Unable to Adapt: How the US Damaged Its Role in the South Caucasus Peace Process

Through its shortsighted actions, the Biden administration has damaged its chance to be an unbiased “mediator” in the peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia. As a result, Washington’s plan to facilitate talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in January 2024 has failed.

Particular damage to US relations with Azerbaijan was caused by a report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which made groundless accusations against Baku. The USCIRF recommended the State Department include Azerbaijan on its Special Watch List for engaging or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom. Former Armenian lobbyist Danielle Ashbahian was involved in compiling the report, and it had the backing of Iranian-supported Shia extremists, whose goal is to establish a theocracy in Azerbaijan. Following terror attacks against the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran in January 2023 and the assassination attempt against Azerbaijani MP Fazil Mustafa in Baku, some of these Shia extremists have been arrested and held legally accountable on sound evidence of them working for Iran.

In addition, the report also says that Armenian religious sites in Azerbaijan are supposedly in danger but fails to bring a single piece of evidence to back the claim. The report is mixed with politics and attempts to condemn Azerbaijan’s restoration of its sovereignty over the territories formerly occupied by Armenia.  However, the subsequent action by the State Department to add Azerbaijan to the Special Watch List countries further strained US-Azerbaijan relations, despite the visit of Ambassador O’Brien to Baku and his positive posts on X (Twitter). This happened when Washington was trying to arrange Armenia-Azerbaijan peace talks and seemed to have corrected its mistaken approach towards Azerbaijan.

What Went Wrong With the State Department’s Ambiguous “Mediation” Plan?

The shortsighted approach by the Biden administration started in 2021 when they took over the White House. Despite the fact that Azerbaijan liberated its lands and changed the status quo (which had been favoured and supported by the United States, France and Russia within the former Minsk Group for decades), the US administration and Secretary of State Blinken’s deputies continued to talk in unrealistic and outdated terms, completely rejecting the newly created geopolitical realities on the ground. It was clear following the 2020 Second Karabakh War that Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would not be compromised. The Armenian minority of Karabakh was given a chance to reintegrate into Azerbaijan smoothly within five years.

This meant that terms such as “status” or the Minsk Group mediation format that maintained the previous status quo were ambiguous and detrimental. Nonetheless, Blinken’s deputy Karen Donfried, US South Caucasus adviser Philip Reeker and the US embassy to Armenia continued to use this language. The US position of insisting on the format of the dead Minsk Group, despite the fact that in 2022 Russia and the West were in geopolitical struggle in Ukraine, was also a sign of shortsightedness about the new realities that had emerged following Azerbaijan’s victory in 2020. The then US ambassador to Yerevan Lynne Tracy said in official remarks that the so-called status issue and conflict in Karabakh is not resolved, while the US embassy in Azerbaijan remained silent. This disregarded the geopolitical realities on the ground, creating tension and sending a message to Azerbaijan that the United States is not a reliable “mediator”. It also gave false hope to Armenian nationalist circles that they should continue their territorial claims. After realising the impossibility of reviving and reusing the outdated Minsk Group geopolitical mechanism, the United States replaced or paraphrased the term “status”, a legacy of the Minsk Group, with the synonymous “rights and security of the Karabakh Armenians” and an “international mechanism” to ensure them. Once again, the United States tried to take the same outdated approach by changing “status” to “ rights and security” and Minsk Group to an “international mechanism”, which were unacceptable to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan repeatedly said that the Armenian minority should reintegrate into Azerbaijani society and get citizenship, and their rights would be ensured according to the Azerbaijani Constitution as well as international commitments that Azerbaijan has taken regarding ethnic minorities on its land.

The United States has never urged or called on Armenia to withdraw its troops from Azerbaijani lands, even though Armenia’s failure over three years to withdraw its troops from Karabakh as per the joint trilateral statement and daily illegal activities by the Armenia- and Russia-backed Armenian irredentists inside Karabakh created an artificial obstacle to peace. Azerbaijan had always made it clear that if Armenia would not comply with the trilateral agreement and withdraw its forces from Karabakh, Azerbaijan would have to enforce the agreement.

The State Department and Secretary Blinken personally fetishized the issue of Armenians being able to use Azerbaijan’s Lachin road without any checks whatsoever. This was a blow to Azerbaijan’s sovereign rights to control its own borders and curb illegal weapons transportation and other smuggling from Armenia into Karabakh, further damaging the US stance as a just or unbiased mediator in the process.

When Azerbaijan forced Armenia’s armed forces and the illegal irredentist regime to disarm via local anti-terror measures on 19 September 2023, Secretary Blinken once again condemned Azerbaijan’s right to conduct an anti-terror operation on its own land and re-establish Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh. In a news conference on 22 September 2023, when asked whether the United States recognises Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over Karabakh, Blinken evaded the question. Coupled with the multiple refusals of US embassy officials to visit the liberated Azerbaijani city of Shusha, the United States has assured the whole of Azerbaijani society that it does not respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan, despite the fact that Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan recognises that sovereignty.

Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Ambassador James O’Brien further damaged US chances as a mediator when he told US senators that high level visits to Azerbaijan have been cancelled until a peace agreement is signed. In effect the ambassador was denying Azerbaijan’s inalienable right as a sovereign nation to put an end to the grey zone and illegal armed presence on its own territory. As a matter of fact, Secretary Blinken tried to correct the mistake made by his deputy Ambassador O’Brien by making a call and asking President Aliyev to accept him in December. In the telephone conversation, President Aliyev clearly outlined Azerbaijan’s stance and rejected all the groundless accusations made by Ambassador O’Brien. He said that Azerbaijan reciprocates the US decision by refusing high level visits from the US. President Aliyev accepted Blinken’s request that O’Brien be allowed to visit Azerbaijan on the condition that the ban on senior Azerbaijani officials visiting the USA will be lifted.

The United States has damaged its position in the South Caucasus region through its ill advised and special interest-driven Armenia-centric policies and actions. Azerbaijan has vital regional importance: it provides the only access outside Russian or Iranian control to Central Asia; it’s the only country bordering both US adversaries Russia and Iran; it plays a key role in containing the expansionist policies of Iran in the South Caucasus; it has a strong alliance with NATO member Turkey, forming a counterweight in the region to the malign Russia-Iran activities; it has a vital strategic role in Europe’s energy security; it has a strong strategic partnership with Israel, and plays an important role in the East-West, Middle Corridor. All these factors should be taken into account. Armenia, which is well integrated into the Russia-led political/military and economic institutions, cannot be a substitute for Azerbaijan in Washington’s regional policies. The United States should, therefore, reconsider its policy approaches and correct its strategic mistakes.

The US view of the South Caucasus as a geopolitical playground for an extension of the war in Ukraine has done more damage to its standing in the region. The idea that the United States wants to expel Russia from the South Caucasus does not bear close examination. First, Armenia is continuing to help Russia circumvent sanctions and acquire Western made semiconductor chips via its well organised re-export mechanism. Nonetheless, the United States and EU tolerate this and do not put sanctions on Armenia. Second, the United States knows that Russia is in the South Caucasus solely thanks to Armenia. Russia has two military bases in Armenia, controls Armenia’s border via its border guards, has an integrated joint air defence and control mechanism, controls the vast majority of the Armenian economy, provides natural gas and electricity, runs the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant and owns the railways. Armenia is politically, economically and militarily integrated into the Russia-led security and economic institutions. However, the Biden administration mysteriously thinks that it can expel Russia from the region by putting illogical pressure on Azerbaijan and Turkey. Before Azerbaijan’s local anti-terrorist operation the US special representative Louis Bono and the EU’s representative for the South Caucasus Toivo Klaar participated in a secret meeting with a Russian official in which they urged Russia to prevent Azerbaijan from establishing its sovereignty over Karabakh and to violate Azerbaijan’s borders by allowing Armenian/French trucks to enter Karabakh.

The Role of the Zangezur Corridor in Regional Peace

In 2009 the State Department tried to facilitate the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border via the Zurich agreements without taking Azerbaijan’s interests into account and ignoring the role of Azerbaijan in the region. Though Turkey was under immense pressure from the United States to open its borders and delink the issue from the occupation of Azerbaijani land, it refused to do so, dealing a blow to the US plans.

The members of the Obama/Biden administration who are now leading the State Department, such as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, should be familiar with the case. The then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally tried and failed to push through the Zurich Protocols. And today when Azerbaijan has liberated its lands and is the leading nation in the South Caucasus, and Turkey has strong strategic autonomy within NATO, the State Department is yet again failing to understand the realities on the ground; i.e. that the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border is conditional on progress in the peace process and Armenia’s opening of the Zangezur Corridor. (As part of the trilateral statement, it is Armenia’s obligation to implement an unimpeded transport link between mainland Azerbaijan and the Nakchchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan.) The State Department is repeating its mistake, failing to grasp the fact that Turkey-Armenia normalisation is conditional on Armenia’s attempts to reach peace and open the Zangezur Corridor. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated repeatedly that Turkey will not normalise relations with Armenia without Azerbaijan’s blessing and approval.

Armenia has been dragging its feet for over three years, not honouring its obligations and creating tensions in the region. Sadly, the United States is involved in this, as it strangely sees an opportunity to inflict a so-called strategic defeat on Russia in Armenia as part of its broader Ukraine policy. However, this creates a serious threat to peace and stability in the South Caucasus. The United States should abandon its shortsighted approach and urge Armenia to OK the opening of the Zangezur Corridor for its own economic development, peace, stability and normalisation in the region. The argument that Armenia, encouraged by the United States, does not want to allow Russia to ensure the Zangezur Corridor’s security does not bear closer examination: Russian border guards already control Armenia’s state borders including, in particular, Armenian’s southern border with Iran along which the Zangezur Corridor should pass. The argument that it will constrain Armenia’s sovereignty is ridiculous, since Russia has had a strong military presence in Armenia for decades.

In other words, if Armenia with the encouragement of the United States wants to expel the Russian military, then why isn’t Yerevan doing so? Why does Armenia remain a member of the Russia-led military and economic unions? Does the State Department think that this kind of absurd geopolitical game in the region will benefit Armenia? The United States should correct this dangerous geopolitical attempt to bring the vicious struggle over Ukraine into the South Caucasus, or at least keep it inside Armenia, not at the expense of Azerbaijan’s national interests or on its land. However much Washington tries to blackmail Baku via its European subordinates such as the EU, France and Germany, Azerbaijan will not allow it to happen. Azerbaijan did not give up its national interests when its lands were under occupation and it will not do so now either.

While Azerbaijan and Turkey launch construction of a railway from Kars to Nakhchivan, and an alternative road and rail route linking Azerbaijan’s mainland to Nakhchivan with bridges over the Araz River and sections in Iranian territory, Armenia is continuing to squander its opportunity to integrate into regional trade and projects through the Zangezur Corridor. This risks leaving Armenia as a dead end country in the region, bypassed by major regional or international projects. James O’Brien famously and arrogantly said that the US will not allow Azerbaijan to build this route via Iran. He should have persuaded Armenia to meet its obligation and work on the Zangezur Corridor if Washington really wanted the route not to pass via Iran.

How the USA Can Correct Its Shortsighted Approach and Gain Confidence

As the new US Ambassador Mark Libby starts his job in Baku, the United States needs to reset its relations with Azerbaijan by sending Ambassador Libby to visit the liberated Azerbaijani cities of Shusha and Khankendi. Openly expressing US support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan, defending the rights of the Azerbaijani minority expelled from Armenia and urging the Karabakh Armenian minority to accept the Azerbaijani reintegration mechanism would put the US back on track to be a balanced mediator. In addition, letters by US officials to Azerbaijan’s president or official statements by the US State Department should unequivocally and clearly mention strong US support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, just as they do for Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and funnily enough Armenia. President Biden mentions strong US support for their territorial integrity and sovereignty, whereas he never mentions US support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, just its independence and sovereignty.

US officials will have to stop spreading fake news and fear mongering about an alleged Azerbaijani offensive against Armenia. They should stop placing the interests of radical Armenian lobby groups such as ANCA over US national interests when it comes to the South Caucasus. They should repeal the unjust Section 907 that restricts US aid to, and more recently trade with, Azerbaijan and is an obstacle to US national interests in the region. They should be prepared to sell US-made weapons to Azerbaijan, thereby helping it to strengthen its position vis-a-vis Iran and Russia as well as international terrorism. If they do this and are ready to discuss topics of mutual concern in a friendly environment, the US can boost its position in the South Caucasus and improve its ties with Azerbaijan.

[Photo by the White House, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Rufat Ahmadzada is a graduate of City, University of London. His research area covers the South Caucasus and Iran. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TGP’s editorial stance.

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