Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes: US, others must intervene as conflict escalates, experts say

With Russia and Turkey backing different sides, escalating tensions could have broad implications for the U.S. and NATO

It has mostly fallen into the lapse of being a frozen, forgotten fight, but the long-simmering tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan reached new heights on Sunday – threatening serious implications for NATO and the looming possibility of an all-out war.

The most vitriolic clashes since 2016 erupted in the mountainous, thickly foliaged Nagorno-Karabakh terrain in the South Caucasus – a landlocked region not only defined by decades of tensions between the two countries but also a pivotal ingress for oil pipelines exporting to the globe.

"The resumption of fighting across the Azeri-Armenian border comes at a fragile, fraught time for the region and the world. There is a very real possibility that this crisis could drag in larger countries, either as part of a proxy war or potentially in a direct confrontation," Brett Bruen, a former White House director of global engagements, told Fox News. "Each side accuses the other of starting this latest round of hostilities. Yet, neither seems to be doing much to end the conflict."

The Nagorno-Karabakh has been a source for skirmishes since the 1994 ceasefire between the two former Soviet nations. The terrain technically rests in Azerbaijan, as per international law, but it is generally defined as being controlled and populated by the ethnic Armenians -- with Armenia's support to run its affairs independently from Baku, the Azerbaijan capital, since the Soviet Union fell almost three decades ago.

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The prized parcel – rich in minerals, mulberry groves and alpine meadows – is a point of patriotic pride for both the Muslim majority Azerbaijan and Christian-dominant Armenia.

Azerbaijani Ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov speaks during a meeting with other Ambassadors and officials on the Baku-Tblisi-Kars Railway Project hosted by BP in Washington on Nov. 14, 2017. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Azerbaijani Ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov speaks during a meeting with other Ambassadors and officials on the Baku-Tblisi-Kars Railway Project hosted by BP in Washington on Nov. 14, 2017. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

However, Azerbaijan's ambassador to Washington, Elin Suleymanov, told Fox News on Monday morning that the spike in violence should come as no surprise.

"It is obvious that the status quo is unsustainable, this (escalation) was not unpredictable, nor a one-time event," he said, claiming Armenian officials have rejected their repeated offers for substantial negotiations. "They have basically said, this is what it is. We have occupied. But this isn't disputed territory – this is, by the law, part of Azerbaijan."

Azerbaijan claims that its neighbor provoked it with a steady accession of aggression since July, launching "crossfire attacks" that put civilians in harm's way.

In an interview with Fox News on Monday afternoon, Armenian Ambassador to Washington – Varuzhan Nersesyan – denied Azerbaijan’s claims of provocation and said that the acceleration stemmed from a “continuation of Azerbaijan’s policies to threatening to resolve (the issue) militarily.”

“They are trying to put the blame on Armenia, and ‘settle the score,’” he said, stressing that the difference now is that they also have to contend to Turkey’s increased military footprint in the region against them.

Nersesyan also highlighted that they are resolved to a peaceful resolution – when Baku “stops the violence” – and called for a deeper U.S. engagement to aid in mediating three-way talks that not only include Azerbaijan and Armenia but the embattled region too.

The OSCE Minsk Group – co-chaired by France, Russia and the US – was established in 1992 in a bid to find an amicable solution. While a ceasefire was declared two years later, the dispute remains – punctured by fierce flareups – such as the current one, involving air power, missiles and heavy armor.

Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has broken out around the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian Defense Ministry says two Azerbaijani helicopters have been shot down.

Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has broken out around the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian Defense Ministry says two Azerbaijani helicopters have been shot down. (Armenian Defense Ministry via AP))

As of Monday, both countries had declared martial law and are preparing forces as the fighting continues. According to Armenian officials, 58 servicemen on their side have been killed, while some 200 people have been wounded in the most recent clashes. Azerbaijani authorities said six civilians were killed and 26 wounded on their side. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Sunday there were losses among Baku's forces, too, but he didn't elaborate.

Foreign policy analysts are conjecturing that it may have escalated too much for the international community not to intervene.

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Both Turkey and Russia, on opposite sides of the spectrum, have already stepped into the theater. Turkey, a NATO member, stands in a staunch military alliance with Azerbaijan while Russia sides militarily and diplomatically with Armenia.

According to Luke Coffey, director of The Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy, this scale of fighting is a cry for help to the international community, which has all but given up trying to resolve the conflict after almost 30 years.

"There is a massive Russian military base in Armenia, and Armenian soldiers have deployed to Syria with Russian troops to support Basher al-Assad. It goes without saying that this conflict that the potential to spill over and drag in big powers," he cautioned. "Azerbaijan is an important alternate source of energy for Europe, and fighting could impact this."

Armenia's government in capital Yerevan has accused Ankara of interfering in the bi-lateral conflict, a claim that Baku has dismissed. The United States, along with members of the European Union and NATO, have been quick to call for an immediate "cessation of hostilities" between the warring factions.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian pauses as he speaks at the Armenian parliament in Yerevan, Armenia, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian pauses as he speaks at the Armenian parliament in Yerevan, Armenia, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020. (Tigran Mehrabyan, Government Press Office, PAN Photo via AP)

U.S. President Donald Trump said Sunday that the U.S. is "looking at (the situation) very strongly" and is purporting to "stop it."

"The United States cannot wait for others to address the situation. Washington needs to dispatch the Secretary of State to the region and show that it is closely following events, while actively working towards a ceasefire," Bruen urged. "All of the ingredients are there for a wider war. It could spark a regional or even global crisis."

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Coffey also stressed that due to the role of major outside powers – Russia, Turkey and possibly Iran – and considering all the major oil and gas pipelines for Europe and Israel of which Azerbaijan also provides Israel with 40% of its oil through a pipeline that passes through, this is a glaring concern for the broader region.

"It is impossible to know how this will play out. If Azerbaijan continues to liberate areas under Armenian occupation, then I am sure this will change the nature of future negotiations," Coffey added. "Then again, winter is soon approaching, and the region is very mountainous. At this point, it remains to be seen how this will all end."