Sixteen months after deadly clashes erupted in Azerbaijan's autonomous breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, international mediators are saying it's time for all parties to undertake confidence-building measures to jump-start the political settlement process.
Russia led mediation to settle the four days of shelling and rocket strikes between Azerbaijan's military and Armenian-backed separatists over Nagorno-Karabakh. The clashes were the deadliest incidents since a 1994 cease-fire established the current territorial division. The brief but intense fighting of April 2016 claimed dozens of lives.
Since then, the United States, Russia and France, which co-chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group for conflict mediation, have continued advocating diplomacy to secure a binding peace resolution.
Steps toward demilitarization are essential to deterring accidental flare-ups of violence between the groups, said Ambassador Richard Hoagland, U.S. co-chairman of the Minsk Group.
"When you have two armed groups facing each other in difficult terrain not very far apart, there is always the chance for some kind of accident to happen that then spirals out of control," he recently told VOA's Armenian and Azeri services. "I know that at this point it will be difficult to ask for total demilitarization, although that would be good, so what we have to do is to look for those things that can help to reduce the possibility of some kind of military accident that then gets out of control."
Removal of snipers along both sides of the Karabakh line of contact, which separates Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, would be a logical first step, Hoagland said.
Allowing the presence of international observers and installing new electronic equipment that traces cease-fire violations, he said, would be a second realistic benchmark to achieve.
"There is an actual document [that maps out the peace process], and it's a very comprehensive, but there are steps and steps and steps, and stages and stages," he told VOA. "So I would hope that in the next highest level of negotiations, the two sides will look very seriously and say even if they can't come to a final conclusion, here are things we can accomplish."
Although some observers describe the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a rare point of shared strategic interests between the U.S. and Russia, others are skeptical.
Hoagland, however, struck an optimistic tone, saying the United States was continuing to work with Russia on this issue despite deteriorating relations between the two countries.
"I have seen absolutely no change in how we work together and how we regard each other," he told VOA. "Just because sometimes the politicians are bumping up against each other, for us, the work continues and we do it arm in arm.
"Maybe at the top the headline news doesn't look good, but when you get down to specific issues, specific problems to work on together, where we do cooperate, that continues and it continues today on Nagorno-Karabakh," he added.
Although the conflict has yet to come under the focus of the President Donald Trump's administration, former Ambassador John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, told VOA that might change in the coming six to 12 months.
While a planned U.N. General Assembly meeting between Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev may signal a loosening of tensions between the groups, Herbst said, "I still do not see any grounds for a reasonable settlement of the conflict."
"Everyone knows that the overwhelming majority of the population of Karabakh are Armenians and they will have substantial autonomy, and this should be the basis of the settlement," he said.
The main obstacle to full settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the fact that there are too many interests involved in the problem, said analyst Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy research group.
"If the problem was only about the two countries, it would probably have been settled, but states like Russia want to maintain the conflict," he said.
Echoing that sentiment, Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said Armenian officials have complained that a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement has been hampered by Russian arms sales to both sides.
"Russia wants to play a serious role in this conflict, and if there is no conflict, there will be no such role," she said.
Although Russian weapons deliveries to Baku remained a contentious issue throughout Armenia's 2017 parliamentary elections, most political forces steered clear of the topic and the question of whether Armenia is more secure with Russia as an ally.
Russia plays an important role in the region as its former imperial and Soviet-era overlord. It is also the main seller of weapons to both Armenia, a close Moscow ally, and Azerbaijan, which has developed warm relations with ethnically kin Turkey.
The Kremlin has consistently stated that it intends to continue selling arms to both camps while supporting peaceful resolution of the conflict.
On July 17, Armenia's president called Russian arms sales to Baku "the most painful side of Armenian-Russian relations."
Armenian political scientist Suren Sargsyan said Baku officials need to assume a more proactive role in securing the front lines, touching on Hoagland's calls for demilitarization as an example.
"Such an agreement has been reached between the parties," he told VOA. "But the Azerbaijani side has not taken any practical steps in that direction for a long time. That is why the negotiation process goes to a deadlock."
Fighting between ethnic Azeris and Armenians erupted in 1991 and a cease-fire was agreed to in 1994. But Azerbaijan and Armenia regularly accuse each other of carrying out attacks around Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Azeri-Armenian border.
On July 5, an Azeri woman and child were killed and another civilian wounded by Armenian forces near the boundary with Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan's defense ministry said Wednesday.
Sporadic exchanges of fire in the fight for control over the region — inside Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenians — have stoked fears of a wider conflict breaking out in the South Caucasus, which is crossed by oil and gas pipelines.
This story originated in VOA's Armenian service. Some information came from Reuters.