The conflict is an unresolved leftover from the Soviet Union. In 1923, Communist rulers placed Nagorno-Karabakh and its ethnic Armenian majority within the borders of Soviet Azerbaijan, giving it special status with a high degree of self-rule. As the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, the region declared its own independence, setting off a war that lasted until a cease-fire in 1994. That held for 26 years, though clashes have broken out over the past four years.
This round of hostilities, which started on Sept. 27, is different. What had previously been theoretically possible but highly improbable military actions — Azerbaijani drones flying within 20 miles of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, or an Armenian strike on a military base in Azerbaijan’s second city, Ganja — were quickly carried out. The next targets could be oil and gas facilities in Azerbaijan, or Yerevan and Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.
The threat of mutually assured destruction was supposed to be a deterrent that kept each side in check. Now it risks becoming reality. Azerbaijan, encouraged and materially supported by Turkey, has vowed to fight until its control of Nagorno-Karabakh is assured. Armenians, for their part, have vowed to give their last drop of blood to maintain the region’s independence.
The fighting has expanded beyond anything seen in the past few decades. If it develops into an Azerbaijani attack on Armenian soil, it would be likely to bring the direct participation of Russia, which is treaty-bound to protect Armenia. At that point, with Turkey and Russia on opposing sides, the wider region could be engulfed by war.
It was the United States that once led the effort to avoid such a disaster as one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, the body created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to negotiate a settlement to the conflict. After the cease-fire in 1994, the group began intense rounds of diplomacy, including the promising peace talks at Key West, Fla., in 2001, overseen by a sharp cast of American diplomats.