Nagorno-Karabakh is Tragic but Not America’s Problem

In Washington foreign conflicts are to policymakers what lights are to moths. The desire to take the U.S. into every political dispute, social collapse, civil war, foreign conflict, and full-scale war seems to only get stronger as America’s failures accumulate.

There may be no better example than the battle between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the latter’s claim to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, contained within Azerbaijan but largely populated by ethnic Armenians. Distant from the US and Europe, the struggle matters most to nearby Georgia, Turkey, Iran, and Russia.

The impact on Americans is minor and indirect at best. Yet there is wailing and gnashing of teeth in Washington that the US is "absent" from this fight. Send in the bombers! Or at least the diplomats! Candidate Joe Biden predictably insisted that America should be leading a peace effort "together with our European partners," without indicating what that would mean in practice.

The roots of the conflict, like so many others, go back centuries. Control of largely Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia passed among Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and Russian Empire. After the Russian Revolution the two were independent and fought over N-K’s status, before both were absorbed by the Soviet Union. Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population began pressing for transfer to Armenia during the U.S.S.R.’s waning days. After the latter collapsed in 1992 the two newly independent nations again fought, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees, and Armenia grabbed the disputed land as well as even larger adjacent territory filled with ethnic Azerbaijanis.

A ceasefire froze the bitter conflict, leaving the conquered territory under Armenian control. Although Yerevan’s gain was tenuous, unrecognized by the rest of the world and dependent upon a geographic corridor between Armenia and N-K, the government, largely in response to internal political pressures, grew steadily more aggressive and unwilling to honor previous commitments. Violent clashes mixed with ineffective talks between the two states.

With no prospect of resolution, despite long-standing diplomatic efforts through the so-called Minsk Process, involving America and France, among others, Azerbaijani forces, relying on Turkey, employing Syrian mercenaries, and utilizing Israeli-made drones, launched an offensive in September. With Yerevan losing troops and territory, Moscow brokered a new ceasefire, which required Armenia’s withdrawal from areas conquered a quarter century ago. The transportation corridor is to be policed by Russian peacekeeping forces; Turkish officials will help monitor the ceasefire.

The result was jubilation in Baku and riots in Yerevan. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, under political siege, declared: "This is not a victory, but there is no defeat until you consider yourself defeated, we will never consider ourselves defeated and this shall become a new start of an era of our national unity and rebirth." More accurate was Azerbaijani President Ilham Alyev’s assessment: "This [ceasefire] statement constitutes Armenia’s capitulation. This statement puts an end to the years-long occupation. This statement is our Glorious Victory." With Pashinyan’s authority in tatters and Alyev triumphantly enjoying a surge in popular support, hostilities could easily explode again.

Why would any sane American want to get in the middle of this fight?

Demands that Washington "do something" ignore three important realities. The first is that the conflict has nothing to do with the US and threatens no serious American interests. The fighting is tragic, of course, as are similar battles around the world. However, this volatile region is dominated by Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Iran previously supported Armenia, Turkey strongly backed Azerbaijan, and Russia has good relations with both, including a defense treaty with Yerevan which Moscow deemed not to cover contested territory, meaning N-K.

Which of these powers, all essentially American adversaries – despite Ankara’s continued membership in the transatlantic alliance – dominates which neighbor is a matter of indifference to Washington. It simply doesn’t matter, and certainly isn’t worth fighting over. Once US officials would have preferred Turkey over Iran and Russia, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken his nation in an Islamist and authoritarian direction, warmed relations with Russia, the only serious target of NATO, and begun aggressively expanding Turkish influence and control in Syria, Libya, and the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara encouraged the current military round by enhancing Azerbaijani capabilities.

Georgia also shares a border with both combatants but is only a bit player in the ongoing drama. However, it has lobbyists in Washington whose mission is to get Tbilisi into NATO and thus turn Georgia into another US defense dependent. Doing so would create a direct border conflict with Russia, made much more dangerous by the volatility of Georgian politics. The irresponsible and reckless President Mikheil Saakashvili triggered the brief yet disastrous 2008 war with Russia and remains active politically. Tbilisi’s dubious role is another reason for the US to avoid deeper involvement in the region’s disputatious politics.

The second point is that there is nothing sensible America for do, despite cacophonous demands otherwise. In October Washington Post columnist David Ignatius complained: "The global power vacuum invites mischief. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has escalated over 10 days of fighting. Armenian leaders initially hoped that US diplomacy could produce a ceasefire; now they look to Moscow."

Translated, Yerevan wanted Washington to save Armenia from both its original aggression and later intransigence. Like many other governments have desired in other conflicts. But how was the US to restrain Azerbaijan, which was able to recover long-lost territory only by resorting to force? America’s regional policy has been a disaster. Washington already demonstrated its impotence in Ankara as Erdogan charted an independent course. The US turned a difficult relationship with Moscow into a mini-Cold War. The Trump administration foolishly declared economic war on Iran, creating regional instability and precluding negotiation.

As for Azerbaijan, military intervention would risk war for no good reason. Economic sanctions would punish Baku, but to what end? So far, the president’s constant resort to "maximum pressure" has failed to induce political surrender in Havana, Caracas, Damascus, Pyongyang, or Moscow. Whatever the economic price, Aliyeh could ill afford to retreat and anger an entire population currently celebrating his triumph. Anyway, the issue is not worth another failed American attempt at global social engineering. Which means Washington had nothing to offer but words.

Certainly the US should encourage a peaceful settlement and negotiation, but this is a conflict for which there is no obvious diplomatic answer. It is easy to insist that Baku should not have restarted hostilities, but the Alyev government struck because diplomacy had frozen along with the dispute. And Baku’s success dramatically reshaped the balance of power, leaving Armenia in a far worse position than before. Creative mediation might help, but Azerbaijan, on offense, showed no interest in such an effort. Nor has Washington demonstrated the ability to reign in Baku’s main backer, Turkey, anywhere else. Washington is filled with magical thinking, the belief that the president merely need whisper his command and the entire world will snap to attention. Alas, America long ago lost that ability, if it ever had it.

Moreover, US officials share some blame: On the presumption that Azerbaijan was committed to a peaceful settlement, Washington provided it with arms and aid to combat terrorism. Unfortunately, weaponry, like money, is fungible. And that mistake cannot be unmade.

An equally mistaken belief in the Trump administration’s commitment also might have helped lead Armenia astray. Since taking power in the Velvet Revolution two years ago, Pashinyan sought to move westward. However, in the present crisis neither America nor Europe did anything to assist Yerevan – whose occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh remains illegal under international law. Some US interest groups attempted to turn Armenia into a cause celebre of religious persecution, but the Muslim-Christian clash is incidental to broader geopolitics which little concerned the West.

The horrid genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire against ethnic Armenians a century ago is constantly cited but remains irrelevant to today’s conflict. Around three decades ago Armenia invaded Azerbaijan to seize incontestably Azerbaijani land. Baku struck back for reasons of nationalism, not religion. The essential irrelevance of religion is reflected in Christian Russia’s good relations with Muslim Azerbaijan, Jewish Israel arming Muslim Azerbaijan, and Muslim Iran’s long backing for Christian Armenia, though these ties ebbed in the last couple years. The US should no more be a crusading Christian republic than a crusading republic.

Finally, Russia demonstrated that other powers have an interest in peace and stability and are able to act. That is a tough lesson for the denizens of Washington to learn, given their irrational hatred of Russia. Vladimir Putin is no cuddly liberal but most American policymakers make hypocrisy and sanctimony the foundations of their approach to Moscow. After all, Putin has killed fewer innocent people than Trump administration’s favorite dictator, Mohammed bin Salman, whose aggression against Yemen has resulted in more than five years of murder and mayhem and created the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet. Yet Washington continues to sell Saudi Arabia more weapons and munitions with which to kill more Yemeni civilians.

Moreover, though Moscow has behaved badly, in Georgia and Ukraine in particular, so has the US in Russia’s eyes. Washington misled Moscow over NATO expansion, dismantled longtime Russian friend Serbia, pushed NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, embraced Tbilisi, which fired on Russian troops guaranteeing security in neighboring secessionist territory, encouraged a street putsch against an elected, Russophile government in Kiev, and sought to push Moscow out of Syria, an ally of nearly 70 years. The expectation of American policymakers that they can use military force to push the Monroe Doctrine up to Russia’s border without triggering a sharp response is unrealistic at best, deadly at worst.

Of course, the Russia-brokered accord was a clear diplomatic triumph and likely will solidify Moscow’s influence. However, with success has come responsibility, which could prove costly to Moscow. The accord remains fragile and unstable, and might collapse.

By its nature the agreement is short-term and does not address the fundamental issue, the status of N-K. Indeed, on its own terms either party, which would most likely be Azerbaijan in this case, can order the withdrawal of Russian monitors in five years. However, the modus vivendi might not last even that long. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev posited: "I hope that today’s ceasefire and our further plans to normalize relations with Armenia, if perceived positively by the Armenian side, can create a new situation in the region, a situation of cooperation, a situation of strengthening stability and security." With Yerevan aflame after angry mobs took over the National Assembly building, severely beat that body’s speaker, trashed the prime minister’s home, and forced him into hiding, "positive" probably is not the right word to describe Armenians’ perception of the settlement. In fact, those who abandoned their homes in territory turned over to Azerbaijan adopted a scorched earth policy, destroying everything.

Both sides probably view the latest agreement a bit like French Gen. Ferdinand Foch presciently saw the Versailles Treaty: "This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years." Only the N-K time frame might be much shorter. Nevertheless, no one else has offered any better alternative. Unfortunately, zero-sum disputes over territory are among the most difficult disputes to resolve. Either Armenia or Azerbaijan will control N-K. Either ethnic Armenians or Azerbaijanis will live in N-K. Yes, the ideal would be people from both lands to live together in a democratic state, joining hands around a bonfire to sing Kumbaya every night. However, no one believes that is even a remote possibility.

With nothing meaningful to offer to solve the current firefight, it was best for Washington to stay out. In fact, Armenia’s old guard, pushed out of power by Pashinyan two years ago in the Velvet Revolution, blame their nation’s defeat on his government’s subsequent turn West, from which it received little support. Brokering the current defeat would merely have reinforced anger against America.

Russia acted because it has far more at stake. Let it undertake the burden of seeking a settlement. Let it accept the cost of enforcing a settlement. Let it bear the blame if the system again crashes.

US policymakers have trouble imagining a world in which a sparrow falls to earth, to borrow Biblical imagery, without the US responding. If the bird falls in Nagorno-Karabakh, at least, Americans should allow someone else to pick it up. It is not Washington’s purpose to make every conflict on earth America’s own.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.