With all eyes focused on Ukraine's border with Russia, it is hardly surprising that the 'other' dispute has fallen off the front pages. However, as Stratfor notes, 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 as Azerbaijan's leverage in the region grows. Russia's involvement could herald a change in this longstanding conflict.
In 1994, after mediation by numerous external players including Russia, Turkey and Iran, a cease-fire was reached to end the conflict. But by that time Armenian forces had decisively defeated Azerbaijan, leading to the de facto independence of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian control of several provinces bordering the region.
Now, as Russia and the West confront each other over Ukraine, the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute represents a subtler yet similarly significant issue for the Caucasus. As Georgia attempts to move closer to the West and Armenia strengthens ties with Russia, Azerbaijan is maintaining a careful balance between the two sides. Azerbaijan thus serves as the pivot of the Caucasus, and the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is a crucial aspect in shaping Baku's role.
Russia has historically supported the Armenians but in light of Azerbaijan's rising influence, Russia has become more engaged on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue than it has been in years. Russian officials have held numerous meetings with officials from Azerbaijan and Armenia on the issue in recent months, indicating a possible shift in Moscow's position. But in order for Moscow to truly change its stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, it would need to weaken considerably, or Azerbaijan would need to become so vital to Russian interests that Moscow would change allegiances and confront Armenia, an unlikely prospect at this point.