Op-ed: US should reconsider its approach to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

Op-ed: US should reconsider its approach to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict


                                                                                                                   (The following article was originally published on civilnet.am)

The Azerbaijani-imposed blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh has been in place for more than six months now. Baku’s siege of the landlocked de facto republic is near completion. With the installation of a checkpoint in the Lachin corridor – the only route connecting the region to Armenia and to the rest of the world – Baku has put all pretenses aside and is openly violating the 2020 ceasefire statement.

Since June 15, Azerbaijan has stopped all traffic through the corridor, even the transportation of humanitarian aid supervised by the International Committee of the Red Cross and transfer of other goods by Russian peacekeepers.

Baku’s latest actions have exacerbated the energy crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and led to bread shortages. Due to fuel scarcity, bakeries in Karabakh are unable to transport enough bread to stores and supermarkets. The Sarsang reservoir, which has been the primary source of electricity in Nagorno-Karabakh since the transmission line from Armenia was damaged in an area controlled by Baku, is gradually depleting. If Azerbaijan persists in obstructing the repair of the damaged electricity infrastructure, a complete blackout in Nagorno-Karabakh can be anticipated in the upcoming weeks.

In addition to intentionally tightening the blockade, Azerbaijan has been escalating tensions in the conflict zone. The leadership in Baku has been openly expressing its intentions to launch a new military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has issued ultimatums and threats against the authorities and population of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In fact, during the latest round of US-led talks in Washington DC between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Baku initiated a minor escalation in the conflict zone using artillery and UAVs, resulting in the death of four servicemen from the Karabakh Defense Army. Since then, government-controlled media and propaganda outlets have been announcing plans to initiate a larger military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

It is also evident that Baku is strategically using the ongoing peace process to minimize potential international backlash against its actions on the ground. This calculated approach has proven successful, as both Washington and Brussels have exercised caution in their statements and actions, aiming to avoid disrupting the ongoing negotiations. However, Baku’s combination of diplomatic and military tactics has significantly undermined the legitimacy of the peace efforts led by the US and the EU, who have been acting as key mediators over the past year.

Hence, legitimate concerns have emerged in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh regarding the true nature and authenticity of the ongoing peace process. It is also evident that if the humanitarian crisis deteriorates further in Nagorno-Karabakh or a large-scale escalation of the conflict occurs, the “Western peace initiative” will be compromised, leading to a severe blow to the public perception of the role of the US and the EU in Armenia.
It has also become increasingly apparent that the Russian peacekeeping contingent is unlikely to intervene if Baku initiates another aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia’s day-long paralysis during the failed coup attempt by the Wagner group, led by Yevgeni Prigozhin, has likely emboldened Aliyev’s determination to pursue military options in Karabakh. While the European Union may offer verbal condemnation and statements in the face of renewed escalation, their on-the-ground response is expected to be limited.

As a result, the United States emerges as the pivotal actor with the potential to prevent the impending catastrophe in the region and contribute to stabilizing the situation on the ground.

To achieve this, it is essential for Washington to demonstrate political will in reevaluating its approaches to mediating and facilitating the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

Firstly, it is crucial to move away from fetishizing the peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Baku has managed to convince the mediators that signing the peace treaty will bring comprehensive peace to the region. However, in reality, even if a document is signed in the near future, it is unlikely that the situation on the ground will become significantly more stable.

Azerbaijan is likely to continue employing coercive policies towards Armenia during the implementation process of the agreement, as it has done since signing of the 2020 end of war statement. It is also important to recognize that without robust security guarantees in place, the peace treaty could potentially trigger ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh. The political and socio-economic consequences of such a catastrophe for Armenia and the region cannot and should not be underestimated. In such a scenario, the mediators would also bear responsibility for that horrendous outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the trap of setting unrealistic timetables and deadlines during the negotiation process. While it may be tempting to seek quick outcomes for political convenience and to portray them as diplomatic victories, the inherent complexity of the issues being discussed must not be overlooked. Hastily pursuing rapid solutions in the midst of a so-called “historic opportunity” can potentially lead to a historic failure.

Furthermore, the rationale behind pushing for the signing of a document prior to the US presidential elections raises doubts. If the progress of this process is contingent upon the particular administration in power in Washington, it implies that the issue at hand lacks strategic importance for the United States. Consequently, any document signed under such circumstances is unlikely to deter Azerbaijan’s assertive policies on the ground.

Instead of pursuing rapid and all-encompassing solutions, the United States should prioritize establishing minimal preconditions that could enable constructive dialogue between the involved parties. A genuine peace process cannot occur amidst a deteriorating blockade in Nagorno-Karabakh and the looming threat of force.

In this regard, Washington should engage in diplomatic efforts and exert pressure on Baku to alleviate the dire humanitarian situation on the ground. A good starting point would be to restore the supply of electricity and gas to the besieged Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as facilitate the transportation of humanitarian goods through the Lachin corridor. Successfully achieving these objectives would represent a significant diplomatic win, solidifying Washington’s position as the most influential and reliable mediator.
The United States possesses all the means to exert pressure on Baku and curb its aggressive conduct on the ground. Last May, the International Crisis Group reported that Washington had begun contemplating the imposition of sanctions on Azerbaijan in the event of significant bloodshed in Nagorno-Karabakh. The report particularly stated: “U.S. officials have told Crisis Group that if relations deteriorate further, Washington is prepared to take a tougher line with Baku: if bloodshed rises beyond levels caused by the fighting to date, the U.S. might impose sanctions and visa bans.”

This piece of information was subsequently corroborated by other credible sources. The Global Magnitsky Act stands out as the most effective tool for imposing individual sanctions on Azerbaijani officials. The legislation specifically targets individuals involved in human rights violations and corruption. Notably, Azerbaijani official Kerim Heydar Alimardanov has already been sanctioned under this act due to his direct involvement in the torture of Azerbaijani detainees in 2015 and 2016.

Immediate action is crucial to prevent a severe bloodshed in Nagorno-Karabakh, rather than waiting for it to occur before imposing sanctions. The current humanitarian situation on the ground is already dire, with a significant risk of further military escalation. It is essential for the US to implement targeted sanctions against Azerbaijani officials involved in the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh. This decisive measure would send a strong signal to Baku and discourage their aggressive actions on the ground.

Considering the Aliyev regime’s concern for its image in the West, it is likely that they would adopt a more constructive approach to avoid additional punitive measures from the US.

Tigran Grigoryan

Head of the Regional Center for Democracy and Security