Moscow’s primary concern about Nagorno-Karabakh is that any abrupt moves in the region may increase the risks of another military confrontation involving Azerbaijan and its breakaway republic.

An ethnic Armenian fighter carries Kalashnikov machine guns to his comrade-in-arms at Martakert province in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: AP

Despite the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed territory that is claimed in part by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the situation remains “very fragile,” according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. For now, it appears that these two former Soviet republics remain far apart in finding a compromise on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Recently, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has voiced his skepticism about the prospects of stability in this turbulent Transcaucasian region. In his interview with the Bloomberg news agency he warned, “War may resume at any moment.”

After early April’s military escalation along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh, which was the largest confrontation between the two sides of the past 22 years, the situation in the South Caucasus has become one of the most discussed topics in media and diplomatic circles. On Apr. 5, the chiefs of staff of Armenia and Azerbaijan reached a ceasefire deal under the diplomatic moderation of Russia.

Meanwhile, politicians and journalists have already dubbed the recent flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh the “Four-Day War” between Azerbaijan and its breakaway republic supported by Yerevan. However, although this clash has ended, the situation remains unstable, with the threat of another military escalation very high. On Apr. 24, official representatives from Baku and Yerevan announced again numerous violations of the ceasefire deal, with firepower, heavy artillery and tank equipment having been used.    

There are several key reasons why military and political fragility are likely to persist in the region.

First, Azerbaijan did not achieve significant military successes as a result of the Four-Day War with the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. However, as a result of the recent military escalation, the line of contact has been changed, even if insignificantly – a fact that the Armenian president has admitted. “Azeri troops took very small pieces of land that ‘had no strategic importance,’” he said. In fact, for Baku the recent clashes became the first success after a series of heavy defeats in the 1990s, when Azerbaijan lost control over the territory of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region and seven adjunct districts beyond the disputed territory.

For Armenia, Baku’s success is not so catastrophic, because all infrastructure of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh remain under the control of local Armenians. Yet the very fact of the Azeri success, if insignificant, is not very comfortable psychologically for Yerevan, which is the second reason to worry about the next escalation. A series of resignations of Armenia’s top Military Forces officials following the flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh indicate that Yerevan could be more than slightly concerned with the loss of what Sargsyan called “a very small piece of land.”

Third, the current situation is dangerous because it might drive Azerbaijan to advance deeper into the Nagorno-Karabakh territory to expand the zone of its control. It could psychologically encourage both the average citizens of Azerbaijan and its army. In addition, such a move could distract people from the country’s socio-economic crisis that resulted from the drop in oil prices and the following devaluation of the national currency Manat. Meanwhile, Armenians might be tempted to “correct” the line of contact and return the lost territory.

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At the same time, some factors mitigate against further escalation. Unlike the Donbas conflict in Eastern Ukraine, international stakeholders do not see Nagorno-Karabakh as a platform for their proxy war. On the contrary, the West applauded Russia’s activated diplomatic efforts to alleviate the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Likewise, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Apr. 21-22 visit to Yerevan was not just a typical diplomatic mission to allay the tensions. Other moderators and international stakeholders endorsed this initiative. Particularly, the go-ahead came from the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which brings together Russia, France and the U.S. to moderate the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.                   

In fact, the participants if these talks try to focus on two key aspects: determining the status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a popular referendum and the possible return of the districts occupied by Armenian forces back to Azerbaijan’s control. However, priorities for the two conflicting sides are different.

Yerevan needs guarantees that the referendum will take place, while Baku requires the return of the lost territory, as indicated by official statements from Azerbaijan. However, currently it is unclear how Baku is going to deal with the region, predominately populated by Armenians. No matter what proposals the moderators can come up with, the opposing sides turn down the ideas of other participants of the negotiation process and remain intransigent.

“It is unreasonable for Armenia to resume peace talks with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory without security guarantees,” said the Armenian president on Apr. 23.

Nevertheless, it does not mean that Yerevan will block the peaceful settlement of the conflict. Such a scenario would be very dangerous for Armenia, because it would provoke Azerbaijan’s military offensive and, on top of that, would puzzle all mediators. The statement of the Armenian president rather indicates that he just responds to the demands of public opinion. The challenge is that Armenian society, which is much more radical than its leader, is concerned with the possibility of unilateral concessions to Azerbaijan. This might hamper the negotiations and the peaceful settlement of the conflict.       

Russian diplomats do understand this tricky situation very well. On the eve of Lavrov’s visit to Yerevan, Maria Zakharova, the official representative of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, stated that Lavrov doesn’t yet have a roadmap of how to resolve the conflict, but can propose just some suggestions. Lavrov seems hopeful that the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh is not totally in disarray after the recent escalation in the region. That’s probably why he reportedly referred to the 1994-1995 ceasefire agreements.

All this indicates that Moscow is treading water: It is cautious and reluctant to take hasty decisions, because it understands the sensitivity of the whole situation. Any abrupt moves in the direction of Nagorno-Karabakh may increase risks in the region a great deal. Russia can only win the game if Baku and Yerevan are able to appreciate Moscow’s moderation and efforts.

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Thus, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is highly unstable and dangerous. The risk of another intense military confrontation is still high. However, there are many “anchors,” which may prevent the conflict from getting out of hand. Both Baku and Yerevan are concerned with another protracted war as well as external pressure. This means that this limbo situation – neither peace, neither war - is likely to persist. On the other hand, there might be a sort of war of attrition, in which the two sides will be always on alert, provoke each other from time to time and look for deficiencies in their opponent’s defense.   

What is most important today is not to champion a specific diplomatic plan of peaceful settlement, but rather, simply to minimize the risks of new incidents and take the situation under control. Afterwards, the stakeholders can really focus on negotiating a settlement, rather than just going through the motions.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.