Oct 02, 2023

Nagorno Karabakh: The Rise of Authoritarian “Conflict Resolution”

Russian soldier at the Lachin corridor
All rights reserved

Azerbaijan took control of its Nagorno-Karabakh region by military action, forcing thousands of Karabakh Armenians to flee their homeland. The development sets a risky precedent for future peaceful conflict resolution in the South Caucasus region. It is also a failure of Western diplomacy. The takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh is a dangerous example of authoritarian “conflict resolution” that undermines the legitimacy of liberal peacemaking efforts. Despite Russia’s relative weakness with its war against Ukraine, it is setting the norms in this conflict – not the EU or US.


Azerbaijan’s takeover of the Nagorno-Karabakh region by military force on September 19, triggering an exodus of Armenians from the disputed region, is a major setback for European Union and United States diplomacy. The victory by force has enormous regional and international implications. It will incite a new spiral of hate between Armenians and Azerbaijanis and erode peacemaking efforts in the region. What is more, it creates a dangerous precedent of authoritarian “conflict resolution,” undermining the credibility of liberal democracies in settling disputes peacefully. Despite its relative weakness, Russia is setting the (authoritarian) norms in this conflict, not the EU or the US.

The most recent dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh goes back more than 30 years to the fall of the Soviet Union. After Armenia won the first war in 1994, Azerbaijan in 2020 regained seven surrounding regions and parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, but not the region itself – until now. In just one day, on Septemerb 19, Azerbaijan took control over the self-proclaimed republic with its large Armenian population of nearly 120,000 people. Under international law as regards the territorial integrity of states, Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. Therefore, it is not a question of whether Azerbaijan should control its territory, but how it regains this control, peacefully or by force. Despite ongoing internationally facilitated negotiations and compromises from the Armenian government, leaders in the Azerbaijan capital Baku have systematically planned the military takeover since the second Karabakh war in autumn 2020, when Azerbaijan had to accept a ceasefire agreement negotiated by Russia.

Azerbaijan’s military dominance, built with Israeli military technology and comprehensive support from NATO member Turkey, helped it easily take the region, putting Russian “peace forces” deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh to the test. But one thing is clear – without Russia’s blessing, this military operation would not have been possible. It reflects the new geopolitical reality in the region since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, where different powers are competing for their interests and a new regional security order is being negotiated. Although Russia seems to have lost influence, it will remain a key actor in the region, making the rules in bargaining with Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran. Human rights and peaceful conflict resolution are not in the mindset of this authoritarian norm-setting.

A Change in Interests since Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Russia’s war against Ukraine has shifted its interests in the South Caucasus, increasing its demand for a North-South route to Iran via Azerbaijan and for more transit routes to Turkey. These alternative connections for trade and transit should also help circumvent Western sanctions. Furthermore, as a close ally of Baku, Turkey is a key partner in this endeavor. Contrary to its projected image, Russia has never been an altruistic protective power for Armenia. It has kept the balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan in recent decades by supplying both sides with weapons and has tried to keep the West out of the region. Now it needs all the weapons it can get for its war against Ukraine.

Russia has deployed nearly 2,000 not internationally recognized peace forces to Nagorno-Karabakh since the 2020 ceasefire agreement. It also agreed to guarantee the land route to Armenia via the Lachin corridor. But Russia is no longer willing or able to fulfill those guarantees. Indeed, the authoritarian regime in Baku is much closer in terms of governance to the Kremlin than the government of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Pashinyan was democratically elected twice, first in 2018 after the Armenian “velvet revolution” and again in 2021 after the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. He has come under fire from the Russian leadership for distancing his country from Moscow, which increasingly tries to undermine his legitimacy with personal attacks and disinformation campaigns. He has even started to question Armenia’s participation in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.

The Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement in 2020 circumvented the multilateral OSCE Minsk group as the main negotiation format, and Russia has since tried to regionalize the conflict in a trilateral format which it controls. Turkey also wanted to join this format but was only allowed to join a joint monitoring center on Nagorno Karabakh with Russia. In reaction, the EU and the US have created their own complementary facilitation formats to internationalize the conflict and create an alternative to the Russian deal-making approach. But they failed to achieve a breakthrough, since neither the European Union nor the United States was able or willing to exert pressure on both conflicting parties – particularly on Baku – for a functioning mechanism to implement an agreement.

On the part of the EU, the lack of support from larger member states weakened the negotiating power of European Council President Charles Michel. One exception was French President Emmanuel Macron, but he is seen as biased due to France’s large Armenian minority, and he has not been consistent in his approach. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz took part in a June 1 meeting of Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders at the European Political Community (EPC) Summit in Chisinau, Moldova, but this had no effect on resolving the conflict and merely laid bare Germany’s halfhearted engagement in the region as we can also see in Georgia.

The Next Stage of Escalation is Coming

Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh in no way ended or deescalated the conflict but instead is likely to usher in a new stage of humiliation and revenge. In addition to the humanitarian catastrophe taking place in that region, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev now wants to undermine the territorial integrity of the Armenian state. Both countries still have not agreed on the delimitation of their borders since the fall of the Soviet Union, and Azerbaijan last year took small but strategically important parts of Armenian border regions.

Baku’s next aim is to carve out an extraterritorial corridor to its exclave Nakhichevan via the Southern Syunik region of Armenia, and it threatens to do so by force if Armenia does not comply. A meeting between Ilham Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Nakhichevan on September 25 demonstrated Turkish support for this idea. Russia also has an interest in this additional route to Turkey, and the 2020 ceasefire agreement includes a clause that border forces of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) will guarantee its safety. Since Yerevan trusts neither Moscow nor Baku, Armenia sees this as an additional threat.

Furthermore, President Aliyev has initiated a discussion about a constructed “Western Azerbaijan” that questions the very existence of the Armenian state. This aggressive rhetoric combined with a language of hate, the military dominance of Azerbaijan, and limited action by the international community to deter this policy of force has invited Baku to maximize its demands. The weak reaction from the EU and US to the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, and now the military takeover of the disputed region, have encouraged the Azerbaijani government. EU member states were not even able to agree on a common statement condemning Baku’s military aggression with hundreds of victims because Hungary refused to support it.

According to international law, Azerbaijan has the right to regain control of its territory. But systematically starving the people of Nagorno-Karabakh over months, killing civilians, bombing civil infrastructure, and driving people out by threat and force contravenes international law and human rights. Rather than liberal peacemaking, this authoritarian “conflict settlement” by force has become the successful model for the time being. It is not the EU and the US who are defining the rules of the game with negotiated compromise, mediation, and trust-building through people-to-people contacts, but Baku with military power and the support of Russia and Turkey.

Russia as a Norm-Setter

Despite public debate about Russia losing influence in the South Caucasus due to its military overstretch in Ukraine, the opposite is true. Russia is the successful norm-setter in this conflict with use of force, power of strength, and zero-sum logic. Moscow is making deals with Azerbaijan at the cost of the Karabakh Armenians and the sovereignty of the Armenian state. Yes, Armenian elites missed their chance for a peace agreement under better conditions years ago when Armenia still controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions. But the West has failed to react adequately to Azerbaijan’s 2020 war and did not deter Baku from further aggression. Now, once again, its subdued reaction to this one-day war and failure to deter more military violence could encourage Baku to take the “Zangezur corridor” to Nakhichevan or the entire Syunik region. The lack of action and clear messaging by the West was a precondition for Putin’s war against Ukraine. A repeat of this mistake is an invitation for President Aliyev, with the support of Turkish President Erdogan, to further undermine the territorial integrity of the Armenian state and take revenge on Armenia for the first Nagorno-Karabakh war.

The West must be unequivocal: Any aggression against Armenia will come with high costs and a tough response. This should be clearly communicated to President Aliyev with both offers of support and the threat of sanctions. If Azerbaijan agrees on a sustainable peace and border agreement with Armenia, the EU could offer more investment in transit corridors and in rebuilding the liberated territories. If there is more aggression, the EU should sanction the purchase of Azerbaijani gas, which comprises around 3 percent of EU gas imports. The reliance on Azerbaijani gas is overrated and seems to be rather an excuse for non-action than reality. Furthermore, it should sanction those stakeholders who are responsible for violence. This could be via personal sanctions like freezing assets and bank accounts, or travel bans up to the highest level of the Azerbaijani state – closely coordinated with the United States. The EU should make a robust offer of sending observers or a peacekeeping mission to ensure the security of the Armenian state. The recent decision to increase personnel for the EU Monitoring Mission in Armenia is a positive step, but not sufficient.

In the framework of the next EPC summit in Granada on October 5, Germany and France should better coordinate their approach and increase their engagement to deescalate, resolve the conflict, and agree on possible sanctions. This should be followed by greater ownership and leadership in the conflict by a coalition of EU member states. If the EU fails to set liberal norms for peacemaking in post-Soviet conflict zones, meditated by impartial multilateral actors, it will not only fail as an actor in its own neighborhood but also beyond.

Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine should be a wake-up call for the EU to become a security and peace actor in its different neighborhoods and build a robust toolbox with negotiation platforms, sanction regimes, peacekeeping, and monitoring missions. The second Nagorno-Karabakh war and the latest Azerbaijani military action to take control of the disputed region sets a dangerous precedent. This will lead to new rules of the game and a new security order with various actors and interests in the South Caucasus region. The European Union and United States must do far more than stand on the sidelines watching with concern.

Bibliographic data

Meister, Stefan. “Nagorno Karabakh: The Rise of Authoritarian “Conflict Resolution” .” October 2023.

This DGAP Memo was published on October 2, 2023.