Any comprehensive resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will likely involve Moscow as an important peacemaker.

Empty gun shells near the village of Madagis in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. Photo: RIA Novosti

The brief but violent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, unleashed in the early morning hours of Apr. 2, by and large came to an end on Apr. 5, when the General Chiefs of Staff of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Moscow to agree to a cessation of hostilities.

By now it’s clear that Azerbaijan started the military offensive, unprecedented in scale and the number of troops, tanks and artillery engaged. In an interview with the independent Russian TV station Dozhd (“Rain”) on Apr. 2, the Azerbaijani Ambassador to Moscow, Polad Bulbuloghli, said the offensive “will not come to a stop while Armenian troops are on the ground.”

The Azerbaijani envoy also slammed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group co-chairs, comprised of Russia, United States and France, for being “ineffective.” The Minsk Group has become a common target for Azerbaijani diplomacy in the last few years.

In the early hours of this escalation, unprecedented in scope since the 1994 ceasefire, the mediators and other major countries began calling upon the sides to hold their fire and sit down for negotiations. They also attempted to derail attempts at amending the established framework of the Minsk Group’s co-chairmanship.

The words “concern” and “ceasefire” have been perhaps the most popular terms in the vocabulary of peacemakers, including in Russia. Only Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was believed by many to have instigated the escalation, supported the armed hostilities and claimed Turkey would support Baku “until the end.”

Meanwhile, both Russia and the United States officially denounced attempts by Turkey to spark the conflict, which is capable of having spillover effects well beyond Nagorno-Karabakh.

What led to the actions of Azerbaijan?

The internal dynamics of the conflict led to a situation where in recent years Azerbaijan was walking a tightrope, threatening military takeover if its diplomatic ultimatums were not taken seriously. It was really only a matter of time of how long Azerbaijan could maintain this balancing act.

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Azerbaijan has invested in a dramatic military buildup ever since the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline started pumping oil to European markets in 2006. According to SIPRI estimates, in 2015 Baku spent 165 percent more on its military compared to 2006. However, the sharp decline in oil prices in the market, from $113 per barrel for Azeri Light in June 2014 to just $31 in January 2016, resulted in the total oil revenues of The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) significantly shrinking.

While Western nations, allegedly concerned with securing non-Russian oil imports, turned a blind eye to the military buildup around Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan used the same money to acquire arms from South Africa, Belarus, Russia and Israel.

Whereas Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrated adherence to peaceful resolution through negotiations, Azerbaijan adopted the Cold War era concept of brinksmanship as its guiding strategy on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh in order to persuade opponents to retreat.

The West, in turn, accepted the rules of the game. In short, Baku offered the non-resumption of hostilities against Nagorno-Karabakh, while Western nations adopted a policy of non-interference. This ultimately ended up strengthening the dictatorship in Baku, with all of its side effects.

With oil reserves thinning and lacking other leverage in the long run, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev might have thought it made better sense to risk everything with a stronger hand now. Thus, the mediators – who for years failed to adopt a new approach in their diplomatic efforts, ironically fell into their own trap. The renewed hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh threaten both the regional balance of power and European energy security. In addition, it may engage Russia in a military conflict it would prefer to avoid.

Moscow, the peacemaker

The top leadership in Moscow  President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu  arranged urgent phone calls with their counterparts in Yerevan and Baku, which resulted in the ceasefire agreement reached in Moscow on Apr. 5.

Later on Apr. 7, Lavrov in Baku urged the sides to find a lasting “political settlement” to the conflict and “not relax,” as “all components [of a peace deal] are on the table.”

As many experts in Yerevan believe, the peace process (when and if it resumes) shall be comprehensive and include the leaders of the Nagorno-Karabakh republic, who have been sidelined since the late 1990s.

Two crucial and mutually reinforcing elements of the renewed process shall be better mechanisms for investigating incidents as well as a robust ceasefire monitoring mission, both under the auspices of the OSCE. In addition, the process should contain legally binding commitments for non-use of force in order for credibility to be restored.

Given the history of bloodshed in the period 1988-1994, it is also crucial to think about a sustainable legal track in the peace process.

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Media reports of war crimes are already emerging from the conflict zone. Apart from indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, claimed by both sides with various levels of credibility, there has been at least one instance of the murder of elderly Armenian family members in Talish village, Nagorno-Karabakh, by members of the Azerbaijani armed forces – an act that entails individual criminal responsibility under relevant treaties of international law.

Of course, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh are not parties to the International Criminal Court (ICC), but the renewed hostilities have obviously revitalized the dark memory of bloodshed in the first war of 1992-1994. A thorough investigation now, perhaps with a referral of the situation to the ICC, should contribute to the eventual diplomatic resolution in order to allow the nations to find the path to reconciliation.

If Azerbaijan fails to identify those that committed such acts, they may be attributed to the state as an internationally wrongful act, with relevant implications.

However, Russia might be reluctant to engage with the ICC, given the ongoing investigation of incidents in the brief Russian-Georgian War of 2008. But there is hardly any other suitable institution to handle the administration of justice.

With so many different nuances involved, it’s perhaps more important for the mediators to establish a ceasefire on the ground without delay and bring all parties to the same table – with lots of coffee, ink and paper – to work for a better future of the two nations.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.