Tending the Black Garden: Why the United States Must Pay Greater Attention to Nagorno-Karabakh

In Nagorno-Karabakh long-simmering tensions are threatening to spill over into outright conflict. A mountainous, landlocked quasi-republic nestled between two former Soviet republics and Iran, war in Nagorno-Karabakh would destabilize the already delicate balance of power in the region, and U.S. policymakers should take note.

The Conflict

Tucked away in the South Caucasus is Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region that derives its name from the Russian adjective nagorny (highland) and the Turkic and Persian words kara and bagh, which, combined, translate to ‘black garden.’  Originally an autonomous region of the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh was and still is populated primarily by ethnic Armenians. In the face of Azeri opposition, the region’s parliament voted to join Armenia in the late 1980s and declared itself the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. As a result, vicious fighting between Armenians and Azeris ensued in the waning years of Soviet dominance.  Internationally, the region continued to be recognized as a part of Azerbaijan; but for all practical purposes, it had become a part of Armenia by the time the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Moscow-led negotiations resulted in a fragile ceasefire in 1994, and since then, the conflict has widely been recognized as frozen. Yet recent exchanges of fire at the Line of Contact, which separates Armenian-controlled territory from the rest of Azerbaijan, have again raised concerns, and the United States must now give the once-frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict the heightened attention it demands before the situation escalates any further.

The Stakeholders

First, policymakers must consider the potential impact of Russia’s escalated involvement in the conflict. Though once an ostensibly neutral stakeholder, Russia entered into a cooperative agreement—widely interpreted as a pledge of mutual defense—with Armenia just three years after brokering the 1994 ceasefire.  This little-known agreement, when considered alongside Russia’s advances in Crimea, its newly announced plans to build a military base in Belarus, and the recent start of its bombing campaign in Syria, demands the attention of the United States. The more successful Putin’s armed forces are in achieving the objectives he has concocted, the more willing Putin will be to deploy them, and the bolder he will become in defying internationally-recognized standards for inter-state conduct. Putin has by now made clear his goal (attaining equal footing with the United States) and his ill-conceived strategy for attaining it (unabashed military adventurism), and both could be furthered by troop deployments in Nagorno-Karabakh in the event of an Azeri attack.

Thus, Putin could ostensibly maintain support for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh while quietly honoring the 1997 agreement and deploying troops on behalf of an Armenia that may soon be on the defensive, especially considering that Russian military officials have in past years indicated a willingness to do just that. Though some observers expect Russia’s struggling domestic economy to constrain its president’s defense spending, it does not appear to have had that effect thus far. Russia’s unpredictability should instill in U.S. foreign policy officials concern for what greater Russian military build-up and activity—and bravado—might mean for our future national security.

Second, Iran’s potential role in the conflict must be considered, especially in light of the still-fragile Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known colloquially as the Iranian Nuclear Accords. One would think that the 26 million-strong Azeri population in northern Iran might sway Tehran to throw its weight behind Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, but instead that same ethnic minority has resulted in longstanding Iranian support for Armenia. Growing separatist sentiment within this faction has led Iranian officials to favor a weak Azerbaijan incapable of backing the separatist movement, should it ever achieve adequate momentum, thereby ensuring Iran’s territorial integrity and regional influence. As a result, Iran, too, might enter the conflict on Armenia’s behalf if Azerbaijan launches an attack on Armenian positions. While an Azeri attack on Armenia may go unnoticed by U.S. media outlets, sudden Iranian militarism—irrespective of its aim—would not. As a result, the distrust of Tehran that already spans the U.S. political spectrum could expand even further, thereby threatening the continued existence of the JCPOA and jeopardizing the already-minimal Iranian nuclear facility inspection rights possessed by the international community.

Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is not the possibility of unilateral Russian or Iranian aggression. The true cause for concern is the opportunity for the two nations to collaborate militarily in their shared support for Armenia. This fact would be less a substantive issue and more an existential one, as the real problem would be the mere presence of a joint endeavor, while its practical aim would be mostly inconsequential to core U.S. foreign policy interests. Keeping in mind the recently established coalition between Russia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq, the the United States and its allies should be wary of further collaboration between Putin and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, yet the potential Azeri invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh threatens to elicit just that.

Third, Turkey should not be forgotten in this equation. Turkish-Azeri ties were once so strong that late Azeri President Heydar Aliyev often characterized the two as “one nation, two states.” Yet relations have suffered in recent years, as Turkey has hinted with increasing frequency its desire to one day open its border with Armenia in an effort to begin atoning for its role in the infamous early twentieth century genocide. More relevant still are Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s public disapproval of President Putin’s recent advances in Syria and newly heightened tensions between the two leaders following the downing of a Russian fighter jet in or around Turkish air space. Should the Azeri offensive take place, and should Russia choose to enter the conflict, Turkey would likely throw its support behind whichever side Russia opposed. Of course, the country Turkey backs is less relevant than the fact that Turkey will need to respond in some capacity. With Erdoğan struggling to support U.S.-led airstrikes against IS while simultaneously maintaining his own front against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels in the southeast, Turkish military capacity has already been stretched thin.  Further involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh would distract from the battles already being fought, thereby making Turkey—and, by extension, the region around it—even more vulnerable to the steady creep of Islamic militancy.

Fourth, though not at the epicenter of the current humanitarian crisis that has dominated recent headlines, Nagorno-Karabakh is close enough to Syria that major military activity there could further destabilize the region and impose greater risks on refugees fleeing for greener pastures in Germany and the now-diminished list of other nations still willing to accept them. That fact, combined with the obvious military opportunities for Russia and Iran and the potential for further deterioration of Turkey’s security environment, demands heightened U.S. attention be given to a pending war that could blossom into something far greater in scope and impact than a post-Soviet territorial skirmish would ordinarily possess.

The Path Forward

The inspiration for this article came during a joint lecture on the conflict given by Kenneth Yalowitz, former ambassador to Georgia (1998-2001) and Belarus (1994-97), and Richard Kauzlarich, former ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina (1997-99) and Azerbaijan (1994-97); drawing on that same lecture, I propose a path forward: Ambassador Yalowitz noted that while Russia successfully established a ceasefire and demarcated a Line of Contact separating Armenian and Azeri forces, no peacekeepers have ever been deployed to monitor this tentative peace. In recognition of building hostilities, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the United Nations should act quickly and send a neutral, moderately-sized force to serve as the buffer that the Line of Contact has failed to provide. In the long term, however, international development bodies must creatively encourage Armenian and Azeri civil society organizations to embrace the possibility of durable compromise as a means of resolving what will otherwise continue as an intractable territorial dispute.

If Azerbaijan wants to bring Armenia to the bargaining table in hopes of achieving a deal more suitable to its interests, this would be a welcome development.  But a peacekeeping presence would prevent the use of force as the means to that end, and the engagement of civil society would ensure a steady peace in what promises to be a politically—but hopefully not militarily—turbulent period for the South Caucasus. Successful and timely conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh would eliminate the potential for Russian and Iranian involvement and the further deterioration of conditions in Turkey, and in doing so, prevent the addition of another major crisis to the United States’ ever-growing list. Now is the time for the United States and the international community at large to tend the Black Garden.

Kirby Neuner is a 2015 graduate of Williams College. He currently works as a Program Assistant at Democracy International, a Bethesda-based democracy and governance firm. 

Image courtesy of Ilgar Jafarov / Wikimedia Commons. “Azerbaijani refugees from Karabakh 24”

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  • ANON


    Author Reply

    excellent critique of a complicated issue. Well done, Kirby

  • John G.

    John G.John G.

    Author Reply

    Very informative analysis here.

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