Small Wars Journal

Why Finding a Diplomatic Solution to the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh Should be a US Foreign Policy Priority

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 12:55am

Why Finding a Diplomatic Solution to the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh Should be a US Foreign Policy Priority


William McHenry


There is little doubt that post-Soviet Eurasia is beset with unresolved territorial conflicts. Indeed, all former Soviet states that are not either members of western institutions or in the orbit of Moscow— Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine —have either territorial disputes with their neighbors or self-sustaining internal secessionist movements with considerable foreign support—often provided by Russia itself.


These protracted disputes are described by experts as “frozen conflicts.” Each conflict not only weakens the parties involved, but they are also, more importantly, used by Russia to manipulate the politics of the region to favor the foreign policy goals of the Kremlin. A recent example of this phenom is the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, which features a secessionist movement that survives via Russian military support, and recently made headlines as the Russian Navy seized Ukrainian warships near the frontline of the conflict.


The term is used because in most cases the level of day-to-day violence has significantly declined to levels that no longer draw mainstream press coverage. For instance, in the South Caucuses region, Armenia and Azerbaijan are involved in an over 20-year armed dispute over a territory called Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed, the soldiers that exchange fire on the frontline are younger than the conflict itself.


Although, the Nagorno-Karabakh made headlines, in 2016, due to a brief period of intense violence, known as the “four-day war,” it has not received the attention it deserves from western policymakers—especially from the United States. Accordingly, the United States should prioritize finding a durable diplomatic solution to this protracted crisis. Doing so would limit Russia’s ability to influence the region,  recent peaceful protests that overthrew the previous Armenian government that was attempting to consolidate its rule offer an opportunity to negotiate peace, and, most significantly, it could a serve as an example to resolving other frozen conflicts in this strategically important region.


It is difficult to imagine why settling a seemingly intractable conflict across the globe serves US interests? However, resolving this conflict is of strategic importance to the United States because of Armenia’s geographic location. The country resides near two of the United States’ rivals—Iran and Russia—and borders two important US allies —Turkey and Georgia.


Furthermore, the frozen conflict with Azerbaijan has inhibited economic growth within Armenia and prevented the expansion of regional trade linkages, as Turkey, an ally of Azerbaijan, has closed its borders with Armenia.


The conflict has its roots as far back as the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh a mountainous region in the Caucasus, declared independence from Azerbaijan and fought a bitter conflict with Baku that ended in a ceasefire in 1995. Although, Russia played an active role in facilitating diplomatic talks between both sides during and after major combat operations. It has, nonetheless, made little effort to find a durable solution to the conflict, and Moscow provided arms sales to both sides during the conflict—a practice that continues to this day. Today, Nagorno-Karabakh functions as an autonomously governed region with considerable support from Armenia.


Despite the protracted nature of this simmering conflict, there are encouraging political developments on the Armenian side. Earlier this year, peaceful protests across Armenia pushed out the former president, Serzh Sargsyan, and elected the leader of the protest movement Nikol Pashinyan to Prime Minister. Pashinyan, due to the peaceful and successful removal of the unpopular Sargsyan administration, enjoys remarkable popularity across Armenia. He based his political platform on democratic principles and reducing corruption that plagued the former political regime. More importantly though, one hopes that Pashinyan uses the political power as leverage at the bargaining table with Azerbaijan to develop a diplomatic solution to this conflict.


If this occurs, the United States should support this initiative by using its influence within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group, which governs the diplomatic peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Unfortunately however, recent US government diplomatic maneuvers in Armenia have shown little regard to these constructive domestic political developments. Indeed, an expert on the region described US National Security Advisor John Bolton recent visit to Armenia as a “whirlwind tour of the Caucasus [that] left a trail of geopolitical wreckage that his hosts are still trying to pick up.” During his trip, Bolton displayed daft diplomatic skills by pressuring Armenia to close its border Iran rather first emphasizing US support for Armenia in finding a mutually acceptable and peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh frozen conflict. In fact, the trip went so poorly that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement questioning the United States’ commitment to the region—based on Bolton’s own words.


Nevertheless, a more active US policy toward the region would recognize that before the United States’ can address larger geopolitical concerns, such as limiting Iran’s economic influence, it must first act as a constructive geopolitical actor in finding a peaceful settlement to this frozen conflict. Once resolved, not only can it serve as a positive example towards ending other conflicts in Eurasia, but it will also bring more cross-border trade linkages to a geo-politically fragile region.


About the Author(s)

William McHenry is an Eastern Europe & Eurasia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is the Program Associate for The Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia (PONARS Eurasia). His work at PONARS Eurasia focuses on connecting scholarship to policy on and in Russia and Eurasia by fostering a community of rising scholars committed to developing policy-relevant and collaborative research. He received his Masters in International Affairs from the American University, School of International Service with a focus on Eurasia, and he holds a B.A. from Linfield College in Political Science. You can follow Will on twitter @wmchenry.