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The former Soviet Union’s oldest frozen conflict just might be thawing, but that’s not for the better. Ahead of a joint statement issued by world leaders during the G20 Summit, calling on the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments to mend fences over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, tensions in the breakaway territory have only been escalating. Following bloody border shootouts in recent weeks, observers have been talking of renewed violence that could lead to another all-out war. Though all signs point to a fresh conflict, is a large-scale war in the Caucasus really possible?
The U.S., Russian and French presidents came together on the sidelines of the global summit on Monday to urge a peaceful settlement to the conflict, which for more than 20 years has kept Armenia and Azerbaijan at each other’s throats, and the territory itself in a state of diplomatic limbo. “Military force will not resolve the conflict and would only prolong the suffering and hardships endured by the peoples of the region for too long,” the statement read. “Only a peaceful, negotiated settlement can allow the entire region to move beyond the status quo toward a secure and prosperous future.”
But despite international proclamations, a serious problem continues to brew. For weeks, tensions have inched toward a boiling point as a startling number of soldiers on both sides have been killed in tit-for-tat small arms exchanges along the border between Azerbaijan and de facto Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as between Azerbaijan and Armenia itself – a far more sensitive area, analysts note. Each time, the story is the same: one side fires on the other, citing provocations or illegal incursions from the opposing side, and in turn receives retaliation shots. And each time, the results are the same: just since the beginning of 2011, more than 60 Armenian and Azeri soldiers have died from such border skirmishes, EurasiaNet reported earlier this month.
Perhaps more disconcerting is the protracted arms race that is taking place between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While around 20,000 soldiers remain posted on either side of the front line, the respective governments are leveraging what they can to outgun their opponent: Azerbaijan its massive oil wealth, and Armenia its cushy weapons trade with Russia. Even Karabakh’s standing army, according to E. Wayne Merry, a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council, fields around 300 battle tanks – no doubt a curious amount for a population of only about 140,000.
Writing in openDemocracy last month, Merry also warned of the geopolitical implications of a renewed Karabakh war not only for the Caucasus, but for major global players as well. “A significant armed conflict over Karabakh could be much more serious than the brief 2008 war [between Russia and Georgia], in part because the two sides are more evenly matched and in part because of the proximity – and vulnerability – of major oil and gas pipelines,” he wrote. “Thus, another Karabakh war could touch Europeans and Americans at one of their most neuralgic points, the ‘price at the pump.’”
International efforts have historically done little for the Karabakh conflict, whose 1994 pact institutionalized a shaky and routinely violated ceasefire. The Minsk Group, chaired by the United States, Russia and France, was devised by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the conflict and bring both sides to the table – but has so far failed to produce results. Similarly, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Caucasus earlier this month, not only did her efforts fall by the wayside, but eight soldiers from both the Armenian and Azerbaijani side were killed as she toured the two capitals, according to media reports.
Yet despite all the ominous signs, some experts warn against jumping to such dire conclusions. According to Alexander Iskandaryan, director the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, neither side can afford to wage a large-scale war – Armenia and Karabakh because of their relatively small populations, and Azerbaijan because of the certain destruction of the lucrative Baku-Ceyhan pipeline a war would deliver. “Armed skirmishes and a full-blown war are two principally different things,” he said. “They require their own levels of resources, losses of life, as well as their own degrees of risk.”
Others agree, but Lawrence Scott Sheets, South Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group, added that while neither side can afford an explosion of the conflict, many tend to forget that a violent conflict already exists and has never abated – and that the only next step is war on a massive scale. “We call it a conflict, but people are killed there all the time,” he said. What’s more, Sheets noted, ill-fated international efforts have helped drive both sides to consider a military solution as the only alternative option. “We’ve never said at the ICG that there’s going to be a war, but we have said that the conditions are worsening, and as the deadlock continues, the chances for either an accidental war or a premeditated conflict from either side increase,” he said.
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