The ‘four-day war’: Changing paradigms in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

The ‘four-day war’: Changing paradigms in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Zaur Shiriyev
The “four-day war” in April 2016 brought Azerbaijan and Armenia the closest they have been to all-out war in Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) since the 1994 truce. It marked the most serious escalation in hostilities in terms of both military hardware and human loss. In the two decades since, violence along the Line of Contact has erupted periodically with increasing intensity. 

Azerbaijan’s political and military leadership declared that the April violence was the result of Armenia’s provocation. Due to the widespread support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, including from the U.S., President Ilham Aliyev’s stance was that “it was an adequate response to provocation.” He refuted all claims that it had been a pre-planned offensive.

Broadly, the four-day war resulted in improving Azerbaijan’s tactical positions along the Line of Contact. In terms of gaining a psychological advantage, the success erased the myth that the Armenian defensive line is highly capable of launching any attack. Baku also sought to go beyond rhetorical threats, demonstrating that it has the capability to use force to liberate the occupied territories if necessary. 

The initial expectation after the April clashes – following the ceasefire brokered by Moscow – was that increased international awareness would see the West and Moscow cooperating to bring both sides to the negotiating table. However, since the Vienna meeting in May 2016, the Western countries have essentially disappeared, leaving Russia to fill this particular power vacuum.

Hopes that Azerbaijan’s closer relations with Moscow will hasten a solution have collapsed. As of August 2016, the conflict’s sides have returned to the pre-April status quo in terms of the diplomatic deadlock in negotiations. The principal problem is that the Azerbaijani authorities exaggerate the extent of Russia’s constructive mediating role in order to put greater pressure on Armenia. However, at the same time, Armenia – as a military ally of Moscow – expects an entirely opposite position, setting Moscow’s initiative at a deadlock. 

One more factor that limits Azerbaijan’s options is that since the Vienna meeting, Western co-chairs – France and the U.S. –  have pushed to increase the number of monitoring missions by the current OSCE Chairman-in-Office, and to establish a monitoring mechanism to investigate incidents along the Line of Contact. Baku opposes this because it will serve to crystallize the current Line of Contact as a border. The fact that Russia asked for the same mechanism after the August 2016 skirmishes suggests that relying on Moscow does not yield results. This decreases the probability of successful negotiations, but increases the chance of devastating new clashes. 

Other Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group do not seem to have any desire to revitalize negotiations. The current U.S. administration is not interested in activity in the South Caucasus, and early indications of a “Russia First” policy in the post-Soviet space (except for Ukraine and Georgia) offer little hope for engagement in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution. Preferences seem to be oriented towards maintaining the fragile military-political status quo, leaving any conflict resolution initiatives to Moscow. But in the end the domestic political developments in Armenia – the hostage crisis and public challenge to the alliance with Moscow – followed by the supply of Russian missiles, diminished those prospects. 

* Zaur Shiriyev is an Academy Associate at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London. His areas of expertise include security issues and conflict resolution in the post-Soviet space, Turkish foreign policy, and the foreign and national security policies of the South Caucasus states, with an emphasis on the domestic determinants of such policies. This is an abridged version of the original in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s Winter 2017 issue.