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War in the Caucasus: What happens without US leadership — but a chance to get it right

War in the Caucasus: What happens without US leadership — but a chance to get it right
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After the Cold War, this author and other experts argued that security in the Caucasus was indivisible from European security. Subsequent events have validated this contention: Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was a prelude to its 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Similarly, today’s war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh already reverberates beyond the Caucasus. Indeed, it shows exactly what happens when Washington abdicates its diplomatic authority and capability, as it has done in the Caucasus. In fact, our unwillingness to use our standing in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe-chartered Minsk Group to bring about a genuine mediation has helped precipitate this war.

Trump administration policy urging everyone to stop fighting, and Secretary of State Pompeo’s unfortunate statement that, “We're hopeful that the Armenians will be able to defend against what the Azerbaijanis are doing,” while criticizing Turkey’s assistance to Azerbaijan, has evidently only antagonized both sides. Given Western abandonment of the Caucasus, Russia happily sold arms to both sides to preserve the status quo, while Armenia’s new democratic government refused to negotiate and even hardened its position, saying that Nagorno-Karabakh was Armenia, period. Whether it did so because of domestic opposition to talks or for other reasons, this unwise decision gradually fueled Azerbaijan’s determination to go to war.

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This conflict is not a civilizational war of Muslims against Christians, as some analysts contend, or a prelude to another Armenian genocide, as Armenia and its supporters proclaim. Rather, it is an old-fashioned ethnic war over land that most of the world recognizes as Azerbaijani territory. Not surprisingly, as America and Europe walked away from the issue, Azerbaijan sought new allies. That search offered President Erdogan of Turkey a market for Turkey’s defense industry and a cheap way to cement his domestic standing while Turkey’s economy heads ever further into crisis.  

Erdogan’s “neo-Ottomanism” and proclamation of Turkey as a great regional power in the Middle East, Mediterranean and, now, the Caucasus grow directly out of the retreat of U.S. power in those areas, a retreat as unwise as it is unnecessary. U.S. power was badly used in Iraq and Syria — but when that power is intelligently applied, it produces dividends for Washington and its partners, such as the recent “Abraham accords” between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Had the U.S. recognized the importance of the Caucasus, it could have applied that power to help the parties there mediate a settlement, either alone or with Europe and Russia. Instead, we walked away, unhinged regional power balances and led Azerbaijan to seek Turkish support.

Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan, its sale of drones, alleged provision of Syrian militants to fight and, now, its demands for a role in any peace – i.e., a sphere of influence in the Caucasus – will either exacerbate Turco-Russian tensions or lead to a deal that further estranges Turkey from its NATO allies. It will aggravate tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and within the NATO alliance, particularly around the Black Sea, as Turkey also has just agreed to provide Ukraine with advanced military equipment and training.

Thus, this war and the risks to peace connected to it also show that many critics of U.S. policy have gotten things wrong. Admittedly, we need better, more coherent policies — and we certainly should invest more in diplomacy and economics than in further militarizing our foreign policy. But the demand for more intelligent policies does not justify a retreat from key strategic areas or, as some now argue, for ending U.S. military superiority.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh need not have occurred. Many experts warned that this stalemate and Western abdication were provocative, and they have been proven right. Moscow is now angling to send in “observers” and “peacemakers” – i.e., Russian troops, a long-standing fear of both belligerents – while Turkey demands a role in any peace accord. But the West – to whom Azerbaijan and Armenia would prefer to look, if anyone offered them reasons for doing so – will be frozen out. Turkey’s blockade of Armenia probably will not be lifted, and a genuine peace rather than another armistice or truce is equally unlikely. The West has already excluded itself from this escalating war by its own incomprehension of the stakes. 

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However it ends, tensions in the Caucasus, Black Sea, Middle East and Mediterranean probably will increase, showing the connection between the Caucasus and European security. This is not an occasion for walking away but for seizing the opportunity to help mediate a lasting peace and advance not only the genuine interests of Baku and Yerevan but of Washington and European capitals, too. Unfortunately, the prevailing Western incomprehension of the Caucasus and its ongoing retreat, based on a fundamental misreading of this conflict, continue. 

The real issue here is the Azeri-Armenian rivalry that both Moscow and Ankara are now exploiting for their own benefits. We must grasp this fact, and quickly, or the next crisis will exact even more costs from the U.S. and Europe, as well as the people on the ground who will pay the costs of this and the next war.

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.