The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may yet provide America an opening for an indirect approach to Turkey, while also pushing back against Russian expansionism.
The Russian brokered agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia concerning Nagorno-Karabakh has put a temporary end to the round of fighting that erupted on Sept. 27. One can only welcome a cessation of violence and the immediate threat to civilians. However, reports of a wave of ethnic Armenians fleeing the disputed region and heading toward Yerevan indicate that the underlying causes of the conflict have hardly been resolved. This may prove to be a fragile peace that depends on the presence of 1,950 Russian peace-keeping forces whose role, as per the agreement, is subject to a five-year time limit. That calendar overlaps with the time frame of the incoming administration. The United States may soon find itself under pressure to become involved, so it is important to evaluate the situation by determining the advantages and disadvantages of the agreement in order to identify opportunities for American foreign policy.
The primary strategic benefit for the United States involves the outcome for Azerbaijan. It has secured a corridor to the west which can facilitate the flow of Caspian Sea energy resources via a pipeline through Georgia to the Black Sea. This is the sole east-west energy route from Central Asia to world markets that does not traverse either Russia or Iran. In light of the importance that both the Obama and Trump administrations placed on the threat of Russian energy blackmail associated with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the Azeri energy route takes on considerable importance in terms of global energy politics.
A further positive outcome for the United States involves the Iranian dimension. Despite Teherans consistent efforts to pursue regional hegemony, it surprisingly refrained from intervening in the conflict. Not only did Iran prove powerless to exercise influence in its immediate neighborhood, but Azerbaijans campaign to solidify control over Nagorno-Karabakh also resonated positively with the large Azeri minority inside northern Iran. Intra-Iranian ethnic tensions or even the prospect of Azeri irredentism may have constrained Iranian foreign policy: southern Azeri solidarity with Azerbaijan, with its very public ties to Israel, stood in the way of Iran doing much at all.
Yet despite these silver linings–the energy corridor and the sidelining of Iranthe net effect of the outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict must be considered negative from the standpoint of American strategic interests. Theoretically the United States, France and Russia chair the Minsk Process, established in 1992, with the responsibility to oversee a resolution of the dispute. However, the current agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia was fashioned by Moscow alone: western diplomacy has been marginalized.
Moreover, the enforcement of the agreement involves the deployment of Russian troops into the disputed territory. Russia has reasserted its clout in the Southern Caucasus, just as it has done in Syria and Libya, not to mention Crimea and eastern Ukraine. While it does not generally have the power or resources to establish the conditions for permanent peace, Russia has repeatedly acted as a decisive player in post-Soviet space and far beyond. In the great-power competition between the United States and Russia, Nagorno-Karabakh amounts to one more step in the expansion of Russian influence and Vladimir Putin’s effort to regain the influence that Russia lost at the end of the Cold War.
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