Azerbaijan on Saturday released 15 Armenian prisoners of war in exchange for the location of 97,000 Armenian landmines in the territory recaptured by Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh war last fall. It was a welcome sign that American diplomacy in the Caucasus is alive and well. The victory of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Monday’s early elections suggests that the window for diplomacy remains open. But the State Department will have to exercise caution. There are still plenty of geopolitical landmines left, and U.S. diplomats – who helped organize the swap deal – could set off career-ending explosions if they stumble.
The Caucasus is one of those remote, complicated but strategically vital regions that Americans often overlook. It is the only exit that oil and gas can take from Central Asia to the West without passing through Russian or Iranian territory. Since the former Soviet South Caucasian republics declared independence in 1990, there have been numerous conflicts in Georgia, two in the troubled Chechen region of Russia and two between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is largely populated by ethnic Armenians. but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
The conflicts in the Caucasus can have a disproportionate impact on the world order. In 1999, the Second Chechen War helped Vladimir Putin gain control of the Russian Federation. Its invasion of Georgia in 2008 marked the start of a Russian challenge to the post-Cold War international order. The recent Nagorno-Karabakh war, in which Azerbaijani forces equipped with Turkish and Israeli drones imposed a stinging setback on the Russian-supplied Armenian army, also marks a shift in global politics as the drone war high tech is becoming a factor in small power conflicts.
The problem for American political types engaged in Caucasian politics is that American values and interests can pull Washington in different directions. The ties of the United States with Armenia are strong and deep. American missionaries and educators were closely involved in the Armenian communities of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, and some of the most poignant and heart-wrenching accounts of the Armenian Genocide come from American missionaries who saw friends and colleagues slaughtered in 1915.