Yerevan, Armenia – Much ink has been spilled over the decline of America’s worldwide influence and power and the rise of competing global powers, including Russia and China. While the underlying basis of this view – that the US has waned in strength relative to its adversaries – might not be strictly accurate, it is undeniably true that Washington has retreated from its international activities, especially involvement in regulating foreign conflicts. And as Washington shrinks back, others have risen to the opportunities this affords. The past two weeks have provided one of the starkest examples of the consequences of this: the re-eruption of full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Located in the South Caucasus, at the nexus of Russia, Turkey and Iran, the roots of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict trace back to the early 20th century and it has been an active conflict zone regularly for the past three decades. In 1988, a long-existing movement to unite the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) – a majority-Armenian enclave within Soviet Azerbaijan – with Soviet Armenia proper, erupted into mass protests. The next three years saw increasing ethnic strife across the region, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 transformed the conflict into full-scale war between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan.
When the dust cleared in 1994, Armenia (and its ethnic compatriots in Karabakh) emerged as the victor, having gained control of not only the NKAO itself but also seven surrounding regions populated by ethnic Azeris, who had been driven out. De facto independent but de jure a province of Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic had come into an uneasy existence.
Despite regular exchanges of fire across the frontline, this status quo largely held for the next two-and-a-half decades, save for the 2016 flare-up known as the “Four-Day War.” This dynamic now has changed.
Following a short outbreak of violence in July, a new actor in the conflict weighed in forcefully: Turkey. While it had always been an ally of Baku, Ankara began to express unequivocal support for Azerbaijan in a way never seen before, including holding extensive joint military exercises just after the July skirmishes.
With assurances of full-scale backing from its regional ally, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, began preparing his forces for war, a process that culminated on September 27 with attacks on numerous Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting soon escalated into all-out war.
The primary reason for the relative calm of this “frozen conflict” over the past 25 years was the relative military parity of the two sides. Buoyed by oil profits, Azerbaijan was able to spend money on upgrading its forces significantly. But Baku calculated that it would still be unable to tip the military balance in it favor.
But with the Trump administration almost totally distracted by its reelection campaign this year and the US increasingly retreating into itself, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan sensed an opportunity. Already involved in conflicts and disputes involving Syria, Iraq, Libya, Greece and Cyprus, Erdogan resolved that direct Turkish support would be able to turn the conflict around decisively.
In close to two weeks of fighting to date, that support has taken the form of more than a thousand Syrian mercenaries shipped in to battle Armenian forces on the ground and the deployment of Bayraktar TB2 drones, also probably operated by Turks. While Azeri territorial gains have so far been modest, extensive video evidence confirms the drones are having a devastating impact on Armenian tanks, artillery and other military equipment.
The most important factor in Turkey’s calculation was that there would be no significant international pushback, especially on the part of the US. It seems that Azerbaijan agreed, given the apparent warning apparently issued to the US embassy in Baku ahead of hostilities (the embassy issued an alert to US citizens not to travel outside the Baku area a day before war broke out).
This assessment seems well-founded. Not only was US secretary of state Mike Pompeo among the last of the Western officials to issue a statement of “concern” about the fighting, there has been nothing resembling the sort of intense diplomacy that then-secretary of state John Kerry conducted during the 2016 Four-Day War. Unwilling to engage and distracted by upcoming elections, the Trump administration has so far sat back and watched the carnage.
This is not a phenomenon unique to Trump’s administration, however. The waning of US interest in major regional confrontations began under his predecessor, Barack Obama. As Syria descended into mass civil war, the US declined to take on a leading role. This situation then replicated itself in Libya. Today, Libya is divided nearly evenly between two major warring sides.
Now, this dynamic has visited Nagorno-Karabakh. A belligerent Turkey has reignited the conflict by throwing its weight behind Azerbaijan. Russia, Armenia’s treaty ally, currently sits quietly, but reports indicate it has injected Wagner mercenaries on the ground, and Moscow will almost certainly get involved further at some point. Iran also finds itself facing several dilemmas and has deployed tanks and troops to its border with Karabakh amid worsening tensions over the presence of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries and ethnic unrest in the Azeri-populated cities of northwest Iran.
The EU releases statements, but it is divided and unable to bring the parties to the table alone. With no potential US-led diplomatic efforts on the horizon, the war is only likely to get worse.
Many have decried the failures of US hegemony and the American-led world order. To be sure, these are many. However, the alternative – a world where regional powers pour resources into proxy wars in a gamble to effect their own desired outcome, unhindered by any sense of conscience that America often injects – is clearly far worse.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst currently in Yerevan, Armenia, where he is reporting on the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, his work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.