War looms in the South Caucasus

A recent upsurge in fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh serves Russian interests and shows the dangers of war by accident.

Members of the armed forces of Nagorno-Karabakh play checkers using a chess set at their post along the line of contact with Azerbaijani forces [Getty]
Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces play checkers using a chess set at their post along the line of contact with Azerbaijani forces [Getty]

Since a tentative ceasefire agreement halted fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia has largely benefitted from the unresolved nature of the conflict. Moscow not only helped to broker and then back that first informal ceasefire in May 1994, but it also emerged as a key mediator, along with France and the United States. 

Through that tripartite effort at diplomatic mediation, institutionalised as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – the so-called “Minsk group” – Moscow was able to cement its position as an essential arbitrator.

As the years of diplomacy garnered little in substance or significance, due more to the lack of political will and less to any strategic neglect, the parties to the conflict became locked in a vicious cycle of what became known as a “frozen” conflict.

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No longer a ‘frozen’ conflict

Yet the “frozen” Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is anything but. With a steady escalation in fighting over the past few years, the conflict has rapidly thawed, marked by a pattern of consistent ceasefire violations.

And as the ceasefire has become much more fragile, ceasefire violations have become much more serious – to the current point to where they are no longer measured in shots fired or number of attacks, but in terms of military deaths and civilian casualties on both sides.

This was notable in the first few days of this month, with a fresh escalation that was especially serious, due to three specific factors:

First, this fresh wave of Azerbaijani attacks utilised artillery and mortars, rather than only sniper fire, and targeted Armenian civilian population centres along the northern Armenia-Azerbaijan border. This factor demonstrated that with the introduction of more serious weapon systems, the severity of attacks and the scale of the damage have significantly increased.

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The second factor is rooted in the geography of the clashes, as the battlespace has expanded well beyond the confines of Nagorno-Karabakh to now include areas around the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Such an expanded battlespace is also seen in the emergence of limited air power, as drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have been increasingly used for reconnaissance prior to the attacks.

This one festering conflict … has the power to quickly expand and escalate, as both Turkey and Iran, and not just Russia, would be compelled to respond.


But on a broader level, it is the third factor, consisting of much greater willingness to resort to force of arms rather than diplomacy.

Largely driven by Azerbaijan, whose mounting frustration over the lack of any progress in the peace process has triggered a pronounced preference for offensive military operations, the weakening of any deterrent and restraint over Azerbaijan has also fostered an Armenian reaction of responding to each Azerbaijani attack, at times with overwhelming force.

For both sides, this has further triggered a dangerous spiralling upward of intensity, making it increasingly difficult for any one side to climb down or step back.

Russia is key

In light of the current deterioration of the security situation, Moscow has only consolidated its role. Moscow now stands as the key, not only as an essential mediator but also as the number one arms provider to both sides and the main determinant of either deterrence or disaster. 

Although the combination of the unresolved nature of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the military build-up on both sides has greatly enhanced Russian power and influence, the looming risk of “war by accident” may be a tempting tool for Moscow to consolidate its leverage in the region by provoking, promoting and then exploiting renewed hostilities.

Such a dangerous change in Russian policy may be driven by a degree of Russian reaction to recent developments, ranging from the creation of a NATO training centre in nearby Georgia to a move in line with Russia’s overall confrontation with the West.


And for Moscow, the temptation to up the ante in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may not only complement its most recent tactical move of dispatching forces to Syria, but it could also garner greater dividends for Russian hard power. This latter factor stems from the Russian desire to further project its power in the South Caucasus by seeking to spark further military confrontation in order to deploy Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh.

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But in a strategic context, such a development may be even more destabilising than the Russian-provoked war in Ukraine. More specifically, a potential Nagorno-Karabakh war would be especially significant, as it is the one festering conflict that has the power to quickly expand and escalate, as both Turkey and Iran, not just Russia, would be compelled to respond.

For that reason alone, the danger of a “war by accident” over Nagorno-Karabakh necessitates much more strategic scrutiny and greater attention by the West. This remote and fairly removed conflict can no longer be so easily ceded to Russian control. Moscow has been afforded too much room as a primary actor for far too long.

Richard Giragosian is the founding director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think-tank in Yerevan, Armenia.

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