Photo credit: Tim Ryan Williams/Vox
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh recently flared up after decades of relative stability. A Russia-negotiated ceasefire that came into effect on November 11 will hopefully stop the violence. Whether or not the peace holds going forward, it is not in the interest of the United States to encroach on Russia’s near abroad because of the very real possibility of violent escalation for little gain to the national interest.
Russia has demonstrated its willingness to violently react to Western encroachments on what it deems to be within its “near abroad,” which comprises former Soviet states that Russia still views as vital to its sphere of influence. Look, for example, to a neighbor very close to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Georgia. In the early 2000s, then-President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili pursued a vigorous Western-focused foreign policy and was on track to join the NATO alliance.[i] Wary of this very real possibility, Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008 under the pretext of defending separatist states largely unrecognized by the international community and stopped Georgian accession. President Putin demonstrated that he was willing to tolerate near abroad states having friendly relations with the West, but a security alliance was simply unacceptable. Russia made a similar move in Ukraine after it pursued closer political ties with the European Union. Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014[ii] and aided insurgents in the Donbas later that year.[iii] If the United States were to become heavily involved in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, there is no reason to believe that Russia would simply allow that to happen.
If hostilities were to break out again, and the United States were to involve itself effectively, there would be a very high risk of escalation. In the event of enforcing a ceasefire, the United States would most likely need to station soldiers as peacekeepers. As in civil wars, effective peacekeeping needs to be backed with the promise of force.[iv] The October 26 ceasefire negotiated by the U.S. was broken very quickly[v] and the lack of peacekeepers made it exceptionally easy to do. Acknowledging this, the November 11 ceasefire negotiated by Russia seems to be promising because it will station 1960 peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.[vi] If this did fail, however, and the U.S. wanted to station troops in the area in the future, it would seem highly unlikely that Russia would simply accept that. After all, Russia has started a war and fueled insurgencies for much less. Less than sending a peacekeeping force with boots on the ground, the U.S. could also enforce a no-fly zone as was proposed for the Syrian Civil War, a plan criticized at the time for containing a high risk of escalation.[vii] While it may be true that Syria is unlike Nagorno-Karabakh because Russia is not pursuing an air campaign for one side, a no-fly zone would still constitute an American military presence that the Russians would undoubtedly view as threatening.
In either case of a U.S. military commitment to the region, the risk of escalation is simply too high and outweighs any possible benefits to the national interest. The United States has started to move out of the Middle East with the withdrawal of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan,[viii] and it would seem a Biden administration would only keep a small military commitment.[ix][x] While the Caucasus region is not typically regarded to be part of the Middle East, a commitment in Nagorno-Karabakh would certainly require increased commitments elsewhere if only because Armenia and Azerbaijan are not accessible by sea. This commitment could perhaps be justified within the framework of great power competition with Russia. Retired General Philip Breedlove has advanced such an argument, saying that pipelines connecting Azerbaijan’s oil and natural gas to Europe are vital in reducing its reliance on Russian energy.[xi] This would be a valid argument if Europe actually intended to become less reliant on Russian energy, but the imminent completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline makes this wishful thinking at best.
General Breedlove also advanced the argument that the risk is actually reversed: U.S. involvement would decrease the risk of escalation as Turkey, Russia, and even Iran could otherwise be drawn into a greater conflict.[xii] There is something to this perspective. Turkey has openly sided with Azerbaijan and Russia has a defense pact with Armenia.[xiii] It is thus possible that if Russia and Turkey entered into hostilities over their respective ally, a wider conflict could ensue as NATO is brought onto the side of Turkey. Though this scenario is plausible, it does not seem very likely because neither Russia nor Turkey would want to risk a greater conflict on their own. Despite Russia’s defense pact with Armenia, it did not join the fight against Azerbaijan, hinting that perhaps that commitment is not very credible or important. Turkey, too, shot down a Russian fighter jet in 2015,[xiv] but this did not ignite a conflict between them. Leaving Turkey and Russia to sort out the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh thus seems to be the less risky option—General Breedlove’s risk assessment is rather inverted.
As the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh hopefully cools down with the November 11 ceasefire, the United States should be wary of getting involved in any future flare up. The U.S., and the West more broadly, should certainly engage in fruitful diplomatic and economic ties with states in Russia’s near abroad. On matters of security, however, it would be prudent to let the Russian bear slumber in its mountain home rather than to risk provoking it—would such a provocation be worth the suffering of the locals and even of U.S. forces?
[i] Sarah Pruitt, “How a Five-Day War With Georgia Allowed Russia to Reassert Its Military Might,” History, September 4, 2018, https://www.history.com/news/russia-georgia-war-military-nato.
[iii] Victoria Butenko, Laura Smith-Spark, and Diana Magnay, “U.S. official says 1,000 Russian troops have entered Ukraine,” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2014/08/28/world/europe/ukraine-crisis/index.html.
[iv] Barbara F. Walter, “The Critical Barrier to Civil War Settlement,” International Organization 51, no. 3, (Summer 1997): 361.
[v] Nailia Bagirova, and Humeyra Pamuk, “U.S. announces new Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire as fighting persists,” Reuters, October 25, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-armenia-azerbaijan-usa/u-s-announces-new-nagorno-karabakh-ceasefire-as-fighting-persists-idUSKBN27A0WQ.
[vi] Laurenz Gehrke, and Zia Weise, “Russian troops arrive in Nagorno-Karabakh following cease-fire deal,” Politico EU, November 10, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/russia-troops-nagorno-karabakh-ceasefire-armenia-azerbaijan/.
[vii] Spencer Ackerman, “Why Clinton’s plans for no-fly zones in Syria could provoke US-Russia conflict,” The Guardian, October 25, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/25/hillary-clinton-syria-no-fly-zones-russia-us-war.
[viii] Robert Burns, and Zeke Miller, “US withdrawing thousands of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Associated Press, September 9, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/afghanistan-middle-east-islamic-state-group-donald-trump-iraq-a6d9550ea12d041436dda09f30873f55.
[ix] Kimberly Dozier, “Biden Wants to Keep Special Ops in the Mideast. That Doesn’t Mean More ‘Forever Wars,’ His Adviser Says,” Time, September 23, 2020, https://time.com/5890577/biden-middle-east-special-operations-forces/.
[x] J.P. Lawrence, “Biden to weigh keeping counterterror force in Afghanistan, analysts say,” Stars and Stripes, November 10, 2020, https://www.stripes.com/news/middle-east/biden-to-weigh-keeping-counterterror-force-in-afghanistan-analysts-say-1.651634.
[xi] Philip Breedlove, “Opinion: The U.S. Can’t Afford To Ignore The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict,” NPR, October 24, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/10/24/927219056/opinion-the-u-s-cant-afford-to-ignore-the-nagorno-karabakh-conflict.
[xiii] Patrick Keddie, “What’s Turkey’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?” Al Jazeera, October 30, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/10/30/whats-turkeys-role-in-the-nagorno-karabakh-conflict.
[xiv] Dion Nissenbaum, and Emre Peker, “Turkey Shoots Down Russian Military Jet,” Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2015, https://www.wsj.com/articles/turkey-shoots-down-jet-near-syria-border-1448356509.