In late September, the latest flare-up in the long running Nagorno-Karabakh conflict erupted in Artsakh, an area of south Azerbaijan near the Iranian border. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has deep and complicated roots. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan were established as two small states in the eastern Caucasus region. In Artsakh, ethnic Armenians and Azeris lived side by side. Although Arstakh became part of Azerbaijan after the fall of the Soviet Union, and remains recognized as such by the international community today, the region has long had an Armenian majority population that strongly supports reunification with Armenia. By 1994, after a series of skirmishes and small battles, ethnic Armenians completely controlled the region and systematically expelled over 800,000 Azeris from Artsakh and Armenia. Since then, Azerbaijan has periodically attempted to retake Artsakh in a series of small conflicts, with the fall 2020 conflict becoming the latest installment.
However, The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict long predates the breakup of the Soviet Union. The shadow of the Armenian genocide, which took place between 1915 and 1918, still influences the current conflict. That genocide, in which the Ottoman Empire systematically murdered over one million ethnic Armenians, has been woven into the fabric of the collective Armenian psyche and has instilled in it a deep distrust of the surrounding Turkish countries, including Azerbaijan. Many Armenians today see the current Azeri offensive in Artsakh as a continuation of the genocide.
Armenia and Azerbaijan stand at a crossroads with no clear path towards peace. Azerbaijan sees Artsakh as rightfully theirs, while Armenia views Artsakh, home to almost 150,00 self-governing ethnic Armenians, as an Armenian territory. Ethnic, religious (Armenia is majority Christian while Azerbaijan is majority Muslim), and historical tensions have also played a strong role in the conflict between the geographically adjacent countries.
Given the hardline that both governments have taken towards direct negotiations, international mediation seems likely to be the only feasible way to quickly resolve this conflict. Hundreds of innocent civilians, most of them Armenian, have died and both governments have so far refused to work towards a peace without an additional mediator. Therefore, peace seems infeasible without the intervention of a third-party. However, while the conflict may be local, underlying global politics also threaten to complicate any international mediation. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which is effectively a mutual defense pact with five other former Soviet states, including Russia. Russia has aided Armenia in the crisis and provided it with weapons. On the other side, Azerbaijan has close military and political ties to Turkey, a United States ally and member of NATO. Turkey has been providing Azerbaijan with military support and Azerbaijan has been observed using US-manufactured weapons.
However, while Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s respective ties to America and Russia may threaten to turn the conflict into a proxy war, the conflict has so far remained mostly local. While the United States is allied with Turkey, ideological and domestic political concerns push the United States to remain neutral in the conflict. The United States has a large and influential Armenian expatriate community which has pushed it to support Armenia in the conflict. Large demonstrations have occurred in many major cities, including New York and Los Angeles, in which Armenians have been pushing the United States to back Armenia. Furthermore, the United States is more closely aligned with Armenia’s domestic political system, which Freedomhouse rates as being ‘partly free’ than that of Azerbaijan, which is classified as a ‘consolidated authoritarian regime’. Finally, as Armenia is a majority Christian nation, President Trump may be playing to his evangelical base by refusing to back the Muslim Turkey and Azerbaijan in the conflict.
While the United States’s dual interests towards both
Armenia and Azerbaijan may situate America as an ideal mediator in the
conflict, the United States was absent in conflict negotiations at the
beginning of the war. Instead, Russia brokered the first ceasefire, which
failed within a few hours as both Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of
numerous violations. The
ceasefire was liable to fail because of Russia’s potential bias as an ally of
Armenia. A week later, both the United States and Russia, along with France,
issued a joint statement calling on both sides to resolve the issue peacefully.
The United States, Russia, and France together form the OSCE Minsk group,
dedicated to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. However, the Minsk group
historically has been ineffective in peace negotiations, and Armenia and
Azerbaijan only ceased fire for a few hours following the issuing of the
The failures of the Russian and OSCE Minsk Group
ceasefires show that international mediation requires both a neutral bystander
and a bystander with enforcement power. Biased nations, such as Russia, or NGOs
with ineffectual backing, such as the Minsk Group, fail to adequately resolve
conflicts because they either do not engender trust or lack appropriate
enforcement mechanisms or enticements. However, a week later, a third ceasefire
was brokered by the United States. The United States has a
long history in international conflict mediation and a vested interest in
helping both sides resolve the conflict, leading to optimism that American
mediation could broker a lasting and successful peace. While the third
ceasefire seems to have calmed the conflict for now, only time will tell if the
peace will hold.