Confrontation over Ukraine may prevent the de-escalation of other conflicts in the post-Soviet space, including Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria.     

Early August has seen a sharp escalation in fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia around a tense line of control around Nagorno-Karabakh. Pictured: A convoy of Azerbaijan's Army tanks moves in the direction of Agdam, Azerbaijan on Aug. 2. Photo: AP

The escalation of armed hostilities between the conflicting parties in Nagorno-Karabakh and on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border has once again thrust the volatile Caucasus into the center of media attention.

[According to the latest data from the Ministry of Defense of Nagorno-Karabakh, from July 28 to August 2, about 25 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed and more than 30 were injured. During the same period, the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army lost five soldiers, with seven wounded – editor’s note].

The large number of the dead and wounded on both sides has forced politicians and experts to discuss the possibility of a resumption of major hostilities that ended here twenty years ago. How justified are these fears?

One issue here cannot be ignored. The new round of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh is occurring against a background of reformatting the territory of the former Soviet Union. This process includes the changing of the status of Crimea and the civil strife in southeastern Ukraine, all with unpredictable consequences. Even if the Kiev authorities prevail over the militants, then their problems will only start, because onto the agenda will come the issue of the socio-political integration of the population in this turbulent region.

In this context, the growing conflict between the West and Russia is also very important, the central issue of which is the recognition of the special role of Russia in Eurasia. To what extent does the Nagorno-Karabakh confrontation have an influence on the geopolitical changes in the former Soviet Union? And what lessons should leading international players draw from the current escalation?

New aggravation in the relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan has both its own internal logic as well as serious external influence. The uniqueness of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as compared to other ethno-political confrontations in Eurasia, is that here, since the announcement of the cease-fire in May 1994, there have been no peacekeepers present, neither Russian nor international.

The fragile truce, periodically broken by both parties during the past two decades – the hot summer of 2014 is hardly the first occurrence of such violations – has been maintained by a balance of power. There is a regional “arms race” (conventional and not nuclear) and a competition between external players, providing timid hopes of changing the status quo in one side’s favor.

The absence of a full-fledged peacekeeping operation, the presence of which is only being discussed via the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group (whose co-chairs are the United States, Russia and France), increases the risk in this conflict zone.


No less important is the unwillingness of the parties to make compromises and concessions. In this respect, the roles of the West or Russia are not primary. Both Yerevan and Baku (as well as the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), which is not participating in the negotiation process) are not ready to move away from their maximalist demands.

For Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, conflict resolution means self-determination of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, but for Azerbaijan, it means the restoration of its jurisdiction over the territory of the former autonomous region and seven adjacent districts that are now controlled by Armenian forces.

On the political and legal level, this is a conflict between the right of nations to self-determination and territorial integrity. During all the years of negotiations, the parties to the conflict were offered many ways out of this impasse. However, neither Yerevan nor Baku has shown any interest in anything more than a zero-sum game.

Meanwhile, the sharp increase in tensions in the summer of 2014 would have been much less problematic, if not for the serious deterioration in relations between Russia and the West. Unlike the situation in Georgia, for many years the Nagorno-Karabakh process had been presented almost as a “success story.” Resolution of this conflict was never considered as an arena for competition between Moscow and Washington.

Moreover, the three mediator countries (U.S., France, Russia) more than once came to a consensus on what should be the basis for the settlement of the conflict. The presidents of these three countries even expressed their willingness to support and promote the so-called “Madrid Principles” as a basis for future agreements.

However, the West and Russia now find themselves on different sides of a great Eurasian geopolitical game. The Ukrainian crisis has made them hostages of this geopolitical game, in the sense that even those issues on which they had made significant progress are now being set aside (including Afghanistan, the Middle East, and conflicts in the post-Soviet space).

This situation provokes the rise of “war parties” and taking of risks in the hope that Russia and the West, in the critical hour, will neither have the will nor the desire to act in solidarity for the sake of preventing the resumption of a large-scale war. The inflexibility of Washington and Moscow in the Ukrainian crisis suggests that the same Nagorno-Karabakh process can become a hostage of the situation around Ukraine. There has recently been some justification for the drawing of such conclusions, especially because of the actions of the American side, which is seeking to occupy a dominant position in the peace process.  

Meanwhile, the reaction of the OSCE Minsk Group, on the escalation of violence in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict zone, has shown that some timid hope exists that the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will not be determined in the Donbas. All three co-chairs have declared the inadmissibility of a military solution to this long-standing dispute.

However, such declarations are not enough. It would be naive to think that an aggravation in Nagorno-Karabakh, so near the Russian border, would create problems for only Moscow. Not far from Agdam, passes the Western supported Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which may also be endangered. The NKR borders directly with Iran, a country whose importance for the South Caucasus and the Middle East should not be underestimated. The problem is also aggravated by the strategic cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan. 

Incidentally, outside of the Caucasus, there are other regions where things are also prone to destabilization. In Transnistria, located between Moldova and Ukraine, there have been attempts to change the status quo while ignoring Russian interests, and these have not received stiff rebukes from participants in the negotiations format (U.S., EU, and OSCE).

Moreover, the lack of full cooperation between Russia and the West, amid their deepening conflict, is creating a background that is not favorable to reducing political tensions in the post-Soviet space, which is full of various unresolved and latent conflicts. This is the importance of conflicts between the countries of Central Asia.

All of these flash points suggest the following: Either the struggle for the post-Soviet space continues without any rules, or Russia and the West will be forced to finally become engaged. In doing so, they will define their interests, resources and opportunities through effective negotiations and cooperation, instead of the endless zero-sum games.