How the US Botched the Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process
After 20 years of carefully navigating negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the US made a critical misstep last month by embracing — as official US policy — a futile settlement proposal. Advocating such a poor plan for peace only makes another Caucasus war more likely.
Ambassador James Warlick’s May 7th speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was as shocking as it was disappointing. The US negotiator to the OSCE Minsk Group, charged with facilitating a peaceful resolution to the conflict, announced that the vague six-point plan originally proposed in 2007 by the Minsk Group to the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia as the ‘Madrid Principles,’ would no longer be a proposal, but US policy; this is a major blow to the peace process.
Just days prior to the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement, and only eight months into his current post, Warlick laid out six key elements of a settlement. These points, which he stated “in no particular order,’ essentially call for a Nagorno-Karabakh with Soviet borders, and a corridor with Armenia, protected by ‘international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation.”
The region’s final legal status would be decided at some unspecified point “in the future,” by an ill-defined “legally binding expression of will.” In the meantime, Nagorno-Karabakh would “be granted an interim status that, at a minimum, provides guarantees for security and self-governance.” Under this policy, the Armenian-controlled buffer territories would be transferred to Azerbaijani control, and internally displaced persons and refugees would have the right to return to their homes.
This plan, however, was dead on arrival. It fails to adequately address the very root of the conflict — Nagorno-Karabakh’s status; a key issue it evades, rather than confronts. Even more, the elements of the deal are as ambiguous in Warlick’s speech as they were in 2009, the last time the Minsk Group revised the Madrid Principles. Considering the vacuum of trust between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership, such imprecision leaves too much room for manipulation.
Warlick said that, ‘the current state of affairs is unacceptable, and unsustainable.’ Yet, however bad the status quo may be, it is better than a bad peace. Unfortunately, Washington’s new policy on Nagorno-Karabakh is promoting just that; and the consequences of such an error could soon have grave consequences for not only Armenians and Azerbaijanis, but the wider European and Eurasian region as well.
Lacking a viable peace plan, the threat of renewed warfare over Nagorno-Karabakh is now even greater. Greater too are the risks of dangerous spillover effects that another war would bring, including the destruction of oil and gas pipelines crucial to European energy security, and further instability in Russia’s already volatile North Caucasus region.
Warlick was off the mark when he said that, ‘the sides have come to a point where their positions on the way forward are not that far apart.’ This is hardly the case. The ‘well-established compromise,’ he mentioned is, in fact, an illusion. The sides are further apart than they have ever been since 1994.
The greatest omission in this new US policy is that it fails to appreciate that Nagorno- Karabakh’s independence has reached a point of no return.
1991 — the year that the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic declared independence from Azerbaijan — is as holy to Armenians as 1776 is to Americans, and of no lesser value.
Nevertheless, while the elements proposed by Ambassador Warlick call for the Armenians to make territorial concessions to Azerbaijan, they make no guarantee of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence. This is unacceptable for the Armenian side, especially considering that, just last month, Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, declared that “self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh will never be granted any legal status.”
This new policy is a bad deal, not a fair deal. The security environment in which Nagorno -Karabakh exists is very different from when the ceasefire was signed in 1994. Rather than take steps over the last two decades to build confidence with Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan has done the opposite, engaging in massive defense spending, sabre rattling, and an aggressive sniper policy on the ‘line of contact’ between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces.
This is not the behavior of a losing side seeking reconciliation, but of a losing side seeking revenge; and this is why the buffer territories which form Nagorno-Karabakh’s perimeter are so important to its security. Geographically, they provide a mountainous bulwark protecting its northern border with Azerbaijan. The Armenian-controlled eastern area in and around the former city of Aghdam, prevent it from once again becoming a staging ground for Azerbaijani artillery in easy reach of Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert. The buffer territories between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia likewise prevent Azerbaijani forces from driving a wedge between the two Armenian states.
In his speech, Warlick said that Nagorno-Karabakh would have to relinquish these strategic buffer territories to Azerbaijan, and instead, take up its vulnerable former Soviet borders. But in exchange for what? Only assurances that Nagorno-Karabakh’s final legal status would be determined at some unspecified point in the future, while placing its safety in the doubtfully reliable hands of a peacekeeping operation.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s Soviet borders were drawn by Joseph Stalin, who purposefully made them indefensible. With these borders, Nagorno-Karabakh’s boundary with Azerbaijan would roughly double in length, while it would meanwhile lose the needed security benefits of the buffer territories. What is more, the source of most of Nagorno-Karabakh’s water exists outside of its former Soviet borders.
Clearly, it would be twice as hard for the Karabakh Armenians to defend themselves under such a scenario. Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders must take into account the security realities of 2014, not Stalin’s cartography of 1923. Perhaps this would be more apparent to the Minsk Group if Stepanakert were to return to its seat at the negotiating table with Yerevan and Baku, which it held until 1998.
While Ambassador Warlick drew attention to the avoidance of all-out war since the ceasefire was signed 20 years ago, he was making a big assumption when he said that, ‘we must also agree that the current state of affairs is unacceptable, and unsustainable.’ There is no such universal agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status quo. On the contrary, as we witness an Azerbaijan that is increasingly aggressive against not only Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, but also its own citizens, the status quo, despite its imperfections, may actually be the best way of moving forward.
Written by Mark Dietzen: Dietzen is an international affairs analyst and consultant specializing in European and Eurasian Affairs. He holds an MA in International Relations from Yale University,where he formerly served as Executive Director of the Yale Journal of International Affairs. Dietzen is Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, Americans for Artsakh.