The “frozen conflict” between Armenia and Azerbaijan has turned very hot. What may seem to many Westerners a minor clash in a remote corner of the world actually has significant implications for regional security, energy markets and the ambitions of two problematic strongmen: Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
The fighting, which goes back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, centers on a small enclave of ethnic Armenians inside Azerbaijan called Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous self-declared republic (which is not even formally recognized by its patron, Armenia) has a population of 150,000 but is highly militarized. The Azeris lost control of the area in a conflict in the 1990s that cost 30,000 lives, and despite much saber-rattling have been unable to get it back though diplomatic or military means.
In my time at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, I visited both countries several times. Dislike and distrust permeated the environment. The two defense chiefs at the time hated each other, and although both nations were nonmember partners with NATO (and had small troop contingents in Afghanistan), all that either man wanted to talk about was the duplicity and venality of the other. Unfortunately, each was accurately channeling the national view toward their neighbor in the Caucasus. Neither side seemed willing to give an inch, either literally and figuratively.
Over the four years I was at NATO, there were a number of half-hearted military thrusts by the Azeris, which were easily stopped by the Armenians. Our intelligence assessments found that the Armenians were almost certain to win if things came seriously to blows. The Russian Federation was supplying arms and training to both sides, and the Russians actually had a somewhat calming effect. You know things are bad when Putin is playing peacemaker.
In this latest escalation, as usual, both sides are claiming that the other attacked first; there were exchanges of fire in July leading to about a dozen Azeris killed (most of them soldiers). Casualties are now approaching 100. On Sunday, each side mobilized troops and declared martial law. On Tuesday, Armenia reported that one of its jets had been shot down by a Turkish F-16; Turkey denies the accusation.
There is a lack of any real push from outside nations to step in and negotiate a new cease-fire, something that has helped calm matters in the past, at least temporarily. The most recent effort was mediated by the so-called Minsk Group, with France, Russia and the U.S. in the lead, but collapsed in 2010.
What is particularly dangerous in this latest flare-up is that Turkey and Russia are strongly backing different horses. The Turks dislike the Armenians and support their fellow Muslims in Azerbaijan. (In Armenia, memories of massacres by the Ottoman Turks over a century ago remain a significant factor in national thinking.) Russia has a formal defense treaty and warm military-to-military relations with Armenia.
Bear in mind that the other nations adjacent to the fighting are ever-unstable Georgia and one of America’s most determined enemies, Iran. And that oil-rich Azerbaijan — with 7 billion barrels of proven reserves and large amounts of natural gas — has vulnerable pipelines that run as close as 10 miles from the Armenian border.
While I’ve been in the region several times when tensions were high, this time feels dangerously different. Washington is utterly distracted by the upcoming election. Turkey and Russia are on opposite sides (as they are in Syria and Libya as well). And the European Union is absorbed by the Brexit endgame and tensions at sea in the eastern Mediterranean between Greece and Turkey. NATO, which still has partnerships with Armenia and Azerbaijan, says “both sides should immediately cease hostilities” and there is “no military solution to this conflict,” but offers no concrete proposal.
The chances of a peaceful settlement seem bleak. A new version of the Minsk group that would include Turkey could build confidence for a deal. Putin is close to the leaders of both countries, although Russia tilts strongly to fellow Christian Orthodox Armenia. Perhaps the U.S., Russia and Turkey, working together, could convince the two sides to turn away from the catastrophic path they are headed down.
An approach might begin with some symbolic return of land to the Azeris; a commitment by both nations to forswear use of firearms and explosives (just as China and India did after their recent small conflict at the “line of control” in the Himalayas); and a step-by-step approach on new border openings. Admittedly, none of that feels promising.
“The Black Garden,” a brilliant 2003 book by Thomas de Waal, traces the roots of the conflict. In the concluding pages, he says, “Any just solution to the [Nagorno-Karabakh] dispute will entail painful compromises on both sides, and it will have to balance radically opposing principles.” At the moment, such compromises seem far less likely than a small war with potentially large consequences.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.