It's news to most Americans, but for the past century, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in a conflict over a region that is situated at a critical crossroads, both in terms of geography and of geopolitics.
The problem is that this conflict has been internationalized since its start; in fact, it was arguably international intervention in the Caucasus that helped create it.
It's finally garnering a few headlines, because this cold war over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, which sits in the mountains of the Southern Caucasus between Iran's northern border and Russian's southern edge, has become a hot one — with hundreds of people dying over the weekend in fighting. The ethnic Armenians who form the majority of the enclave have repeatedly asserted their independence from Azerbaijan, which maintains de jure control of the area under international law.
After weeks of intermittent clashes, the initial major American statement about the growing hostilities was to urge it to remain localized. "Our view is that this has been a long-standing conflict between these two countries in this particular piece of real estate," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday on Fox News in his first extensive delineation of U.S. policy on the crisis. "We're discouraging internationalization of this. We think outsiders ought to stay out."
The problem is that this conflict has been internationalized since its start; in fact, it was arguably international intervention in the Caucasus that helped create it. And America's wishing it were otherwise only heightens the risk that the conflict will grow; the superpowers are needed to provide diplomatic pressure on both sides to tamp down the violence.
While America more recently has spoken as part of an international coalition urging both sides to acquiesce to an immediate cease-fire — an improbable outcome for two countries locked in an escalating cycle of civilian and military deaths — the case is both a warning and a symptom of the complex regional and even global consequences of ignoring seemingly obscure conflicts.
The United States under President Donald Trump has vocally advocated a limited footprint in global diplomacy except when foreign policy is directly tied to immediate pressures of domestic policy and politics (think: trade wars or recent statements that the administration's policy regarding Israel was shaped by the evangelical vote).
This "America First" diplomacy posits that the United States' interests are best served by a stance of isolation that keeps it from playing a role in regional confrontations beyond its shores, assuming that widespread domestic ignorance or unconcern should mean a lack of diplomatic attention, as well.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict serves as a stark warning of the dangers of this approach: Professional, state-sponsored diplomacy exists for a reason. Small regional conflicts without clear U.S. tie-ins can grow into major multilateral international flare-ups after smoldering for years without international engagement.
Azerbaijan sits at a crossroads of geographies and ideologies, on top of a resource-rich area long eyed for its petrochemical reserves. A secular Shia Muslim-majority state, it is physically positioned as a wedge between Russia and Iran — two sometimes-allies who present serious challenges to American leadership in the region and the world. It is also a secular Muslim adversary of Orthodox Christian Armenia, a close Russian ally.
Azerbaijan has served as a beachhead of sorts for American influence in the region. U.S. troops frequently train in the country, and it was one of the first countries to allow coalition forces to fly through its airspace as part of the war on terrorism. Western corporations, most notably BP, are deeply invested in Azerbaijan's petroleum and booming natural gas industries, and oil and gas pipelines extend out from the country's natural gas and oil fields.
But it's more complicated than that: Azerbaijan has ethnic ties to nearby Turkey, which — alongside Russia and Iran — is also committed to presenting itself as a dominant power in the region. The U.S.-Azerbaijani alliance seemed somewhat less quixotic when Turkey and the U.S. enjoyed better relations. Now, alongside fraying U.S.-Turkey ties, Azerbaijan's own autocratic government has weakened the status of the country in American eyes.
At the same time, Armenia has a sizable and mobilized diaspora community in the United States. Its powerful lobby succeeded in getting legislation passed in the early 1990s that blocked U.S. aid to Azerbaijan. On the other hand, in 2010, the U.S. was infuriated by Armenian arms shipments to Iran. All of which — Azerbaijan's role as a key, if weakening, U.S. ally in a strategically important location and the ways the surrounding countries are using this conflict to try to limit others — makes the conflict a crucial one for the U.S., even if its name recognition is low.
And international forces have long played a major role in the region. In a 125-year period, the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, was controlled by Persia, Russia and briefly Great Britain before it came under Soviet control in the 1920s. After the fall of Czarist Russia, which controlled Nagorno-Karabakh, the region was claimed by the short-lived Republic of Armenia and the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan because both countries consider the area part of their traditional borders.
In that chaotic period, conflict erupted around Nagorno-Karabakh, including reciprocal attempts at ethnic cleansing in both territories. But the Soviet Union quashed the violence and made Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomous administrative unit within the broader boundaries of Soviet Azerbaijan.
As the Soviet hold over its constituent parts weakened in the 1980s, Nagorno-Karabakh voted to be absorbed as part of Armenia. That paved the way for war to break out between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although a 1994 cease-fire quieted the conflict for two decades, tensions rose sporadically.
In recent weeks, violence reignited. From July to September, each side — Armenia reinforced by Russia and Azerbaijan by Turkey — engaged in reciprocal military exercises to flex their muscles. That was followed by shelling, killing civilians and military personnel on both sides.
A vacuum of American engagement emboldened regional interested parties, like Turkey, to add fuel to the fire rather than seek stability. While Armenia signaled this week that it was willing to enter negotiations with multilateral mediation, a newly emboldened Azerbaijan — backed up by Turkish support, increased profits from its natural resources and military technology reported to have been supplied by Israel — asserted that it maintained the upper hand and would continue the conflict.
Small conflicts can become big problems, and failure to treat them with professional diplomacy can make it appear that the only solution is a heavy-handed military one.
In order to engage, the U.S. needs a nuanced and knowledgeable foreign policy. Small conflicts can become big problems, and failure to treat them with professional diplomacy can make it appear that the only solution is a heavy-handed military one.
In an administration under intense pressure, weeks before a hotly contested election and with a foreign policy directive to put "America First," perhaps the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was unlikely to earn a first-tier spot on the White House's diplomatic radar. But Washington's failure to consider the escalating strife could turn into an attention-grabbing problem not just for the winner of the coming presidential elections, but for decades to come.