An escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh requires a new approach to regional stabilization, possibly involving Russian and CSTO peacekeeping forces.

Soldiers of the army of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic on the line of contact with Azerbaijan's armed forces outside the town of Martakert. Photo: RIA Novosti

On April 2, the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh witnessed the greatest outbreak of military hostilities since the ceasefire of 1994. Azerbaijan moved on the offensive against Karabakh Armenian forces. Supported by tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery, Azerbaijani forces attacked positions along the line of contact.  They also shelled civilian settlements, resulting in the death of a 12-year-old boy. Two other children were also wounded.

The Karabakh Armenian forces repelled the attack, reportedly destroying four tanks, two helicopters and two drones. For its part, Azerbaijan said that 12 of its soldiers were killed and had become shahids (Muslim martyrs). Baku also claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on Armenian forces. Both parties accused one another of violating the ceasefire. However, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) placed the blame on Baku for the most recent violence.

“Everything should be determined through negotiations,” said Vladimir Zaynetdinov, a spokesman for CSTO secretary general Nikolai Bordyuzha. “The current Azerbaijani actions led to the escalation of the situation and the conflict.”

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, returning from an official state visit to the United States, was briefed about the situation and summoned a National Security Council meeting. Meanwhile, Moscow observed the situation with grave concern. Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, while Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke with the foreign ministers of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh goes back to at least 1988, when Karabakh Armenians and their compatriots in Yerevan demanded reunification. The situation devolved into a violent ethnic conflict and eventually a war, concluding with the ceasefire of 1994. Political solutions have been elusive, but the recurring ceasefire violations have claimed the lives of many Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

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Such violations also threaten to escalate into a broader conflict and perhaps even a new war. They pose a serious threat to stability in the Caucasus, the post-Soviet space and the Greater Middle East. The most recent violence has made it more apparent than ever that a new approach is warranted if there is to be stability in the region. Regional stabilization is necessary for a lasting peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

Moscow is especially aware of the need for such a solution. An escalation of hostilities bodes badly for Russian security. It also threatens to create new problems at a time when the Kremlin is focused on resolving larger crises in Ukraine and Syria.

Moscow also suspects Turkey of encouraging Azerbaijan in the most recent escalation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lately been cozying up to Baku as part of a broader strategy to counter Moscow in the ongoing conflict over Syria and the Kurds. Turkish lobbyists in Washington have also attempted to influence U.S. policy toward the region by claiming that Russia is “weaponizing” Armenia to menace NATO.

Nervous about the ceasefire violations in the area and potential Turkish provocations, Moscow has advocated for stationing Russian and CSTO peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh to stabilize the situation. The presence of Russian and CSTO peacekeepers would act as a deterrent against further ceasefire violations by Azerbaijan and potential provocations by Turkey to destabilize Transcaucasia. If Russian peacekeepers were present in Nagorno-Karabakh and Baku were to attack, then Azerbaijan would be risking a bear-like response, reminiscent of the Russian response to the assault on South Ossetia by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008.

In addition, Russia may also consider the option of deploying Russian troops or CSTO peacekeepers in Armenia proper along the eastern border of the northern Armenian province of Tavush. This mountainous forested region has seen major ceasefire violations in recent years. A Russian or CSTO presence would deter such violations and stabilize this portion of the Armenian-Azerbaijani frontier, which has been vulnerable to attack.

Whatever the final response, it is clear that declarations of condemnation and consultations with foreign ministers are no longer sufficient to stop the violence. The ceasefire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh have not only cost many lives (both Armenian and Azerbaijani) but also threaten to seriously destabilize the entire Caucasus region. They further act as an impediment against serious progress toward peace. Given the stakes involved, Moscow needs to consider new alternatives and fresh approaches toward stabilization and peace in the region.

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