The unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could escalate into “large-scale” fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, the U.S. director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, warned late on Tuesday.
“Tension over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh could devolve into a large-scale military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which could draw in Russia to support its regional ally,” Coats said at the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual hearing on “Worldwide Threats.”
“Both sides’ reluctance to compromise, mounting domestic pressures, Azerbaijan’s steady military modernization, and Armenia’s acquisition of new Russian equipment sustain the risk of large-scale hostilities in 2018,” he added.
Russian military assistance to Armenia stems from a defense alliance between the two countries. At the same Russia has been Azerbaijan’s leading supplier of weapons. Moscow and Baku signed arms deals worth at least $4 billion in 2009-2011.
Armenian officials say those deals contributed to four-day hostilities around Karabakh that broke out in April 2016 and left at least 180 soldiers from both sides dead. It was the worst fighting in the conflict zone since a Russian-brokered truce stopped a full-scale Armenian-Azerbaijani war in 1994.
Together with France, the United States and Russia have long been spearheading international efforts to end the Karabakh dispute. Diplomats from the three world powers called on the conflicting sides on Sunday to take “additional steps” to reduce tensions on the frontlines.
In a joint statement issued after their latest tour of the region, the mediators also said Yerevan and Baku have expressed readiness to continue “intensive” peace talks in the months ahead. The Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents pledged to intensify the peace process when they met in Geneva in October.
Coats mentioned Karabakh in the context of Russia’s efforts to maintain a strong influence on other ex-Soviet states. “The Kremlin will seek to maintain and, where possible, expand its influence throughout the former Soviet countries that it asserts are in its self-described sphere of influence,” said the U.S. intelligence chief.