Conventional Arms Control Measures: Could They Mitigate Tensions Around Nagorno-Karabakh?



Can conventional arms control (CAC) measures between Armenia and Azerbaijan be effective prior to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? Or is a political settlement a prerequisite for the successful implementation of such measures? Or perhaps, this is a false choice and we can think of the CAC measures, as part of broader confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs), which could be advanced together with the progress in the peace talks in a parallel and mutually reinforcing manner?

Today the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the only conflict in the region, which has a real risk of escalating into an all-out war in the foreseeable future. Compared to Georgia-Russia standoff over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the conflict in Transnistria, the situation is least predictable in Nagorno-Karabakh today. It has characteristics of “hot conflict”, which is absent from other regional conflicts. These characteristics include a sniper warfare, which is the cause of most of the casualties; a latent but dangerous “trench war”, whereby both Armenian and Azerbaijani troops gradually move their trenches closer to each other; and frequent “tit-for-tat” attacks and incursions into each other’s positions.

The challenge the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict poses to the regional security is arguably of even greater extent than the one posed by the August 2008 war in Georgia. The biggest risk, as Crisis Group warned in 2011, is that in case of a new war, regional powers, Russia and NATO member Turkey in particular, would be pressured to become directly involved contrary to their larger foreign policy interests.[1]

Major CAC instruments and Armenian and Azerbaijani adherence to them

The presence of unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has resulted in an on-going arms race in the region and has yielded most of the CSBMs, including CAC measures, ineffective.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are parties to major CAC agreements in Europe – the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Vienna Document on confidence and security-building measures. They have not acceded, however, to the Open Skies Treaty, the Mine Ban (Ottawa) Treaty, Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and Convention on Cluster Munitions citing the existence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have failed to comply with the CFE Treaty obligations ever since their accession to this treaty in early 1990s. They do provide data on equipment and host on-site inspections, as required by the Treaty; however, because of the conflict they exceed their quotas, do not provide complete equipment declarations and timely notification of new equipment acquisition, as required by the Treaty.

Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of starting an arms race. In a recent interview, Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan said Azerbaijan buys “terrifying quantities” of weapons exceeding its CFE quotas. Armenia considers Azerbaijan’s arms acquisitions as a sign of its preparation for a new war.

Azerbaijan similarly accuses Armenia of storing its excess treaty-limited weaponry in the occupied territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, out of reach of the CFE inspections. Azerbaijan has also provided evidence of Armenia moving accounted for and registered military equipment from its territory to the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, thus accusing it of continuing military build-up in its occupied territories. [2]

Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan accepts that it is exceeding its quota on some of the treaty-limited weaponry, but maintains that it cannot carry out some Treaty obligations so long as the conflict with Armenia is unresolved and its territory remains occupied.[3]

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan do not report fully on the entry into force of various treaty-limited equipment. The regular Russian arms transfers to Armenia have not been officially reported in line with CFE procedures either. Armenia has not declared any new acquisitions to the UN Register since 2004, and Azerbaijan’s last submission was in 2009. Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s respective submissions show quite clearly how much both of them under-report their military acquisitions. The data on Armenia also completely omits Russian arms transfers.

Graph (below): Armenian and Azerbaijani reported arms imports between 1992 and 2010. Comparisons between self-reporting and references in third-party reports.
Source: The UN Register of Conventional Arms




















In addition to the non-compliance by Armenia and Azerbaijan, the CFE has objective limitations in its verification mechanisms vis-à-vis these countries. Thus, Nagorno-Karabakh is beyond the reach of the CFE inspections, which gives Armenia opportunity to station as many troops and equipment as it wants out of reach of the CFE inspections and claim that these are the “Nagorno-Karabakh Army” troops and equipment. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan station troops and equipment in forward positions which for security reasons cannot be always inspected by CFE inspectors. Both nations have a number of militarised units, in addition to army, which can perform combat duties in case of war, and since technically are not considered an army, operate outside of the CFE provisions. In Azerbaijan, for example, there are seven additional militarised forces (interior troops, state border service, special units of the national security, justice, emergency situations and defence industry ministries, as well as the state protection service and national guard under the president.[1]

Armenia and Azerbaijan are parties to the Vienna Document, which means that they provide information to other signatory states on their military forces, weapons systems and plans for their deployment, invite representatives of signatory states to visit military facilities and so on. But most of the Vienna Document thresholds are designed for larger military powers, reflecting the original goal of preventing tensions between NATO and the Warsaw Pact (and later, Russia). As such, these high thresholds are unsuitable to prevent violent conflict between states with small armed forces or reduce tensions.[2]

Armenia and Azerbaijan do not accept mutual evaluation visits. The CFE and Vienna Document allow signatory states to inspect each other’s compliance with the arms ceilings and other treaty provisions through random visits to their military facilities. But upon accession to CFE in early 1990s, Armenia and Azerbaijan have reached a gentlemen’s agreement to avoid sending each other’s military to view each other’s assets.

The unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has effectively blocked Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s accession to a number of other important CAC instruments, such as Open Skies Treaty, the Mine Ban (Ottawa) Treaty, Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Armenia’s position on these treaties is that it cannot sign up to them unless Azerbaijan agrees to do so too. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, argues that it cannot accede to these instruments without settlement of the conflict with Armenia. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan view landmines planted along the frontline around Nagorno-Karabakh and on the Armenia-Azerbaijan international border, as essential to their defence and will not remove them unless peace is achieved. Azerbaijan says that while it cannot sign up to the mine ban treaty, it in practice fulfils all the obligations prescribed by the treaty, including on ban on producing, planting or exporting these mines.

International leverage on Armenia and Azerbaijan in terms of CAC measures

There are no binding UN Security Council Resolution on arms embargo against Armenia and Azerbaijan. Neither there are specific EU Regulations or Common Positions on this matter. There are, however, non-binding embargoes which have been adhered by the US and the EU.

In February 1992, the OSCE requested that all OSCE participating states should introduce an embargo on “all deliveries of weapons and munitions to forces engaged in combat in the Nagorno-Karabakh area.” In July 1993 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 853 condemning the seizure of Azerbaijan’s Agdam district and urged States “to refrain from the supply of any weapons and munitions which might lead to an intensification of the conflict or the continued occupation of territory”.

Although there are no mechanisms for overseeing these non-mandatory embargoes, the Western countries have generally refrained from arms exports and have named Armenia and Azerbaijan as countries and destinations that are subject to stricter export controls. The strategic goods that fall under these stricter laws include military goods, products used for torture and repression, radioactive sources and dual-use goods – commercially available goods that could be used for military purposes.[3]

Nevertheless, Armenia and Azerbaijan do receive some military training and military assistance from the US and the EU under the existing partnership frameworks, like NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. The US military assistance to Azerbaijan has been mostly confined to improving communication equipment and radar systems. The military assistance practically does not include transfer of armaments.  In 2012, the US Department of State wanted to add Azerbaijan to the list of countries eligible to buy American military equipment, specifically for border protection and “police-type” activities. But it shelved the plan in June, under the pressure from the powerful pro-Armenian lobby in the Congress.[4]

In the absence of opportunity to buy from the Western producers, Armenia and Azerbaijan have to rely on mostly Soviet and Russian-produced armaments. Russia has been the major arms provider to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan also relies extensively on Ukraine and Belarus for its arms purchases, and since recently began to develop joint production with Turkey, and even with countries as distant as South Africa.

Russia has used its arm supplies to Armenia and Azerbaijan as a powerful political leverage. Thus, in 2010 Russia signed an upgraded military pact with Armenia extending the lease of its military base there till 2044 and committing in return to supplying Armenia with more weapons. It subsequently provided Armenia with advanced “Smerch” MLRS. As a sweetener, at around the same time in 2011, Russia sold Azerbaijan S-300 anti-aircraft systems. Such manipulative dealings allow Russia to increase its influence on both Armenia and Azerbaijan. But Russia uses such manipulations to also maintain military balance between the two and thus, arguably, reduce the likelihood of hostilities, – even if, paradoxically, it comes at the cost of encouraging arms race between the sides.

What can be done?

The complexities of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict show that the CAC measures cannot be viewed in isolation from the wider political negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Armenia would be more favourable to a stricter CAC regime, if it is convinced that such a regime is going to consolidate the status quo, and thus, would cement its territorial acquisitions. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, understandably will oppose any military CBMs, including stricter CAC measures, which in its understanding would consolidate the status quo of occupation and would not guarantee a progress in the political negotiations.

This presents a chicken-and-egg dilemma, because a political agreement is impossible without some level of trust- and confidence-building, including in the military spheres, between the sides. But at the same time, applied in isolation from the wider political process, the CSBMs, including the CAC measures, may further consolidate the status quo, and thus, make the conflict even more intractable. Therefore, a careful consideration should be given to the context and timings within which the CAC measures could be feasibly and usefully applied to improve security and promote peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

There are several CAC measures that need to be kept on the agenda, although they do not seem feasible at the moment.

  1. Armenia and Azerbaijan should be urged to fully report on their arms acquisitions to the UN Register and third countries supplying these arms should similarly be urged to fully report on these shipments;
  2. CFE inspections should cover the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding occupied territories and the armed forces deployed there should be counted under the Armenian quota;
  3. Armenia and Azerbaijan should be urged to accede to the Open Skies Treaty and accept regular third-party over-flights to reduce tensions and for early warning purposes. This may be extremely useful mechanism during the post-settlement stage, as part of possible future peacekeeping operations;
  4. Armenia and Azerbaijan should sign up to the Mine Ban Treaty, Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and Convention on Cluster Munitions.

For the CAC, and other CSBMs to succeed, we need a minimum level of political agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This minimum agreement can be achieved, if Armenia and Azerbaijan agree on a set of basic principles, proposed by the Minsk Group mediators. These principles would not lead to any concrete withdrawal of troops or a change of status quo on the ground. However, it would provide a framework, or a certain “road map” for future more substantial negotiations on both political and military confidence-building measures, and would thus, lay a foundation of a future peace.


[1] The views expressed in this paper reflect the personal opinion of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation he is affiliated with. This paper was delivered at the Wilton Park Conference “Conventional arms control and the Euro-Atlantic security environment” on 12 October 2012 | WP1208

[2] See, for details, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Preventing War, Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°60, 8 February 2011

[3] Thus, for example, types of new weaponry displayed in military parades held in Nagorno-Karabakh were identical to the ones acquired by Armenia. “Letter dated 8 June 2012 from the Permanent Representative of Azerbaijan to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General”, A/66/829–S/2012/427,

[4] In its data as of January 1, 2012, Azerbaijan declared equipment totals that exceeded its overall limits by over 390 pieces of treaty-limited equipment (over 160 tanks and about 230 artillery pieces in excess of Azerbaijan’s limits).

[5] For more on that, see, Azerbaijan: Defence Sector Management and Reform, Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°50 , 29 Oct 2008

[6] For example, military activities only have to be notified starting at division size (9,000 men), observed starting at corps size (13,000 men) and are limited at corps and army size. Below that threshold the military activities can be subject to notification and observation on a voluntary basis, but this is unfeasible in case of political tensions. Hans-Joachim Schmidt, Military Confidence Building and Arms Control in Unresolved Territorial Conflicts, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, 2009, p. 18-19;


[8] Shahla Sultanova, “US defence sale ban won’t stop Azeris arming”, IWPR, 27 July 2012;

Leave a Comment

What are your thoughts on the subject?