The latest clash between Azeri and Armenian forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh highlights the acute danger that the war in Ukraine will reignite other frozen and semi-frozen conflicts in Europe.
The United States and the West should do everything possible diplomatically to make sure that this does not happen. Apart from the human suffering involved, the results of new conflicts could in some cases be very unfavorable to the West.
The struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh — a largely Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan — began in the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union approached dissolution. For three years it was contained by Soviet troops, but with the end of the USSR it burst into a full-scale war, which Armenia won, with considerable help from the Armenian diaspora in the West. The resulting ceasefire mostly held from 1995 to 2020, when Azerbaijan — armed by Turkey and supported by plentiful energy revenues — launched an offensive that reconquered much of the territory held by Armenia.
The 2020 war was ended by a ceasefire brokered by Russia, and enforced by around 2,000 Russian peacekeeping troops. Armenia itself has a defense agreement with Russia, and Moscow maintains a military presence there. This agreement however does not extend to Nagorno-Karabakh, whose independence Russia does not recognize. Armenians regard the Russian alliance as crucial to ensuring that Turkey does not intervene directly in the Karabakh conflict on the side of the Azeris, with whom the Turks share a strong ethnic affinity.
Iran, too, has a stake in the Karabakh conflict. Tehran wants a continued Russian presence in the southern Caucasus to prevent NATO expansion to the region. It fears that Georgia and Azerbaijan might host U.S. military bases to threaten Iran, and that Azerbaijan might receive U.S. support to stir up separatism in Iranian Azerbaijan (the present Republic of Azerbaijan was part of Iran until conquered by Russia in the early 19th Century).