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The Karabakh Conflict: True Causes and the Role of Mediation Essay

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Updated: Jun 17th, 2022

Introduction and Research Questions

Conflict and conflict resolution are some of the major topics discussed in international relations. Interstate quarrels and wars are not a new phenomenon as they have existed for centuries. In this case, violent and armed conflicts can be considered as among the most damaging ones due to the resulting loss of lives and destruction to properties. Nations fight over resources and territory, and there are instances when countries that used to be unified go to war over socio-cultural and political differences. The political ideology, as described by Harel et al. (2020), plays a critical role in interstate disputes. Intractable conflicts are defined as the most intense battles characterized by prolonged violence and often seem to be irresolvable by the parties involved. In such a case, there is always a need to examine ways of reducing risks and helping the warring parties find a common ground. The war under consideration in this research is the Nagorno-Karabakh quarrel.

The Karabakh dispute presents an important case study for international affairs where foreign relations policies and other theoretical elements come into play. It also presents a scenario where it is almost impossible to find the right resolutions. This research is founded on the hypothesis that until the true causes of the war are established, the two parties cannot reconcile. This research paper will explore the causes of the conflict, the efficacy of mediation, and potential approaches towards a lasting solution.

Research Questions

  1. What are the true causes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
  2. What role does mediation play in the conflict and which approaches guarantee a solution?


Qualitative Research

This research will use a qualitative methodology to answer the research questions. Qualitative study is inductive because the work of the researcher is mainly to explore insights and meanings in the situation being studied (Mohajan, 2018). It is also systematic and subjective and seeks to explain real-life experiences and to attach proper meaning to the phenomena. Therefore, qualitative research differs from quantitative study in the sense that statistical analysis of data is not necessary. The application of qualitative research approach in the Karabakh conflict is based on the nature and purpose of the present study. As explained earlier, the current research seeks to establish the true roots of the war in an attempt that may involve finding new meanings of the conflict. Such novel connotations may be used to inform new tactics and solutions to the ethnopolitical conflict. The researcher understands that in such disputes, mediation by third parties is one of the best tools and approaches to help overcome the challenge. Such efforts have been made and yet the war persists prompting the researcher to attempt a reinterpretation of the problem to find new ways to solve it.

Research Design: Case Study

The research design used in this study will be a case study. Case study designs are aimed at investigating a real-life phenomenon in great depth and within its environmental context (Ridder, 2017). A case could be a person, an organization, a group, a problem, and an event, or even an anomaly. The current research treats the Karabakh conflict as a case to be investigated in detail and its actual context. There are not many international conflicts that resemble the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and, therefore, the best way to understand such disputes is to offer an in-depth analysis of one. Scholars agree that it is typical for case studies to be deployed in areas where the sample is not large and where non-random sampling is the best strategy. However, the application of case study design in the current study is based on the fact the scholar focuses more on studying the problem rather than seeking to generalize across a large population.

Literature Review


The literature review section presented here seeks to synthesize the available data regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict focusing on the concerns which have been raised so far. In essence, disputes are significant international relations issue as they define how states interact with each other. Therefore, the literature discussed in this research paper will detail the importance of the Nagorno-Karabakh skirmish in international politics. Recent information regarding the progress of the conflict is examined, including the implications of Russia’s policies during and after the fall of USSR. Lastly, literature regarding the use of conciliation in international conflicts will be examined, including the efficacy of arbitration approaches in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Through the synthesis of the literature, this section explains why mediation attempts have failed.

Review of Literature

The Nagorno-Karabakh war has been deemed as one of the most difficult of all frozen conflicts because it interweaves the historical burden and modern reality. Other aspects include thousands of fatalities, military victories and losses, the fate of millions of refugees, and occupied territories among others. The history of the Nagorno-Karabakh battle begins in February 1988 when Armenia engaged Azerbaijan in a bloody battle. The fight is interethnic and thus characterized by demographic, ethno-political, and territorial disputes (Bekiarova & Armencheva, 2019). There have been attempts to explain the true causes of the battle, for example, Diyarbakırlıoğlu (2020) states that the Nagorno-Karabakh is a region located between Iran, Azerbaijan, and Armenia and is of strategic importance. Additionally, Russia has been known to be a key player in the conflict as it intended to increase the Armenian population in the region while diminishing other ethnicities. In other words, Russia’s interests in the region during the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) is considered to have driven Armenia and Azerbaijan into war.

The collapse of the USSR has been shown to cause dramatic changes in Eurasia in terms of state power structure within the region. The changes are also reflected in the way the rest of the world, specifically the Western states, engage with it (Owen et al., 2017). The USSR practiced a hegemonic control of the region and it resulted to a multiplicity of newly independent nations, including contested areas, some of which relocate to the EU and others to Central Asia. The relationship between the USSR and the Western nations used to be characterized by suspicion, hostility, and disconnection. Towards the dissolution, however, the engagement between the Western states and the newly formed nations changed to cooperation, investment, and democracy assistance. It can be argued that such collaboration does not always favor Russia’s interests and policies regarding the newly independent states.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be best described by using the constructivist model of international relations. The theory posits that the aspects of international relations are socially and historically constructed. Constructivism holds that the ideational structure (or the systemic culture) is a key variable in shaping the identity and consequently the behavior patterns of a state (Qin, 2016). The Nagorno-Karabakh war, therefore, can be said to be historically and socially formed in addition to being caused by human interactions in the regions. The battle, as explained by Diyarbakırlıoğlu (2020), had persisted because of Russia’s expansionist policies in the region. The oil discoveries and the industrial revolution had given the region some importance to Russia and other international players. Russian Armenians migrated to the region and attempted to make a Christian state without the Turks. The fact that the region has never been recognized as a de-facto state and its legal connection to Azerbaijan is possibly what makes the conflicts to persist. In other words, Nagorno-Karabakh has been perceived as a conflict zone and will remain such until a winner emerges.

The presence of international players in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute shows its international significance. In essence, all parties involved in such conflicts pursue self-interests and seek to achieve outcomes favoring their aims. Russia, for example, gives the region self-determination under Armenia but only after ensuring its domination by Christian Russian population (Diyarbakırlıoğlu, 2020). However, legal connection to Azerbaijan, a country dominated by Shia Muslims, sparks a war between the two factions. Additionally, Nagorno-Karabakh is a self-proclaimed republic which lacks official recognition. This status, according to Jazic and Batricecic (2015), represents a disputable issue in international politics and public law. In essence, Nagorno-Karabakh is an entity floating between fully confirmed independence and autonomy within a sovereign state. In such situations, numerous concerns arise, including territorial integrity, separatism, secession, and the right to self-determination. The complexity of these issues is compounded by the fact that different countries support different aspects of the conflict which could worsen the situation.

Karabakh conflict portrays implications for international relations because of the threats it poses to the global security architecture. According to Mammadov (2017), the Armenians dream of ‘Great Armenia’ where the Armenian ideologists have been known to carry out terror acts and genocide seeking to achieve the dream. Some of the terror acts such as 9/11 undertaken by Al-Qaeda have been devastating to the United States. Arguably, such dreadful events are the major reason that countries such as the US are keen to combat terrorism wherever it occurs. Armenian pursuing terrorist acts come under the radar of foreign governments because of fears and suspicions that the acts will hurt the countries or their interests.

Armenia is considered to be European and, as of January 12, 2002, the European Parliament noted that Armenia could enter the European Union (EU) in future. The Karabakh conflict, therefore, becomes a matter of interest to the European Union not only because of Armenia being considered European but also the fact that the country signed the EU Eastern Partnership in 2009. These failures, however, do not mean that the EU will not take an interest in the Karabakh conflict. The EU conflict management is intended to be a long-term engagement with the conflicting countries. Therefore, as long as Armenia continues to be perceived as a European country, the EU support in the Karabakh conflict can be expected.

Lastly, it should be noted that the Karabakh conflict evolved from a local war to a global crisis where external powers are actively involved. Since the Cold War era, the US and Russia have clashed in various regions where each hoped to impart their influence. In the Caucasus region, Russia has been losing its influence while the US is seeking to further reduce the Russian power in the region. According to Mortazavin and Ghiacy (2017), the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) adopts an approach that involves interfering and entering Russia’s backyard thereby exerting pressure to the Russian federation. That way, favorable outcomes of the conflict means that the region could become available for the US and NATO and could be used to strengthen the US’s stand and that of its allies like Turkey and Israel. The influence of Russia and Iran are, therefore, under constant threat. Considering these issues, it can be argued that the Karabakh conflict has been aggravated by the external influence with the foreign powers not willing to accept an outcome that does not favor their interests.

Before examining the role and efficacy of mediation in the Karabakh conflict, it is important to mention that mediation works only if the third parties are neutral. As shown by Mortazavin and Ghiacy (2017), it is hard to accept the premise that the involvement of the US, NATO, Russia, Iran, and even the EU all hope to mediate the conflict. With each of these powers seeking control, dominance, and influence in the region, it is no longer a matter of local disputes but an international tug of war that only serves to escalate the conflict. Literature regarding mediation in the Karabakh conflict will be examined to highlight what has worked and what has not. Any detail supporting the premise that many of the external powers are parties to the conflict as opposed to mediators would be examined.

The role of mediation and negotiation in conflicts cannot be trivialized because many disputes have been solved through these approaches. There are, however, some cases that can be considered the hardest to deploy mediation and negotiation strategies. According to Butler (2019), the most difficult cases are characterized by three environmental contexts namely crisis settings, civil wars, and intractable conflicts. The Karabakh conflict does possess all these three characteristics considering the military actions, terror events, and the level of violence. However, the mediators themselves can pose the greatest hurdle to the success of mediation efforts. Butler (2019) argues that the more actors involved in a conflict the harder it gets to achieve success in mediation. The Karabakh conflict, according to Mortazavin and Ghiacy (2017), involves many actors whose interests differ from those of the disputing groups. Their interference in the conflict is intended to make sure that any outcome against their interests is thwarted even if the outcome works best for the fighting parties. The mediation efforts in such a case should consider external interests as well.

Perhaps a news article on the situation can explain why mediation by foreign nations is a matter of pursuing selfish interests not intended to benefit those entangled in the dispute. An article by Breedlove (2020) stated that the US cannot afford to ignore the Karabakh war because the US interests are at stake, including energy resources and South Caucasus’ stability. While the US may have made efforts to achieve a ceasefire, each attempt fails immediately. For example, a recent ceasefire was violated within minutes as the warring parties resumed shelling each other on accusations of violating the agreements (BBC, 2020). The efficacy of mediation efforts, therefore, cannot be examined in situations where the parties mediating the conflict have selfish interests that they prioritize. The need for neutrality in mediation is a topic that should be studied in detail.

Another example of failed arbitration mediations in the Nagorno-Karabakh war is the initiatives implemented by the Minsk Group of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, henceforth the Minsk Group). The arbitration efforts by this organization commenced in 1994 and all of the mediation initiatives have since failed to achieve a permanent solution. The OCSE created interventions that were unacceptable by either of the warring parties. As such, issues have always emerged in all the recommendations. The OSCE is co-chaired by Russia, United States, and France – these countries organize summits bringing the leaders of the involved countries (Askerov, 2020). However, Russia’s involvement raises suspicions and controversies considering that Russia and Armenia are close military allies. Additionally, the Minsk group fails to consider a third actor to the conflict; that is – the independent administration of Nagorno-Karabakh. Though unrecognized as de facto, the administration claims to be one of the key players in the clash.

Going back to the arguments regarding the role of actors in the hardest conflicts, it is apparent that any mediation effort that fails to include players will fail. Butler (2019) states that the problem of incoherence or multitrack diplomacy or multiparty mediation seeks to fill several and competing functional niches. In the Karabakh conflict, the involvement of Russia, USA, and France is an indication that each of these parties will be seeking to support different functional units of the conflict. For example, it could well be argued that Russia would only support those proposals favoring Armenia while the US and France support those working best for other parties. The problem of incoherence is manifested by the fact that the different mediating parties are so focused on their interests such that they fail to acknowledge the Karabakh administration. Accordingly, any resolution reached or offered though the multiparty diplomacy fails to reflect the true needs of the disagreeing parties. Therefore, the fact that each of the proposals and ceasefires gets rejected every time should confirm that mediation through non-neutral parties does not work.


The review of literature presented in this research paper lays the foundation for qualitative research by outlining the critical issues related to the Karabakh conflict. The nature of the conflict has been re-examined by using the available information where a critical approach reveals that the conflict could be impossible to solve due to the involvement of external selfish parties. The causes of the war are not the disputed land, but the foreign influence on the region. The concept of mediation has also been discussed with the focus being the efficacy and failure of mediation efforts. The incoherence problem is the highlight of the discussion owing to the observation that parties acting as mediators are indeed pursuing selfish interests. With such ideas and controversies being raised, the current research has a solid foundation on which to examine the hypothesis that understanding the true causes of the conflict will be key to solving it. With the current efforts failing, this research can attempt to draw critical lessons and help propose new approaches that could work.


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