[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Stay tuned for further installments.]
The grave importance of the 2020 U.S. presidential election is drowning out other critical stories from the news cycle, including the breakout of an actual war. After a tenuous 26-year ceasefire, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan went hot on Sept. 27, when fighting broke out across the line of contact with the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Within a week, the war ground to a stalemate and degenerated into an artillery duel, often targeting civilians.
The United States holds unique sway in this part of the world, but the Trump administration has shown a reluctance to get involved thus far, despite pressure from Armenia and its diaspora. If unaddressed, at least diplomatically, this very dangerous war could cascade into being the biggest single reversal of the post-World War II international order and the most serious threat to global security since the end of the Cold War.
The war is a revival of a conflict that began with a movement for unification of majority-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh with Soviet Armenia in 1988 and ended with a cease-fire in 1994 between ethnic Armenians and Azeris on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The war that began with the secession movement claimed more than 30,000 lives and left over 2 million refugees from both sides.
The escalation this time, with Turkish support for Azerbaijan, places the world in a dangerous situation. There are a few places on earth that have so many powerful interests involved with the potential to spiral out of control from a single miscalculation. Sandwiched between Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Georgia, the region lies at an intersection of political, ethnic, and religious borders. At stake in this one conflict is Russian, Turkish, and Iranian regional influence; an ethnic battle with memories of genocide; and a religious component (Christian Armenia, Shia Azerbaijan, Sunni Turkey).
Aggravating the situation, Turkey is funneling Islamist mercenaries from Syria to fight for Azerbaijan, a repeat of the 1990’s, when Azerbaijan brought in Afghan mujahideen to support its side. A protracted war this time threatens to make this a front for sectarian and jihadist fighting in Russia’s and Iran’s backyard. Since both countries have recent history with fighting Sunni jihadists in the region, Turkey’s promotion of jihadists in this war is nothing less than provocation.
`Chasing Them Like Dogs’
In addition, Armenia has well-founded fears that Azerbaijan intends nothing less than ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh’s 150,000 Armenians. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev proclaimed in a televised address Oct. 4 that “Nagorno-Karabakh is our land” and declared, “This is the end. We showed them who we are. We are chasing them like dogs.” That, in turn, is bound to drive strong resistance from Armenia and corresponding efforts to bring as many of its allies into the war as possible.
This war is also taking place on Russia’s border and territory of the former Soviet Union, which Vladimir Putin has indicated a desire to reconstruct and claims as Russia’s sphere of influence. Since 1994, Russia has had a trip-wire military force stationed in Armenia specifically to limit Turkish — and therefore NATO — expansion in the region. Russia also has economic ties with both countries and has been jealously guarding the Caucasus against non-Russian influence ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On Oct. 10, Russia was dealt a black eye when Azerbaijan broke a humanitarian cease-fire brokered a day earlier in Moscow within minutes of it coming into force. Russia no doubt sees this as a rebuke of its regional influence, opening the door to more risk-taking, creating more opportunities for Russians and Turks to come to blows on the battlefield.
And that is the real loaded gun in this scenario. A confrontation among Russia, Turkey, and Iran is more likely as time goes on and the situation evolves. And such a confrontation could become a black hole that the rest of the world will simply not be able to escape. America is unlikely to be able to sit out a regional war that involves NATO and Russia, nor can the U.S. economy afford the disruption to markets such a war would bring.
Diplomatic Action…or a Gamble
While no one is proposing military force be used to quell this war, failure to act now diplomatically and economically is a gamble, and like all gambles, the odds of failure are higher. It has been one of the fundamental tenants of the modern age that force would not be allowed to settle territorial disputes, precisely because that was the pretext for both World War I and World War II. But since the start of the conflict, U.S. leadership has been conspicuously absent.
By not acting swiftly to condemn the war and mobilize international political and economic pressure, every other autocratic regime can see this as an example of how they too can be adventurous and get away with it. Such disputes, in a multi-polar world with dozens of not-so-frozen conflicts, are a breeding ground for regional wars or even wider conflagrations.
Despite the Trump administration’s well-publicized retreat from global leadership, the United States is still unrivaled in its ability, political and economic, to prevent such criminally careless adventurism. The U.S. must be the loudest voice on the international stage condemning this war and holding the provocateurs to account.
If the war were limited to Azerbaijan and Armenia, the world might be forgiven for sitting this one out. We know from history that humanitarian concerns alone often are not enough reason for U.S. and international intervention to stop violence. But this is not a case of a local war presaging a humanitarian disaster. By staying quiet, the United States is letting a dangerous conflict evolve unpredictably, and further damaging its historic leadership position. A U.S. administration must not allow the norm of peaceful resolution for territorial conflicts – and the opportunity to do so — to slip away.
The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, the U.S. Government or any company.