Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Frozen Conflicts Put Solutions on Ice
Frozen Conflicts Put Solutions on Ice

Frozen Conflicts Put Solutions on Ice

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits next to Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Toria Nuland on May 16, 2016, at the Bristol Hotel in Vienna, Austria, as U.S., Russian, and French officials met with Armenian and Azarbaijani leaders in an effort to calm tensions over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attends a meeting in an effort to calm tensions over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

With the U.S. presidential elections and flurry of executive orders coming from the Trump administration, many seem to have forgotten about the protracted conflicts in Eastern Europe. This is the nature of frozen conflicts. They continue simmering even as the rest of the world stops paying attention. However, “frozen” conflicts tend to easily heat up, making active diplomacy ever more urgent.

There are many reasons why these conflicts escalate:  worsening domestic conditions may prompt less-than-democratic leaders to resort to diversionary wars, or the conflict may become a muscle-flexing opportunity for more powerful actors. Moreover, persistence of such conflicts exacerbates corruption, media censorship, and societal polarization accompanied by paranoia and disinformation.

There are currently five “frozen” conflicts in the region that both the European Union and Russia consider as their “neighborhood:” Donbas between Ukraine and Russia, Transnistria between Moldova and Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia between Georgia and Russia, and Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan (which Russia co-mediates).

What stands out when these conflicts are examined? First, Russia is directly involved in all but one. Second, the longer a conflict remains “frozen,” the prospect of a solution based on mutual compromise becomes more unlikely. Third, the longer the conflict remains “frozen,” returning to the pre-war status quo becomes progressively less likely. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict demonstrates all of these points.

Map of Nagorno-Karabakh region in relation to Armenia and Azerbaijan (Source: Walden69/Wikimedia Commons)

Map of Nagorno-Karabakh region in relation to Armenia and Azerbaijan (Source: Walden69/Wikimedia Commons)

Nagorno-Karabakh, a 1,700 square mile territory in the South Caucasus region, has been a hotspot since the early 1990s. Following a war, which saw both sides accuse each other of ethnic cleansing and left thousands dead or displaced, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan. Since then, Armenia has insisted on the right to self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh’s overwhelmingly Armenian population (although without officially recognizing independence). Azerbaijan has insisted on its territorial sovereignty. For decades, the two sides have been at a standoff, with Karabakh autonomously—though with economic and military support from Armenia—running its own affairs, while Azerbaijan refuses to concede that it has a right to do so.

No Trust, No Deal, and a Lot of Weapons: Armenia and Azerbaijan

In early April 2016, Nagorno-Karabakh exploded with the biggest outbreak of fighting since the 1994 ceasefire. Reportedly, several dozen people have been killed in the fighting, both military and civilian, including children. As expected, this outbreak was not the last exchange of fire. Several other instances of ceasefire violations have been reported by both sides. The latest mutual accusations came on February 7: the Karabakh/Armenian side said that Azerbaijan had shelled Karabakh’s frontlines, and Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry reported that Armenian armed forces had shelled Azerbaijan’s positions.

Since the ceasefire of 1994, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States led negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Representatives from Karabakh, however, have been noticeably absent from negotiations as Azerbaijan does not recognize them.

Despite the mediators’ efforts, the negotiations have repeatedly stumbled, usually because of the same reasons: obdurate and sometimes belligerent rhetoric, the positions of the involved parties, and a clear lack of mutual trust.

Research in international relations shows that trust entails taking risks and expecting others to honor their obligations. It enables making predictions about future actions of interlocutors assuming that the involved parties would not harm the interests of the trusting party. There has been deep-seated distrust between the two nations since the start of the conflict in the 1990s. As was the case with other exchanges of fire, both sides rushed to blame each other in the escalation of the conflict in April 2016. As an Armenian official put it in conversation, “Unsuccessful in derailing and moving negotiations to another format, Azerbaijan decided to capitalize on Armenia’s domestic disturbances and launch an offensive.” In a similar conversation format, an Azerbaijani official said that discontented with Azerbaijan’s wealth and rapid development, Armenia had decided that it must put a halt to that development through various means including conflict escalation.

The distrust on the political level effectively spills over to the populations as 66% of Armenians and 90% of Azerbaijanis named each other as their main enemies. Furthermore, 79% of surveyed Armenians and 99% of surveyed Azerbaijanis disapproved of doing business with each other.

Such distrust and lack of credible information exchange result in a security dilemma and arms race as countries are uncertain about each other’s intentions. Assuming worst-case scenarios, the sides hastily accumulate weapons not only as means of defense, but also to deter the adversary and showcase their military prowess. Azerbaijan has spent billions of dollars on weapons, while Armenia did not shy away from the arms race, acquiring weapons at discounted prices from Russia, including the latest purchase of short-range Iskander Ballistic Missile System. In 2015, Armenia allocated 4.5% and Azerbaijan 4.6% of their respective GDPs to military expenditure. These numbers are higher than the United States’ 3.3% or any other country in Western and Eastern Europe, except for Russia (5.4%). In 2015, along with other factors, these numbers made Armenia the 3rd and Azerbaijan the 9th most militarized countries in the world. The Global Militarization Index measures the relative weight and importance of the military apparatus of one state in relation to its society. For comparison, the United States ranks 31st.

Yet, as an Azerbaijani official mentioned, “there are sober-minded” people on both sides, since the bellicose rhetoric seems to leave the populations unconvinced in the effectiveness of a military solution.  Sixty percent of Armenians and 52% of Azerbaijanis believed that a solution is unlikely through the use of force. Both Baku and Yerevan, along with the mediators, need to capitalize on this peaceful sentiment as further conflict escalation would not only destabilize the region, displace more people, jeopardize regional energy plans, but also will eventually fail in distracting from rising domestic socio-economic issues in both countries.

Can’t Let It Go: Nagorno-Karabakh

Baku and Yerevan are arguably the main players in this conflict. In addition, Armenian and Azerbaijani populations retain strong interest in the conflict. Ninety five percent of surveyed Azerbaijanis “definitely favored” having Karabakh in Azerbaijan without any autonomy, while 56% of Armenians “definitely favored” Karabakh’s independence, and 77% would like to see its potential incorporation into Armenia.

The Presidents of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan attending a meeting in 2014. (Source:

The Presidents of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan attending a meeting in 2014. (Source:

Often overlooked in the analyses of this conflict are the dynamics inside Nagorno-Karabakh itself. A Nagorno-Karabakh official mentioned in a conversation that the absence of their representatives from negotiations is among their main concerns regarding the peace process. Also, 95% of respondents to a survey conducted in Nagorno-Karabakh in July 2016 shared this concern.

Over 50% of respondents in Nagorno-Karabakh to a 2016 survey mentioned security as the self-proclaimed republic’s main problem. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the April 2016 conflict escalation left an impact on the Karabakhi public’s mood. While in March 2015 55.8% of respondents in Karabakh expected general improvements, the indicator dropped to 41.7% in July 2016. A similar drop occurred in the levels of trust in the Karabakhi government’s effort to provide for country’s security: from 86.7% in March 2015 to 71.2% in July 2016.

There is a clear divide by age when it comes to the decision whether Nagorno-Karabakh should maintain independence or be incorporated into Armenia. While 60.9% of respondents over the age of 61 and 51% of respondents of between the ages of 46-60 prefer to be incorporated into Armenia, only 34% of respondents between the ages 18-30 and 43% of respondents between the ages of 31-45 think that is a good option. Such preference for independence among the younger generations (61.2% in the 18-30 age group and 50.2% in the 31-45 age group) shows that Azerbaijan’s recent option of giving Karabakh a degree of autonomy is likely to be met with resistance. A prospect of escalation becomes more worrisome since 81.2% of respondents think that “people should show armed resistance in case powerful states exercise pressure to return liberated territories to Azerbaijan.” Of course, it is also worth considering how sustainable Karabakh’s economy or military would be without external support.

Nevertheless, while Azerbaijan’s claim to its right to territorial sovereignty is explicable, acknowledging discussion on the right to self-determination and letting Karabakh’s representatives participate in negotiations may not only show good will, but also encourage some progress.

Nagorno-Karabakh provides cautionary lessons for other frozen conflicts. Freezing a conflict does not provide a sustainable solution. Irregular discussions after ceasefire violations may only temporarily stop bloodshed. Second, by capitalizing on and enhancing threat perception emanating from frozen conflicts, local leaders can justify their own actions that may otherwise be deemed undemocratic. Finally, speedy resolutions become more difficult the further away these conflicts are from the borders or geostrategic interests of more powerful actors.

Interviews for this piece were supported by the Institute of Armenian Studies at the University of Southern California. The author thanks Vanine Yeranosyan for her assistance in the organization of several interviews.