Headlines last week that the presidents of Russia and France were jointly calling for a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh were “heartbreaking” to Carey Cavanaugh, a former US ambassador charged with helping to resolve the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Partly it was because they meant the century-old dispute had flared up again, killing more than 400 people so far, including more than a dozen civilians. But it was also because the US – which, along with France and Russia, forms the OSCE Minsk Group, a troika that has worked to end the conflict since 1993 – was missing from the statement.
“The US wasn’t coordinated into that discussion,” said Cavanaugh, the former US representative to the Minsk Group.
He is among observers of the Caucasus who see in this week’s events the latest example of US diplomatic disengagement from theatres around the world, amid wider fears of a hollowing out of the US state department under Donald Trump.
“The Americans have withdrawn from this issue,” said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow specialising in the Caucasus with Carnegie Europe. “If Trump has heard of Azerbaijan, it’s because it’s a place he wanted to build a Trump tower in.”
The Trump administration has been largely silent about the conflict. Secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, only commented on it when asked about it in an interview this week, and he was non-committal.
“Our view is that this has been a longstanding conflict between these two countries in this particular piece of real estate,” Pompeo told Fox News. “We’re discouraging internationalization of this. We think outsiders ought to stay out. We’re urging a ceasefire. We want them both to back up. We’ve spoken to the leadership in each of the two countries, asking them to do just that.”
Under the Trump administration, the US has taken a back seat on many major international issues, compared to previous administrations, particularly when it affects the Russian sphere of influence. Trump has consistently avoided statements that would irritate Vladimir Putin. US allies, like the UK and Lithuania, have recently tried to persuade the state department to be more aggressive in its response to the suppression of protests in Belarus and the poisoning of Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.
America’s lack of interest in Nagorno-Karabakh was first flagged in August 2017 when the US appointed its new representative to the Minsk Group, Andrew Schofer, but did not grant him ambassador status – putting him at a lower rank than his French and Russian counterparts.
In a finely balanced, complex regional dispute, that decision risked delegitimising diplomatic efforts, said Cavanaugh. “Maintaining that equality was important, because it gives Armenia and Azerbaijan a sense of balance in the process. You don’t have to worry that Russia is being unduly influential [in the Group], or the United States either.”
US embassies in Azerbaijan and Armenia both issued travel advisories to their citizens, warning of possible heightened violence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Their fears – borne out 48 hours later – were not echoed by Washington. “The US state department wasn’t issuing a statement saying we’re worried about the conflict,” de Waal says, describing it as “missing in action”.
It was not until Thursday – five days since the war erupted – that a full Minsk Group statement was issued condemning the fighting.
It compared starkly with US diplomatic activity the last time the two countries clashed in a four-day war in 2016. “In that case we saw the secretary of state calling both leaders,” says Olesya Vartanyan, from the International Crisis Group.
“Secretary [John] Kerry took part in the first summit of the Azerbaijan and Armenian presidents along with his counterparts from France and Russia. And his presence definitely played a role, because they were able to agree on some measures to pacify the situation and prevent new escalations,” she says.
“Since this president [Trump], the interest in this conflict has mainly disappeared, and what we’ve seen is much less shuttle diplomacy going on. The guys who used to represent the US before would go the region and speak to the leaders and sometimes civil society to learn their views, see what could be done, and they were coming up with different proposals. Not all of it worked, but it helped.
“Because when these two sides (Armenia and Azerbaijan) are left on their own, what we’ve seen in the past and recently is there is a bigger possibility for tensions, new clashes and escalations.”
A spokesman for the US state department said in a statement that Washington’s position on the conflict had not changed and that both sides needed to cease hostilities immediately and work with the Minsk Group members to return to substantive negotiations.