Is the eruption of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh the world’s first COVID war? The three co-chairs of the Minsk Process – France, Russia and the United States – that have been trying to resolve the conflict since 1992 are each distracted by rising infection numbers, not to mention the approaching American election. It has been an opportune moment for combatants on both sides to push to improve their strategic positions, before winter sets in in the Karabakh highlands and probably pauses the fighting. Given the failure of the recently Russian-brokered ceasefire, any pause will be temporary. The question is whether future fighting can be contained and a larger confrontation, drawing in outside forces, can be prevented.
At stake is a territory, approximately the size of Delaware, populated by ethnic Armenians but recognized internationally as integral to Azerbaijan. The roots of the problem are deep. In antiquity the region belonged to the ancient Kingdom of Armenia but over the centuries changed hands between Tatars and Mongols, Russians and Persians, in the embattled fragmentation of the Caucasus. The Bolsheviks wanted to assign it to Armenia, but in 1921 Stalin, in all his wisdom, peremptorily gifted it to Azerbaijan as the “Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast.”
As the Soviet Union collapsed 70 years later, ethnic conflicts between Azeris and Armenians erupted. The Armenians tried to secede from Azerbaijan as the “Artsakh Republic,” which currently controls the region. Prospects for a diplomatic resolution are in the hands of the OSCE Minsk Group, aspiring to implement the “Madrid Principles,” including a withdrawal of Armenian forces, Azerbaijan’s granting the region genuine autonomy and eventually a referendum, likely to lead to incorporation into Armenia.
Were this simply a matter of a border dispute in an area of historically mixed ethnicity, the path to a reasonable resolution might be arduous but in principle manageable. An analogy might be the case of the Kosovars who seceded from Serbia, where U.S. diplomacy recently succeeded in leading the two sides to an important agreement.
In contrast, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has been poisoned by additional toxic factors. In the war of narratives, the hostilities between the Christian Armenians and the Shia Muslim Azeris has been misrepresented as a “clash of civilizations,” and not merely a competition for territory. Furthermore, the growing support Azerbaijan has received from Turkey prompts the Armenians to interpret the dispute against the backdrop of the World War I era genocide. Each side, Armenia and Azerbaijan, has invested a lot in terms of national pride, and it will be hard for either to back down.
Yet this is a case that disproves the adage that all politics are local. Several outside players have skin in the game, turning Nagorno-Karabakh into a nodal point of international competitions. The secessionists in Artsakh have the support of Armenia, while Azerbaijan, trying to regain control of its territory, is backed by Turkey. Armenia is traditionally allied with Russia but is also currently supported by France, both because of a significant Armenian diaspora lobby and given President Macron’s current very critical stance toward Turkey. An accidental or intentional missile strike against the home territory of Armenia could lead it to invoke its defense agreement with Russia. Similarly, an attack on Turkey, which shares a long border with Armenia, could put NATO involvement on the table.
There are several implications for Washington. The primary goal of responsible international diplomacy should be a termination of the fighting and a minimization of civilian casualties. Beyond that, however, it is important to see the conflict as one more example of the fraying all around the Russian circumference. Usually viewed as an indication of Putin‘s revanchist strategy of hybrid warfare and frozen conflicts, the number of local crises may have reached a tipping point and turned into a threat for Moscow. Russia faces an arc of instability from Belarus through Ukraine, Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kyrgyzstan and even in Khabarovsk in the Russian far east. Additionally, in light of Russian commitments in Syria and Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh may be one liability too many for the Kremlin to manage.
In addition, Nagorno-Karabakh pits Russia against Turkey, in realpolitik terms a net plus for the U.S., which could approach the conflict as an opportunity to repair relations with Ankara, an important NATO ally. Current American tensions with Turkey, a consequence especially of the ill-considered U.S. alliance with the Kurdish YPG in the war on ISIS, need to be resolved. The U.S. should at least avoid being viewed by Turkey as ganging up with Moscow and Paris – both antagonists of Turkey – in order to pressure its ally Azerbaijan. Instead, the U.S. might explore a more positive outcome in Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for Turkish moderation in the Eastern Mediterranean. If Ankara’s response were to warrant it, a co-chairship of the Minsk Group might even be in the offing. Turkey definitely wants a larger profile in the region.
Winter will start soon in the Caucasus, and the conflict may be frozen until spring. The key variable for U.S. foreign policy is the upcoming election: which administration will inherit this file.
A Trump administration might well choose to view Nagorno-Karabakh as one more “endless war,” far from U.S. vital interests: Can’t the Europeans ever handle problems in their own backyard? That approach would of course overlook the implications for a vital NATO ally.
Speculating on the foreign policy of a Biden administration, so far wrapped in mystery, may be a fool’s game. But after four years of attacking Trump for allegedly being soft on Russia, it would not be surprising to see a more hawkish Democratic agenda. In Nagorno-Karabakh that could mean a decided tilt against Russia’s ally Armenia and support instead for Azerbaijan, already viewed as western-oriented and, to make the deal sweeter, the gateway to the oil and gas fields of the Caspian Sea.
Russell A. Berman is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of the humanities at Stanford University.