Moscow faces tough choices about the escalating Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. Any change from the status quo could have implications not only for Russia’s relationships with Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also for the region’s integration processes.

A convoy of Azerbaijan's Army tanks moves in the direction of Agdam, Azerbaijan. Recent days have seen a sharp escalation in fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia around a tense line of control around Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: AP

The rapid development of events in the Middle East, primarily Russia’s intervention in the military confrontation in Syria, has dislodged other hot spots from the global agenda. But that does not mean that other unresolved ethnic and political problems have lost their relevance. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Today the situation in the South Caucasus as a whole is relatively calm. Following Russia’s recognition of their independence, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have received guarantees of security and socio-economic recovery. At the same time, despite Georgia’s very public NATO aspirations, Tbilisi has not moved one inch closer to joining the Alliance.

As a result of the new status quo, these two ethno-political conflicts have acquired a certain amount of stability. Talk about Georgia’s territorial integrity remains at the rhetorical level, while in practice there is no challenge to Russian dominance in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, never mind any attempt to oust Moscow from the two partially recognized republics.

But the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an exception to the general rule. Experts and diplomats following the developments almost unanimously note a rise in the number of armed incidents, not just in quantitative terms but also in their intensity.

Armenia and Azerbaijan begin to ratchet up the rhetoric

Besides large-caliber light weapons, mortars and grenade launchers, howitzers and artillery systems have now entered the fray. Moreover, the confrontation is growing not only on the frontiers of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but all along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

The latest surge of military activity occurred on the eve of the 70th anniversary session of the UN General Assembly. Whereas the bellicose rhetoric once sounded mostly from Azerbaijani officials (not because of any particular militancy on their part, but because the conflict is perceived as a national trauma), in the fall of 2015 the Armenian side also began to talk tough.

For instance, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, in defining Nagorno-Karabakh as “one of the most militarized areas on the planet,” said that the region was “an integral part” of Armenia. In turn, the Armenian Ministry of Defense outlined plans to respond to hostile action, noting its readiness to “use appropriate artillery and missile firepower.”

 Recommended: "Nagorno-Karabakh, 20 years later"

Does this mean the age-old conflict is entering another acute phase? And what might be the next steps of the warring parties and other stakeholders? After Sargsyan’s description of Karabakh as an integral part of Armenia, there is talk of Yerevan potentially revising its former approach to the status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).

Government officials have declared their solidarity for the self-determination of Karabakh Armenians, giving them de facto support in matters of defense, security and socio-economic development. But the question of recognition, although it has been raised (mostly by opposition politicians), is largely limited to discussion. Meanwhile, only the external indicators of the Armenian leader’s words can be considered new in a political sense.

Even former President Robert Kocharian, Sargsyan’s predecessor, named the conditions for the potential recognition of the NKR, namely the resumption of military activity, i.e. the effective end of the status quo. And although the sense of hostility is rising, as well as the number of incidents, clashes and loss of life, it does not mean that war is inevitable.

Yerevan seems to be pragmatically assessing the prospects for recognition in terms of the potential challenges, threats, gains and losses, and the extent to which they are diminishing or growing. Sargsyan’s rhetoric is not the beginning of a formal legal procedure modeled on Abkhazian and South Ossetian recognition, but an additional signal to Baku regarding Yerevan’s “red lines.”

External stakeholders in the region

But the post-Soviet ethno-political conflicts are not simply confrontations between union members and autonomous entities of the former Soviet Union. They also involve external players. Nagorno-Karabakh is no exception. Such outside influence has a nature of its own.

First, it is not part of some kind of “proxy confrontation” between the West and Russia. Its aggravation is not directly related to the interests of Russia or those of the United States and its European allies. On the contrary, Moscow, Washington and Brussels all fear the “unfreezing” of the conflict, which, amid the growing turmoil and uncertainty in the Middle East and the hazy outlook for Ukraine, would only add to the list of international political risks.

Especially when considering the interests that neighboring countries have in Nagorno-Karabakh, above all Turkey (strategic ally of Baku) and Iran. Iran, is wary of the conflict (or indeed a peaceful settlement) being used against it.

The second feature of this outside influence follows on from here. The absence of any clear external agreement on what to do about Nagorno-Karabakh is a deterrent. Baku, which is keen to break the status quo, understands that in the event of tough action it will not receive unequivocal support from either the West or Russia.

Yerevan, on the other hand, has no such interest. On the contrary, it would like to preserve the status quo and is aware that Moscow is not prepared to sacrifice its special relationship with Azerbaijan, which exists alongside its strategic alliance with Armenia.

Russia’s take on Nagorno-Karabakh

Moscow’s position warrants special mention — not least in the context of Ukraine and the Middle East, where Russia has shown itself to be not just a keeper of the status quo, responding to events as they happen, but also a force capable of ripping up the rulebook and changing the agenda, even if the price is confrontation with the West.

In the fall of 2015, various media (including Deutsche Welle) touched upon Moscow’s increased diplomatic activity aimed at untangling the “Karabakh knot” by putting pressure on Yerevan to gradually transfer five regions occupied by Armenian forces to Baku’s control. Two of these regions (Lachin and Kelbajar) would remain under Armenian control to ensure links between “Greater Armenia” and the unrecognized NKR.

The architects of this scheme seem to be partially hostage to the Russian revisionism of recent years, forgetting that in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (2008), Crimea (2014) and Syria (2015), Moscow drastically upped the ante only when it was not possible to keep to the old rules of the game. In each instance, it was in fact proactive responsiveness.

In the case of Karabakh, the idea of ​​“handing over regions” has no obvious dividends for the Kremlin, but merely adds to the unpredictability and risk. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan view Nagorno-Karabakh as the basis of national identity (a symbol of victory over the Turkic world in one case, and a national trauma in the other).

Any concession to the adversary could put an end to a political career in Baku or Yerevan. But even if it didn’t, the “handover of regions” has the potential to destroy the fragile balance of forces and make military conflict inevitable. It is unlikely that a new front in the Caucasus will strengthen Moscow’s influence, which was achieved mostly economically and diplomatically.

A full-scale resumption of war in Karabakh is unlikely to provoke a crisis inside the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) for the simple reason that the member countries of these integration structures all have their own view of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and their own special relationship with the conflicting parties.

Reluctance to make a “decisive choice” could paralyze Moscow’s favored integration processes. This suggests that Moscow will take its time when it comes to diplomatic deals.

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