Anniversary of Armenia-Azerbaijan cease-fire an opportunity to reinvigorate US engagement in the South Caucasus
A year ago this week, after 44 days of fighting, Russia negotiated a cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan that suspended fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Despite being a co-chair with France and Russia of the Minsk Group —– an organization founded to mediate a peace agreement in Karabakh — the U.S. today maintains a deafening silence in the region. The Russia-backed cease-fire is only a temporary solution. Yet it has succeeded in granting Moscow increased soft and hard power in the region. This constitutes a U.S. foreign policy blunder, but it also undermines Europe’s ambitions for energy independence from Russia — with serious ramifications for the unity of NATO.
Now is the time for the U.S. to make its presence felt again. If “America is back,” as President Joe Biden has proclaimed, his administration should reinvigorate U.S. efforts in the South Caucasus on the conflict’s anniversary.
Although last year’s war is officially over, the region still bears witness to sporadic fighting and political jostling. And a state of frozen instability remains — a troubling situation that only cements Russia’s foothold in the region.
Indeed, Russia looks set only to gain from the terms of the agreement. As a result of the settlement, 2,000 of its troops are stationed in corridors between Armenia and Azerbaijan as “peacekeepers.” We have seen this all too familiar Russian tactic before – such as in secessionist regions of Georgia, where incremental mission creep was implemented to rewrite the regional status quo.
The existing pact also imperils European ambitions for energy independence from Russia. The bloc’s dependence on Russian energy sources has been long denounced; its folly exacerbated by Europe’s gas crisis. With consumer bills soaring and Moscow demonstrating that it can ratchet up consumer discontent in EU democracies at will, the inherent dangers of this source of leverage are certain to be exposed as winter sets in.
The Caspian Sea was supposed to offer a diversified supply of energy resources. It has rich natural gas reserves, essential for Europe’s transition to renewables. Only last December, Southern Europe received its first shipment along the new Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline from Azerbaijan. But now Russia sits awkwardly at this junction.
If the future of the Southern Caucasus energy supply remains uncertain, America’s partners in Europe remain in a bearhug. The current gas crisis is not the first time Russia has used energy as an instrument of statecraft. It turned off the taps in 2006 and 2009 when it stopped supplies to Ukraine, a move that sent economic shockwaves through the continent. Compromised NATO unity in the face of Russian aggression is the consequence.
Symbolically, Russia’s mediation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan cease-fire was a snub to the Minsk Group. Its two other permanent members, the U.S. and France, were reduced to producing little more than “strongly worded statements.” When U.S. diplomacy fails, Russia is invariably the beneficiary.
But all is not lost, and Washington has viable avenues to rebuild an American foothold in the South Caucasus. The U.S. could, for example, signal good intentions by rebuilding severely damaged infrastructure in Karabakh. Similarly, America could let dollars talk; by encouraging private sector engagement in the region, the U.S. could stimulate economic growth and promote joint participation in the name of mutual self-interest, on behalf of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
Such U.S. influence has been seen elsewhere in the conflict. As but one illustration, the State Department was involved in a deal that saw Azerbaijan release Armenian prisoners of war in return for maps detailing the locations of mines, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked by the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry. The deal, orchestrated by the U.S. and EU, suggests that multilateralism can still work,and that vital U.S. engagement in the region is welcome.
The White House should now work to improve the perception of its impartiality. Although the U.S. criticized Azerbaijan when fighting broke out in the 1990s, relations were restored during the George W. Bush administration, a move that won the U.S. trust from both sides. Subjected to powerful American-Armenian lobbying, the U.S. took a regrettably partisan position during last year’s hostilities. But history demonstrates that American influence can be restored.
While Russia has improved its relations with Azerbaijan in recent years, it is historically Armenia’s ally, with a military base in the country and a mutual defense treaty in effect. By building on historic, cross-border trust, the U.S. can successfully reassert itself as a truly bipartisan broker for peace in the region.
Last year, Armenia and Azerbaijan had little choice but to get behind Moscow’s efforts to secure peace. Between Turkey and Russia’s vested interests — and beset with a wavering EU and an absent U.S. — there was nowhere else to turn for support. The Biden administration should use the cease-fire’s anniversary to demonstrate it can offer an alternative and signal American engagement in the South Caucasus once again.
Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan