Nagorno Karabakh's future is the most challenging question that Armenia and Azerbaijan face as they seek to move towards the normalisation of relations between them. In this op-ed for commonspace.eu, Benyamin Poghosyan says that "there are different approaches how to deal with this issue. One approach argues for the inclusion of Nagorno Karabakh in the bilateral peace treaty, while according to another view, the Nagorno Karabakh issue should be separated from discussions on Armenia - Azerbaijan relations." This is creating a difficult situation on the ground. "For the time being, the only reliable way to prevent a new large-scale war in Nagorno Karabakh is a robust international presence in Nagorno Karabakh. It will provide relative security and stability in Nagorno Karabakh and contribute to the establishment of favorable conditions for Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations", he argues.
Since the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war ended, Armenia and Azerbaijan have launched multi-track negotiations to sign a peace treaty. In 2021 the primary platform for negotiations was Russia, and in 2022 the EU and the US joined the club. Armenia and Azerbaijan discuss several separate but intertwined issues – the signature of the peace treaty, delimitation and demarcation of borders, restoration of communications, and the future of Nagorno Karabakh. All issues are pretty complicated, but Nagorno Karabakh's future is the most challenging question. There are different approaches how to deal with this issue. One approach argues for the inclusion of Nagorno Karabakh in the bilateral peace treaty, while according to another view, the Nagorno Karabakh issue should be separated from discussions on Armenia - Azerbaijan relations.
Negotiations within the Russian platform resulted in several trilateral statements, while the EU facilitated the endorsement of the Prague declaration. Armenia and Azerbaijan recognized each other's territorial integrity according to the 1991 Alma-Ata declaration and agreed to deploy a two-month EU mission in Armenia in late 2022. The meetings in New York and Washington, facilitated by the United States, proposed direct negotiations between Azerbaijan and self–proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic under the auspice of an international mechanism. Meanwhile, in parallel with negotiations, Azerbaijan continued its strategy of coercive diplomacy, attacking Armenia in May and November 2021, and September 2022, and Nagorno Karabakh in March and August 2022.
After a brief momentum in late September – early October 2022, the negotiation process stalled. Azerbaijan imposed a blockade on Nagorno Karabakh in December 2022 using self-proclaimed eco-activists to close the Lachin corridor. The blockade continues till now, and even the decision of the International Court of Justice, calling for the restoration of unimpeded movement on the road, did not force Azerbaijan to end it.
Vardanyan removed from office after Munich Security Conference
At the same time, "online diplomacy" was underway between Armenia and Azerbaijan as sides exchanged their comments and remarks on the draft peace treaty. The US facilitated the resumption of talks at the Munich Security Conference in February 2023 and again called for direct contacts between Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh. In the last four months, another factor appeared in this equilibrium. As Ruben Vardanyan assumed the position of state minister of the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Azerbaijan used him as a reason not to start talks with Nagorno Karabakh.
President Aliyev publicly stated at the Munich Security Conference that Azerbaijan was ready to speak with those born in Nagorno Karabakh but not with Ruben Vardanyan. On 23 February, 2023, the President of the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic removed Vardanyan from his position, an apparent move to facilitate direct Azerbaijan – Nagorno Karabakh dialogue. It seemed that the move worked, as two meetings between representatives of Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh took place on 24 February and 1 March, 2023, facilitated by the Russian peacekeepers. However, on 5 March, Azerbaijani special forces clashed with police officers of Nagorno Karabakh, resulting in casualties on both sides.
According to President of the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic Arayik Harutyunyan, Azerbaijan issued an ultimatum to Nagorno Karabakh – either Armenians will accept the Azerbaijani offer of reintegration, or Azerbaijan will use force. In recent days Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense issued several statements accusing Armenia and Russian peacekeepers of transporting arms and military personnel from Armenia to Nagorno Karabakh and claiming that Azerbaijani armed forces will take all necessary steps to prevent these movements. Azerbaijan seems to be preparing the ground for another escalation in Nagorno Karabakh.
Apparently, the person of Ruben Vardanyan was not a primary reason for the absence of negotiations between Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh. The two sides view this process as fundamentally different. The self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic believes that contacts should happen within an international mechanism, and as talks between two equal sides of the conflict – Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic. The critical task of negotiations should be the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan argues that any talks are possible only as contacts between the Azerbaijani government and Azerbaijani citizens of Armenian origin. The primary focus should be the reintegration of the Armenian minority into Azerbaijan.
The only reliable way to prevent a new large-scale war in Nagorno Karabakh is a robust international presence
Armenia supports the Nagorno Karabakh vision. The security council secretary stated that Yerevan has never discussed with Baku the integration of Nagorno Karabakh into Azerbaijan, reiterating the Armenian position that the primary focus of negotiations between the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic and Azerbaijan should be the ways to secure the rights of Armenians. He also stated that the negotiations over Armenia – Azerbaijan peace treaty could be finalized only after getting firm guarantees that the rights and security of Nagorno Karabakh Armenians will be guaranteed.
It seems the sides are still far from finding a mutually acceptable solution for defining the future of Nagorno Karabakh. In the current situation, Azerbaijan will continue its pressure on Nagorno Karabakh, continuing blockade and launching military attacks to force Armenians to accept its vision of reintegration. The large-scale war against Nagorno Karabakh with an attempt to enter Stepanakert and other cities is unlikely as long as Russian peacekeepers are deployed in Nagorno Karabakh. However, in the last two years, Azerbaijan has proved that the presence of Russian peacekeepers does not prevent Baku from launching limited military operations.
Thus, for the time being, the only reliable way to prevent a new large-scale war in Nagorno Karabakh is a robust international presence in Nagorno Karabakh. It will provide relative security and stability in Nagorno Karabakh and contribute to the establishment of favorable conditions for Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations. As the initial term of the deployment of Russian peacekeepers expires in November 2025, all external actors interested in regional stability and security should start thinking about securing an international presence in Nagorno Karabakh beyond November 2025.
Source: Benyamin Poghosyan is a Senior research fellow, APRI – Armenia, and the founder and Chairman of the Centre for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
Photo: Russian troops deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh in Novermber 2020, but their term of deployment expires in November 2025 (archive picture)
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