Far from being just a localised conflict watched by many with curiosity on our television screens, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh is actually a tangled web of competing geopolitical interests from across the region.

The risk of the war spilling over is real.

While the immediate consequences and causes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are local, you can bet that outside actors will be taking advantage of the situation to advance their national interests.

Top of the list is Russia.

Nagorno-Karabakh crisis escalates

For Russia the various frozen conflicts in the South Caucasus are seen as a way to maximise influence in the region.

Moscow's mischief

In particular, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict serves as a useful excuse to keep thousands of troops in Armenia and an easy way to poke Turkey in the eye.

Russia maintains a sizable military presence in Armenia. Late last year, Russia and Armenia signed a Combined Regional Air Defense System agreement which threatens the whole region.

The bulk of the Russian force, consisting of approximately 5,000 soldiers and dozens of fighter planes and attack helicopters, is based just miles from the Turkish border.

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Although Russia is one of three co-chairs of the Minsk Group (the others are the US and France) tasked with mediating a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it is well known that Moscow is not an impartial broker in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Although Russia is one of three co-chairs of the Minsk Group ... tasked with mediating a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it is well known that Moscow is not an impartial broker in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


Senior Russian leaders have made their views quite open regarding whose side Moscow would support in the event of a major outbreak of war.

In the past, senior Russian commanders have affirmed Russia's preparedness and intention to "join the armed conflict" against Azerbaijan if it "decides to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh by force".

The role of the West

For the US, events in the South Caucasus can affect regional security, and by extension, the US and Europe's security.

For Europe, stability and security in the South Caucasus matters for energy reasons and for the bigger dream of creating a continent that is whole, free and at peace.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline and the South Caucasus Pipeline - both crucial for Europe's energy needs - run within several miles of the frontlines of Nagorno-Karabakh. Any major outbreak of warfare would immediately threaten them.

At a time when Europe is trying to move away from Russian supplied energy, the stability and operation of these pipelines is vital. In a few years, the Southern Gas Corridor will be operating through the same region.

When it begins transporting gas from the Caspian to Europe, it will change the energy map of the region for ever.

Russia knows this and Russia does not like this. In the eyes of the Kremlin, the more instability near these pipelines, the better.

Regional actors

It does not take a leap from reality to see how this conflict could spill over into a bigger war.

Soldiers of the self-defence army of Nagorno-Karabakh gather at their positions in Martakert province [Reuters]

The South Caucasus is a tinderbox almost perpetually on the brink of igniting. Often it is Russia's hand that is shaping and influencing events in the South Caucasus by taking advantage of ethnic divisions to advance policies that are often at odds with or, even worse, threaten the interests of the locals.

It is not just Russia playing a role.

On the back of the nuclear deal Iran will feel emboldened to play a more active role in the region - probably for the worst. Tehran's long-standing support for Armenia (It backed Armenia during the initial war in the 1990s) makes many in Baku nervous - especially considering the fraught relations and historical tensions existing between Iran and Azerbaijan.

Since international economic sanctions were lifted, Iran and Armenia have agreed a number of major energy and construction projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Economically, Iran has a lot at stake in Armenia.

READ MORE: Nagorno-Karabakh - the death of diplomacy

Turkey is increasingly involved too. For cultural, historic, linguistic and ethnic reasons Turkey and Azerbaijan have close ties. Crucially for Baku, the 15km border that Azerbaijan's Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic shares with Turkey is literally a lifeline to an exclave that is geographically surrounded by Armenia and Iran.

Turkey was quick to offer its unconditional support to its Turkic cousins in Azerbaijan when the recent fighting broke out. For many in Turkey, support for Azerbaijan against Armenia is seen as a moral obligation.

Turkey's involvement in the region, rather direct or indirect, brings a NATO member directly into contact with the conflict. This could have ramifications for the Alliance at a time when it is focused on eastern Europe.

A boiling pot

Although a ceasefire has been agreed, it remains to be seen if it will stick.

The best thing that Russia, Turkey, Iran, the US and Europe can do for the region is resist the temptation to advance national interests by taking advantage of the conflict.

Instead they should convince the warring parties that a real ceasefire is the best way forward. However, a quick glance at the region’s history and the actors competing for influence show this is unlikely.

The South Caucasus is already boiling. The question now is: will resurgence of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh make it boil over?

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera