On the morning of September 27, fighting erupted along the line of contact between Azerbaijan and the self-declared Armenian statelet of Artsakh in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict marked an escalation of violence after a summer of bloody incidents in Tavush, along the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The fighting heralded a veritable beginning of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, eclipsing past incidents in a spate of violence surpassed only by the war of the 1990s. The build-up of violence reflects a fatal combination of neglect by Europe, Russia, and the United States, ambition of a rising Turkey, and frustration of Azerbaijan in the face of continued perpetuation of injustice.
The modern conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh traces its roots to the initial formation of the Müsavat-led Republic of Azerbaijan and the Dashnak-led first Republic of Armenia from the ashes of the Russian Caucasus and the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1918. As Stephen Kotkin writes in Stalin: The Paradoxes of Power (2014), the Sovietization of Azerbaijan in April 1920 occurred when the country’s army asserted its claim on Karabakh. At the same time, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the leader of the nationalist forces in the Turkish War of Independence, consented to the Bolshevik annexation of the Caucasus, a mountainous region stretching from Batumi on Georgia’s Black Sea coast to Baku on the Caspian Sea, in exchange for securing Turkey’s eastern border. This new order in the Caucasus followed from a period of mutual support between the Bolsheviks and Turkish nationalists, with Moscow sending gold to support Atatürk’s forces during the Turkish War of Independence. Post this settlement, with Turkey turning inward and Russian pre-eminence secured in the Caucasus, Stalin’s policy on nationalities, enacted in the 1920s, granted Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomous status within Soviet Azerbaijan.
As de Waal writes in Black Garden (2003), Azerbaijanis and Armenians had lived together, mostly in peace, before and after this period until 1988. After 1988, as the collapse of the Soviet Union became imminent, tensions emerged over the status of Karabakh — would it join the newly-independent Armenia or Azerbaijan? Moscow armed both sides, but gave preference to Armenia. Before the final Soviet collapse in 1991, Armenians suffered ethnic cleansing at the hands of Azerbaijani forces in Baku and Sumgayit. However, by the spring of 1992, Armenia had gained a definitive military advantage in Karabakh, unleashing a policy of ethnic cleansing of Karabakh and the surrounding occupied districts, resulting in the displacement of over half a million Azerbaijanis and the Khojaly massacre. In May 1994, Russia brokered a ceasefire along the line of contact that has lasted, with sporadic incidents of violence, to the present.
Having effectively achieved its objectives in securing Karabakh in 1992 and 1993, Armenia holds the occupied territories around Karabakh as leverage in negotiations with Azerbaijan. It feels no rush to reach a final settlement. On the other hand, Azerbaijan’s national identity was crystallized around the tragic memories of ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s. In the face of atrocities, Azerbaijanis have been unwilling to accept the status quo without any substantial progress towards a resolution. .
Emerging from the Soviet Union into the first Karabakh War, both Armenia and Azerbaijan were highly dependent on Russia. However, Azerbaijan also invested in diversifying its international allies, courting closer ties with Iran, Israel, Turkey, and the United States. Now, armed with Israeli and Turkish drones and possessing a greater economic heft, Azerbaijan has a greater ability to escalate its military operations in Karabakh.
Since the beginning of the most recent conflict on September 27, attacks on civilians have been launched by both sides. Azerbaijan has launched cluster bomb munitions at civilian areas of Stepanakert, the self-styled capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenian forces have attacked civilians in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city and home to many Azerbaijanis displaced from Karabakh and the occupied territories.
Ultimately, the retreat of the United States from its previously more assertive role in international affairs facilitated the conditions that have destabilized the Caucasus. U.S. reticence to engage in the Caucasus has emboldened Ankara to take strategic affairs of the region in its own hands. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Trump administration followed their disappointing near silence on Belarus by taking a haphazard approach to Karabakh. While the U.S. has worked with France and Russia in the OSCE Minsk Group format, established in the wake of the first Nagorno-Karabakh War, its public efforts have thus far only consisted of statements of concern and a Washington-brokered ceasefire, on terms previously negotiated in Moscow, that collapsed within minutes. By contrast, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken a more muscular approach, sending Turkish F-16s to Ganja, near the conflict zone, and offering unyielding rhetorical support for the Azerbaijani cause. Ilham Aliyev, the authoritarian president of Azerbaijan, has capitalized on Turkey’s steadfast support by threatening to use Turkish F-16s in operations against Armenian forces.
This should not be a surprise — the US administration’s song-and-dance game of notching foreign policy “wins” before election day, coupled with the outbreak of COVID-19 in the White House, does not lend itself to substantive resolution of conflicts. Between Arab-Israeli normalization deals and the half-baked “economic normalization” deal between Serbia and Kosovo, American foreign policy has been running high on grandiosity. Under previous administrations, one could say that obsession with process got in the way of resolving conflict. Under President Trump, the performance of the process has become all-consuming. Seeking to make real progress on Nagorno-Karabakh would require gritty, details-oriented diplomacy — the type that the President and aides like Richard Grenell lack.
By taking a more strategic approach, the U.S. will gain influence in the region from the conflict in Karabakh in the short-term. Both Armenians’ feeling of betrayal vis-a-vis Moscow and a newly confident Azerbaijan will see ties with Russia as less valuable. However, the U.S. could be playing a proactive role in negotiating an end to Azerbaijan’s offensive and pushing the Armenian side to make substantive concessions on the occupied territories, the status of Karabakh, and Azerbaijani IDPs. American diplomacy, at its best, leverages the prestige and power of the United States to effect substantive resolutions to the conflict. An American-led, multilateral effort for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh, conducted in the spirit of the diplomacy that once brought peace to Bosnia-Herzegovina under the Dayton Accords in 1995, would bring a more positive outcome for the civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh and for U.S. influence abroad.
While the United States did not create the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, it can be at the frontlines of solving it. As the world witnesses yet another moment of American diplomatic decline and political failure, the war presses on. The trends that ignited the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War will not rest there. Tomorrow, more people elsewhere will face the same perils of conflict should the international community continue to exhibit such short-sightedness and ambivalence.