Kerry, Go Fix Karabakh!


The National Interest Online
July 24 2013

Alexandros Petersen
July 24, 2013

In late June, press around the world reported that Azerbaijan had
finally chosen an export pipeline for its natural gas to reach
European markets. This process took over a decade and involved
in-depth involvement by Washington in the form of the U.S. Special
Envoy for Eurasian Energy and the hard work of the new Bureau of
Energy Resources under Secretary Kerry at the State Department. Since
President Clinton’s first term, through Democratic and Republican
administrations, connecting Azerbaijan’s resources with NATO allies in
Europe has been a strategic priority, requiring stealthy maneuvering
around Russian-backed plans to scupper it.

Moscow sought to keep its former Central European satellites dependent
on its gas supplies and vulnerable to geopolitical manipulation through
mid-winter cut-offs, which occurred regularly in the mid-2000s. This
challenge has now been greatly reduced due to complicated energy
diplomacy conducted by Azerbaijan and the United States. But Moscow
has an ace up its sleeve.

The natural gas pipelines connecting Azerbaijan to Europe inevitably
have to snake around neighboring Armenia because of the intractable
conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. This so-called frozen conflict has
since the end of the Cold War become synonymous with the sort of
faraway, messy and unrewarding conflagrations that Washington does
not want to get mixed up in. But in this case, the far from frozen,
but rather simmering conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is one
that will come back to haunt the United States if it does not do its
best to encourage a process towards conflict settlement.

With the fates of Egypt and Syria uncertain and Secretary Kerry stuck
in the perennial logjam of Israel-Palestine, Nagorno-Karabakh actually
presents the State Department with a conflict resolution process that
could become a major success story. As relations with Russia worsen
by the day, however, Karabakh could also be used as a pawn against U.S.

interests in a region bordering Iran, with important thoroughfares
for the military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Russia has long acted as Armenia’s patron, taking its side in the
active war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s and maintaining a major
military base in the country with treaty promises to defend Armenia
in case of attack. As Azerbaijan becomes an increasingly faithful
ally of the United States-assisting in both the Afghanistan and
Iraq theaters-Moscow has turned a cold shoulder to Baku, even as
Azerbaijani policymakers try to maintain cordial relations with their
rival’s closest ally.

If it wanted to disrupt the flow of strategically important natural
gas to America’s European allies-or simply assert its pugnacity
in a geopolitically contested region-Moscow could at any moment
reignite the Karabakh conflict, plunging Iran’s northern border and
Turkey’s east into tumult. Such a move is not without precedent: on
the pretext of intervening in a similar such conflict, Russian forces
invaded neighboring Georgia in 2008. Though at the time much was made
of Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili’s supposed eagerness for
confrontation, almost all serious postmortems have concluded that
the preplanned Russian invasion was aimed at ensuring that Georgia
did not get too close to NATO and the United States.

To his credit, Secretary Kerry has on numerous occasions recognized
the importance of moving towards conflict resolution on Karabakh.

During the recent visit of Azerbaijan’s foreign minister to Washington,
Kerry said that resolution was “critical” at this moment for many
of the reasons described above. Kerry is in fact uniquely suited
to shepherding a solution to the conflict. Azerbaijan is a close
partner of the United States, but Kerry in particular has the trust
of the Armenians, having long represented the interests of vocal
Armenian-Americans as a Massachusetts senator.

To achieve success during his tenure, however, Kerry must tweak his
approach. The crux of the disagreement over the contested territory
of Karabakh-which is within internationally recognized Azerbaijan,
but occupied by Armenia-is that the two sides cannot come to terms on
the final status of the area. However, trying to find some, informal
at least, agreement on final status as a pretext for negotiations is
a nonstarter. This is putting the cart before the horse.

Breakthrough on Karabakh, and a much needed foreign-policy success
for the Obama administration, will only come if Secretary Kerry
brokers high-level negotiations and some tangible progress on the
ground without preconditions. Following two decades of discussion,
a number of well-known plans are on the table for the settlement’s
final status. The two sides already have opinions on them and will
not agree as long as the status quo persists. There is no better
secretary of state in recent memory to convene such talks than Kerry.

Rather than a messy frozen conflict, Karabakh is an opportunity waiting
to be seized by this administration. And given Russia’s ability to
worsen the conflict to America’s disadvantage, it is an opportunity
that cannot be missed.

Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island:
Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West and co-editor of

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