Quest for Stability in the Karabakh Conflict
No. 1 2012 January/March
Sergey Minasyan

PhD in Political Science and is Deputy Director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan.

Between Conventional Deterrence and Political Containment

Political science looks pretty much like re-invention of the bike. More often than not the analysis of topical problems of today draws on theoretical concepts and approaches from a different historical period and a different political reality. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is no exception. With certain allowances it is possible to project onto it theories generated back in the era of the bi-polar standoff of two nuclear superpowers for the sake of preserving strategic stability and global peace. This article attempts to apply the set of tools of military-strategic concepts to a local ethno-political conflict that has been actively involving influential external actors.


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev-mediated June 24, 2011 meeting of his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts in Kazan ended in utter failure. Despite active preparations by OSCE Minsk Group mediators, Baku dismissed the Russian president’s proposals. The Kazan meeting showed quite clearly once again that achieving a compromise settlement is still a daunting task. The parties still profess antipodal approaches. Maximum of amendments that either conflicting party is prepared to agree to by no means meets even the most moderate expectations of the political elites and/or the public of the rival party.

External factors do not work, either. The Madrid principles of settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, proposed by international mediators within the OSCE Minsk Group, fail to satisfy the Armenian and the Azerbaijani parties alike. Each argues that in case of consent to accept them it will have to make unjustified concessions which the public at large would never recognize. One should admit, though, that Armenia has had fewer objections to the Madrid principles than Azerbaijan, because they in fact imply international legitimization of the independent status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the ground corridor that connects it with Armenia. However, the main party to the conflict – the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh – has been excluded from the format of negotiations. Baku refuses to have contacts with it, preferring bilateral negotiations with Armenia, which by no means contributes to the success of the negotiations.

The international community is not happy about the lack of progress, but the very instance of negotiations is a positive factor, for it lends meaning to the years-long existence of the Minsk Group and helps maintain fragile truce. At the same time, the mediators have developed the belief that in a situation where the conflicting parties are unprepared for mutual compromise any attempts to artificially accelerate the negotiating process with pressure from outside will fail to settle the conflict. Whipping up the adoption of a solution from outside would merely alter the format of the standoff and the existing balance of power (most probably making the situation still more volatile and explosive), and not yield final settlement.

Moreover, in a situation like this coordinating any list of details that are of “secondary importance” for eliminating the effects of the conflict (territories, security guarantees, humanitarian issues) would be devoid of practical meaning in the absence of an accord over the main problem and the root cause of the conflict – the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh, that is, without a clear answer to the question who it shall belong to – Azerbaijan, Armenia or the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. Given the zero level of trust there are no points of common ground on that issue, and none are likely to be achieved in the foreseeable future.

The situation is reminiscent of other similar ethno-political hotbeds of tension, the more so since by many parameters the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not something exceptional. It would be fair to ask: What about the involvement of the world community? After all, it was successful in settling the Balkan conflicts (by satisfying at least one of the conflicting parties) and in stabilizing the situation in South Sudan and East Timor.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a special case in that the international community and the leading mediator countries last made an attempt to address it “in earnest” 11 years ago, at Key West in 2001. And there is no marked difference between that meeting in the United States and the multiple initiatives of Russian President Medvedev (the latest in Kazan). This may be because the external actors do not consider the conflict to be as dangerous as other trouble spots around the world. Unlike the Balkans, Nagorno-Karabakh is not at the heart of the European continent, and, in contrast to South Sudan, it has not acquired the scale of a humanitarian disaster.

Whatever the case, the international community has the resources and readiness to support the armistice in Nagorno-Karabakh, but it has no wish to make any dramatic changes, let alone force the parties into a settlement, and it will have none in the near future. In any case, the past decade has seen nothing but repeated statements by the leaders of the mediator countries and standard resolutions rubber-stamped at various international negotiating sites. It looks like the world community is not very eager to get involved in settlement efforts, for these would require major political resources with very slim chances of success. Apparently, it has preferred to leave things as they are and maintain the status quo. If one tries to cite examples of effective international involvement in settling similar persisting ethno-political conflicts, one is more likely to recall episodes of the endless Arab-Israeli settlement saga, and not the more or less successful “Kosovo precedent.”


‘Status quo’ is one of the key and most common terms experts and policy-makers employ in assessing the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is more than natural that they evaluate the status quo exclusively in line with their political likes and dislikes. However, the main characteristic of the status quo, regardless of its politicized estimates, is that in the foreseeable future it will be simply inevitable and will have no alternative. This is so because it merely reflects the complex internal and external military, political, economic and other sort of balance. Neither the international community nor the parties to the conflict with all their unwillingness to compromise (and inability to essentially change the balance of power) have anything better to offer.

It looks as if, regardless of the wish of the external actors, the present situation over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict suits them well enough. The past two decades point to the viability of the status quo, which is quite important. To a large extent it is acceptable for Yerevan and Stepanakert, at least because Nagorno-Karabakh itself has long been under Armenian control. Only Azerbaijan, the loser in the war of the 1990s, stays determined to return Nagorno-Karabakh by any means; it is far from reconciling itself with the two decades-old political reality and seeks to change it.

For this, Baku now has only one option at its disposal – to threaten Armenia with a resumption of the fighting, step up militarization and a regional arms race, publicly demonstrate constant growth of its military spending based on revenues from the sale of energy, and initiate repeated crossfire on the front line. Many experts argue that Azerbaijan’s bellicose rhetoric is nothing but a big bluff, designed to force the two Armenian parties into unilateral concessions, while others do not rule out a new war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani leaders use every opportunity to mention the multi-billion-dollar military budget and large-scale procurement of new weapons and military equipment, threatening to resume hostilities virtually in no time. However, Baku has been unable to implement these threats for almost a decade. This indicates either the continuing military-technical balance, or the presence of serious foreign policy constraints. Most likely, there are both: a complex combination of military and political factors does not allow President Ilham Aliyev to dare launch another military operation.

In view of the impossibility to reach a compromise in the medium term, and the persisting threat of a new military escalation, preserving stability in the region remains one of the most important tasks of the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. The very ideas of the status quo and of the preservation of stability become synonymous and determine the prospects of further developments around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Strategic stability was a key objective of the U.S. and Soviet leaders throughout the half-century-long tough confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers, which actually prevented a suicidal war between them. The superpowers practiced a policy of mutual deterrence in its two complementary forms – political containment and military deterrence. Here we should get back to what this article began with, that is, reference to some theories of the Cold War period.


According to the military and strategic theories of that time, confirmed by the years-long experience of maintaining international and regional security, the term “deterrence” meant the prevention of undesirable military and political action by one side against the other (usually inferior in strength) with a threat of causing unacceptable damage to it. Deterrence involves a combination of military, political, economic, diplomatic, psychological and other measures to make a potential aggressor believe that its aims are unachievable by military means. In political science this idea is expressed by two words – containment and deterrence, which have different political and military-strategic connotations. In the Soviet strategic planning and research works this distinction was not expressed clearly enough for a number of specific reasons, which created some sort of confusion in Russian terminology.

The term deterrence, which became widely used in the early 1960s and entered the strategic planning vocabulary under U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, means keeping the enemy at bay by means of intimidation, imminent retaliation and risk of irreparable harm. During the Cold War and bipolar confrontation it was a reference to the deterrence potential of nuclear weapons. In the case we are dealing with today, deterrence is meant to be achieved with non-nuclear (conventional) weapons. In the latest military theoretical works this kind of deterrence is called “non-nuclear” or “conventional.” As military experts say, non-nuclear deterrence became possible and effective just recently. Along with the increased accuracy and strike force of conventional weapons the technological development of many nations has reached a level where the destruction of individual elements of infrastructure, communications and control systems can lead to catastrophic consequences, capable of throwing the state many years back in its development.

The term containment (believed to be coined by the classic of U.S. political science and diplomacy, George Kennan) was used to describe political and economic counteraction to the enemy’s foreign policy, such as containing the Soviet Union and counteracting the spread of the Communist ideology. With respect to the subject matter of this article this concept implies a set of political and diplomatic measures aimed at preserving stability and preventing the resumption of hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone that might involve third countries and the great powers. It is the restraining position of external actors that allows for regarding them as political containment factors.

Any historical or theoretical analogies in political science are but relative, so one should not look for a mirror match with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Really important is the conceptual similarity, for it promotes a better understanding of the modern regional processes with reliance on the vast experience of maintaining stability.



Just as in American and Soviet strategic nuclear deterrence plans, the main targets of conventional deterrence are not so much the armed forces and military facilities of the enemy, as the infrastructures and industrial enterprises, as well as the military and political leadership. After all, deterrence is primarily a political factor, and not a military-technical one. The main idea of “deterrence” through “containment” is preventing the enemy from implementing a political act (in full accordance with the textbook definition by Clausewitz) – the beginning of combat operations.

As a result of combat operations in the 1990s, Nagorno-Karabakh forces approached convenient geographical boundaries with commanding heights, which are much easier to defend (especially after they have been equipped with a multi-layered line of fortifications), so the Armenian parties have no rational reason to initiate combat actions. Since the threats of resuming hostilities are heard exclusively from Baku, the policy of deterrence is the choice of the Armenian sides, which raise the “price of war” in order to prevent the beginning of new hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh. Obviously, the priority targets of the Armenian deterrence in Azerbaijan’s case are primarily energy production and processing facilities, routes of their transportation and the related infrastructure.

In analyzing the military capabilities of the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict one should consider, above all, the types of weapons and military equipment which may be of practical importance as the tools of deterrence, i.e. those capable of delivering effective strikes against sensitive targets deep inside the enemy’s territory (the destruction or serious damage of these targets may be critical to the enemy and keep it from starting a war). Given the weakness of the air forces of the conflicting parties and the relative effectiveness of their air defenses, tactical and operational-tactical missile systems, as well as large-caliber multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) should be seen as “remote weapons of deterrence” in the first place.

Although Azerbaijan has an arsenal of long-range rockets, it is more vulnerable from the military-technical point of view to a retaliatory strike against its key energy and industrial facilities. The Armenian forces are capable of inflicting significant damage to industrial, infrastructural and communication facilities deep inside Azerbaijan’s territory, which in the long term would have a negative impact on its economic and political development. The Armenian army has at its disposal large-caliber WM-80 MLRS (eight 273-mm WM-80 MLRS, made in China, with a maximum engagement range, depending on the type of rocket, of 80 km to 120 km, were purchased by Armenia in the late 1990s-early 2000s; subsequently Armenia reportedly purchased upgraded missiles with an extended range), as well as 9K72 Elbrus operational-tactical missile systems, or Scud-B according to NATO classification. The latter include eight 9P117M launchers and at least 32 R-17 missiles, handed over to Armenia from the 176th missile brigade of the 7th Guards Army under an agreement on the division of Soviet military equipment in the mid-1990s (the R-17 missiles have a range of up to 300 km and a circular probable error of 0.6 km when fired at long ranges). In military-political terms, Azerbaijan’s retaliatory strike against targets deep inside the Armenian territory is very unlikely in view of the probability of involvement of Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization in maintaining Armenia’s security (see details below).

In the spring of 2011, the Armenian army reportedly acquired new 300-mm Smerch (Tornado) MRLS. This has greatly increased Armenia’s deterrence capability, as for a long time Azerbaijan’s main argument in backing up its threats to resume military operations was the possession of precisely this type of MLRS (in 2004-2005 Azerbaijan purchased from Ukraine twelve 9A52 Smerch launch vehicles carrying rockets with a range, depending on their type, of 70 km to 90 km), as well as some Tochka-U tactical missiles with a range of up to 120 km. The availability of these systems, as Baku had hoped, would enable it to conduct “remote” combat operations, without attacking the multi-layered fortifications of the Nagorno-Karabakh forces and without sustaining heavy losses. But now that the Armenian forces are armed with Smerch MLRS and may soon acquire new long-range missile systems, Azerbaijan will have no such advantage.

Consequently, the Azerbaijani military and political leadership is faced with a stark choice. Azerbaijan may opt to launch full-scale attacks, which will result in the use of heavy artillery, MLRS and tactical and operational-tactical missiles by all the conflicting parties. This would definitely entail enormous casualties and material losses, ruin the entire energy and communications infrastructure of Azerbaijan without any guarantees of a quick victory or a blitzkrieg. (Combat actions in that case will last only days, and not even weeks as the international community will not let it last longer.)

Azerbaijan’s another option may be to refrain from using large-caliber MLRS and tactical missiles in the hope that Armenia will do the same in the event of renewed fighting, but that looks improbable. And even if one assumes such a possibility, Azerbaijan will have to confine itself to frontal attacks against the fortification lines which have been strengthened for the past two decades with a heavy emphasis on the commanding heights, mainly controlled by Nagorno-Karabakh forces. In that case the fortification lines per se appear a no less effective and efficient deterrent against Azerbaijan: attempting to break these fortifications in the Battle-of-Stalingrad style would entail heavy losses to the Azerbaijani army (numbering not even thousands, but tens of thousands of lives). One must also take into account that conventional deterrence includes not only the ability to cause unacceptable damage to the likely enemy; an important role is played by a factor which the military-strategic science calls “deterrence by denial,” i.e. the deterrent effect is achieved because the likely initiator of combat operations is aware that a quick and decisive victory will be unachievable.

It is obvious that from the military point of view it is very difficult for Azerbaijan to choose between these two options. The price of war will be too high, and its prospects, uncertain. Therefore, it appears that the Azerbaijani military and political leadership has only one possibility, which it is trying to use wisely – to accelerate the regional arms race, hoping to bleed Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh white economically and politically.

However, unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia is able to maintain an asymmetric parity in the arms race at the expense of free and discount supplies of armaments by its military and political ally – Russia, as well as the benefits of its CSTO membership. The equipment that Azerbaijan has to buy Armenia often gets almost for free, thus increasing its military-technical deterrence capability.

So, the asymmetric arms race in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone raises the threshold and reduces the likelihood of an outbreak of hostilities. Of course, this is no guarantee against the resumption of war, but it creates serious constraints. As long as one party to the conflict is not satisfied with its outcome, the threat of another war and attempts at revenge will be still there. Yet the stability in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone will be maintained by a new emerging balance – it can be called a “balance of threat” (a term proposed by Stephen Walt) – which makes the potential enemies preserve the fragile and unstable peace as long as possible.


As we have already said above, the involvement of the international community in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or pressures for the sake of achieving that goal are not sufficient to produce a fundamental settlement. At the same time, the low probability of an “external settlement” remains only in the current situation of fragile truce. In the event of renewed hostilities in the conflict zone it is quite possible that the international community will find the situation dangerous for regional security or capable of causing grave humanitarian consequences and will respond with the “classical” compulsion to peace, notwithstanding all the technical and institutional constraints. Actions taken by the U.S.-led international coalition in Kuwait in 1991 or by NATO in 1999 in Kosovo, as well as Russia’s unilateral involvement in the fighting in South Ossetia in August 2008 are the best examples.

Whatever the case, external involvement continues to contribute effectively to the ceasefire and to preventing the resumption of hostilities. Importantly, it works in various combinations: from external consensus over the unacceptability of a new war to restrictions dictated by the possibility of political or military involvement of third countries. Naturally, the most important element of political containment is the uncompromising stance of the international community, which rejects the very possibility of renewed fighting. The current negotiating format of the Minsk Group is more than just a non-typical example of close cooperation between major powers, which at the same time are in a state of actual competition in many regions of the world, specifically in the post-Soviet space. The co-chairs (the U.S., France and Russia) share the position on the non-admission of a new war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Consequently, the country that may start a new war there will be faced with a strong concerted response from the world’s leading powers and very serious consequences for itself and for its leaders.

The possibility of external actors’ direct involvement in case the conflict resumes is another element of stability and political containment. Currently Armenia is the only country in the South Caucasus that has a guarantee of security and direct military assistance from a third country (Russia) and a military-political bloc (the CSTO). Although Turkey and Azerbaijan also have an agreement on military assistance, concluded in August 2010, its provisions are vague and contain no commitment by Ankara to get directly involved in fighting on Azerbaijan’s side in the event Baku launches military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In August 2010, during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s state visit to Armenia, the countries signed additional Protocol No. 5 to the 1995 treaty on the functioning of a Russian military base in Armenia. The Protocol extends the area of responsibility of Russia’s 102nd military base to the whole territory of Armenia (instead of only the former Soviet border with Turkey and Iran under the previous version of the treaty), as well as extends the period of its presence from 25 to 49 years. (The countdown began in 1997, that is, after the 1995 treaty was ratified and entered into force. Thereby the presence of Russian troops in Armenia has been extended till 2046.) Furthermore, in accordance with the Protocol, Russia pledges to provide modern and compatible weapons and military equipment for the Armenian armed forces.

In Armenia, the document is interpreted as a guarantee of security and military assistance from Russia in case of war with Azerbaijan. Formally, Moscow’s bilateral and multilateral obligations (within the Collective Security Treaty Organization) in the sphere of security and mutual defense apply only to the internationally recognized borders of the Republic of Armenia, but not to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, it is likely that in the context of the region’s extreme militarization and the radicalism of the conflicting parties’ positions, combat operations would not be confined to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, but may spread along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Clearly, Russia does not want to be involved in hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh, because if the conflict flares up again, Moscow will find itself in a very precarious position. Direct military assistance to Armenia from Russia would immediately lead to the severing of relations with Azerbaijan, including those in the energy sector. On the other hand, failure to honor bilateral and multilateral obligations to provide military assistance to Armenia would cost Russia the reputation of a reliable partner, discredit the CSTO as a military-political organization, and lead to the withdrawal of the Russian military base from Armenia and to the loss of the sole military and political ally in the South Caucasus. If Moscow denies military assistance, this would jeopardize the future of Armenian-Russian strategic cooperation. Yerevan would have no incentives to host the Russian military base in its territory. Should it lose Armenia, Moscow will lose all political influence and the leverage over Azerbaijan and the entire South Caucasus.

So it is not surprising that during a press conference in May 2011, the then head of the Chief Operations Directorate of the Russian General Staff, Lieutenant-General Andrei Tretyak said that in the event of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh Russia would fully meet its obligations to Armenia in the sphere of mutual defense. In any case, Russia is interested in maintaining the military balance and the non-resumption of hostilities more than any other external actor, because it thereby maintains its military and political influence in the region, while providing assistance to Armenia, keeping the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict frozen and maintaining tight bonds with Azerbaijan.

At the same time one should not forget that, despite the fairly tight Armenian-Russian relations, Azerbaijan (in contrast to Georgia, for example) has never been seen as a pro-Western state which deserves unequivocal political and other support from the U.S. and European countries. On the contrary, Baku has all along been under the fire of criticism from Western organizations and governments in connection with the human rights situation and problems with democratic development. Together with the factor of influential lobbying organizations of the Armenian diaspora in the United States and Europe this helps Yerevan to effectively balance between military support from Russia and the CSTO, on the one hand, and deeper cooperation in security and defense matters with the United States and NATO, on the other. This increases the level of political containment that helps avoid a new war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

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The deterrence theory has been implemented effectively in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for nearly two decades. Although there have been repeated threats that war may resume, only occasional shots by snipers and raids by reconnaissance and sabotage groups armed with high-caliber small arms and rocket-propelled grenades have occurred along the line of engagement established in May 1994. Fortunately, both parties have so far refrained from artillery bombardments or operations by large units of the Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijani armed forces. However, like any other military-strategic concept, deterrence is not a mechanism of achieving a final settlement of ethno-political conflicts. Full-fledged settlement will be possible only on the basis of a compromise approach shared by all the parties, and not through mutual threats of war or fear of retaliation.

The main and only goal of conventional deterrence, used by the Armenian parties, and political containment, owed largely to the positions of the international community and influential external actors, is to maintain stability and fragile peace in the zone of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Apparently, the current status quo over Nagorno-Karabakh will last long enough. However, what seems impossible today can become a reality in the medium term, provided two essential conditions are met: 1) non-resumption of hostilities, and 2) preservation of the current format of negotiations with an active support from and pressure by the international community. This is the sole way of achieving a long-term compromise, which would be possible after the conflict is de-actualized in the public mind and more favorable external conditions emerge.