In the 21st-century security environment, both weak and fairly capable authoritarian states will constitute the major sources of instability and conflict the world over. Their instability may stem from internal problems triggered by a lack of legitimacy, weakness in basic governance, and the suppression of domestic opposition movements by force. But these states also project power in their geographic regions, sometimes as a ploy of distracting attention away from internal issues, often as an expansion of their revisionist motives. Their weakness is provocative.

The strategic culture of authoritarian regimes permits drawing several generalizations:  the violence orchestrated to cause destruction and suffering are permanent conditions and not anomalies; the threat of military force and its limited deployment is everyday business, used as a routine tool, not as a last resort; the issuance of warnings propagating war and uncompromising enmity is used to aid diplomacy in communicating power, resolve, and will.

Unlike democratic states, where peace is viewed as the norm, and instability and violence as the anomaly, the strategic culture of authoritarian regimes perceives conflict and war much more as an enduring state of affairs—even as an advantageous condition to secure the continuity and prosperity of the ruling regime. Recourse to such means is tempting for any authoritarian regime. They may well prolong a regime’s life, but at the same time they impede progress toward sustainable peace and security.

These strategic cultures, along with security perceptions embedded in them, also provide the framework through which political and military instruments are selected, organized and employed. At base, they are guided by strategic cultures that are willing to employ unrestrained means for shape their political objectives. That makes their assaults harder to predict and prevent, while their confrontational rhetoric renders negotiations or compromise almost impossible.

Now two decades into the cease-fire agreement, we are able to see that these regular low-level yet intensely deadly confrontations along the Mountainous Karabakh and Azerbaijani front line and Armenian and Azerbaijani border are here to stay. These are not isolated incidents or disparate attacks but rather examples of what is becoming the norm for confrontation on the ground. Rather, events such as destruction of cultural and historical artifacts, zealous talks about wiping Armenia off the map, threats to civilian aviation, glorification of axe-murderers, and a propensity not only to disregard the distinction between military and civilian targets but often to deliberately focus on the latter—something one would think belonged to a bygone era—are constant conditions. This new environment poses dangerous and evolving threats.

Understanding these trends and patterns for the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs and the European foreign and security policy architects at large is critical, since these new challenges are likely to continue in a low-level yet deadly warfare. Staying on the periphery and supporting the efforts of the Co-Chairs are not sufficient to quell the outgoing breaches of peace on its doorstep. These events are not short-term disruptions of ordinary state of affairs and order. Rather, they are the harbingers of a new security environment that will likely present instability and gathering danger.

There comes a time in most mediation initiatives when the events on the ground force the custodians of the peace process to face the disparity between their favored strategies and techniques and the necessity of action and change. When the assessment of the political landscape exposes the ugly reality that strong incentives for continued instability and conflict exist, no cherished diplomatic dogmas of neutral pronouncements and expressions of concern can help defuse tension.

Against the backdrop of recent intensified attacks along the Mountainous Karabakh and Azerbaijani line of contact and at the Armenian and Azerbaijani border, the mediators should come to a belated acknowledgement that many of their assumptions and approaches, often held as iron-clad tenets, are not valid. The deadly fighting, together with heavy toll of casualties and human death, highlights the many assumptions that the mediators have to jettison as they confront the disparity between the standardized public statements to uphold the peace and the increasing utility of use of force on the ground. These diplomatic messages are not construed on the part of a spoiling side; the audience is obscure, their home address is ill defined.

The mediation efforts under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship have floundered, since those who assume the custody of conflict resolution process—or peaceful management for that matter—must first of all seek to nurture peaceful conditions on the ground. “Ambiguity is the diplomat’s friend,”—the oft-repeated cliché of many mediation textbooks—no longer befriends the Karabakh context. While international mediators may be impartial to the parties to conflict and the solutions they craft, they should not be impartial about bad behavior that obstructs the peace process. The shackles and formalities of diplomatic parlance that constrain thinking and practice should be broken.

Effective conflict resolution efforts proceed not in isolation but amidst different interplay of interests and forces that often seek to derail the peace process. A proposal to establish an “incident investigation mechanism” is still on waiting list for implementation, along with ad hoc arrangements that should be designed to manage and control the local operating environment through a theater-wide monitoring architecture for preventing the obstructionist forces to thwart the peace process. More importantly, this should not be viewed as outside the peacemaking remit; but an important part and parcel of the overall conflict resolution effort. To provide demonstrable legitimacy in support of a peace process, the motivations for conducting a destabilizing activity must be recognized, confronted and overcome.

The case of Mountainous Karabakh is indeed unique, but the quest for viable peace is not. While the proposed Madrid principles are long shots, practical near-term priorities should be set to establish a predictable security environment with the potential to manage down the violence on the ground and dislodge those who seek to obstruct the road to a viable peace.