A keyhole to peace opens as Azerbaijani military takes back Nagorno-Karabakh

"File:Ilham Aliyev received OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs.jpg" by The Presidential Press and Information Office's of Azerbaijan is licensed under CC BY 4.0

By | Rachel Brooks

November 6, 2020 

Pictured above, “File:Ilham Aliyev received OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs.jpg” by The Presidential Press and Information Office’s of Azerbaijan is licensed under CC BY 4.0

As the war in Nagorno-Karabakh draws nearer to a potential result, with Azerbaijan reclaiming its occupied territories from Armenia, Caucasus defense is momentarily stabilized. The path to a lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh appears to mirror the keyhole opening that existed in 2019. A strong Azerbaijani presence in the region could freeze hostilities long enough to mitigate lasting diplomatic solutions, laying down key infrastructure that was stripped away over the course of the conflict era. This pathway to peace is as time sensitive as was analyzed by the International Crisis Group in 2019, see below, but a keyhole has opened that may change the narrative in Caucasus relations. 

The fear of an internationalization of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has begun to dwindle as Azerbaijan takes back its legally-recognized territory and holds key regions back from internationalized interference.

As Azerbaijan’s military presence resurges in the territory it lost 30 years ago, foreign players, who were potential backers of the Armenian nationalist movement cause, begin to concede to the power shift in the region. 

Iran, believed by defense analysts to have mobilized an Armenian-nationalist backing presence in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Zone, has kept a neutral and somewhat placating stance toward the conflict up to this moment. Yet, as Azerbaijan reinforces its place in the territory, Iran’s position and backing of Armenia is challenged. Iran has considerable losses to count should the conflict involve the international community. 

Foreign Policy noted the domestic ramifications of a strong Iran-backing in Armenia. The ethnic Azerbaijani population of Iran are vocal protesters amid the rigid backdrop of the Islamic Republic. Foreign Policy referred to Iran’s fears of an Azerbaijani uprising as “Tehran’s worst nightmare” and a “battle the government can’t contain.” 

At this stage of the conflict, the U.S. is also unlikely to immediately become involved. The U.S. bipartisan system is divided on some foreign policy issues, and the foreign policy over Armenia and the Caucasus in general is one of these. At the core of this issue is the battle for the American Presidential Office. The election, while trending in Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s favor, has not been called due to a legal battle over the legitimacy of the election results. 

The battle for the legitimacy of the vote will trickle down to the policy level, as Biden would be the candidate to promote Democratic pro-Armenian policies, and Trump would likely only intervene for tactical advantage over U.S. regional rivals, such as Russia or Iran. A U.S. preoccupied with due process is unlikely to act on the policy demands of a small demographic of its constituency such as the Armenian lobby before a winning candidate is officially and legally declared.

For this reason, the finance of the war is likely to come through the support of Armenia Fund and NGO backers, and these entities are limited in the United States due to Armenia’s small ethnic demographic population determined by census data. U.S. Census Bureau data puts Armenians as less than 500,000 people in the United States. Armenia Weekly, an outlet that publishes Armenian propaganda frequently, has alleged that this number is severely undercounted but did not provide data to prove this. While Armenian lobby groups have attempted to have their numbers recounted to inflate their donation dollars, this process could be sabotaged by the looming effects of the COVID-19 pandemic’s general process slowing, see NPR for more. 

 A protracted legal battle is anticipated, as was reported by the independent U.S. newspaper The Epoch Times,  and Azerbaijan continues to reclaim its territory in the meantime. The U.S. will likely not take an aggressive lead in the Minsk group mediations of the post conflict. Russia has presumed neutrality, although it has a military presence in Armenia via a base. However, Russia has ties to both Armenians and Azerbaijani due to the previous Soviet Union relationship, and Russia may mediate on the interest of neutrality on behalf of both groups moving forward, see NPR News for more. 

 France has expressed positions in favor of Armenia, but France has its own domestic crisis with violent extremism that will likely preoccupy its priorities. For this reason, France is also not anticipated to take an aggressive stance in the region, unwilling to provoke any further rivalries with Turkey, which has been a vocal participant of France’s domestic crisis with violent extremism over Islamic political cartoons, as well as Africa influence, see Voice of America for more.  Due to the bitter tensions between the two nations, France would likely see a direct involvement in the region as a further provocation of Turkey, which is an ally of Azerbaijan due to shared Turkic ethnic heritage. 

Because the western world sees the Nagorno-Karabakh as a proxy war inciting conflict, foreign entities would be less likely to directly engage without significant motive. 

Neighbors appear to be recalculating a backing of Armenia as well. As Azerbaijan takes back the ground it had previously lost, Iran’s rhetoric appears to shift to a more neutral stance. Iran appears to have supported, at least through public statement, Azerbaijan’s right to its territory, through statements made by the Surpeme Leader during the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, see Anadolu Agency. 

While still remaining naturally opposed to Azerbaijan’s position, due to Azerbaijani ties with Israel, Iran may rethink the cost of an all-out conflict with an Azerbaijan that is stabilized, and able to fully reclaim its republic from foreign occupation. Iran may not risk any further military engagement of Azerbaijan, beyond what was suspected in the Nakhchivan province, if it suspects backing a failing conflict on the part of Armenia would reflect negatively on both its domestic issues and long-time rivalries. Turkey has condemned the Armenian offensive in Azerbaijan and, should Turkey be provoked into a more proactive stance, this would have a negative reflection on Iran, a long time rival of Turkey. 

The fear of this explosive engagement and foreign backing dwindles, as the situation of November 2020 begins to compare to inferred conflict status of December 2019 as stated by International Crisis Group. As of December 2019, there was a momentary opening for a peaceful conclusion to the long-term conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh that could have included talks about human settlements in illegally occupied territory. As of December 2019, the potential talks centered around the possibility of an Armenian freeze on settlement projects in exchange for Azerbaijan to halt further legal action. The International Crisis Group referenced the breath of fresh air that Armenia momentarily breathed when a new government was in place post the Velvet Revolution. This is comparatively different to 2020 where Pashiynan’s government now teeters, and risks volatility over the failing Nagorno-Karabakh campaign, which dominates Armenian foreign policy. 


A year later, with Azerbaijan emerging victorious from the conflict escalations,and Armenian resources for future conflict depleted, a window opens again for international peace process mitigation.  As analysts noted in the December 2019 era, the morbiund for a formal end to the conflict would require fast action as, comparatively, the window here is narrow. Armenia will seek to regroup and pursue the region again shortly after being disposed from it, if it follows the patterns of its former nationalist campaigns. Armenia would only require the backing of foreign powers, whose sentiments, influenced by western media biases, have significantly leaned in Armenia’s favor of late.

If this foreign backing does not come, an currently the trend appears that it will not come any time soon, then Armenia will be forced to rescind its current campaign eventually due to lack of resources, lack of foreign support. The path to retaining their position and fueling a forward conflict would require the presence of more personnel volunteers, brokered through insurgencies, but previous reports dictate that Armenia has mitigated this through PMC’s, see The Jamestown Foundation, and would require foreign support to continue to fuel this as well.