- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Azerbaijan’s top diplomat in Washington said the U.S. must do more to deal with rising instability in his region, lest tensions that have already drawn in both Turkey and Russia spiral into more violence like the clashes that rocked the Nagorno-Karabakh region earlier this month.

While Ambassador Elin Suleymanov said that he’s not certain the flare-up between Russia-backed Armenia and Turkey-backed Azerbaijan was directly sparked by the ongoing Ankara-Moscow rift, he believes it “showed how dangerous things can be if they get out of control.”

The worst outbreak in fighting in more than 20 years in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan, killed dozens of soldiers and sent nerves on edge from Europe to Washington, where concerns skyrocketed over the prospect of a Turkey-Russia proxy war.

In a wide-ranging interview this week, Mr. Suleymanov told The Washington Times that the Obama administration has recently shown signs of engaging more deeply with Azerbaijan and toward counterbalancing growing Russian influence in the region as a whole.

But he stressed that far more U.S. attention will be needed to prevent a wider regional security meltdown — and suggested the Obama administration missed a rare chance to exert real influence between Turkey, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan following the early-April clash.

Mr. Suleymanov said it was Russian President Vladimir Putin — not President Obama — who has exploited the situation, portraying himself as the peacemaker and summoning Armenian and Azeri military officials to Moscow to restore a cease-fire over Nagorno-Karabakh.

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“It is obvious today that Russia’s profile as a major diplomatic power in the region has risen significantly over the last two weeks,” the ambassador said. “Russia is a very decisive player. We’ve seen it. And over the last two weeks, we’ve seen Russia being even more engaged than before.”

Matthew Bryza, a pointman on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict under both President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama, and the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2010 to 2011, made much the same point about the price of U.S. passivity in an op-ed for The Washington Post Tuesday.

Mr. Putin, he wrote, “is exploiting the situation through intensive diplomacy that Obama shows no interest in matching. The White House has failed even to issue an official statement.”

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has for decades been a bone of contention between Moscow and Ankara.

The separatist enclave inside Azerbaijan has been under the control of Armenia’s military and local ethnic Armenians since the two countries waged a war over the territory that claimed some 30,000 lives following the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

The conflict has been frozen since 1994, when both sides agreed to a cease-fire that was originally co-chaired by the U.S., France and Russia via the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Despite the cease-fire, the two sides have never signed a comprehensive peace deal.

During the years since, Turkey, which already had tense relations with Armenia over charges that Turks engaged in a genocide against Armenians in World War I, has sided with Azerbaijan, imposing a trade embargo on Armenia.

Playing both sides

Russia has sought to exert influence with both sides by providing weapons to both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis.

A key difference in the weapons deals, according to Mr. Suleymanov, is that energy-rich Azerbaijan “actually pays” Moscow for military equipment while Armenia accepts it as aid from the Russians.

Indeed, Azerbaijan often has annual military expenditures in excess of Armenia’s entire state budget and, over the years, has threatened to seize Nagorno-Karabakh by force if peace negotiations remained stalled.

But the ambassador blamed Armenia for starting the violence in early April, suggesting that Yerevan had sought to provoke the clash in the wake of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s trip to Washington late last month.

“Every time there is a move forward, Armenia tries to undermine it,” Mr. Suleymanov said.

The ambassador’s comments come as speculation also swirls over the extent to which Russia’s growing military footprint in Armenia, which shares a 165-mile border and a contentious history with Turkey, might have contributed to the recent clash.

Moscow quietly signed an air defense agreement with Armenia in December and has since deployed at least four new MiG-29 fighter jets and a host of other military vehicles to a Russian base just outside the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

Regional analysts say Mr. Putin is looking to squeeze Turkey in response to last November’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet that had veered into Turkish airspace from Syria.

Mr. Suleymanov rejected charges that Moscow deliberately provoked the crisis to punish Ankara and warn outside powers.

“Russia several times insisted, and stated very clearly, both from President Putin and from Prime Minister Medvedev, that they are the most interested party in keeping peace and stability in the region,” he said. “We take them at their word.”

However, he added that concerns are high among Azerbaijani officials that the recent clash will “add to the tension which already exists between Russia and Turkey.”

“A potential escalation and widening of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan does not help that situation,” he said.

The relatively warm welcome President Aliyev received on his recent Washington trip — officially made to attend Mr. Obama’s nuclear security summit — came just days before the outbreak of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The ambassador said Mr. Aliyev’s visit “felt like a bilateral” meeting because the Azerbaijani president got a brief one-on-one with Mr. Obama and had extensive meetings with Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

The Aliyev government, he said, was particularly “grateful because both Biden and Kerry expressed their support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.”

But the ambassador added Azerbaijani officials have “for a long time called for a more engaged U.S. policy in the region” and “honestly, we haven’t seen it until very recently.”

“If the U.S. engages in that peacemaking effort, along with Russia, that would be good,” he said. “For peace to hold and to last, I think what we want to have is a stronger engagement from all the players, including the United States and France.”

A resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate, he added, could unlock other frozen conflicts dating to the break-up of the Soviet Union, from Georgia and Moldova to “perhaps even Ukraine, because all of them originate from the same patterning of undermining territorial integrity, and I think that’s the underlining factor here.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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