On September 27, fresh fighting broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. While each country accused the other of having shot first, the conflict quickly escalated into martial law and total mobilization on both sides. Since then, military clashes as well as artillery and missile strikes on cities have killed more than 360 people, and the war has threatened to escalate into an even more destructive regional conflagration. A tenuous ceasefire is now in place, but appears to be failing as both sides claim the other is violating it.
The impending election, the resurgence of the coronavirus, and President Donald Trump’s own COVID-19 infection have sucked Americans’ attention away from anything else in the world that might be worth paying attention to, so you’d be forgiven for not realizing that a distant war has been going on for the past two weeks. The lack of attention and involvement from the U.S., however, may be contributing to the conflict’s rapid escalation and diminishing the prospects for its speedy resolution. Although it will have no impact whatsoever on our presidential election, it’s the sort of international crisis in which the U.S. president can make a real difference.
The mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan under international law, but most of its inhabitants are ethnic Armenians. The territorial dispute originated in the waning days of World War I when the Caucasian nations briefly set up their own independent nation-states amid the collapse of the Russian Empire, before being absorbed into the Soviet Union a few years later. The Soviets redrew the borders of the peripheral republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia to ensure that they contained significant ethnic-minority populations, making them more likely to fight each other than to fight Russia and harder to govern as independent states. Whether these decisions were part of a deliberate divide-and-rule strategy or more nuanced remains the subject of scholarly debate, but in any case, the strategy worked.
The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh continued to press for independence from Azerbaijan throughout the Soviet period. In 1988, as the Soviet Union was beginning to fall apart, the leaders of the regional soviet voted to separate the region from Azerbaijan and unite it with Armenia. This attempt at secession launched an ethnic conflict that quickly spiraled into an all-out war, which lasted six years and led to at least 25,000-30,000 deaths and the displacement of 1 million people. Russia brokered a ceasefire between its former imperial possessions in 1994, by which time Armenia had taken control over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjoining territories of Azerbaijan.
That ceasefire held, despite occasional violations, for 22 years, but the countries never reached a permanent settlement of the dispute, making Nagorno-Karabakh one of the several “frozen conflicts” of the post-Soviet era. A mini-war broke out in 2016, with Azerbaijan recapturing a small amount of territory over four days, and small-scale hostilities erupted this past July, presaging the larger war that broke out in late September.
A complicating factor in this conflict is that the belligerents’ more powerful neighbors, Russia and Turkey, have interests in the South Caucasus and have the ability to either deescalate or exacerbate the conflict. Turkey, which sees the Turkic-language-speaking Azerbaijanis as part of a greater Turkish sphere of influence, has backed Azerbaijan in this dispute since 1993, when Ankara closed its borders with Armenia and imposed an economic blockade that remains in place today. Bad historical blood between Armenia and Turkey, which still refuses to acknowledge the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide, also contributes to present-day enmity between these countries. Russia, meanwhile, has always been the primary broker responsible for managing this conflict. It has a formal military alliance with Armenia, but does not consider Azerbaijan an enemy — and it is also the primary arms dealer to all sides in this conflict.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tacitly supported military action by Azerbaijan, and the Turkish government has sent around 1,500 Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan to participate in the war, leveraging its proxy army of Syrian opposition militias, which it has also sent to fight in the Libyan civil war. Further illustrating the conflict’s expansive regional dimension, Turkey’s deployment of Syrian fighters has alarmed Iran, Azerbaijan’s other more powerful neighbor, which backs the Syrian government in that country’s civil war. Iran has good relations with both its Caucasian neighbors, particularly Azerbaijan, with which it has historical, cultural, and religious ties: Iranian Azerbaijanis are the largest ethnic minority in Iran, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is half-Azerbaijani on his father’s side. Tehran doesn’t want Turkish-backed mercenaries, whom it considers terrorists, on its borders, nor does it want Azerbaijan to fall too deeply under Turkish influence.
Russia has not stepped in militarily yet, but experts fear that Moscow could intervene on Armenia’s behalf if the fighting drags on, turning the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict into a direct or proxy war between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member state. Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and Russian president Vladimir Putin have both said Moscow would uphold its commitment to Armenia as a military ally, but Putin has sought to position himself as a neutral mediator and broker another ceasefire. However, some experts believe Putin would like to see Pashinyan diminished or overthrown, as the Armenian leader is more pro-Western than his predecessors and not inclined to run his country as a Russian puppet state. Putin may seek to pressure Pashinyan into a more pro-Moscow position by withholding direct military assistance when Armenia needs it most.
The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, a committee co-chaired by Russia, the U.S., and France, has been responsible for mediating this conflict since 1992. Russia has led the latest effort to bring the parties to the negotiating table. Overnight talks in Moscow led to a Russian-brokered humanitarian ceasefire that went into effect midday Saturday, but Armenia and Azerbaijan both accused each other of violating it within hours. Negotiations are reportedly still ongoing over the terms of a more durable ceasefire, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said, and the countries have agreed to renew peace talks under the auspices of the Minsk Group.
One member of that international mediation committee has been conspicuously absent from this effort. U.S. representatives have been involved in the Moscow effort to broker a ceasefire, but the highest levels of U.S. leadership have largely backed off. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo only commented on the conflict after being asked about it last week, and his comments made it clear that the U.S. wasn’t going to get involved: “We’re discouraging internationalization of this. We think outsiders ought to stay out. We’re urging a ceasefire. We want them both to back up. We’ve spoken to the leadership in each of the two countries, asking them to do just that.”
In past administrations, a shooting war involving Russia and a NATO member would be a drop-everything event for the State Department. President Donald Trump, who is friendly with Erdogan, could try calling his Turkish counterpart and persuade him to stop escalating the conflict. But of course, the president is too busy trying to rescue his spiraling reelection campaign and persuade the American people that he is not debilitatingly ill with COVID-19. Anyway, resolving a conflict between two countries most Americans can’t find on a map would not win him any votes next month, so why should he care?
As multiple commentators have pointed out, the absence of U.S. global leadership invites conflicts like these to flare up and makes them harder to resolve peacefully. We have seen bad actors take advantage of the Trump administration’s hands-off, “America first” approach to foreign policy over the past three years, and it is unsurprising to see a small country like Azerbaijan looking to settle a border dispute militarily while the U.S. is still governed by a president with no interest in diplomatic leadership. Under a putative Joe Biden administration, they must realize, they will be much less likely to get away with it.