In considering the long-term prospects for a new war in Nagorno Karabakh, the key factor is of course Azerbaijan's growing wealth, especially relative to Armenia's stangnancy. But that could lead to two opposing results: either Azerbaijan would not want to risk damaging its vibrant economy by starting a war, or its oil-funded military will be so much stronger than Armenia's that trying to retake Karabakh would be inevitable.
Azerbaijan scholar and consultant Svante Cornell has written a new book on the country, Azerbaijan Since Independence, which he introduced at an event yesterday in DC. And the part that was most interesting to me was that he came down very much on the side of war being inevitable.
His argument: that while an Azerbaijan invasion of Karabakh would elicit international condemnation, it would probably be short-lived and not amount to much, comparable to what happened with Croatia when it ethnically cleansed the Serb-dominated eastern part of the country in the 1990s. (UPDATE: I should have mentioned originally, this assumes that the invasion would be quick; if not, a protracted conflict would cause a lot of foreign companies to not be interested in operating there.)(SECOND UPDATE: Cornell writes to clarify that the above are not his personal views, but those of "parts of the Azerbaijani leadership." That was clear in his talk, in my writing I just unfortunately conflated his views and the ones he was reporting. My apologies.)
In addition, Azerbaijan, as the party unhappy with the status quo, always has an interest in keeping the situation at high tension. And that raises the risk of an accidental escalation of a small incident into a full-scale war.
And for domestic political purposes, it may eventually be worth it to start a war, even if it had disastrous consequences. Cornell suggested that the current government wouldn't do this, only a future one. But I can't help but think of the Wikileaked cable that compared President Ilham Aliyev to Sonny Corleone, hot-headed and considering the affairs of state to be personal, not merely business.
Karabakh was thus not comparable to Cyprus -- a frozen conflict that seems to soften over time -- but rather to more entrenched conflicts like Israel-Palestine or Kashmir. "Every year without a resolution it's becoming more dangerous, not less dangerous... the situation is not sustainable because the balance of power between the two protagonists is changing. Armenia is sitting on the land, and whether you like it or not, Azerbaijan is getting richer, its economy is four or five times larger than Armenia's and sooner or later, something's got to give."
Cornell is generally pretty pro-Azerbaijan, and his framing of the situation as something inevitable seems to absolve Azerbaijan of any responsibility for its actions, which I think one could quibble with. But he knows Azerbaijan well, and this is an analysis worth considering.