivided security should be reiterated and, where necessary, imposed. Otherwise, the triggers of instability may prompt the worst of scenarios to occur, similar to how the attempts of pleasing peace through increasing uncertainty and concessions in the 1930s caused more damage and destruction, eventually manifesting the collapse of the former system of world order. To prevent such developments, Europe must begin from herself and there are several instruments that can be utilised for this purpose.   

  1. The latest war in Karabakh has proven that the key to a long-term peace between the nations can be found only in the capitals of conflicting sides, through a) the support of mediators, and b) the shift in the outlook of life by civil societies of conflicting states. When the mediators are viewed as the guarantors of peace rather than the means to reach peace, an illusion that settling a crisis without taking into consideration the opinions of people on the ground distorts the real state of affairs. As a result, conflicts do not dissolve but continue to grow latently [7]. This problem has been perfectly illustrated by previous inapplicability of peace plans, the very fact of the large-scale war in Karabakh and the most recent discussions held under the umbrella of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, where EP Deputy M. Kaljurand confirmed the institution’s utmost readiness to help but “not to solve problems instead of Yerevan and Baku” [8]. Relevant to the current conflict, European entities, including and particularly the OSCE, should act boldly, intensifying contacts with the local authorities, but also reaffirming the instrumental role of the OSCE Minsk Group as the only tool to bring long-lasting peace in the Karabakh track. In particular, Armenia and Azerbaijan will only gain if the frequency of monitoring missions increases: it will bring more transparency, trustworthiness and better-monitored control over incidents. Additionally, the OSCE should serve to the institutionalisation of peacekeeping efforts, which may presume introduction of international peacekeeping contingent on a rotational principle. The more countries would be involved in peacekeeping on a consensual basis, the higher will be the costs of breaking peace and, simultaneously, the lower would be the financial expenses and risks for one country to maintain its peacekeeping contingent. The practice of peacekeeping on a rotational principle has proven to be effective previously, especially under the aegis of the United Nations [9], and the OSCE can form corresponding mandate applicable to the South Caucasian realities.
  2. Considering highly volatile situation in Eastern Europe, it is crucial to ensure that no country will be scapegoated. Previous decades demonstrated clearly that outcasting one geopolitical power may create the result contrary to what had been expected. In its turn, alienation creates only additional incentives for the alienated to radicalise and for others to anticipate new geopolitical turmoils. Therefore, the most appropriate approach to solve the issues peacefully and preserve democratic values is to accelerate harmonisation of understandings on humanitarian (education), social (human rights) and cultural (historical) tracks. Better human and financial resources invested in these fundamental directions of cooperation should create necessary foundation for socio-cultural convergence, and make people in the conflicting sides more reluctant to justify hostilities and violent means of problem-solving. Correspondingly, domestic demand for peace will overvalue the war rhetoric, eventually pushing the governments to act more carefully.
  3. Finally, ensuring more gender-positive approaches in the confidence, trust- and security-building measures in Europe will help us “demasculinise” the field and promote higher interaction between human rights structures within the security sector (e.g. integrity-building centres in the ministries of defence, women’s councils in the armed forces, etc.) of the European states. If such structures are not well established or fully operational, study missions and vocational exchange of female servicepersons and experts, particularly from those states where gender mainstreaming policies are not fully-fledged must be encouraged.

These measures together will help us create more predictable and better-led Europe, where the architecture of security is rather underpinned by joint efforts than condemned to gradual demolition. 

List of sources:

  1. “EU fails to act on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan”. Deutsche Welle. Access Date: 22 February 2022. URL: https://www.dw.com/en/about-dw/s-30688.
  2. “Aliyev says OSCE Minsk Group played no part in Karabakh settlement”. TASS: Russian News Agency. Access Date: 22 February 2022. URL: https://tass.com/world/1234405.
  3. “Russian peacekeeping personnel provides security of civil vehicles transit along Lachin corridor in Nagorno-Karabakh”. Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation (Russian Ministry of Defence). Access date: 14 February 2022. URL: https://eng.mil.ru/en/russian_peacekeeping_forces/news/more.htm?id=12340385@egNews; “Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Bachelet warns of possible war crimes as attacks continue in populated areas”. Office of the High Commissioner. United Nations Human Rights. Access date: 14 February 2022. URL: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26464&LangID=E.
  4. Anna Yuranets, “«Turetskoye vliyaniye rastet»: kak izmenilsya rasklad sil v Zakavkaz'ye”["Turkish influence is growing": how the balance of power in Transcaucasia has changed]. ru. Access date: 13 February 2022. URL: https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2020/12/14_a_13399123.shtml.
  5. “Rossiysko-turetskiy tsentr v Karabakhe nachal svoyu rabotu” [“Russian-Turkish Center in Karabakh began its work”]. Interfax. Access date: 13 February 2022. URL: https://www.interfax.ru/world/748609.
  6. “Azerbaijan To Host Special Forces From Turkey, Pakistan In Drills”. Radio Free Europe. Access date: 13 February 2022. URL: https://www.rferl.org/a/31455296.html.
  7. Akop Gabrielyan, “Nagorno-Karabakh: the Conflict, the State, and the Reanimation of Dialogue”. Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Diplomatist, Vol. 5, Issue 6, 2017: pp. 33-34
  8. “European parliament member: we are ready to help Yerevan and Baku, but we cannot solve their problems for them”. ARKA News Agency.
    Access date: 22 February 2022. URL: http://arka.am/en/news/politics/european_parliament_member_we_are_ready_
  9. Håvard Hegre, Lisa Hultman, and Håvard Mokleiv Nygård, “Evaluating the Conflict-Reducing Effect of UN Peacekeeping Operations”. The Journal of Politics, Vol. 81, No 1, January 2019: pp.215-234.


[i] "The views expressed by the author do not necessarily represent the position of institutions, which the author is affiliated with."

12 мая 2022
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