Late to the Game: Nagorno-Karabakh and the Implications of U.S. Apathy

In March of this year, as Coronavirus thrust itself onto the forefront of the global stage, the Director General of the United Nations, Tatiana Valovaya, expressed hope that COVID-19 could serve as a “common enemy” to bring the world together and catalyze peace.

While the status of this can be debated, this hope has not been realized on the world’s battlefields. Current conflicts across the Middle East have persisted, but on September 27, armed conflict arose between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet states that both claim control over a disputed region in Caucasus Mountains: Nagorno-Karabakh. This zone was the arena for a bloody war in the 1990s, when ethnic Armenians living in the region declared independence from Azeri rule and aligned themselves with the Armenian government.

The war was complicated by ethnic tensions stretching back to the Armenian genocide, when Ottoman Turks (with whom Azeris share ethnic and religious heritage) systematically killed nearly 1.5 million ethnic Armenians. This underlying strife led the conflict to become a war of attrition, with both sides violating human rights laws and further reducing the chance of a diplomatic solution. These factors prompted the creation of the OSCE Minsk Group in 1992, a multinational organization committed to settling the problems in the disputed region. Its creation, with the help of leadership from the United States, France, and Russia, helped Armenia and Azerbaijan reach a ceasefire in 1994. Since then, there have been several substantial border battles between the two countries, but none have reached the length or scale of the current conflict. Even as recently as April 2016, fighting broke out along the border. However, it only lasted four days before a ceasefire was negotiated with the help of the Minsk Group.

In these negotiations, U.S. involvement and leadership were crucial. In the 2016 flare-up, then Secretary of State John Kerry played a direct role in the peace negotiations during the four-day battle. His actions, as Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group described, helped “to pacify the situation and prevent new escalations.”

Unfortunately, this kind of American leadership is absent in 2020. President Trump has remained largely silent on the issue, offering only a few tweets preceding and following the failed U.S. cease-fire of October 26, four weeks after the conflict began. While this inaction may be consistent with Trump’s “America first” approach to foreign policy, it undermines U.S. military and political strength abroad.

First, this U.S. apathy sets a dangerous precedent for future small-nation disputes. While the history between Armenia and Azerbaijan is unique, the general situation that is unfolding—an autocratic state using force to settle a long present border dispute—is not. In taking its time and reluctantly walking to the negotiation table, the U.S. is not demonstrating a resolve for peace. Rather, it is inviting similar conflicts like these to reignite and making peaceful resolutions more difficult to attain.

Second (and more importantly), with the U.S. entering negotiations late, Russia and Turkey, two countries with opposing interests in the region, have become the main external parties in this Caucasus conflict. Russia has a strategic defense pact with Armenia and operates a military base in their city of Gyumri, but it has never regarded Azerbaijan as an enemy. Russia has attempted to broker peace between the two countries twice since the battle began, but Turkey, a longstanding ally of Azerbaijan and xenophobic neighbor to Armenia, has undermined efforts at peace. Having gained greater regional influence from its proxy wars in Syria and Iraq, Turkey has been bold, allegedly supporting Azeri combat operations by providing UAV weapons, F-16 fighter detachments, and even hundreds of Syrian jihadist mercenaries to fight alongside Azeri troops on the frontline.

In short, Russia has been advocating for a peaceful resolution, but Turkey has continued to press conflict, creating tension between the two nations that has had varying effects on U.S. credibility. On one level, letting Russia and Turkey “call the shots” gives the optics of the U.S. having a weak commitment to democracy, as Russia and Turkey are both autocratic states. On another level, however, it also presents the U.S. as ignorant of the situation’s potential gravity. The agitation between Russia and Turkey, which adds another proxy-war on top of the several these two nations are already waging in the Middle East, could lead to full-scale engagement if Russia upholds its collective security treaties with Armenia. A NATO nation engaging in a shooting war with another global power is not a light occurrence, and while the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may discourage the “internationalization” of this conflict, and argue that “outsiders” like the U.S. “ought to stay out,” the fact that Russia and Turkey are on the brink of potential war has already internationalized the conflict. Under previous administrations, resolving this hostility would be a high-priority issue, especially given Turkey’s increased belligerence over the past decade. Treating this conflict with nonchalance or lack of conviction now could have grave consequences in addition to weakening U.S. legitimacy on the world stage.

But above all, this latest retreat from international affairs has led the U.S. to miss an incredible opportunity: to play a critical role in catalyzing peace, asserting its diplomatic power, and repairing its reputation as “the first” in global leadership. Instead, the U.S. chose yet again to show reluctance in leading and upholding its responsibilities as the world’s supposedly most powerful democracy. Former president George H.W. Bush, in his 1998 book A World Transformed, saw the consequences of this apathy: “If the United States does not lead, there will be no leadership. . . If we fail to live up to our responsibilities, if we shirk the role that only we can assume, if we retreat from our obligation to the world in indifference, we will one day pay the highest price once again for our neglect and shortsightedness.” 

In less than one week, the United States will have its presidential election, ending what has been the most contentious election in modern history. Domestic strife has put the viability of U.S. democracy under scrutiny from abroad, and failures in foreign policy have exacerbated this harsh reality. If Joe Biden wins, there is a chance that the U.S. might change course. But if Donald Trump’s administration continues to wave the white flag with respect to global leadership, as it has in its response to the Coronavirus, its failure to adequately condemn China’s imprisonment of Uyghurs, its lack of vocal support for democracy in Belarus and Hong Kong, and its abandonment of the Kurds in Syria, the U.S. will pay the price as Bush predicted. It will be relegated to the role of “global follower,” not global leader, and Trump’s vision of “America first” will be little more than a cruel irony.

Image Credit: “Ethnic Armenians volunteer recruits” by AP Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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