World

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

An Armenian soldier fires an artillery piece during a military conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in a handout picture released October 5, 2020. (Press office of Armenian Defense Ministry/PAN Photo/Handout via Reuters)
A pragmatic case for supporting Armenia

Coverage of the decades-long Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict often focuses on regional implications, repeating customary lines about potential tensions between Russia and Turkey and mentioning the proximity of Iran. But the scale of the fighting since September 27 is striking enough to justify attention on its own. As of October 12, at least 500 Armenian soldiers have been killed in nonstop firefights along a 100-mile front (Azerbaijan does not release casualty information). Azerbaijan has unleashed a campaign of indiscriminate cluster bombing against Armenian civilian centers; Stepanakert (population 55,000) is reduced to rubble.  In Armenia, where thousands of volunteers have streamed to the front, the battle is grimly referred to as the goyamart: a fight for survival. In just two weeks, the clashes have already developed into one of the largest conventional military engagements of the 21st century .

In the name of hard-headed “realism,” important voices in the D.C. foreign-policy establishment are pressing a dangerously simplistic view of the conflict. To them, there is nothing much to discuss: Azerbaijan is “on our team” against Iran and Russia, so we should cheer for its success against the outnumbered Armenians. It’s irrefutable “geopolitical math.”

The assumptions underlying this simplistic interpretation are faulty. As we discuss below, Azerbaijan is in fact deceptively close to Iran and Russia. Meanwhile, Armenia’s fundamental social and political orientations promise to make it a much more sincere and durable partner of the United States.

U.S. support for Azerbaijan has high stakes and real consequences. For fiscal year 2020, in response to rising tensions with Iran, the Trump administration allocated over $100 million in military aid to Azerbaijan — significantly more than to any other country in the region. This massive windfall was entrusted to Azerbaijan’s notoriously corrupt Aliyev regime, which has maintained power for nearly three decades by hoarding oil riches, stoking anti-Armenian chauvinism, eliminating press freedom, and perfecting brutally repressive techniques. While President Ilham Aliyev charms Western interlocutors with his cosmetic friendliness and lavish hospitality, at home he strikes a markedly different tone. As Azerbaijani political scientist Altay Goyushov has documented, high-ranking members of the Aliyev regime routinely and publicly accuse the United States of supporting terrorism and pursuing colonialism , “portraying pro-democracy activists as subversives and traitors who serve the interests of Western imperialists.”

The regime, which Freedom House classifies as “paranoid authoritarian,” enforces a nearly religious reverence for Ilham’s father, Heydar, a longtime KGB chief who ruled until his death in 2003. The elder Aliyev is listed on official government materials as the “national leader” of Azerbaijan and the “eternal architect” of the state, and statues of him tower over hundreds of towns and cities across the country. The National Academy of Sciences operates a special department dedicated to “Alievshunasliq,” or “Aliyev Science,”  whose mission is to study the former president’s life and work. According to the department’s director, Adalet Qasimov, “There is nothing you could criticize him for. During our investigations we came across nothing of the sort.”

Given these Qaddafi-esque delusions, it should come as little surprise that the Aliyev regime readily resorts to tactics that would make tyrants everywhere proud. International media have confirmed that Azerbaijan has deployed ISIS-linked jihadists and impoverished mercenaries from Syria in the current offensive against the Christian Armenians. According to the Guardian, recruitment of Syrians began a month ago — one of many indications that the current escalation was preplanned by Azerbaijan.

All of this raises the question: Is it really wise to send lavish sums of taxpayer money to Aliyev? Support for Azerbaijan becomes even more questionable at a time when Armenia has made impressive and universally recognized democratic progress, improving electoral integrity, eliminating corruption, and bolstering the rule of law. With large and well-integrated Armenian communities in France and the United States, the opportunity is ripe to strengthen Armenia–West ties. Redoubled partnership will stand on a strong foundation: Armenia is already the fifth-largest per capita contributor to NATO missions, with troops still deployed in Afghanistan. This friendly approach toward the West is especially impressive in light of the immense pressure on Yerevan to avoid antagonizing Russia or Iran — and is evidence of the genuine depth of pro-Western feeling among Armenians.

The argument for supporting Azerbaijan grows still weaker when one interrogates its core assumption: that Baku is aligned against Iran and Russia. In reality, Russia has consistently supported Azerbaijan to the same extent as Armenia. Even before Armenia’s democratic transition, viewed by many as a rebuke to Putin and his vision for the region, Baku -Moscow ties were strikingly close. Writing before Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution,” Azerbaijani journalist Nurlan Aliyev noted that  “Russia has long been Azerbaijan’s main arms supplier,” providing well over half of total weapons imports. In addition to these arms transfers, Vladimir Putin has praised Azerbaijan as a strategic partner, referring to Ilham Aliyev as a “true leader” with “well-earned authority.” Aliyev returns the favor, calling Putin “the president of the leading country in the world” who is “number one among the politicians of the world.” Russia’s restrained tone during the recent escalation — maintaining studied neutrality and calling for a cease-fire — underscores its established policy of playing both sides of the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is more aligned with Iran than oversimplifying narratives suggest. After the latest escalation, Hojjatul Islam Ojag Nejad aga, the representative of Iran’s supreme leader in Azerbaijan, referred to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh as “Muslim land,” praised Azerbaijani soldiers as “martyrs,” and branded Armenia as the “aggressor.” This stance is no surprise considering that ethnic Azeris are around one-fifth of Iran’s population — including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself. In Khamenei’s words, Iran doesn’t view Azerbaijan as just a friend or neighbor, but as a brother — while Ilham Aliyev says that Azerbaijan stands with Iran on “all international issues.” The two Shia states conduct joint naval exercises and engage in mutual arms trade, with commentators in Baku and Tehran hopeful that Azerbaijan can serve as a nexus for Russian–Turkish–Iranian cooperation. Meanwhile, far from posing a separatist threat or minority headache to the Islamic Republic — as pro-Azerbaijan lobbyists suggest — ethnic Azeris are extremely well-integrated in Iran and supportive of the ruling mullahs. Given this reality, hopes of propping up Azerbaijan as a “counterweight” against Iran are poorly conceived. No amount of U.S. cash will undermine the deep ethnic and religious ties between the two nations.

Still, some argue, Azerbaijan is allied with Turkey — and Turkey’s position in NATO means that we should respect its objectives in every conflict, including this one. But while Turkey is unambiguously involved in military operations against Armenia, recent developments in U.S.–Turkish relations should permanently refute the idea that our interests always align. Turkey has openly supported Hamas and al-Qaeda, covertly aided ISIS and Boko Haram, and helped Iran evade international sanctions. Allowing this “ally” to shape U.S. policy on every question would be foolish.

A final pro-Azerbaijan argument is even weaker. It describes Azerbaijan as the only route, save Russia and Iran, for “trade and energy to flow overland from Asia to Europe.” While favored by lobbyists, this rhetoric seems to assume an ignorant audience: a glance at a map confirms that the only ways for Europe-bound overland trade or energy to enter Azerbaijan are via Russia or Iran. Azerbaijan does export oil and gas drawn from its own dwindling reserves, providing around 0.07% of the United States’ supply and slightly more of Europe’s. But even if this were significant, Armenia has never damaged or attacked Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure in over 30 years of conflict, and energy markets remained stable after war broke out on September 27.

In sum, there is no strong realist case that the United States should allow third-party alliances and rivalries to determine its position on the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict. The dispute defies easy categorization within frameworks based on Russia, Iran, or NATO. And what about the merits of the conflict itself? After all, even to realists, right and wrong on the ground still deserve consideration. A grand strategy cannot stand if its moral nuts and bolts are systematically misaligned. Azerbaijan’s “realist” backers themselves agree — their arguments tend to boil down to decrying atrocities such as those committed by Assad in Syria. And in this case, there can be little question that the balance of justice lies with the Armenian side.

Armenians now occupy a fraction of their historic territory. They were cleansed from the rest during a genocide perpetrated by Azerbaijan’s Turkish kinsmen. While Joseph Stalin placed historically Armenian Karabakh within Azerbaijan, and communist authorities in Baku intentionally reduced the oblast’s Armenian population as part of an effort to bolster their own claims to the territory,  by the late 1980s Karabakh was still 76 percent Armenian. In 1988, the people of Karabakh overwhelmingly passed a referendum supporting reunion with Armenia — but Azerbaijan refused to accept the results, responding instead with gruesome pogroms against Armenians living in the mixed cities of Baku and Sumgait. In the war that ensued, Armenians overcame heavy odds and ejected Azerbaijan from most of Karabakh and a small buffer of territory linking it to Armenia. The two sides agreed to a 1994 cease-fire — but since Azerbaijan began accumulating oil wealth in the late 1990s, it has increasingly sought to reverse its defeat. While Armenia has nothing to gain through conflict — and unlike Azerbaijan has consistently supported third-party monitors to ensure that neither side begins shooting — Azerbaijan nurtures increasingly fierce hopes of removing Armenians from Karabakh. With just 3 million Armenians surrounded by over 90 million Azerbaijanis and Turks, and Azerbaijan’s military spending approximately six times Armenia’s, some expect it is a matter of time before they get their wish.

With no compelling geopolitical reasons to support Azerbaijan, the United States should take Armenia’s vulnerability, democratic progress, and right to self-determination into account. Backing Armenia would cost nothing — in fact, it would save the hundreds of millions we currently ship to Baku each year. Although subordinating these facts to simple narratives about “countering Iran and Russia” appeals to those hoping to re-create game-like World War I–style alliances, applying such facile frameworks to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is neither hard-minded nor realistic. United States policymakers should instead regard the Armenia–Azerbaijan war as what it is: an aggressive and unhinged dictatorship attempting to ethnically cleanse a U.S.-friendly population from its ancestral lands. It is in our national interest to support Armenia against this threat.

Hagop Toghramadjian is a former Fulbright scholar and U.S. State Department intern currently studying at Harvard Law School. Kathleen Bailey is an expert on Central Asian politics and the director of the Islamic Civilizations and Societies Program at Boston College.

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