It’s Time to Get Real About U.S. Interests in the South Caucasus

Coverage of the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan often focuses on regional implications, repeating the usual lines about possible tensions between Russia and Turkey, and mentioning the proximity of Iran. However, the extent of the fighting since September 27th is remarkable enough to warrant the attention alone. As of October 12, at least 500 Armenian soldiers had been killed in non-stop firefights along a 100-mile front (Azerbaijan does not disclose information on victims). Azerbaijan has launched a campaign of indiscriminate cluster bombs against Armenian civil centers. Stepanakert (55,000 inhabitants) is in ruins. In Armenia, where thousands of volunteers have streamed to the front lines, the battle is grimly referred to as Goyamart: a struggle for survival. In just two weeks, the clashes have become one of the largest conventional military battles of the 21st century.
In the name of stubborn "realism," key voices in the DC's foreign policy establishment are pushing for a dangerously oversimplified view of the conflict. There is not much for them to discuss: Azerbaijan is “on our team” against Iran and Russia, so we should be happy about the success against the outnumbered Armenians. It is irrefutable "geopolitical math".
The assumptions on which this simplistic interpretation is based are incorrect. As we discuss below, Azerbaijan is indeed deceptively close to Iran and Russia. Meanwhile, Armenia's basic social and political orientations promise to make it a much more sincere and lasting partner with the United States.
US support for Azerbaijan has high stakes and real consequences. In response to mounting tensions with Iran, the Trump administration provided over $ 100 million in military aid to Azerbaijan in fiscal 2020 - significantly more than any other country in the region. This massive stroke of luck was entrusted to Azerbaijan's notoriously corrupt Aliyev regime, which has held power for nearly three decades by hoarding oil wealth, fomenting anti-Armenian chauvinism, eradicating press freedom and perfecting brutally repressive techniques. While President Ilham Aliyev charms Western interlocutors with his cosmetic friendliness and lavish hospitality, he takes on a significantly different tone at home. As the Azerbaijani political scientist Altay Goyushov has documented, senior members of the Aliyev regime routinely and publicly accuse the United States of supporting terrorism and persecuting colonialism by portraying “pro-democracy activists as subversives and traitors who defend the interests of Westerners Imperialists serve ".
The regime, which Freedom House classifies as "paranoid authoritarian", enforces an almost religious awe of Ilham's father Heydar, a long-time KGB chief who ruled until his death in 2003. The elder Aliyev is listed as a "national leader" in official government records "Of Azerbaijan and the" eternal architect "of the state, and statues of him tower over hundreds of cities across the country. The National Academy of Sciences has a special department dedicated to" Alievshunasliq "or" Aliyev Science "and whose job it is to study the life and work of the former president. The director of the department, Adalet Qasimov, said:" There is nothing to criticize him for. We are in our investigation encountered nothing of the kind. "
Given these Gaddafi-esque delusions, it should come as no surprise that the Aliyev regime willingly resort to tactics that would make tyrants anywhere proud. International media have confirmed that Azerbaijan has used ISIS-affiliated jihadists and impoverished mercenaries from Syria in the current offensive against the Christian Armenians. Syrian recruitment began a month ago, according to the Guardian - one of many signs that Azerbaijan had pre-planned the current escalation.
All of this begs the question: is it really advisable to send wasteful taxpayer money to Aliyev? Aid to Azerbaijan is becoming even more questionable at a time when Armenia has made impressive and widely recognized democratic strides, improved electoral integrity, eliminated corruption and strengthened the rule of law. With large and well-integrated Armenian communities in France and the United States, the opportunity is ripe to strengthen relations between Armenia and the West. The doubled partnership will stand on strong foundations: Armenia is already the fifth largest per capita contribution to NATO missions, and troops are still stationed in Afghanistan. This friendly attitude towards the West is particularly impressive given the immense pressure on Yerevan, Russia or Iran not to upset - and testifies to the real depth of pro-Western sentiment among Armenians.
The argument for supporting Azerbaijan becomes even weaker if one questions its core assumption: Baku is directed against Iran and Russia. In reality, Russia has consistently supported Azerbaijan in the same way as Armenia has. Even before Armenia's democratic transition, seen by many as a rebuke for Putin and his vision for the region, relations between Baku and Moscow were strikingly close. The Azerbaijani journalist Nurlan Aliyev wrote before the "Velvet Revolution" in Armenia that "Russia has long been Azerbaijan's most important arms supplier" and provides well over half of all arms imports. In addition to these arms transfers, Vladimir Putin has praised Azerbaijan as a strategic partner and described Ilham Aliyev as a “true leader” with “well-deserved authority”. Aliyev returns the favor and calls Putin "the president of the world's leading country" who is "the number one politician in the world". Russia's cautious tone during the recent escalation - maintaining investigated neutrality and demanding a ceasefire - underscores its well-established policy of playing both sides of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
Azerbaijan is now more focused on Iran than the simplistic narratives suggest. After this week's escalation, Hojjatul Islam Ojag Nejad aga, the representative of the top Iranian leader in Azerbaijan, called the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area a "Muslim country", praised Azerbaijani soldiers as "martyrs" and called Armenia as "aggressors". ”This attitude is no surprise when you consider that around a fifth of Iran's population are ethnic Azeris - including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself. In Khamenei's words, Iran sees Azerbaijan not just as a friend or neighbor, but as a brother - while Ilham Aliyev says Azerbaijan stands by Iran on "all international issues". The two Shiite states conduct joint naval exercises and trade in arms. Commentators in Baku and Tehran hope that Azerbaijan can serve as a nexus for Russian-Turkish-Iranian cooperation. Meanwhile, ethnic Azeris are far from posing a separatist threat or headache to the Islamic Republic - as pro-Azerbaijani lobbyists suggest - that they are extremely well integrated in Iran and support the ruling mullahs. Given this reality, the hopes of propping up Azerbaijan as a “counterweight” against Iran are ill-conceived. No amount of US cash will undermine the deep ethnic and religious ties between the two nations.
However, some argue that Azerbaijan is allied with Turkey - and Turkey's position in NATO means we should respect its goals in any conflict, including this one. While Turkey is clearly involved in military operations against Armenia, recent developments in US-Turkey relations should permanently disprove the idea that our interests are always aligned. Turkey has openly supported Hamas and Al-Qaeda, covertly supported ISIS and Boko Haram, and helped Iran evade international sanctions. It would be stupid to allow this "ally" to shape US policy on every issue.
One final pro-Azerbaijani argument is even weaker. It describes Azerbaijan as the only route besides Russia and Iran on which "trade and energy flow overland from Asia to Europe". Although this rhetoric is favored by lobbyists, it seems to be adopted by an ignorant audience: a glance at a map confirms that the only route for European overland trade or energy to Azerbaijan is via Russia or Iran. Azerbaijan exports oil and gas from its own dwindling reserves, supplying around 0.07% of the United States supply and slightly more of European supply. But even if that mattered, Armenia has never damaged or attacked Azerbaijan's energy infrastructure in over 30 years of conflict, and energy markets remained stable after the war broke out on September 27.
Overall, there is no strong realistic case that the United States should allow alliances and rivalries of third parties to determine its position on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The dispute cannot simply be classified into framework conditions based on Russia, Iran or NATO. And what about the merits of the conflict itself? Because right and wrong on the ground deserve attention even for realists. A great strategy cannot stand when its moral principles are systematically misaligned. Azerbaijan's "realistic" supporters agree - their arguments are usually limited to deciphering atrocities like those committed by Assad in Syria. And in this case, there is no question that the balance of justice rests with the Armenian side.
The Armenians today occupy a fraction of their historical territory. They were freed from the rest during a genocide by Azerbaijan's Turkish relatives. While Joseph Stalin placed the historically Armenian Karabakh in Azerbaijan and the communist authorities in Baku purposely reduced the Armenian population of the area to bolster their own claims to the territory, Karabakh was still 76 percent Armenian in the late 1980s. In 1988, the Karabakh people overwhelmingly passed a referendum in support of reunification with Armenia. However, Azerbaijan refused to accept the results and instead responded with cruel pogroms against Armenians living in the mixed cities of Baku and Sumgait. In the war that followed, the Armenians overcame great difficulties and threw Azerbaijan out of most of Karabakh and a small area buffer that linked it to Armenia. Both sides agreed on a 1994 ceasefire, but since Azerbaijan began to accumulate oil wealth in the late 1990s, it has increasingly tried to reverse its defeat. While Armenia has nothing to gain from conflict - and, unlike Azerbaijan, has consistently backed third-party monitors to ensure neither side starts shooting - Azerbaijan has growing hopes of removing Armenians from Karabakh. With just 3 million Armenians surrounded by over 90 million Azerbaijani and Turks, and Azerbaijan's military spending roughly six times that of Armenia, some expect it to be a matter of time before they grant their wish.
Without compelling geopolitical reasons for supporting Azerbaijan, the United States should consider Armenia's vulnerability, democratic progress, and the right to self-determination. Aid to Armenia would cost nothing - in fact, it would save the hundreds of millions we currently send to Baku each year. Although the subordination of these facts to simple narratives about "fighting Iran and Russia" appeals to those hoping to re-establish playful World War I-style alliances, the application of such a simple framework to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is neither persistent nor realistic . United States policymakers should instead see the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan for what it is: an aggressive dictatorship that seeks to ethnically cleanse a US-friendly population from their ancestral lands. It is in our national interest to assist Armenia against this threat.
Hagop Toghramadjian is a former Fulbright scholar and State Department intern who is currently studying at Harvard Law School. Kathleen Bailey is an expert on Central Asian politics and director of the Islamic Civilizations and Societies program at Boston College.
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