Case study Nagorno-Karabakh: What happens when international cooperation fails?

A few weeks ago, we discussed the limitations of the international community when it comes to intra-state conflicts. Today, we focus on how international organizations can cooperate to prevent inter-state conflicts, what happens when cooperation fails and how future failures can be prevented: The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict serves as an ideal case study to examine these three elements. 

In 1988 amidst the crumbling Soviet Union, a war erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Six years and approximately 30’000 deaths later, a Russia-brokered ceasefire ended the immediate belligerence. Yet, due to the obvious fragility of the truce, further international cooperation would be necessary to attain peace and prevent future wars. The second Nagorno-Karabakh war is proof that this international cooperation failed. 

Failed attempts at international cooperation

While the 1994 ceasefire ended the immediate fighting, the conflict was frozen but far from over. The problem with frozen conflicts is, that time alone does not solve them, cooperation does. With diplomatic relations and friendly advances, the two countries could have ended the conflict once and for all– but they didn’t. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan took the first step towards burying the hatchet. 

The international community made some efforts towards resolving the conflict. The most prominent example is the Minsk Group, an OSCE institution founded in 1992 with the purpose of resolving tensions between the two countries. Despite several rounds of negotiation and the creation of the Madrid Principles, the group faced heavy criticism for its apparent failure of mediation. [1]

Conflict resolution attempts were also made by the United Nations. The security council passed a total of four resolutions (822, 853, 874, 884) that condemned the violations of the 1994 ceasefire, called for a return to the negotiating table, and prompted Armenia to withdraw from Azeri territory. All attempts failed. The ceasefire was a missed opportunity to resolve the conflict diplomatically. 

So, what must change to bring about fruitful international cooperation when the next opportunity arises?

Why the chances of successful international cooperation are slim

According to political scientists Axelrod and Keohane, there are three main aspects that facilitate/hinder international cooperation – the mutuality of interest, the so-called shadow of the future and the number of actors.[2] In the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh, we find obstacles in all three categories.

The object of interest was the territory between the two countries including the self-proclaimed independent Nagorno-Karabakh region. Under international law, this territory is part of Azerbaijan, yet Armenian forces have occupied the area since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. Since both belligerents want all of the disputed land, the interests are completely diverging. There is very little room for compromise due to the cultural and historic significance of the territory and neither party is willing to divide the land because that would legitimize the opponents claim to the area.

When it comes to war, the shadow of the future does often not seem so dark. Why cooperate and compromise if you can just achieve your goals with war? The mistrust that dominates the international field is especially present in this context. In war, the first mover advantage benefits the aggressor and thus increases the risk of escalation. It is only after homes have been destroyed and lives have been lost that the actual cost of war is felt. 

Even though the conflict started as a local dispute, there are now many actors involved. Turkey has a strong allegiance to Azerbaijan, Russia has a military base in Armenia, both countries are part of the UN and the OSCE. This complicated net of relations increases the stakes and turns the conflict into a regional powder keg. If even one actor breaches an agreement, decisive retaliation may result in complete escalation. Joint efforts by international organizations such as the UN or the OSCE were made difficult because both belligerent countries are member states and would thus oppose decisive action that went against their interests.

Where there is a will, there is a way.

It would be wrong to abandon hope for international cooperation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, failed attempts from the last two decades have shown that it is no easy task. While the international community can try to facilitate cooperation between the two belligerents, the most basic requirement for success is the will for diplomacy in both countries. As long as either party is unwilling to compromise, it is only a question of time until the third Nagorno-Karabakh war breaks out.


[1] Hess Sargsyan, Anna. “Nagorno-Karabahk: Obstacles to a Negotiated Settlement.” CSS Analyses in Security Policy 131 (2013).

[2] Axelrod, Robert, and Robert O. Keohane. “Achieving cooperation under anarchy: Strategies and institutions.” World Politics: A Quarterly Journal of International Relations (1985): 226-254.

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