US steps in to avoid major conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenian propoganda poster, Nagorno-Karabakh. [Adam Jones/Flickr]

US Vice President Joe Biden stressed on Monday (4 April) the importance of resolving the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh against the background of a worsening crisis and the risk of drawing in major international players in the conflict.

Recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region are considered to be the worst since 1994.

Armenia and Azerbaijan in worst clash since 1994

Clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces continued yesterday (3 April), despite Baku announcing a ceasefire after the worst outbreak of violence in two decades over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region sparked international pressure to stop fighting.

Biden spoke to the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan and wrote on his Twitter account that a comprehensive settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh is critical for the stability, security and prosperity of both sides.

Aliyev met with Biden, as well as with Secretary of State John Kerry at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on 1 April. The relations between Baku and Washington have improved with the recent release from prison of human rights and civil society activists in Azerbaijan, and with the perspective of realising the Southern Gas Corridor, a project to bring gas from the Caucasus to the EU. The US uses Azerbaijani facilities for transporting troops and supplies to Afghanistan.

According to George Friedman, an internationally recognised geopolitical forecaster and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, a global analysis company, the recent fighting should not be underestimated.

“This time, it was reported that weapons such as multiple rocket launching systems firing Grad rockets were used along with helicopter gunships. This was obviously not an isolated incident because use of weapons of this sort would have to be authorised by much higher command echelons,” Friedman wrote.

But a war over Nagorno-Karabakh could draw in Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United States. As Friedman explains, Turkey sides with Azerbaijan, while Armenia is a Russian client. Russia-Turkey relations are at their worst state in decades. And for Turkey, Armenia is an enemy with which it cannot reach accommodation on its terms. For Iran, Azerbaijan is a threat, because it can be used as a base against Iran, Friedman explains.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – a staunch ally of Azerbaijan – insisted yesterday that the Armenian-controlled region of Nagorno-Karabakh was rightfully part of Azerbaijan.

“Karabakh will one day return to its original owner. It will be Azerbaijan’s,” Erdogan said in televised remarks.

“We pray our Azerbaijani brothers will prevail in these clashes,” Erdoğan said.

Against this background, agencies reported that John Kerry spoke to his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday.

In an apparent reference to Erdogan’s bullish statements, the Russian Foreign Ministry said: “Lavrov and Kerry condemned attempts by certain external players to instigate confrontation around Karabakh.”

The Russian Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, will travel to the Armenian capital Yerevan on 7 March, while Lavrov is expected in Baku the same day.

Lavrov and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier held a telephone conversation on  Monday, and called on the parties to show restraint, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

The two ministers “voiced profound concern over the sharp escalation of the situation along the contact line of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has already led to numerous casualties, including among the civilian population”.

Lavrov and Steinmeier “were unanimous in saying that the standoff in the region had no military solution and spoke out in favor of restraint to be shown by the parties, the immediate ceasefire and return to the negotiation process under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group.”

The Minsk Group spearheads the OSCE’s efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation, and the United States.

The Minsk group has formulated the so-called Madrid principles for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: the non-use of force, respect for the territorial integrity of states, and the right to self-determination.

Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the so-called frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space. It is a landlocked region in the Southern Caucasus, de jure on the territory of Azerbaijan, but de facto governed by the Armenian-backed breakaway government of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

An armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan took place between 1988 and 1994 over Nagorno-Karabakh. A Russian-brokered cease-fire was signed in May 1994.

In August 2008, the US, France and Russia began to negotiate a full settlement of the conflict, proposing a referendum on the status of the territory. The effort culminated in the signature in Moscow by Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan and his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev of an agreement to hold talks on a political settlement.

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