Nagorno-Karabakh: The death of diplomacy

Renewed fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh risks becoming an opportunity for Russian involvement in the region.

A house which was damaged during clashes between Armenian and Azeri forces is seen in Nagorno-Karabakh region [REUTERS]
A house which was damaged during clashes between Armenian and Azeri forces is seen in Nagorno-Karabakh region. [Reuters]

With much fanfare, the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents seemed pleased by the welcome as participants in US President Barack Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Joining more than 50 world leaders at the opening of the summit on March 31, both leaders met with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice-President Joseph Biden. 

Yet for these two rivals, their own dispute and divide over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict followed them to Washington. And that was also evident by the fact that their meetings with US officials were delicately choreographed as “separate but equal” events.

Further frustrating diplomatic protocol, recent attempts by the US side to facilitate a direct meeting of the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents failed.

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And that failure was especially painful, particularly as the US is a co-chair of the mediating Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) “Minsk Group”, the sole diplomatic body responsible for the Karabakh peace process.

Tarnished summit

At the same time, the success of Obama’s summit was much more harshly tarnished by the behaviour of other leaders. 

First, Russian President Vladimir Putin belatedly announced that he was boycotting the summit, leaving no chance for salvaging cooperation between the US and Russia over proliferation and nuclear security issues.

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For the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents, the summit was an important opportunity to demonstrate and display the strategic significance of their respective countries, while also garnering a greater degree of legitimacy.

Moscow may now argue that the collapsing ceasefire may only be remedied by a deployment of Russian peacekeepers.


For Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, the Washington summit was an opportune chance to deepen his country’s ties with the US. It was also a chance to meet and greet the sizable and politically well-organised Armenian-American community.

But most importantly, in the face of a Russian boycott of the event, Sarkisian was able to demonstrably defend Armenia’s independence and sovereignty despite its close security ties to Moscow.

But for the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, the summit was even more significant. It was seen as a chance to reaffirm the strategic importance of Azerbaijan, especially crucial in the wake of a serious crackdown on civil society and an economic downturn driven by the slump in oil prices.

At the time, it was perceived as a way for Aliyev to improve his image and, after a recent release of political prisoners, a way to rebuild ties with the West.

Demise of diplomacy

The launch of the Azerbaijani military offensive in the pre-dawn hours of April 2 means that the president’s decision to proceed was made either in Washington or on the flight back to Baku.

That timing only suggests that the Washington visit was in many ways a last chance, or an ultimatum, by the Azerbaijani leader to the US to move more forcefully on the Karabakh conflict.

Gandzasar Monastery in Martakert, Nagorno-Karabakh [Getty]
Gandzasar Monastery in Martakert, Nagorno-Karabakh [Getty]

And perhaps, although it was not clear to the Americans at the time, the Azerbaijanis’ sense of frustration over the lack of progress in the peace process may have reached a dangerous tipping point.

Such frustration and willingness to use force to change the calculus over Karabakh has also been mounting, and was evident in the deeper trend of escalation over the past several years.

But it may also hold much wider, more dangerous implications. It may actually present a fresh opportunity for Russian involvement.  Although Russia is more directly engaged in Armenia, who hosts the sole Russian base in the region, Moscow has emerged in recent years as Azerbaijan’s main weapons provider.

Fragile ceasefire agreement

And as this recent surge in hostilities has intensified, the inherently fragile ceasefire agreement, first brokered in May 1994, is now dubious at best. Even the announcement of a “truce” by Azerbaijan late in the fighting on April 3 was not followed on the ground.

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Azerbaijani artillery units remained engaged and even expanded their firing, expanding a new front. This only reaffirmed the challenge of returning to a seeming sense of normality in abiding by the terms of the ceasefire.

For Moscow, however, which has long relied on the Karabakh conflict as an instrument for power and influence, the fragility of the ceasefire may become the key re-entry point. Moscow may now argue that the collapsing ceasefire may be only be remedied by a deployment of Russian peacekeepers.


Such a scenario is clearly a threat to all parties in the Karabakh conflict and may add a new, ever more destructive element to the difficult and challenging equation of resolving this conflict.

It may also mean that no matter what the outcome of military operations on the ground will be, the death of diplomacy may also become the demise of the West as Russia returns as the ultimate determinant of security and stability. And that is a strategic threat ironically shared by Armenia, Azerbaijani and Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

Richard Giragosian is the founding director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think-tank in Yerevan, Armenia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.