On September 13, 2022, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale attack against Armenia on a level not seen since the 44-day war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020. Armenia’s appeal to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russian-led military alliance, and the UN Security Council for help countering Azerbaijani aggression, the potential for a major show of force that can hasten the destruction of the already-crumbling international order is high. The U.S. government must finally adopt a cohesive policy with regards to Armenia and Azerbaijan, and play a more active role in the region by recognizing that Azerbaijan’s unprovoked aggression is an act against the norms of the international order.
It is important for the U.S. to affirm its position on the conflict by sending targeted messages and complementing diplomatic calls on both sides to de-escalate. It is encouraging that State Department Spokesperson Ned Price has already confirmed that the U.S. possesses evidence implying that Azerbaijan is shelling Armenian positions and infrastructure. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has directly urged President Aliyev to stop the military operations along the border. While international media continues to portray the ongoing fighting in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, policymakers should not be misled by the cliché interpretations of the situation and examine Azerbaijan’s real intentions. A closer look at the negotiations since the end of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and an analysis of the rhetoric and threats coming out of Azerbaijan’s Aliyev regime, which has found itself in a victorious euphoria since 2020, shows how the current fighting is far from being merely an extension of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The current aggression entails Azerbaijan’s demand for a second capitulation which will essentially end Armenia’s existence as a sovereign country.
It is enough to look at the continuous pattern of diverse threats, ranging from military to economic, made by the Aliyev regime to understand who the aggressor is and what the goals are. For example, Aliyev recently threatened full-scale war with Armenia if the country tries to pursue any international discussions or negotiations about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the thousands of Armenians who still live in their indigenous lands under the protection of the Russian peacekeeping force. Meanwhile, Armenia’s Pashinyan has been building his platform for Armenia’s future on the so-called “peace agenda,” one of the major promises which afforded the Prime Minister with enough votes for re-election.
Azerbaijan was emboldened by the lack of repercussions from the West and the international community for its illegal use of force in 2020 and war crimes committed in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, as well as the largely-ignored Azerbaijani occupation of swaths of sovereign Armenian territory in May 2021. Aliyev claims that essentially all of Armenia, including the capital Yerevan, are Azerbaijani lands. As such, Aliyev has indicated that Azerbaijan will not recognize Armenia’s territorial integrity until Armenia signs a peace treaty on Azerbaijan’s terms. Azerbaijan’s terms, summarized in the five basic principles that it submitted to Armenia, and which Nikol Pashinyan’s government has accepted, despite the opposition of political forces and the general public.
It is clear that Azerbaijan is illegally using force to compel Armenia to make territorial, political, and economic concessions that are beyond unacceptable. The rhetoric and foreign policy pursued by Aliyev and his government for years confirms that the behind-the-scenes negotiations are either not yielding Aliyev’s desired result or he is trying to accelerate the conclusion of these negotiations. In fact, the signs for an all-out war in which Azerbaijan would try to achieve its political goals through the use of force were already explicitly publicized by the propaganda the Azerbaijani government has recently been proliferating through state-run and state-controlled media. The language of such belligerent calls in Baku reflects the same language that Russian propaganda uses to justify the invasion of Ukraine: “special military operation,” “Armenian fascism,” “derevanchization,” and “demilitarization.” For instance, one of the most loyal media outlets of the regime published an article suggesting that Azerbaijan is ready to “carry out a special military operation” to “clear Karabakh of illegal Armenian militants.”
But there is no need to look further than the many speeches of Aliyev after Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war to understand the nature of today’s aggression. In 2021, speaking at a key Nagorno-Karabakh town now under Azerbaijani control, Aliyev declared, “There is no Armenian army today. If Armenia tries to become a source of danger for us again, their end will be the same as in the second Karabakh war.” Azerbaijan’s Aliyev, whose government continues to significantly increase its military spending and the pace of its weapon procurement, even after capturing most of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, sees any attempts to rebuild or reform Armenian armed forces as a threat that can be neutralized by any means, legal or illegal.
But the threat of war from Aliyev has been hanging over Armenia not only because of possible rearmament and Aliyev’s recount of historical justice, but also because Azerbaijan—along with its sponsor ally Turkey—demands the so-called “Zangezur Corridor.” While the opening of transportation links and communications between the countries was affirmed in the 2020 tripartite agreement, Azerbaijan is demanding a corridor which will link the country to its exclave Nakhichevan through Armenian territory, but which will not be subject to Armenian control or sovereignty. Aliyev deliberately insists on the logic of the corridor as it demands territory through Armenia’s Syunik province and control over the routes to be built through that territory that will link Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan and Turkey by potentially cutting Armenia off the Iranian border. This would not only further isolate the already-landlocked Armenia and squeeze it between two hostile states but could potentially become the first stage of the occupation of the strategically important Syunik province of Armenia by Azerbaijan. Considering that Aliyev has vehemently insisted that Armenia’s Syunik is a “historically Azerbaijani territory,” hence the name Zangezur, Azerbaijan’s objective in insisting on the opening of this corridor is clear.
The current situation, given the course of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prompts a rethinking of the U.S. strategy and policy in the region. The United States has been involved in the conflict as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, the principal organization in charge of handling the negotiation process between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities. But in recent years, the U.S. has maintained a rather passive stance on the issue, and in the region generally. Given the West’s oil interests in Azerbaijan and the new EU-Azerbaijan deal that will double gas exports to Europe by 2027 as an alternative to Russian gas, it ostensibly appears logical for the U.S. and the West to maintain a balanced position which does not differentiate between the aggressor and the victim.
But to overlook countless war crimes, the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage, and the growing expansionist alliance of Turkey and Azerbaijan in order to prioritize oil and gas interests prevents the U.S. from realizing not only strategic objectives in the region, but also from upholding the global world order that the West’s support of Ukraine seeks to protect. The situation in South Caucasus must be understood within the context of the global confrontation that now defines the nature of world politics. From this perspective, the U.S. and its allies now face an opportunity to advance their interests in the region in a decisive manner.
Such a rethinking of policy and a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. strategy is warranted by several considerations. While shifting from a balanced approach to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict to a support of one side may seem counterintuitive for the U.S., which has for decades mediated the conflict, it is clear that in this explosive situation on the ground and in the radically changed international environment, the benefits of such a policy outweigh the costs.
First, Azerbaijan’s attack against a sovereign country constitutes a blatant violation of international law and further jeopardizes the already crumbling rules-based world order. Just as Russia’s dictator is trying, without even hiding his aims, to destroy the international order through its brutal war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan’s dictator is supporting the authoritarian front that is forming against the world’s democracies. The U.S. government must view this illegal attack not through the prism of the decades-old Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, but as a clear and explicit challenge against the sovereignty of the Armenian Republic and against the rules-based world order.
Second, Armenia, which has been on the path of democratization and rapprochement with the West for decades, is coming to the realization that the alliance with Russia and Russian-led organizations do not provide viable security guarantees. Even after 2018’s so-called “Velvet Revolution,” which saw the transfer of power to more pro-Western political forces, Armenia has been unable to pursue an independent foreign policy due to Russia’s grip on the country. For decades, Armenia viewed Russia as the guarantor of security for a country surrounded by two hostile countries: Turkey and Azerbaijan.
This thought, which was recently affirmed by Russia’s top spy during his visit to Armenia, was shattered on September 13, 2022. Armenia officially appealed to Russia on the basis of the bilateral treaty of mutual assistance, and to the CSTO for military aid to fight Azerbaijan’s aggression. Despite the overwhelmingly clear evidence of military aggression against Armenia’s sovereign territory, Armenia was essentially denied in underhanded diplomatic terms. The Russian government has so far only announced that it is “taking steps to stabilize the situation” and continuing the mediating efforts that were taken before the September 13 invasion. Instead of sending military assistance or troops to help its ally, the CSTO announced that it will commence a study of the situation and will send a mission to the border soon, led by Secretary General Stanislav Zas.
The current situation has violently and decisively shown that Armenia-Russian security assistance may not guarantee protection from an attack by Turkey or Azerbaijan. The events of the last few days clearly show that the international security mechanisms that Armenia has been forced to accept are not only dysfunctional, but also do not serve Armenia’s interests in the diplomatic or political realm. None of Armenia’s “allies” have taken any real steps to apply pressure on Azerbaijan. In fact, the opposite has been true. On February 22, 2022, just two days before Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin and Aliyev signed a declaration on “Allied Interaction between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation” to further develop military, economic, and political cooperation between the two countries. Kazakhstan, a member of CSTO and at least nominally Armenia’s ally, signed a recent statement of the Organization of Turkic States “condemning Armenia’s provocative actions.”
The absence of credible security guarantees provides the perfect opportunity to the U.S. and its Western allies to step up efforts to rid Armenia of Russia’s quasi-imperial control. There can be no legitimate justification for the decline of assistance to Armenia by its allies and CSTO which means that the field is open for the U.S. to step in. If the U.S. government capitalizes on the potential of significantly decreasing the Russian influence in South Caucasus by punishing Azerbaijan and elevating its security and defense partnership with Armenia to the next level, then the U.S. can simultaneously contain Russia on another important front while developing a new alliance, upholding the principles of the world order that is now being fought over, and also balancing against Erdogan’s militaristic expansionism.
Armenia has been prevented from pursuing further integration with the European Union and NATO and further development of its relationship with the West due to pressure from the Kremlin. It is becoming clear that no one will come to the country’s rescue, and the U.S. can and should take decisive steps to redraw the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus by shuffling in a completely different relationship with Armenia, a democracy that has the potential to become America’s most reliable ally in the region.
The U.S. has long refrained from engaging aggressively in the region as it has viewed the South Caucasus as Russia’s “neighborhood” where Russian influence and interests are rampant. At the same time, one of the most important issues of contention in the U.S.-Russian relationship since the end of the Cold War has been the U.S.’s refusal to grant Russia a “sphere of influence” in the former Soviet states. Secretary Blinken has emphasized several times, before and after the invasion of Ukraine began, that the U.S. does not accept “spheres of influence.” Furthermore, the Biden administration now recognizes that Putin’s plan of reconstituting some kind of imperial association of former Soviet states is a real threat. This is part of the Russian revisionism that seeks to completely destroy the post-Cold War order in Europe. While the U.S. may downplay Armenia’s role and importance in this context, the reality is that Russia’s real center of influence in the South Caucasus is Armenia. Azerbaijan is now completely under Turkish influence and control. From military to diplomatic, from economic to social, the two countries which share ethnic heritage are growing closer and closer in a pan-Turkism utopia imagined in the ideas and ideologies of late 19th century and early 20th century Turkish imperialism.
As such, if the U.S. government seeks to ensure that Russia cannot pursue a neo-imperial foreign policy by blackmailing, forcing, and bullying the former Soviet states, America needs to usher in a new policy of robust engagement in the region. The U.S. must take practical steps to hold Azerbaijan accountable and punish Aliyev’s corrupt and dictatorial regime for the violation of international law and for the attacks on civilian infrastructure and the population in Armenia’s southern and eastern regions. The first step is for the U.S. to cut all military and economic aid to Aliyev and his government which Freedom House classifies as a consolidated authoritarian regime and ranks even lower than Iran. This should have been U.S. policy even before the recent violation of Armenia’s sovereignty and provocation as it reflects the Biden administration’s recognition that “the world is now in a battle between democracies and autocracies.” In a world where authoritarianism is on the rise, U.S. policymakers should recognize the seriousness of the moment.
Second, in coordination with European allies, the U.S. must immediately impose sanctions on Azerbaijan’s political and military leadership and on the economy. While the gas and oil industry can be spared in the initial package of sanctions given Europe’s reliance on them, other important sectors of the economy must be targeted by effective sanctions. Sanctions on Azerbaijan must be accompanied by the design and implementation of substantial U.S. security assistance to Armenia, in the form of military equipment and other forms of assistance, that can deter Azerbaijan from further aggression and ensure Armenia’s military readiness for a large-scale war.
The U.S. must also actively coordinate international efforts to apply maximum diplomatic pressure on Azerbaijan, which should include a package of measures to deter any threats of invasion. An international campaign of naming and shaming can be effective to counter the official Azerbaijani propaganda in the West and to expose the regime’s wrongdoings thus possibly influencing the decision-making in Baku.
Lastly, changing the policy towards the conflict achieves another important objective: the need to contain Turkey and its authoritarian leader’s growing ambitions. Since Erdogan came to power in 2002, Turkey, just like Russia, has been going through a profound and radical transformation. Under Erdogan, Turkey has turned from an important Western ally on the path to membership in the EU to an irresponsible regional power guided by an expansionist ideology and a militaristic foreign policy. Alarmingly, Turkey, which is a member of NATO, has purchased Russian weapons and expanded bilateral trade. Erdogan, whose country was sanctioned by the U.S. for moving forward with the Russian arms deal, has previously threatened to leave NATO altogether and more recently blocked Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to the alliance given the increased risk of Russian aggression towards the Nordic countries. With recently renewed military provocations against Greece, another NATO member, Erdogan now also openly challenges Greek sovereignty.
Turkey’s increasingly assertive, aggressively militaristic, and neo-imperialist foreign policy ambitions have slowly started to alarm U.S. politicians and policymakers. U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez recently called Turkey, along with China and Russia, “the biggest threat in Eastern Mediterranean” and among the most pressing challenges to international security. Turkey’s growing relationship with Azerbaijan and the unconditional military, economic, political, and diplomatic support granted to Aliyev is yet another evidence of Erdogan’s growing expansionism. The U.S. must contain Turkey now, or face the destabilizing consequences of Erdogan’s foreign policy, which often goes against U.S. interests in the Middle East. Changing the policy towards Azerbaijan and holding Aliyev accountable for its aggression can be a significant step towards ensuring regional balance.
While the U.S. State Department Spokesperson’s official statement shows that the U.S. government recognizes Russia’s outsized influence in the region, the U.S. must take this strategic opportunity to counter this very influence. If the U.S. does not accept “spheres of influence,” then this policy must be applied universally, not only in Ukraine. Given the fact that the previous roadblocks that prevented Armenia from escaping Moscow’s orbit are no longer there, Armenia is currently exposed to dangers not seen at any point since its independence in 1991. In fact, the very existence of Armenian statehood is at the heart of the conflict. This also means that the country is incentivized to reorient itself in order to receive security guarantees that will actually work. It is time for the U.S. government to stick to its grand strategy and take decisive steps in the global confrontation between the West and those who seek to destroy it by bravely and resolutely upholding the post-Cold War order. Even if some policymakers in Washington and Brussels may not recognize it yet, Armenia has a crucial role in this new era of confrontation.