Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh watch the news in a bomb shelter in the main city of Stepanakert on September 28, 2020. Photo: AFP / Handout / Armenian Foreign Ministry

YEREVAN – Much ink has been spilled about the decline of the United States’ 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 undeniable 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 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s roots 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) was 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 front line, 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.

After a short outbreak of violence in July, a new actor in the conflict weighed in forcefully: Turkey. While always an ally of Baku, Ankara began to express its 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 readying 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. While Azerbaijan’s defense spending, buoyed by oil profits, allowed it to upgrade its forces significantly, Baku calculated that it would still be unable to tip the military balance decisively.

But with President Donald Trump’s administration almost completely distracted by its re-election 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 decisively.

In the nearly 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 (and likely Turkish operation) of Bayraktar TB2 drones. While Azerbaijani 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 part of Turkey’s calculation was that there would be no significant international pushback, especially on the part of the US. Azerbaijan seems to have agreed, given its apparent warning 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 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 process of waning US interest in major regional confrontations began under his predecessor, Barack Obama. As Syria descended into civil war, the US declined to play 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 faced with 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 northwestern Iran.

The European Union 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.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright. Neil Hauer, usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, is currently in Yerevan, Armenia, where he is reporting on the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Neil Hauer

Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict, particularly Russia’s role; politics and minorities in the South Caucasus; and violence and politics in the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya and Ingushetia.