Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh now risky for Russia?

A howitzer fires at an artillery position of the self-defense army of Nagorno-Karabakh near Martakert, Azerbaijan, Sunday, April 3, 2016.

A howitzer fires at an artillery position of the self-defense army of Nagorno-Karabakh near Martakert, Azerbaijan, Sunday, April 3, 2016.

The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia flared in the first week of April this year, with some of the heaviest fighting witnessed there since 1994. The clashes have already claimed dozens of lives. RIR explores what lies behind this recent escalation in tensions in the South Caucasus, what role Russia is playing, as well as why the conflict is a danger for Moscow.

What is the Karabakh conflict about?

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnic conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The conflict peaked during the final years of the former Soviet Union and escalated into a war between 1991 and 1994. The countries were fighting for control over a territory that was part of Soviet Azerbaijan, but predominantly populated by Armenians. After Armenia’s victory in that war, which claimed over 15,000 lives, an unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic emerged, supported by Yerevan.

Who is behind the recent rise in tensions?

Russian observers are convinced that the escalation of the current conflict has been provoked by Azerbaijan. Given the economic downturn, authorities in Baku are seeking to divert attention from domestic problems.

Additionally, the Azerbaijani president’s approval rating largely depends on adopting a tough stance about the return of the occupied territories. Armenia, analysts point out, does not have any domestic political reasons that would prompt it to stir up tensions.

Ankara is another factor, which could be interested in seeing the Karabakh conflict return to an active phase. According to Alexander Skakov from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, Turkey may have acted as an agent provocateur in order to again highlight its significance in the region.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, has said Russia is not blaming Ankara for stirring up tension in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The present hike in tensions is not entirely unexpected. In late September 2015, artillery was used by both countries, for the first time in 20 years, killing 10 servicemen. Experts polled at the time warned that the region “was balancing on the brink of a real war.”

What is Moscow’s position?

The current rise in tensions is driving Moscow into a tight corner since it is in Russia’s interests to preserve good relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Also, Russia and Armenia are allies, so a further escalation of the conflict may force Moscow to openly support Yerevan. This would then put into question the “special relations” that Moscow is building with Baku, Skakov pointed out.

These special relations are manifest, among other things, in Moscow’s defence trade ties with Baku. According to media reports, Russia has sold Azerbaijan $4 billion worth of weapons.

While Skakov says Russian arms supplies to Baku were a mistake, playing into the hands of those interested in escalating the conflict, Vladimir Yevseyev from the CIS Institute told RIR that Russia is hardly Azerbaijan’s only supplier of arms.

What is Russia doing?

Russia has, so far, been using diplomatic levers to put pressure on both sides in the conflict. President Vladimir Putin appealed to the presidents of both countries to end the hostilities and come to the negotiating table, while Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has spoken with both his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts, in a bid to defuse the situation.

What is the danger for Russia?

If there is further escalation, the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict could spill beyond the boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh and develop into a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Having entered into a strategic alliance with Armenia, Russia may be forced to use its troops deployed on Armenian territory and end up getting dragged into an armed conflict. In addition, an escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh is fraught with prospects of destabilization of the South Caucasus and Russia’s North Caucasian republics.

What’s next?

Analysts believe that a full-scale war is unlikely and the current escalation is an attempt by Baku to gauge the reaction of all concerned. Analysts also stress that intermediaries in the Karabakh conflict, including Moscow, should insist on deploying international observers in the region, to establish a mechanism of observation over the conflict. Else, a new escalation may be inevitable, they caution.

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