Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former states in the former Soviet Union probably best remembered in the West for their bloody and brutal 11-year conflict over an area called Nagorno-Karabakh, may soon be at war again.
And this time, the conflict could easily involve both the United States and its NATO allies. Like the current conflict in Kosovo, it is based in part on age-old ethnic enmities. But those difference have been heightened by the vast oil supplies in the region and Russia's apparent desire to remain the dominant force in the area.
The potential conflict gained attention in the West recently with media reports concerning vast arms shipments from Russia to Armenia.
The scandal, which compares to the U.S.'s Iran-contra affair, started in 1997, when Russia secretly shipped more than $1 billion worth of arms to Armenia. The case was investigated during a closed session of the Russian Duma. where a number of influential Russian officials, including former Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, acknowledged that Moscow had supplied Armenia with tanks and armored personnel carriers, artillery, Scud missiles and launchers, anti-aircraft missiles and millions of rounds of ammunition. The Azeris have repeatedly protested the continuing shipments of Russian arms to Armenia and demanded that all weapons supplied in the recent years be returned. While top Armenian government officials have strongly denied the reported arms shipments, Armenian Defense Minister Sarkisian, speaking at Yerevan State University in the Armenian capital noted that his country's defense capability had been "doubled" in the past two years "at no cost to the budget."
Azerbaijan, an oil-rich republic, fears that the Armenians are preparing to attack them with support from Russians. The recent weapons transfers played a crucial role in Armenia's success military campaigns against Azerbaijan. That conflict created a million refugees, more than from any other armed conflict in Europe since World War II -- including Yugoslavia's recent "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo.
In response, Azerbaijan has suggested that it may invite NATO to set up bases near its capital of Baku. It has also threatened to shut down Russia's early warning radar sites on its territory.
Azeri Defense Minister Safar Abiyev said that Azerbaijan "does not deny the possibility that a Turkish, U.S. or NATO military base will be built on the Azeri territory."
The proposal has set off a wave of criticism in the region.
Moscow, in particular, criticized Azerbaijan's attempt to involve U.S. military forces in the Caspian Sea region, saying "Baku had nothing to fear from Russian troops' presence in the Caucasus"
Tensions escalated late last month when Azerbaijan detained a Russian cargo plane carrying six MiG fighter jets and about 34 military personnel and engineers. According to the Azeris, the Russian crew originally said the planes were being shipped to Yugoslavia to help in its war with NATO. Later, however, they changed their stories, first saying they were en route to Slovakia and later to North Korea.
Whatever the planes' ultimate destination, the shipment raised serious concern among Azeri officials. For the moment, the MiGs and some crew members remain in Baku, pending results of an investigation.
Meanwhile, neighboring Iran also warned Azerbaijan to drop any plans of welcoming U.S. and NATO bases on its territory. Former Iranian President Rafsanjani, now a top aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei, has already bluntly said that Azerbaijan "will pay a high price" if Western the forces reach the Caucasus and the Caspian Basin region.
Still, the government in Baku is hedging its bets. Abiyev recently conducted high-level talks with Turkish officials in Ankara about possible military cooperation.
For Azeris, there are two basic questions: What do Russians want in providing Armenia with a large-scale military assistance, and why does Armenia need so many weapons?
Russia, they believe, benefits from a the state of "frozen instability" in the Caucasus, which effectively denies independence and economic development to the states in the region and hinders viable and lucrative exporting routes to the oil consortia in the area.
Azerbaijan has signed 16 contracts with major oil companies from around the world. Many believe that, with its lucrative oil reserves in the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan will be at the center of international politics and diplomacy in the years to come. The United States has already become one of its main economic partners. Baku sees U.S. objectives in the region as promoting economic independence and ensuring that Caspian oil does not come under the sole control of Russia.
A secure energy supply is vital to the economic and geostrategic interests to the United States. Economic and political involvement in the region will allow the U.S. to protect its future multi-billion dollar investments in energy resources. It will also allow American oil companies working in Azerbaijan and other Central Asia states to participate in building the new Silk Road into Central Asia and Far East, generating jobs at home and markets abroad for American goods and services.
The United States needs to become involved in the region now in order to protect its interests in the future. Tomorrow may be too late.
Elkhan Nuriyev is director of the Center for International Studies in Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan, and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies.