Putin Has Handed Washington an Opportunity in the South Caucasus
US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, meets Azerbaijan and Armenia's foreign ministers in New York, September 22, 2022. Image: US Department of State
Kyiv’s exposure of Russia as a declining military power has direct consequences far beyond the borders of Ukraine. It resonates throughout Russia’s “near-abroad” among countries that the Kremlin considers as subordinates even a generation after independence from the Soviet Empire.
Thanks to its failures in Ukraine, fear of Moscow is diminishing, and from the Caucasus to Central Asia, its influence is in decline. Washington can now position itself as an impartial mediator in unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Moscow has maintained its influence by keeping them simmering for decades. Should the U.S. manage its resolution, Russia will be further isolated, weakening its attack on Ukraine while strengthening the international interests of the U.S. and its allies.
The longest-running and most urgent of these post-Soviet conflicts is between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Following Azerbaijan’s military successes in September 2020, regaining territories occupied by Armenia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the prospects for a durable peace agreement are at last on the table.
However, in such a seemingly intractable conflict, the sequencing and choreography of the process is fraught with jeopardy. September witnessed the worst flare-up of fighting between the two since 2020, prompting a surprise visit to Armenia by Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. Speaker of the House. Widely perceived as an attempt to shore up the large Armenian-American diaspora for the Democratic Party in the midterm elections, it, unfortunately, indicated a bias that Washington’s diplomacy must avoid.
While further U.S. involvement is welcome, impartiality is essential. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s public statements of even-handedness are being undermined when senior Democrat leaders freelance in policy decisions. Consequently, it is difficult for Azerbaijan to not see it as part of some overarching policy, despite the fact that the trip was a personal decision by Pelosi.
Washington must also move beyond the Minsk Group, the OSCE body co-chaired by Russia, France, and the U.S., originally established to resolve the conflict. It achieved little over three decades and failed to prevent another outbreak of war in 2020. Platitudinous calls to return to the outdated framework must be minimized. The U.S. State Department must instead fully throw its weight behind a coordinated EU-U.S. approach, which has recently seen an EU mission established to monitor the situation along the border between the two states.
As in Ukraine, the initiative must be explicit in support of territorial integrity as the guiding principle, rather than partially entertaining Armenian claims over Karabakh – the region in contention – as the Minsk Group had done. Only then can it create the conditions to demarcate and then uphold the countries’ shared border, bringing an end to both Azerbaijani incursions on Armenian territory and the continued presence of Armenian forces in Azerbaijan.
Moscow’s objective has been to prolong the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and ensure Armenia’s economic, military, and diplomatic dependence while inserting its own “peacekeeping” troops along the crucial energy transport links that run through the region. By playing a prominent role in the Minsk “peace process” over the last three decades Russia helped guarantee that there were no positive results.
Three Azerbaijani servicemen approach the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Veng, Kalbajar, Azerbaijan, November 25, 2020. Image: Russian Ministry of Defense
A lasting peace agreement would be an economic boon not just for the region but for Western interests. First, it would secure the Caspian gas reserves that are critical to European diversification away from Russia’s supplies. That will be key to maintaining EU solidarity behind Ukraine in the face of a challenging winter and potential blackouts. Second, it would peel a key ally, Armenia, away from Kremlin influence, following fears that the country could be used to skirt Western sanctions on Russia.
Conflict with Azerbaijan created a need for defense which landed Armenia in Russia’s security alliances. The occupation also caused Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey – who together account for over 80% of Armenia’s borders – to cut off relations. Yerevan was forced to look to Moscow to sustain its economy and energy supplies. Were Armenia to be economically re-integrated into the region, the nation would have more options, including better links to Europe through Turkey. It could then make decisions independent of Moscow and boost its economic development.
In order to resolve the simmering conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia trust is first needed between the United States as a mediator and the two parties. Putin’s faltering grasp over the post-Soviet world presents a historic opening. Washington must seize the opportunity by treating both protagonists equally and fairly. Only then can it play a pivotal role in bringing an end to this generation-long conflict while strengthening Western interests throughout the region.
This article was originally posted in International Policy Digest.