Europe’s frozen conflicts: freezing the violence, unfreezing the negotiations


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

In his memoir of the First World War, The World Crisis, Winston Churchill describes a memorable scene in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street on 28 June 1914. The British Ministers are once again tediously grappling with the intractable Irish question (“the dreary spires of Fermanagh and Tyrone”) when an aide delivers a note to inform them that an Austrian Archduke has been assassinated in Sarajevo. This was of course the event that led to the outbreak one month later of the First World War. Churchill’s observation was that a government grappling with one crisis could easily take its eye off the ball when another crisis of massively greater magnitude was about to erupt.

This is potentially true once more today as Armenia and Azerbaijan are on the brink of all-out war over the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.  This is one of the four long-standing ‘frozen conflicts’ on the periphery of Europe, the others being in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, the Donbas in Ukraine and Transnistria in Moldova. Whoever coined the term ‘frozen conflict’ deserves a reprimand as these conflicts have been extremely violent in the past with 30,000 killed in Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s and 13,000 since 2014 in the Donbas. It has been the peace talks that have been frozen rather than the conflicts themselves.

Even where the front lines have been quiet, as in Georgia, Russia has been progressively trying to grab more territory by stealth (known as ‘borderisation’) which causes constant friction with Tbilisi. This said, these conflicts have ebbed and flowed with long periods of stalemate and fragile ceasefires. When fighting has restarted it has tended to be brief as neither side has really wanted to escalate to all-out war and the major powers have quickly intervened to tamp down the violence. This pattern has gone on for decades in Nagorno-Karabakh with the last significant ceasefire violation occurring in 2016. So it has been easy for the EU and its NATO partners to focus on more immediate flash points such as Libya, Syria and the dispute between Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

Yet the latest upsurge in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan reminds us that the past is no guide to the future. The artillery and drone strikes have gone on for over a week already. The death toll is already in the hundreds and the fighting has extended well beyond Nagorno-Karabakh and the other Armenian occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Both sides seem to be mobilising for a protracted conflict as Azerbaijan says it will accept nothing less than the recovery of its occupied territories. This means politically that President Aliyev has to achieve something more than a return to the status quo ante.

So as the conflict drags on compromise becomes more difficult. There is a risk that outside powers will enter the fray as Russia has a military alliance with Armenia, and Turkey has long backed Azerbaijan, not only diplomatically but also with sophisticated military equipment such as armed drones. Already France and Russia have accused Turkey of sending Syrian militias to Azerbaijan as it has done previously to Libya.

So are the EU and NATO member states powerless when it comes to the frozen conflicts turning hot?

The record of the Western powers in dealing with these ‘frozen conflicts’ is not entirely one of failure. They have not accepted the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea nor recognised the Russian sponsored wannabe statelets of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the ‘Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics’.  They have also laboured long and hard in various Minsk Groups, Normandy formats and Trilateral frameworks to come up with ceasefire agreements and peace plans, and to bring from time to time the parties concerned to the negotiating table. Sanctions have also been imposed on Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea and are soon to enter their seventh year.

Yet these efforts, as in the Middle East, have been more about process and keeping the conflicts under control rather than solving them. Over the years they have given the local leaders an international platform for grandstanding and blame gaming rather than serious negotiations.  Moreover, those countries occupying somebody else’s territory have attempted to portray themselves as the victim and aggrieved party while hoping that the international community in the name of peace and quiet will eventually force Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova to make concessions and accept territorial adjustments.

Yet paralysis is not without its costs.  As time goes by, the occupied countries have to cope with thousands of displaced people unable to return home. They have to remain on a permanent war footing and the high levels of military spending and arms purchases come at the expense of social development, health and education. Azerbaijan has given Israel alone over $5bn in recent times for drones and other military equipment. In the case of Georgia and Ukraine, loss of control over sizeable national territories (25% in the case of Georgia and 10% in the case of Ukraine) makes it harder to achieve NATO membership and gives Russia (which controls the separatists) significant leverage over their internal affairs. Also the local leaders in the occupied territories become increasingly involved in the national politics of their military patrons.

A number of Armenian MPs and even recent Presidents and Prime Ministers have come from Nagorno-Karabakh and insist vociferously on no compromise.  As the years go by and with no solution in sight, frustration inevitably builds and leaders come to believe that the military option, no matter how reckless, is better than an interminable status quo. We saw this with President Saakashvili in Georgia in 2008 and now with President Aliyev. The perception (however true or false) that they can rely on the diplomatic and even military support of a major power (such as Russia, the US, Turkey or France) has also been a decisive factor in pushing these leaders to take risks and engage in hostilities.

So are the EU and NATO member states powerless when it comes to the frozen conflicts turning hot? No, and for the following reasons.

We need to get back to diplomacy and make the parties pay a higher price for their obstructionism

First, new and dangerous eruptions of violence do not come out of nowhere. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire violations although minor, were becoming more frequent. The Armenian President, Pashinyan, who had earlier come across as a peacemaker, changed recently to a more hard line discourse. Azerbaijan has been accumulating more arms and technology and Turkey, which in the past had supported Baku politically but restrained it in practice, was becoming more belligerent. These warning signs should have been picked up by Western capitals and the dormant Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the US, re-activated before the fighting started, not afterwards.

Second, given the tensions, the major Western powers should have been active in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Vienna to send more OSCE observers to the Line of Control in Azerbaijan and to relocate them to key strategic vantage points. These observers could report on military build ups such as heavy weapons like artillery or the use of drones and the redeployment of troops forward. They could also report on who fired first, as both sides have predictably accused the other of being the aggressor, and monitor deliberate strikes against civilians and urban communities. Monitors can gather evidence for eventual investigations, sanctions and war crimes proceedings.

Third, where tensions along borders or lines of control are growing it is important to work on de-escalation strategies. These can involve reciprocal withdrawals of military units and heavy weapons from close proximity. These disengagements have been tried in the Donbas and have helped to prevent incidents and provide for more transparency. The measures can include bans on drone flights or aerial surveillance in certain areas and limits on the prepositioning of weapons such as multiple launch rocket systems and artillery shells in forward positions. This forces the parties to bring in military supplies from elsewhere and provides a trip wire and early warning of possible clashes.

Equally important is to monitor arms sales and to have a consensus among major suppliers on restricting arms deliveries to obvious belligerents particularly of the most offensive technologies. Canada has announced a ban on drone imaging technology, but this has happened only after fighting has broken out.

Fourth, we need to get back to diplomacy and make the parties pay a higher price for their obstructionism. After the 2008 conflict in Georgia, President Saakashvili announced to the European Parliament in Strasbourg that Georgia would renounce the use of force to recover Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This was a bold step and it needs to be emulated by all the other parties to these conflicts. Sanctions should be applied to those who refuse to do so. Yet the quid pro quo for the renunciation of the use of force is that the diplomatic track has to move forward – and to be seen to move forward.

We cannot afford a repeat of the Russia-Ukraine dialogue over the Donbas where each side waits for the other to move first

Here the re-engagement of the United States in European crisis management is key. It adds heft to the influence of the EU, particularly when it comes to being heard in Moscow and Ankara. So it is encouraging that Trump has been on the phone to Putin and Erdoğan, that the US is working with France to revive the Minsk Group, and the US has sent a high level State Department official, Philip Reeker, to Ankara. Russia is often part of the problem in these conflicts as it tends to undermine solutions in order to retain its leverage over the opposing sides. In the past it has supplied arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yet now it seems genuinely perturbed by the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh and sincere in wanting an immediate ceasefire. It has made far fewer noises about intervening than it has done regarding Belarus and Ukraine. So this may be a rare opportunity to work constructively with Russia.

Finally the international community cannot be content with achieving just another, temporary ceasefire. The parties have to be dragged back to the negotiating table, with clear incentives and sanctions in the event that they cooperate or obstruct. This time round peace plans need to be crystal clear regarding concrete steps and timelines and by whom. We cannot afford a repeat of the Russia-Ukraine dialogue over the Donbas where each side waits for the other to move first, and expects full compliance with its conditions before it will make any move of its own.

Churchill knew full well that the outbreak of the First World War was the responsibility of statesmen who realised too late the severity of rapidly unfolding events;  and who swung into action when they had already squandered their best crisis management options. It is not a mistake that their 21st century counterparts should be making today in dealing with the ‘frozen conflicts’.

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