Photo illustration by John Lyman

The Unseen Barriers to War Between Azerbaijan and Armenia

Since Azerbaijan’s large-scale military offensive concluded in September 2023, the border with Armenia has been relatively peaceful. The dissolution of Karabakh’s separatist governance stands as a pivotal moment, seeding stability across the region.

The horizon brightened further when the separatist tide receded, paving the way for two significant milestones. Yerevan lent its support to Azerbaijan’s bid to host the COP29 climate summit in Baku. Shortly thereafter, the adversaries engaged in a humanitarian gesture, exchanging prisoners at their shared border in December. These actions intimated a shared intent to eschew the zero-sum mentality that once dominated their interactions.

Nonetheless, recent skirmishes have thrust the specter of conflict into the headlines once again, spotlighting the first notable resurgence of violence in months. This surge of hostility poses a pivotal question: is the region teetering on the brink of war? The complex tapestry of Baku and Yerevan’s rapport, interwoven with threads of historic violence, suggests that such a dire outcome might be a foregone conclusion.

Complicating the narrative is the stark pronouncement by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of an imminent Azerbaijani offensive, an assertion swiftly refuted by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who negated any notion of an impending attack.

Contrary to such bellicose rhetoric, the probability of a full-scale conflict remains minimal. A constellation of structural constraints, the intricate web of geopolitical developments, and the high stakes associated with military engagements effectively dissuade the nations from instigating a third conflict.

Azerbaijan’s calculus eschews the prospect of an attack, for such a course would beckon untold risks for Baku. At this juncture, the strategic imperative for Azerbaijan lies in maintaining the equilibrium of power within the region. Its enhanced leverage vis-à-vis Yerevan, a byproduct of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War’s aftermath and the ensuing restoration of sovereignty over Karabakh, dictates a preservation of the status quo. Warfare’s mercurial nature threatens to upset this balance, suggesting that the true battle is for Azerbaijan to maintain its hard-fought position without resorting to violence.

Moreover, the rekindling of hostilities would nullify the strides made by both parties, relegating them to a preliminary state of engagement, eroding the mutual trust delicately built during the December prisoner exchange, and exacerbating the security competition. The latent peril here is a potential regression to less constructive dialogues post-peace talks’ collapse, eroding the prospects for a durable peace. An aggressive move would also obliterate the trust painstakingly built between Baku and Yerevan, a trust crystallized during the prisoner exchange.

Nikol Pashinyan has alluded to a consensus on the “architecture and principles” of a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, while Hikmat Hajiyev, the Assistant to the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, speaks of “significant progress” in peace negotiations. This dialogue suggests a landscape where peace is within reach, shadowed by the specter of international pressure that awaits any party that reverts to warfare. Such a scenario would engender a blame game, further entangling the South Caucasus nations in a complex diplomatic quandary akin to a prisoner’s dilemma.

Critical in the diplomatic discourse is the proposed Zangezur corridor, a transportation link that promises economic interdependence. Its activation would serve as a deterrent against future conflicts, offering cooperative opportunities and instilling a degree of predictability in the nations’ relationship due to the high “exit costs” associated with breaching the peace talks and reverting to enmity. The alternative—escalation—would strip Baku and Yerevan of a lucrative avenue to bolster regional peace.

Azerbaijan’s vested interest in peace is underscored by its substantial investments in establishing itself as a central regional trade and transportation hub. The ongoing reconstruction of Karabakh represents a commitment that Baku would not want to see jeopardized by the chaos of war.

On the other hand, Armenia is caught in a security conundrum. The evolving regional power dynamics and its nuanced relationship with Russia compel Yerevan toward a peaceful resolution with Azerbaijan. Given Azerbaijan’s substantial economic edge and its population advantage—crucial in sustaining a formidable military force—Armenia finds itself at a strategic disadvantage, a reality that would leave it vulnerable in the face of renewed conflict.

Thus, while the recent skirmishes cannot be dismissed lightly, they should not be hastily interpreted as precursors to a full-blown war. Pashinyan’s articulations may well be a strategic gambit to bolster Armenia’s diplomatic stance and curry international favor. This intricate dance of diplomacy, strategic communication, and the international community’s role in peacebuilding underscores the nuanced challenges in achieving lasting peace in the South Caucasus.

The likelihood of a new conflict igniting in the South Caucasus is low. Azerbaijan’s reluctance to gamble with its strategic investments and Armenia’s limitations as a lesser military power are powerful deterrents. The looming threat of international backlash further dissuades a return to arms. Most critically, should peace efforts disintegrate, the region would forfeit a pivotal opportunity for enduring security and stability. It is these foundational constraints that minimize the odds of violence re-emerging, painting a complex picture of the delicate interplay between peace, power, and diplomacy in this strategically important region.