Short-sighted US Foreign Policy in the South Caucasus in a New Geopolitical Environment

Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh
Russian Servicemen carry out mine clearing effort in Nagorno-Karabakh. Image Credit: The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

The recent visit of foreign ambassadors and other diplomatic representatives to the liberated Azerbaijani town of Shusha was skipped by the US, French and Russian ambassadors, although they had been invited by the Azerbaijani government. This appears to have been a coordinated diplomatic demarche by the co-chair countries of the OSCE Minsk Group. This did not surprise the Azerbaijani public as they give a low approval rating to the Minsk Group because of its inability to settle the Mountainous Karabakh conflict for over two decades. In pursuing their own national interests each of the co-chair countries contributed to prolonging the conflict, as it was a powerful regional mechanism to have influence in the region and over Azerbaijan.

Sticking to an Old Mechanism and Unable to Adapt

The 44-day Second Karabakh War made the already outdated Minsk Group mechanism irrelevant. Like similar mechanisms in international politics, the format will disappear unless it modifies its approach to Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. If the Minsk Group focuses on building peace, opening communications and implementing the Nov. 10 trilateral statement, which ended the war, it might be useful. However, raising the practically insoluble “status” issue without taking account of the newly emerged realities on the ground will only worsen the fragile peace in the region by emboldening the revanchist reactionary forces in Armenia.

The Biden administration’s approach to Armenian-Azerbaijani relations following the Karabakh war clearly demonstrates that Washington is unable to fully grasp the new configuration in the region and is driven more by the domestic dimension of US politics, namely the influence of lobby and interest groups on the Congress. US officials and foreign policy experts keep repeating the old rhetoric that the conflict should be settled within the framework of the Minsk Group and raise the “status” issue, which does not match the realities on the ground following the end of the Second Karabakh War. As a matter of fact, the Minsk Group format enables Russia to sustain its influence in the region. Russia seized the opportunity provided by the shortsighted US and French perception of the regional dynamics to station its troops in Mountainous Karabakh under the pretext of a “peacekeeping” force for at least five years. The position taken by France and the US also contributed to this.

The disruptive approach and partisanship of French President Macron and the unwillingness of the former US administration to offer a plausible and rapidly modified solution in line with international law and unfolding events during the war made Russia the only player to put on an act as a more or less unbiased mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The shortsightedness of US policy in the region was noticeable when the US ambassador to Yerevan made two official visits to the then Armenian Defence Minister David Tonoyan, notorious for the Tonoyan doctrine called “new war for new territories”, whereas the ambassador in Baku did not pay an official visit to the Azerbaijani defence minister. Washington needs to rethink a new strategy outside the Minsk Group format that can contribute to peace and cooperation and decrease Russian influence in the region.

Necessary Adjustments

The latest phone call by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to congratulate Armenian PM elect Nikol Pashinyan and discuss a Karabakh settlement within the framework of the Minsk Group once again proves that the new administration will act based on the old methods, mainly formulated to facilitate a specific domestic US segment. Before that Philip T. Reeker, US Assistant of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, talked in Baku about the resumption of substantive negotiations within the framework of the Minsk Group which is a sign that the American foreign policy approach lacks vision and is stuck in the pre-Second Karabakh War period. The US helped to make the war inevitable by emboldening the Armenian side to imitate the negotiations process for more than two decades. It is clear that Russia is interested in keeping the Minsk Group format for geopolitical reasons since it provides a format in which it can cooperate with the West in the midst of tense relations and maintains Moscow’s influence in the region.

Armenia remains Russia’s outpost in the entire South Caucasus. The war has provided an opportunity to lessen Armenia’s total dependence on Russia. Azerbaijan’s offers to set up a joint commission to demarcate the state border, which did not exist during the nearly three decades of Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani lands, have been ignored by Yerevan. This allowed Russian troops to be stationed on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, giving Moscow control of Armenia’s state borders with three of its four neighbors: Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan. In fact, Armenia’s leaders are encouraged by the French president whose unsubstantiated statements issued to appease local French Armenians have totally lost his country the right to be in the Minsk Group. The French president’s statements and actions have become an obstacle to Washington too in engaging in a positive way in the region.

A new US policy should encourage Armenia’s current PM to normalize relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan by implementing the Nov. 10 joint statement, opening communications, recognizing the territorial integrity of its neighbors, opening state borders between Azerbaijan-Armenia and Turkey-Armenia which would give a boost to the Armenian economy and lessen Russian dominance in Yerevan’s foreign and economic policy. Turkey is the only regional actor that can counterbalance Russian and Iranian influence in the region and the Shusha declaration sealed the Turkish presence there. The US should be supportive of Turkey and Azerbaijan’s joint economic and political projects in the region which are the only factor that allows Georgia to pursue an independent foreign policy.

Georgia is a model of how Azerbaijan and Turkey can economically and politically diminish Russian influence in Armenia if the US administration adopts a plausible, realistic and national interest-driven approach to the South Caucasus. The elimination of Section 907 once and for all would be a positive step towards the adoption of such a rational approach, taking into account that the US will need the only route to withdraw its troops or supply local Afghan forces which passes over Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is the only country in the region that might facilitate US interests in the Caspian Sea and the recent positive agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on the joint exploration of a gas field would be a huge boost in reducing Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. Moreover, the Trans-Caspian pipeline project could be realized in the future with US support. It is clear that Azerbaijan is the strongest nation in the South Caucasus in economic, demographic and military terms. Alongside Turkey, Azerbaijan enables Georgia’s security with its large economic investments. If the US steps up and convinces the Armenian leadership to accept the realities and normalize relations with its two important neighbors, the South Caucasus will become a zone of peace, co-operation and economic prosperity. The independence of the regional states would be boosted alongside the facilitation of US interests.

Rufat Ahmadzada is a graduate of City, University of London. His research area covers the South Caucasus and IranThe views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.