The recent outbreak of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenian military and Armenian-backed militia forces in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno–Karabakh region threatens to destabilize an already fragile region even further. According to media reports, dozens of soldiers from both sides have been killed, and Azerbaijani forces have recaptured some of the territory lost to Armenia in the early 1990s.
Despite its physical distance from the United States, events in the South Caucasus can affect regional security and, by extension, transatlantic security. It is in America’s national interest to monitor developments in the region and ensure that the conflict is resolved peacefully.
A Bloody History
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan started in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims on Azerbaijan’s Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. This action resulted in a bloody war that left 30,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands more internally displaced. Since 1992, Armenian forces and Armenian-backed militias have occupied almost 20 percent of the territory that the international community recognizes as part of Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno–Karabakh region and all or part of Lachin, Kelbajar, Agdam, Fizuli, Jebrayil, Qubatli, and Zangelan provinces.
In 1992 and 1993, the U.N. Security Council adopted four resolutions on the Nagorno–Karabakh war. Each resolution confirmed the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan to include Nagorno–Karabakh and the seven surrounding districts and called for the withdrawal of all occupying Armenian forces from Azerbaijani territory. These resolutions were never implemented by Armenia.
The warring parties signed a cease-fire agreement in 1994, and the conflict has been “frozen” since then. The Minsk Group, tasked with bringing a lasting end to the war, is now defunct thanks to the breakdown in Western relations with Russia over the issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since August 2014, violence has increased noticeably along the Line of Contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Today, Armenia’s occupation of parts of Azerbaijan is no different from Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea in Ukraine or its occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.
Moscow continues to take advantage of ethnic divisions and tensions in the South Caucasus to advance pro-Russian policies that are often at odds with America’s or NATO’s goals in the region. Armenia is firmly in the Russian camp, and Moscow effectively enjoys suzerainty over Yerevan. Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In September 2013, Armenia decided against signing the Association Agreement with the EU and instead later joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Armenia even voted with Russia in the U.N. General Assembly regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Russia maintains a sizable military presence in Armenia based on an agreement giving Moscow access to bases in that country for 49 years. Late last year, Russia and Armenia signed a Combined Regional Air Defense System agreement. The bulk of the Russian force, consisting of approximately 5,000 soldiers and dozens of fighter planes and attack helicopters, is based around the 102nd Military Base just miles from the Turkish border.
Although Russia sells weapons to both sides, it is clear that Moscow’s sympathies lie with Armenia. As the late highly respected expert on Eurasian security Alexandros Petersen has noted:
It is of course an open secret to all in the region as well as to Eurasianists in the EU that the Nagorno–Karabakh dispute is a Russian proxy conflict, maintained in simmering stasis by Russian arms sales to both sides so that Moscow can sustain leverage over Armenia, Azerbaijan and by its geographic proximity Georgia.
Today, Russia’s actions in the South Caucasus in general, and in Nagorno–Karabakh specifically, are motived by four needs:
- The need to exert Russian influence in the region through involvement in frozen conflicts, especially when it comes to lucrative weapons deals.
- The need to destabilize non-Russian oil and gas pipelines to Europe. Instability in Nagorno–Karabakh means that crucial oil and gas pipelines to Europe, bypassing Russia, remain under constant threat. The Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline and the South Caucasus Pipeline run within several miles of the front lines, and any major outbreak of warfare would immediately threaten them.
- The need to keep Russian military forces abroad. Armenia is home to the largest overseas basing of Russian troops.
- The need to undermine Turkey. With tensions between Russia and Turkey rising, Russia’s support of Armenia is another way for Moscow to undermine Turkey.
Iran is one of the established Eurasian powers and therefore sees itself as entitled to a special status in the region. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were once part of the Persian Empire. Today, Armenia and Iran enjoy cozy relations. During the war in Nagorno–Karabakh in the early 1990s, Iran sided with Armenia as a way to marginalize Azerbaijan’s role in the region.
Azerbaijan is one of the predominately Shia areas that Iran has not been able to place under its influence. There is an underlying tension between Tehran and Baku over the status of ethnic Azeris living in Iran. Consequently, Iran uses its relationship with Armenia as one way to undermine Azerbaijan.
In the past, the Armenian–Iranian relationship has been too close for comfort for the U.S. In 2008, for instance, the U.S. State Department accused Armenia of selling weapons to Iran that were later used against, and killed, U.S. troops serving in Iraq. With economic sanctions against Iran now being lifted, Tehran is expected to fund a major railway project and invest almost $100 million in an electricity deal in Armenia.
What happens in the South Caucasus can have regional, transatlantic, and global implications. While the U.S. has no direct military role in the conflict, it is in America’s interest that the conflict does not spiral out of control. The U.S. should therefore:
- Monitor the situation in Nagorno–Karabakh. Peace talks over Nagorno–Karabakh have been stalled for years, and the U.S. can do very little to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. However, remaining silent on the matter offers implicit approval of the status quo. The U.S. should continue to call for a peaceful solution to the conflict that includes the withdrawal of Armenian forces from all Azerbaijani territories.
- Recognize that the conflict is part of a larger Russian strategy. From maximizing diplomatic influence to selling weapons, Moscow benefits in many ways from the “frozen conflicts” around its borders. Also, Russia’s support for Armenia should be seen as one part of a larger Russian strategy to undermine NATO member Turkey.
- Show a more visible presence in the region. The U.S. is all but absent in the region. Occasional Cabinet-level visits need to be followed up with regular visits by senior officials from all areas of government, including diplomatic, defense, economic, energy, and trade sectors. This would give the U.S. more influence in helping to resolve local conflicts before they turn into regional ones.
- Encourage countries in the region to stay away from Russian-dominated organizations. Russia’s EEU and the CSTO are retrograde structures that serve only the interests of Russia at the expense of the other member states. The U.S. should encourage countries in the region to maintain cordial but not subservient relations with Russia.
If these cease-fire violations turn into a full-blown war, the spillover effect could be felt across the region. While the South Caucasus is far away, American policymakers should keep in mind that ongoing conflict in the region can have a direct impact on U.S. interests, as well as on the security of America’s partners and allies.
—Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.