With Russia playing an increasingly active role in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, now is the time for careful consideration of how Moscow can bring peace to the region without inadvertently escalating hostilities.

Ethnic Armenian fighters rest at their artillery positions at Martakert province in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Monday, April 4, 2016. Photo: AP

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The escalating conflict over the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, a tiny mountainous enclave inhabited by Armenians but claimed by Azerbaijan, has become a diplomatic challenge for Moscow.

Since Russia is a major stakeholder in the conflict, the Kremlin recently sent Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to defuse the situation and reconcile Armenia and Azerbaijan, while also instructing Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the peace plan with his Azeri and Iranian counterparts.

There’s a good reason why Moscow is taking the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh so seriously: Russia’s southern frontier has become a hotbed of unrest. Growing tensions with Turkey and Ukraine come to mind, of course, not to mention the civil wars in Syria and Iraq and the continued threat of destabilization in Central Asia by radical Islamists.

Quite simply, the renewed hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh are another reminder of how fragile peace and stability are in this region of the world.

Setting the context for the current conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenians and Azeris have been fighting over Karabakh since 1988, when the Soviet Union began to unravel. At that time, Karabakh's Armenian majority sought to secede from Azerbaijan and join neighboring Armenia, citing its right to self-determination according to the Soviet constitution.

As such, Karabakh was heralded as a test case for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s emerging policies toward nationalities. However, these demands met with violent reprisals toward Armenians across Azerbaijan, and peaceful rallies and petitions were soon replaced by low-intensity conflict pitting Armenian partisans against Azerbaijan's special forces, amid the rapid demise of Soviet power.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Karabakh struggle quickly spiraled into all-out war. By the time a ceasefire was declared in 1994, tens of thousands had been killed and hundreds of thousands uprooted on both sides. The conflict also drew in a host of regional stakeholders – Armenia and Azerbaijan, of course, but also neighboring Turkey and Iran, as well as the U.S. and above all Russia.

Given different interests of the participants of the conflict and those who are trying to resolve it, the Karabakh issue was framed differently. For the locals of Nagorno-Karabakh, it was purely a national liberation struggle, seeking to remove foreign occupation.

For politicians in Yerevan and Baku, the region was an apple of discord. For regional powers, it was a political playing card, through which ethnic tensions could be stoked, suppressed or otherwise manipulated depending on the interests at stake. The problem, of course, is that all three levels operated simultaneously within a nest of power relations.

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By the end of the war, the Nagorno-Karabakh separatists successfully ended Azerbaijani rule, driving out all military and civilian presence. Since that time, native Armenians have controlled the enclave and its borderlands, having fashioned their own de facto republic, which enjoys significant support from Armenia. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan refuses to acknowledge any change, instead seeking the Nagorno-Karabakh’s return to its full control.

Not surprisingly, Armenians have rejected Baku's territorial claims saying that the central issues – guarantees of Nagorno-Karabakh's security and, ultimately, its political status – must remain at the forefront of any negotiating process. Azerbaijan replies by stressing the disputed region’s illegitimacy as a party in negotiations, insisting it will only deal in state-to-state scenarios involving Armenia.

Since 1994, the conflict has subsided to a large extent. True, border skirmishes continued, and military preparedness remained a priority for both sides, but over time all conceded that the conflict had been effectively frozen. The war on the ground was largely replaced by a war of words, as the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which involves the U.S., Russia and France, supervised ongoing talks aimed at a lasting settlement.

Meanwhile, both sides pressed for advantage at the negotiating table, while seeking to create facts on the ground to bolster their positions: Baku began pouring its oil revenue into a revamped military, while increasing its threats to retake Nagorno-Karabakh by force.

On the diplomatic front, Azerbaijan sought to paint Armenia as the aggressor, while decrying the breakaway republic’s hold over "occupied territories" bordering the enclave. Armenians replied that these are security zones, required fundamentally to maintain links to neighboring Armenia, and as a cushion against possible future attacks.

Why Azerbaijan keeps raising the stakes in Nagorno-Karabakh

On the surface, the recent flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh was merely a variation of this longstanding struggle. Azerbaijan seems to have struck first, advancing across the entire line of contact, responding to an unspecified provocation.

Nagorno-Karabakh claims to have retaken territory seized by Azerbaijan. Within four to five days, both sides had stopped shooting, and it appeared that the previous status quo has been more or less restored.

But beneath the surface, there are some important shifts. First, since the 1994 ceasefire, border violations – mostly by Azerbaijan – have occurred on numerous occasions.

But these violations have usually been infrequent (every three to six months), localized (small skirmishes in a tightly defined area), and low-intensity (usually snipers with automatic weapons). In this light, analysts often viewed Azerbaijan’s incursions as a way to influence the negotiating process. From this point of view, Baku might have been probing for weak spots.

Also read: "Nagorno-Karabakh may become another headache for Russia, the West"

But knowing that a military solution was highly unlikely, Baku sought, above all, to test Armenian reflexes diplomatically: These offensives, when accompanied by propaganda, sometimes pushed Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia into a reactive position, while Azerbaijan continued to seek concessions at the negotiating table.

Second, since mid-2015, Azerbaijan’s offensives have become more frequent (every few weeks), more wide-ranging (broader areas of attack), and more intense (including medium-range artillery, tanks, and now aircraft). Evidently something has changed in Baku’s calculations. Could this escalation be deliberate, designed perhaps to provoke a military response from the Armenian side?

For a growing number of analysts, this is indeed the case, and for reasons one might not expect. The motivation may come, in fact, from Baku’s own domestic situation.

Evidently, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s regime is in for some rough times, as its economy – largely pegged to the price of oil and gas – has suffered a severe economic downturn in the past year. As a result, Azerbaijan already faces widespread unemployment, civil unrest, and a rise in political discontent.

Assuming that Aliyev’s top priority is to maintain his grip on power, it seems he has chosen to distract his population by invoking Nagorno-Karabakh for scapegoating purposes. This is evidenced by his latest pronouncements of victory, aimed not at the international community but at his own population. Such tactics is a tried-and-true method (not only in Azerbaijan, but in many countries) to disperse domestic grievances and promote national cohesion.

Meanwhile, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia are in the delicate spot of trying to respond firmly to such provocations, without “crossing the line” and inviting real hostilities.

What are Russia’s options?

Native Armenians are stubbornly distrustful of Azeri authorities, and would sooner die than return to the pre-1988 status quo. Accordingly, Azerbaijan must take the fundamental steps of acknowledging Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to exist and allowing its inclusion as a side to the negotiations. No solution – no matter how clever – can work without local involvement.

A second issue, however, is perhaps even thornier: It involves the regional balance of power. Specifically, how Russia intends to react to growing instability along its southern frontier. If Russia retreats, more blood may be spilled before a solution is reached. On the other hand, if Russia remains integrally involved, it must do so with sensitivity.

For one, Russia must acknowledge the possibility of escalation – the shift from ground combat to medium-range capabilities, which could make the conflict harder to control. For another, its interventions must avoid giving the appearance of manipulation, if it is to maintain influence.

Rather, Moscow's intentions must become more transparent, aiming to build trust within a framework of regional cooperation rather than by perpetuating instability among states under its influence. Otherwise, the stalemate will continue well into the next decade.

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