Why Americans Should Care about the Armenian-Azerbaijani War

Photo by Stephen B. Riegg

One of Vice President Joe Biden’s most recent statements calls on the White House to address an ongoing crisis in the Caucasus “urgently before more lives are lost and the conflict expands.” Otherwise engrossed in the minutiae of Biden’s and President Trump’s every utterance, the U.S. media and the public have overlooked this appeal from the presidential candidate. Here is why Americans should be concerned by the unfolding events at the nexus of Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

On September 27, the military forces of Azerbaijan launched a large-scale assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan’s borders. About 140,000 ethnic Armenians live in the 1,700-square-mile territory and have governed themselves since winning a bloody war against Azerbaijan in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. The conflict has received little attention in the U.S. The fighting is understandably drowned out by media coverage of the election and pandemic; however, despite evidence of civilian casualties and the use of prohibited cluster munitions, it has elicited little more than a tepid appeal for calm from the U.S. State Department. This inattention is perplexing because this new war, waged at the heart of the ongoing global reconfigurations of power, merits more serious consideration in American public and policy discourse.

For years, the combatants — the Republic of Azerbaijan on one side and the unrecognized authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh, who are backed by the Republic of Armenia, on the other — have made overlapping claims to legitimate land sovereignty based on archaeological and historical evidence. The resulting “frozen conflict” in the post-Soviet space remained largely dormant for 26 years but exploded suddenly in late September. To many Americans, references to the Caucasus either induce headaches about the Iowa caucuses or hazy recollections of the resting place of Noah’s Ark. Yet there are several reasons why we ignore the fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis to our own detriment.

The crux of the dispute rests on conflicting claims to self-determination and territorial integrity. The Armenians argue that they have an inalienable right to govern themselves and to determine their political future. They insist on the basic premise that is a cornerstone of the American consciousness: one’s liberty from foreign subjugation and right to peaceful co-existence are non-negotiable. The Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, point out that the U.N.-recognized borders of the Republic of Azerbaijan include all of Nagorno-Karabakh, making that region a de jure part of their state, but a de facto island within its borders.

For Azerbaijan, the status quo has become untenable. In July 2020, an embarrassing cross-border skirmish resulted not only in the death of a senior Azerbaijani officer, but also in a rare display of popular anger directed at the government’s and the military’s handling of the conflict. Under domestic pressure, Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s long-tenured authoritarian president, proclaimed that his patience for diplomatic negotiations had expired and ordered an invasion of the enclave to reclaim it while ignoring the plight of that land’s civilian residents.

The Azerbaijani leaders deny the right of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to political self-determination, seek to expel those “occupiers” to Armenia proper, and have opted for violent territorial integration over internationally brokered conflict resolution. Whatever our moral, geopolitical, or legal stances on this dispute, the bottom line is that Washington has yet to take concrete diplomatic action to stop the bloodshed. The U.S., alongside Russia and France, is a co-chair of the Minsk Group, a diplomatic triumvirate operating within the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe that has mediated between the two adversaries since the 1990s. Yet the vapid reaction from American policymakers and the public to an unfolding geopolitical and humanitarian crisis raises fresh concerns from our allies and renewed aspirations from our adversaries.

Americans should be concerned by the evident fact that the recent U.S. disengagement from many global diplomatic matters has emboldened certain actors, such as Turkey, to maneuver in a newly multipolar world. On October 7, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned: “Americans are withdrawing and Turkey is taking a stronger, much more assertive position.” Turkey’s unprecedented involvement in this war has become this conflict’s most surprising twist that could lead to catastrophic global consequences. An ethnic cousin and strategic partner of Azerbaijan, Turkey has for the first time thrust itself directly into the fight by enabling Azerbaijan’s military adventurism. Turkey, our unpredictable NATO ally that harbors ambitions of expanded regional dominance, has supplied Azerbaijan with state-of-the-art weaponry that renders Armenia’s small and Russian-equipped military an underdog. It also appears to be providing military intelligence and air support for the Azerbaijani campaign.

Most ominously, France has verified that Turkey has been transporting hundreds of Islamist mercenaries from the battlefields of Syria to the South Caucasus to fight alongside Azerbaijanis against Armenians. Turkey’s entanglement and the escalating violence threaten to trigger a scenario that is sure to pique the concerns of Republicans, Democrats, and the millions of Americans in between: Russia is treaty-bound to defend the Republic of Armenia and may enter the fray to promote its insistence on post-Soviet “spheres of influence” and to oust Turkey — a longstanding rival — from a region where Russia has deep economic and strategic investments.

While Russia’s response to the current crisis has been conspicuously muted, Turkey’s encroachment on what Moscow views as its backyard — against Russia’s small regional ally, no less — could spark a clash that will surely bring global alarm. Armenia hosts a Russian garrison and is a member of the Kremlin’s post-Soviet political and security blocs: the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). On October 9, Russia’s foreign minister arbitrated 10 hours of negotiations between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The result was a humanitarian truce to exchange prisoners of war and the bodies of soldiers; however, each side accused the other of violating the ceasefire within hours and the war resumed. One cannot avoid wondering how different the reaction from American senators, journalists, and pundits would be if Russia were to transform from a diplomatic mediator to a military participant, even as a provider of peacekeeping troops.

In the new climate of U.S. disengagement and multipolarity, where zealous regional actors are no longer inhibited by Washington’s rhetorical insistences on tranquility, small nations recall their painful pasts and fear for their futures. Indeed, once Turkey’s audacious participation in the war became clear, the world’s Armenian diaspora gasped. For Armenian-Americans and the millions of Armenians throughout the world, this week resurrected nightmares of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 not just due to Turkey’s entry into the conflict, but also because of the absence of American and E.U. diplomatic intervention. Turkey’s collaboration in Azerbaijan’s attack on Armenians frightens those who wonder why the United States — ostensibly the global beacon of justice and international stability — tolerates a bully’s instigation of an imminent humanitarian crisis.

There is no need for Americans to pick a side in this fight or worry about Armenian security as attentively as we defend the inalienable right to self-determination and self-defense of some small nations, such as Israel. Rather, driven by real humanitarian fears as well as our strategic interest in preventing a Russian-Turkish war that could entangle NATO, we must activate international peace-building mechanisms to end the ongoing bloodshed. A knowledge of the details of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not necessary to denounce a country’s unilateral rejection of diplomacy in favor of unnecessary bloodshed and to voice concern at the evident withdrawal of the United States from global peacemaking efforts. If some of Azerbaijan’s grievances are valid, its resort to violence is a careless spark that has already ignited regional carnage and could fuel a European conflagration that would inevitably embroil the United States.