- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2016

Despite multiple tensions in the bilateral relationship elsewhere, Washington and Moscow on Monday worked together to push an elusive settlement to the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, after the worst outbreak of violence in decades ripped through the disputed South Caucasus territory last month.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian and French counterparts held a rare meeting with Azerbaijani President Alham Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in Vienna on Monday night.

U.S. officials said the immediate goal of the meeting — the first between the two presidents since December — would be to ease tensions after the early April clashes that killed some 75 soldiers and several civilians on both sides.

State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington that Mr. Kerry offered a range of “confidence-building measures” for the two sides, while emphasizing the “need to resume negotiations on a comprehensive settlement.”

U.S. officials in Vienna said Mr. Kerry had coordinated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on the crisis, which involved hotly disputed claims to control of a sizable ethnic Armenian enclave surrounded by Azeri territory.

Nagorno-Karabakh has been under the control of Armenia’s military and separatist local ethnic Armenians since the war for control of the territory that claimed some 30,000 lives following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The conflict has been frozen since 1994, when both sides agreed to a cease-fire, but the two sides have never signed a comprehensive peace deal.

The Associated Press reported Monday that U.S., French and Russian diplomats recommended more monitors be allowed along the Nagorno-Karabakh cease-fire line and that cameras may be placed there to document future violations.

While Mr. Aliyev and Mr. Sargsyan have previously said they both support a negotiated settlement, the fighting in April set nerves on edge from Europe to Washington that the long-frozen conflict may be on the verge of spiraling out of control.

Analysts have suggested that last month’s violence may have been sparked by soaring tensions between Russia, a traditional ally of Christian Armenia, and Turkey, which has ties to the largely Muslim Azerbaijan.

Energy-rich Azerbaijan has often had annual military expenditures in excess of Armenia’s entire state budget.

Over the years, Azerbaijani officials have threatened to seize Nagorno-Karabakh back by force if negotiations failed to yield results.

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

Analysts say there is a danger if the latest mediation effort falls short, given the evident tensions on the ground.

“If the meeting in Vienna does not yield any results, then the likelihood of a repeat of April fighting increases,” Elkhan Shainoglu of the Baku-based Atlas think tank, told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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