A man sits in his shell-damaged house in Shosh village, Nagorno-Karabakh. Upwards of half of the civilian population of the region has reportedly been displaced
A man sits in his shell-damaged house in Shosh village, Nagorno-Karabakh. Upwards of half of the civilian population of the region has reportedly been displaced © AP

The writer, who led the 2001 OSCE peace talks, is chair of International Alert and professor of diplomacy at the University of Kentucky

Intense fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, the breakaway Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan, is fast approaching its most dangerous phase. Military advances by Azerbaijan are impeding the re-establishment of a ceasefire.

Unless Russia, the US and France — which together co-chair the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk group — intensify their diplomatic efforts at the next round of talks on October 29, fighting is likely to escalate dramatically. Outside nations, specifically Turkey and Russia, may well then enter the fray. The result would be a potentially staggering level of death, destruction and suffering. 

These are already the worst hostilities in this conflict since Russia brokered the original ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994. While that truce was frequently violated by small arms and artillery fire, only in the April 2016 four-day war was there substantial loss of life. It was then that Azerbaijan discovered it could regain by force territory it had lost in the 1990s. 

Three new factors have since come into play: Azerbaijan acquired highly sophisticated military equipment from Israel and Turkey; Turkey has injected itself more directly into the dispute; and the three nations charged with handling mediation efforts have been distracted by more pressing domestic and international concerns.

Even when Russian president Vladimir Putin summoned the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan to Moscow to engage in intense negotiations with his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on October 9, the subsequent “humanitarian truce” did not last a day. Then, when French president Emmanuel Macron tried telephone diplomacy and joined Russia to seal a truce that would take effect on October 18, that lasted only hours. Finally, on October 23, when US secretary of state Mike Pompeo met both foreign ministers in Washington, it took two days for a ceasefire agreement to emerge. That ceasefire began on the morning of October 26 and was broken within minutes.

One main reason why the international chorus calling for peace has been ineffective is Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has encouraged Azerbaijan to keep fighting. Another is that the high-tech weaponry (including drones and loitering munitions) that Israel and Turkey have supplied to Azerbaijan is proving very effective: over the past month, Azerbaijan has recovered significant swaths of territory. Together, this external support and relative military success have generated broad public support in Azerbaijan for the war effort. This has clearly strengthened President Ilham Aliyev’s inclination to continue fighting. 

The fog of war makes it hard to know exactly what is happening on the ground. But as hostilities enter their second month, the human cost is already high. Mr Putin has said that the total death toll is approaching 5,000, compared with Soviet losses of 13,000 in 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan. Upwards of half of the civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh has reportedly been displaced.

One thing that is known, however, is that Azerbaijan has regained much of its territory along the Iranian border and now appears to be making a vigorous push north towards the Lachin corridor, the arterial supply line linking Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. If this corridor is severed — and conflicting reports place advancing Azerbaijan forces just 20-30 miles away — the conflict will stand on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. Nagorno-Karabakh’s population would be trapped, civilians would panic and Armenia would escalate the conflict further. This could lead Moscow to act in accordance with its mutual defence pact with Armenia, which in turn could elicit the entry of the Turkish military.

The risk of an expanded war is growing greater by the day. The conflict may soon reach an irreversible point where it will not stop without a dramatic expansion of fighting and increased loss of life. At the next round of Minsk Group negotiations in Geneva at the end of this month, international diplomacy must become more assertive. Russia is perhaps best placed to lead the effort, especially as the US is in the last stages of a presidential election. Even so, any diplomatic action will have to be co-ordinated among the group’s three co-chairs for maximum effectiveness. Time is of the essence.

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