Nagorno-Karabakh Update: What To Know as Armenian and Azeri Foreign Ministers Head to Washington
Today, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will host the Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia for talks in Washington after nearly a month of escalating conflict over the long-contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh—a breakaway enclave of Azerbaijan controlled by ethnic Armenians. (Politico, Reuters)
While the exact impetus for the eruption of violence between the two former Soviet countries remains contested, weeks of skirmishes have already killed hundreds in what observers say is the worst fighting in the South Caucasus region since 1994 when a bloody ethnic war over the territory ended in a fragile ceasefire that has seen flare-ups in the decades since. (BBC, New York Times)
Armenia and Azerbaijan are not alone in the fighting; and the presence of proxies adds to fear that tensions could boil over into a wider conflict. NATO member Turkey has offered direct support to Azerbaijan; while Russia, which has a security pact with Armenia and a military base there, has tried to also maintain good ties with Azerbaijan and avoid a clash with Turkey. Neighboring Iran has taken a neutral stance and has called for an end to hostilities and has offered to mediate a dialogue between the two sides. (AP, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL)
The meetings in Washington come after two failed ceasefires in the region led by Russia and then France. Russia, the United States, and France have also co-chaired the Minsk Group, which was set-up in 1992 to mediate the conflict, but efforts have stalled. (AP, The Guardian)
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said on Wednesday he could see no diplomatic resolution of the long-running conflict at this stage; while Azeri President Ilham Aliyev said the prospects of reaching a peace settlement were “very remote.” (Reuters)
What has been the Trump administration’s track record in this region thus far? From the State Department’s perspective, what is the goal of bringing both foreign ministers to Washington now? And what are the prospects for any real progress?
Jonathan Katz (Director, Democracy Initiatives – Washington)
While everyone watching the deadly Nagorno-Karabakh conflict hopes that the meetings in Washington between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov, and Armenia’s Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan lead to a lasting ceasefire, many observers question the Trump administration’s capacity and interests to help end the current fighting.
Up until Pompeo’s surprising announcement of meetings in Washington with counterparts from Baku and Yerevan, the United States was a backbencher to Russian President Putin, French President Macron, and Turkey’s President Erdogan. Pompeo and Trump administration may not have the leverage, focus, and right motives to bring the parties together for a third humanitarian ceasefire on the eve of U.S. elections. Two earlier ceasefires have not stuck. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and between Armenia and Azerbaijan is grave, and it would be unconscionable for Pompeo and the Trump administration to use these meetings and the backdrop of the conflict as a pre-election photo opportunity for the so-called deal-maker President Trump.
As a co-chair of the Minsk Group, the United States has long played a leadership role, including in previous administrations and at the highest levels of the U.S. government, seeking to end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It has also historically played a visible role across the South Caucasus. The dithering of the Trump administration until recently has been an aberration.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, the United States has had deep interest and engagement in the South Caucasus. The Trump administration’s record is a watered-down version of a policy built on the record of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, lacking a commitment to democratic transformation or clear goalposts for security and economic outcomes in the region. President Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin has contributed to mixed messages in the region, sowing deep seated concerns that the United States is ceding strategic interests in the South Caucasus.
With Washington getting more involved now, how could this affect the proxies involved the conflict—Russia and Turkey?
Michael Kimmage (Non-Resident Fellow, Washington)
Officially, Russia welcomes greater U.S. involvement in the military and humanitarian crisis that has long been unfolding in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia, France, and the United States are all a part of the Minsk Group, dedicated to reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Were Russia able to achieve its regional interests through the Minsk Group, high-profile diplomatic negotiations with the United States would be a plus—and would be used by Moscow as proof of Russia’s great-power status. This is unlikely to occur. Armenia and Azerbaijan are far from reconciliation, and since 2014 Russia and the United States have not been cooperating diplomatically. They have been engaged in wide-ranging and often zero-sum competition.
An open clash between the United States and Russia could come only if the U.S. would align itself militarily with Azerbaijan (and its NATO ally Turkey, Azerbaijan’s forward-leaning supporter), while Russia aligns itself directly with Armenia. This too is unlikely to occur. The U.S. has a substantial Armenian community, and Russia has decent relations with Azerbaijan, to which it sells arms. Since 2018, Russia has looked at Armenia, its nominal ally, with some skepticism due to the pro-Western leanings of Prime Minister Pashinyan. Ironically, both the United States and Russia are struggling to accommodate Turkey’s expanding role in this conflict. For Russia, Turkey is intruding into the post-Soviet space, a change Moscow cannot easily reverse because of its partnership with Turkey and because of its reliance on crisis management with Turkey in the Middle East. For the United States, Turkey is an awkward ally and more a party to aggression (at the time being) than a constructive diplomatic ally. In sum, Russia and the United States will not together solve the problems flowing out from Nagorno-Karabakh, and neither will they drift into war because of these problems. They will use their respective power and influence to seek the most advantageous adjustments in a fluid, kaleidoscopically complicated and seemingly intractable conflict.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli (Ankara Director)
Before the outbreak of the current clashes with Armenia on September 27, seven Azeri provinces surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as well as Karabakh itself were under occupation: Kalbajar, Lachin, Qubadli, Zangilan, Jabrayil, Fuzuli, Agdam. At that point, Azerbaijan was ready to sign a durable cease-fire agreement which would include the return of five of those provinces (except for Lachin and Kalbajar), deployment of an international peace force in Karabakh, safe return of all IDPs, and a plan for a plebiscite in Karabakh at some future date. What Armenia has not agreed to is now partially within Azerbaijan’s reach militarily: Zangilan, Jabrayil, and Fuzuli are fully liberated and Qubadli and Ağdam are partially liberated. Moreover, the Azeri army is approaching Lachin. If it succeeds in liberating Lachin (which is not easy due to rough terrain which favors defenders) Azerbaijan will have cut off Karabakh from Armenia. Under these circumstances there is no reason why Azerbaijan would end its campaign unless its initial conditions for a ceasefire are met.
On the other hand, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan cannot easily cede to Azerbaijan’s conditions for ceasefire as this would make him appear weak. The U.S. could play an important role here by reassuring Pashinyan so that he can agree to a diplomatic process in line with relevant UNSC resolutions as well as the Madrid Principles presented by the OSCE—and agreed to by senior Azeri and Armenian Officials in 2009—which also Azerbaijan’s conditions for a ceasefire are based upon.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.