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Apr 4, 2016 | 14:56 GMT

7 mins read

Could Clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh Trigger a Wider Conflict?

Soldiers from the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh near the Azerbaijan border in 2012. Conflict over the territory flared again over the weekend.
(KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Editor's Note

The dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh has flared up again. While tension along the contact line has occasionally erupted into skirmishes for years, the fighting that began April 2 could develop into a wider conflict. Azerbaijan is attempting to forcibly take more territory in the hopes of undermining Armenia's hold on the area and of forcing it to make concessions. But Armenia and Russia, its ally on security matters, might not be as willing to let Azerbaijan, however incrementally, expand without some response.

And while other regional powers inching into the Caucasus — mainly Russia, Iran and Turkey — may try to curb fighting by backing a cease-fire, their own competitions could complicate matters. Azerbaijan has already begun diplomatic efforts to prevent the battle over Nagorno-Karabakh from escalating into a war, but whether the measures will succeed remains to be seen. Stratfor provides the following selection of previously published analyses as context for understanding the recent developments in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh Stalemate Flares Into Violence

April 3, 2016: Azerbaijani and Armenian forces clashed April 2 in Nagorno-Karabakh in one of the most violent incidents in the disputed region since the implementation of the 1994 Bishkek Protocol and its provisional cease-fire. Azerbaijan attempted to assuage the situation with its own unilateral cease-fire on April 3.

Skirmishes have become more frequent over the last year, part of Baku's military and diplomatic efforts to capture more territory. They hope to force concessions from Armenia and to break the dispute's status quo in Azerbaijan's favor.

Russia's Evolving Role in the Caucasus

March 9, 2016: Recent developments in the Caucasus suggest that subtle but important shifts are occurring, especially when it comes to Russia's role in the region. A flurry of diplomatic activity has transpired over the past few weeks, with Russian officials participating in negotiations over a wide variety of issues, including natural gas exports to Georgia, weapons sales to Armenia, and broader political and security ties with Azerbaijan. This accelerated diplomatic bustle comes at a time when other players, such as Turkey and the West, have begun to more actively challenge Moscow's dominance in the region. Moreover, Russia's evolving position in the Caucasus will likely be an important indicator for the future of larger conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

In the Azerbaijan-Armenia Conflict, a Small Mountain Outpost Can Make a Big Difference

Feb. 5, 2016: The Nagorno-Karabakh region often takes the spotlight when it comes to analyzing the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but occasional skirmishes elsewhere along the two countries' shared border should not be overlooked. In late 2015, the number of military skirmishes between Azerbaijan's Qazakh district and Armenia's Tavush province rose at about the same time as an uptick in fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. The terrain on this segment of the border is rough, and land mines make the surrounding areas hazardous. Though the few transport corridors that exist are regularly monitored, both sides often harass and occasionally occupy the other's border towns.

Such was the case in late December and early January, when Azerbaijani troops maneuvered against Armenian forces in northern Tavush province. But because these skirmishes are not a direct component of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, they are rarely tracked closely by monitoring organizations.

After Sanctions, Iran's Growing Role in the Caucasus

Feb. 1, 2016: With the end of sanctions on Iran, the country's regional economic influence will begin to rebound. The adjacent South Caucasus region, encompassing Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, is one area that Tehran will target for greater cooperation, reaching out to make deals on trade and energy. In doing so it will inevitably have to consider the role of Russia, which has dominated the political and economic affairs between the Black and Caspian seas for two centuries. Russia and Iran are regional geopolitical rivals, a dynamic manifested in the long-simmering Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and on negotiations over pipeline projects for Iranian hydrocarbon exports. Despite their rivalry, Russia and Iran will have to work together in order to block Western-led infrastructure projects, which they both largely oppose, and to avoid foreign military presence in the region, particularly by Georgia.

Why Progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh Standoff May Be Imminent

Nov. 14, 2015: After a decades-long standoff, Armenia and Azerbaijan may be making diplomatic progress toward resolving their bitter dispute over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both countries claim the semi-autonomous region, which lies along the southern half of their shared border, but since the end of a six-year war over the territory in 1994, Armenia has exercised control there and in seven adjacent regions also wrested from Azerbaijani rule. For 15 years, Russian support for Armenia has kept Azerbaijan from mounting another viable challenge to retake Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Russia's increasingly fragile position amid its standoff with the West and Azerbaijan's ability to leverage this change may soon prompt deals on several of the regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Gaming Out Nagorno-Karabakh

Sept. 21, 2015: The standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh appears to be entering a new phase. Both sides have ramped up military exercises in recent months and attended frequent meetings with Russian officials, fostering speculation in local media that a settlement may be forthcoming. Indeed, the countries' foreign ministers plan to meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly summit in New York on Sept. 24-25. But this is not necessarily a watershed moment. A solution to the conflict would require a reworking of the web of political alliances and relationships that span the Caucasus region, which could be a disruptive process. Still, ongoing tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine have dramatically changed the political situation in the region since 2014; Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan might be poised to make changes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Logic and Risks Behind Russia's Statelet Sponsorship

Sept. 15, 2015: Mother Russia can be quite generous when it comes to her collection of statelets. In the early 1990s, when a broken Russia had no choice but to suck in her borders, a severely distracted Kremlin still found the time and money to promote and sponsor the fledgling breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Transdniestria in Moldova. And as Russia became more economically coherent over the years, the number of Russian troops in these territories grew, and a bigger slice of the Russian budget was cut out to keep the quasi-states afloat.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, the Possibility of Escalation Lingers

April 2, 2015: Tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia continues to build over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Skirmishes on the front lines March 29-30 resulted in several casualties, and Azerbaijani Defense Minister Col.-Gen. Zakir Hasanov stated March 31 that Azerbaijan would "soon liberate all occupied territories" in the region. While a large-scale military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan on par with the 1988-1994 war over Nagorno-Karabakh remains unlikely, further escalations in the region cannot be ruled out. However, certain warning signs — such as a mobilization of troops and pre-positioning of supplies, as well as heightened diplomatic activity among regional players — would likely precede such escalations.

Analytic Guidance: What to Watch for in Nagorno-Karabakh

Aug. 5, 2014: Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh broke out July 31, and skirmishes have continued ever since. More people have been killed or injured in this outbreak of violence than in any incident since the two countries ended their war over the territory in 1994. Many observers wonder whether a new round of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is possible.

Stratfor believes that such a war is unlikely primarily because Russia is Armenia's security guarantor; starting a conflict with Armenia is tantamount to starting a conflict with Russia. That is not a war Baku can win. This dynamic has kept the conflict frozen for the past two decades, and Russia has kept this balance of power intact by supplying weapons to both sides, among other actions. However, this is not to say that the situation cannot change, particularly since the Caucasus region has seen some significant geopolitical shifts over the past two years. The recent spike in violence is an important development, but it creates more questions than answers.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Dispute: Then and Now

July 13, 2014: There has been a burst of diplomatic activity in recent months over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia and Azerbaijan have disputed for decades. Russia, the strongest power in the Caucasus, has become more engaged in the issue in light of Azerbaijan's growing leverage in the region, raising the possibility of a shift in this conflict. It is the changing positions of larger regional players such as Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United States, more so than Azerbaijan and Armenia themselves, that will drive the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the months and years to come.

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