A complicated conflict in a faraway foreign land isn’t likely to compete for attention with the frenzied presidential election and unabated coronavirus crisis gripping this nation. But American citizens — and especially American policymakers — should focus on the spiraling violence in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.
Most profoundly, for humanitarian reasons: The fighting is the fiercest since initial post-Soviet era war broke out in the 1990s, when the dispute erupted in the ethnic Armenia enclave in western Azerbaijan.
Today, the enmity is just as intense, but the weaponry is more lethal. Drones and more powerful artillery are being deployed against combatants and civilians alike. To date, more than 700 soldiers and an undetermined number of citizens of Armenian descent have been killed. Azerbaijan has not officially reported its casualty count, but it’s likely to he high, too. And scores more have been uprooted from their homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The conflict is geopolitically consequential, too, and risks broadening into a wider regional war. It’s already devolved into a proxy fight between Russia, which backs Armenia (but has sold arms to Azerbaijan, too) and Turkey, which staunchly backs Azerbaijan. And because Turkey is a NATO nation, Western allies — especially the U.S. — can’t afford to let domestic distractions detract from diplomatic efforts that are essential to at least get to a durable cease fire, let alone a lasting Armenia-Azerbaijan accord.
A diplomatic international infrastructure is already in place via the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, in which co-chairs Russia, France and the U.S. have long sought a negotiated Nagorno-Karabakh solution. Washington has joined Moscow and Paris in calls for a cease-fire and negotiations, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to separately meet with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts on Friday. The challenges for Minsk Group countries and other nations “is to develop a package of positive and negative incentives that make negotiations look better than fighting: carrots and sticks, such as promises of aid or threats of limits to relationships, economic and otherwise (such as through sanctions),” according to Olga Oliker, the program director for Europe and Central Asia for the International Crisis Group. The Brussels-based Oliker added in an e-mail exchange with an editorial writer that an international mission “could provide unbiased ground truth about what’s going on in an atmosphere of dueling narratives, and also help calm matters.” Any potential “peacekeeping mission would also require the parties to agree to its deployment and to, in fact, first create a peace that could be kept.”
Oliker said U.S. envoys historically have “engaged actively in shuttle diplomacy and worked closely with Russia, as well as France and others, to develop and suggest ideas. In the region, officials have told Crisis Group staff that they felt that the United States was not paying much attention in recent years.”
There is “some U.S. activity, but more would be good,” John Herbst, director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, told an editorial writer. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan, added that the U.S. has a direct security and economic interest in peace in the Caucasus.
Diplomacy has previously worked, Oliker said, and “here, America’s reputation and global heft can be useful. Moreover, simply by paying attention, the U.S. and other countries show that the conflict, and the region, is not irrelevant to the rest of the world.”
Indeed, on humanitarian and geopolitical grounds, the conflict is not only relevant, but essential, and the rest of the world, led in part by the U.S., can and should help prevent further bloodshed in an already shaken world.