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Fighting destabilizes the Russian periphery — and threatens US interests

Fighting destabilizes the Russian periphery — and threatens US interests
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The cauldron of war continues to boil beneath the surface of the “frozen” Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. For the first time since 2016, firefights have broken out between the two sides, including the use of artillery, tanks and armed drones.

There is no demilitarized zone between the two sides, only a line of contact that has remained largely unchanged since 1994. About one soldier a month is killed by sniper fire across the contested region. On July 12, however, soldiers on the front line awoke to find the status quo had been altered: Armenia installed a new position on the border that gave them a tactical advantage in the area.   

According to Armenia, Azerbaijan was unwilling to accept unilateral changes outside of the Minsk Peace Process and its forces pushed back. According to Azerbaijan, Armenia launched an unprovoked attack across the international border.  

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The fighting has resulted in at least 16 fatalities, including an Azerbaijani major general who was second in command to its Third Army Corps. Eleven of the dead were Azerbaijani soldiers, four were Armenian soldiers, and one was a 76-year-old Azerbaijani civilian.

The conflict revolves around control of the former autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding areas. This area, considered under international law and recognized by even the government of Armenia as being part of Azerbaijan, has been occupied by Armenia for more than 25 years. The European Court of Human Rights declared Armenia to be an occupying force, and the United Nations Security Council has issued four resolutions (UNSCR 822, 853, 874 and 884) rejecting the seizure of territories by force and demanding that Armenian forces withdraw  from the occupied areas.  

What makes the current fighting unique is that it is not along the Nagorno Karabakh line of contact, but across the Armenian-Azerbaijan international border. This new conflict zone, Tovuz, is near the Caspian oil and gas pipelines to Western Europe. Fighting in this area easily could expand into a conflict that would include NATO members who rely on the energy flow.

Armenia has been able to hold onto the territory because of the armed support of its ally, Russia.  During the 1992-1994 war, Armenia granted Russia the rights to three military bases that house at least 5,000 Russian troops. When asked if Russia would respond to an armed attempt by Azerbaijan to reclaim its own territory, Moscow always has answered ambiguously. Armenian military doctrine holds that Russia is the guarantor of the country’s military security, and in the past few years Russia equipped its military bases in Armenian Gyumri and Erebuni with MiG-29 fighters, Mi-24 helicopters, and more than 70 tanks, armored vehicles and artillery systems.

In 2015, Nagorno-Karabakh’s officials told the Daily Beast in interviews that neither Armenia nor Nagorno-Karabakh could survive without Russia’s support in the conflict with Azerbaijan.  (At the same time, Moscow is Azerbaijan’s leading weapons supplier.)

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly has called the leaders of both countries, and his foreign ministry issued a news release urging restraint by both sides. Other than words, however, Moscow has taken no steps to stop the fighting. The Kremlin-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Armenia is a member, was supposed to discuss the violence but the meeting was cancelled for unknown reasons.

Most Americans likely have never heard of the areas under discussion, but there are important American interests at stake. Azerbaijan is an alternate source of energy for American allies in Europe and Israel, and fighting in the Tovuz area threatens that. Azerbaijan also is developing into an international transportation and telecommunications center. Armenia is the homeland for a large diaspora community in America. Both countries have contributed troops to American efforts in Afghanistan. The continued fighting makes a mockery of America’s role as a co-chair of the Minsk Peace Process, which is supposed to negotiate an end to the conflict.

There are dead soldiers and a flaunting of international law, the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations, but Russia continues to solidify its military position in its near abroad. America should use its diplomatic and economic muscle to bring the parties back to the negotiating table before things get out of hand or Russia strengthens its position even more.

James J. Coyle, Ph.D., is CEO of Coyle International Consulting Inc., specializing in international security issues, and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. He served in a number of U.S. government positions, including as director of Middle East Studies, U.S. Army War College. He is the author of “Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts.”