The latest war over Nagorno Karabakh lasted a single day, ending on Sept. 20. It is the third war over the region disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the last three and a half decades.
But this time, it seems there was really only one party to the conflict. Armenia stayed out, leaving it to the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh to surrender.
A hundred thousand people have fled to Armenia, roughly 80 percent of the Karabakh population. What’s more, Armenia’s most powerful allies, Iran and Russia, appear to be distracted and marginally engaged.
Advantage Washington, then, if we view these matters in the context of strategic competition.
Turkey gets this. The country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has backed Azerbaijan to expand Ankara’s influence in the South Caucasus. America needs to get its oar in the water. There’s an unprecedented opportunity to moderate Turkish ambition and push back Iran and Russia from a region important for both energy and security.
At the risk of sounding obvious, Russia and Iran deserve our particular attention.
Start with Iran, a longstanding foe of Azerbaijan and close ally of Armenia, which shares parts of its northern border with each. Its Azeri minority comprises as much as 25 percent of Iran’s population, and shares a border with Armenia. Azerbaijan’s desire for control over a route to its own exclave south of Armenia would potentially come at Iran’s expense.
The South Caucasus is important to Iran for two reasons. First, it wants a stable land bridge northward to its ally Russia. Second, Tehran wants access to Europe without having to pay high transit fees to Turkey. That’s why Tehran has been pushing over the last few years for a “Persian Gulf-Black Sea” corridor. Iran is already shipping goods through the South Caucasus into Bulgaria and Greece, and thereby into the lucrative EU market.
Then there’s Russia. Nagorno Karabakh is a majority-Armenian inhabited region. In all three wars, starting in 1998, Moscow has stepped up as mediator and broker of ceasefires. Russia’s appetite for influence has not disappeared. Its hand, however, is weaker today, even if its interests remain clear.
The pro-Russian opposition tried to stage a coup last week against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan because he refused to fight Azerbaijan. But there’s more. Putin feels threatened by democratically elected leaders in the region. That is what Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and Maia Sandu of Moldova represent. Pashinyan was also democratically re-elected in 2021. Armenians voted for peace, not war, and Yerevan’s current government leans west, not east.
It is time for the West to step in. There are already encouraging signs. For the first time, both the U.S. and the EU have held peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the last few months. In Arlington, Va., the leaders of the two countries were hosted by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Last week, the U.S. held a military peacekeeping exercise with Armenia, to the chagrin of Russia and Iran. The USAID Director Samantha Power landed Monday morning in Armenia, as thousands of Nagorno Karabakh Armenians were fleeing there.
It is important to address humanitarian concerns, but there’s a larger strategic opportunity for the U.S. To build on these early steps, the U.S. should consider these three things. First, take over negotiations from Russia. Armenia wants to rid itself of Russian influence. Azerbaijan, an ally of Israel and Turkey, is malleable and open-minded.
Second, the U.S. should actively support a larger mandate for EU peacekeepers in the South Caucasus. The EU last year launched a mission to the South Caucasus, but its mandate is so limited that it already failed to prevent the one-day war. With political and material support from the U.S., Brussels could beef up the mission to establish Western foothold in the region.
Third, the U.S. should consider establishing a cooperation format for the South Caucasus that excludes Russia and Iran. This could include one or both countries. By taking leadership of a format that includes the three South Caucasus nations, Turkey, and the EU, the U.S. can afford Armenia and Azerbaijan a chance to develop their relations with the West, while distancing themselves further from Russia and Iran.
Sometimes, regional conflicts have global importance. The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is one such case. If we want to push back against Iranian and Russian influence, opportunity is knocking at the door.
Iulia Sabina-Joja teaches at Georgetown University and George Washington University, runs the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program in Washington, D.C., and is co-host of the AEI podcast “Eastern Front.”
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