Menendez missed his chance to push US into another military adventure

A resident of the Azerbaijani capital hangs a state flag in Baku on September 20, 2023, in support of the country's offensive in the Nagorno-Karabakh region

After more than 30 years of conflict, the battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh may soon be over, despite efforts by American warmongers to inject Washington into the dispute between two former Soviet republics.

Under the guise of an “anti-terrorist operation” following the death of four soldiers and two civilians, Baku continued its efforts to reassert control over Nagorno-Karabakh on Tuesday.

Armenia-supported separatists – who have mostly governed the disputed territory since 1994 – agreed on Wednesday to surrender their weapons following Baku’s lightning offensive, indicating they are open to talks on reintegrating the secessionist territory into Azerbaijan.

“An agreement has been reached on the withdrawal of the remaining units and servicemen of the Armenian armed forces … and on the dissolution and complete disarmament of the armed formations of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army,” the Armenian separatist authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh said in a statement.

This announcement is a decisive victory for Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, who has made the reunification of his country a priority, and a setback for U.S. Senator Bob Menendez.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced legislation to push the United States into taking sides with the Armenians in concert with Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, and others, but the Supporting Armenians Against Azerbaijani Aggression Act appears to be dead in the water.

The United States supports Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Nagorno-Karabakh, however, the US has expressed increasing concern about Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses and imposed sanctions on some officials there for their role in arbitrary killing, torture and other inhuman treatment in 2021.

Separated from Armenia and attached to Azerbaijan in 1921 by Stalin, the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has been a point of permanent tension between the two former Soviet republics since the collapse of the USSR.

Ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and declared the territory the independent Republic of Artsakh but was never recognized by the international community.

The ensuing conflicts claimed around 30,000 lives.

Then, in 1994, Armenia won the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, resulting in the de facto independence of the Republic of Artsakh, which Azerbaijan refused to accept.

In the intervening years, the tables have turned, says Jean Radvanyi, geographer and professor emeritus at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO).

Thanks to significant revenues from oil and natural gas, “Baku has taken advantage of the situation to rearm, with the support of allies such as Turkey, and the balance of power has continued to evolve”, says Radvanyi.

This role reversal gave Azerbaijan the confidence to launch the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, which saw Baku’s forces overpower the Armenian military.

In the wake of this defeat, Armenia was forced to cede territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

The ceasefire stipulated the presence of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers tasked with guaranteeing the safety of the Armenians but this measure failed to stop regular armed skirmishes on the border.

Taking advantage of a divided Armenia, Azerbaijan then launched the second phase of its plan: a war of attrition designed to cut off the enclave’s 120,000 or so Armenians.

Despite the presence of the Russian peacekeepers, beginning in December 2022, Azerbaijan blockaded the Lachin corridor, a narrow mountain road that links Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh.

It wasn’t until September 18 – just one day before the offensive – that Red Cross trucks carrying food and medicine gained access to Nagorno-Karabakh.

In both the first and second Nagorno-Karabakh wars, Azerbaijan received support from Turkey.

On Tuesday, a Turkish defense ministry official said the country is using “all means”, including military training and modernization, to support its close ally Azerbaijan but it did not play a direct role in Baku’s military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Baku’s success also appears to be the result of Moscow’s weakening regional position. Russia has struggled to maintain its traditional role of maintaining order in the Caucasus since it launched its offensive in Ukraine in February 2022.

“Since the fall of the USSR, Russia has been the guardian of the region, maintaining a kind of status quo, but Moscow is focused on the conflict in Ukraine, which seems far from over,” says Lukas Aubin, associate researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

What’s more, Russia has become much more dependent on Azerbaijan.

The country serves as a corridor between Iran and Russia, allowing for the transfer of military supplies for the war in Ukraine, and is one of the countries that enables Vladimir Putin to circumvent Western sanctions

Finally, Moscow’s support for Armenia has been steadily waning in recent years. Elected in 2018, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has edged away from Russia and turned to the West for security guarantees.

For instance, in November 2022, Pashinyan refused to sign the final declaration of the summit of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Azerbaijan is also a member.

This signaled Armenia’s growing resentment at Moscow’s lack of support for the country.

“Pashinyan is pursuing a pro-Western policy, which was not necessarily the case at the outset, and which irritates Moscow,” says Laurent Leylekian, a South Caucasus specialist and political analyst. “Armenia ratified the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court to protect the Armenian minority in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

This process began at the end of 2022, but ended, coincidentally, a few days after the announcement of the ICC’s arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin – at a time when Putin wanted to sully the ICC’s credibility, Armenia was legitimizing it.

Since then, Pashinyan has multiplied acts of defiance towards the Russian president. In early September, Armenia announced humanitarian aid to Ukraine and undertook a joint military exercise with the United States, which began on September 11. In response, Moscow responded by summoning the Armenian ambassador and denouncing the measures as “unfriendly”.

A Western response is yet to materialize but the international context is working in Azerbaijan’s favour.

In January, the European Union signed a far-reaching natural gas import agreement with Baku, to reduce dependence on Russian supplies. A few months later, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, traveled to Baku to announce a new agreement to double gas imports from Azerbaijan.

In an article published in Le Monde, some fifty French lawmakers criticized a project that would once again place Europeans “in a situation of new dependence on a state with bellicose aspirations”.

“The West has always been rather hypocritical in this matter, preferring to negotiate gas and oil with Baku rather than genuinely support the Armenians”, says Radvanyi.

As Azerbaijan now enters negotiations with Armenian separatists from a position of considerable strength, the power asymmetry could spell danger for both the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia itself.

“The (ethnic) Armenian leaders of secessionist Karabakh have long refused to acknowledge that this territory belongs to Azerbaijan,” says Radvanyi, for whom the power shift on the ground could lead to a “solution” to the long-lasting standoff over Nagorno-Karabakh.

“I hope this solution will ensure the status of the Karabakh Armenians,” he adds.

But other experts envisage much gloomier scenarios. “It’s death or exile that awaits the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh because it’s impossible for an Armenian to live in a country where racist anti-Armenian hatred is the raison d’être,” says Leylekian.

Speaking before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday, an Armenian ambassador warned of “looming ethnic cleansing” in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh are trapped and they do not have a way to evacuate since Azerbaijan continues to block the only lifeline connecting with Armenia,” he said.

Another concern relates to the integrity of Armenian territory, as Nagorno-Karabakh could lose its role as a buffer zone between the two enemies of the Caucasus.

“There’s every reason to be worried. If this buffer zone were to disappear, Azerbaijan’s ambitions could be even more pronounced,” says Aubin. “Without Russian support and frank and massive support from the West, it’s hard to see the Armenian army being in a position to resist.”

In contrast with this, Azerbaijan’s presidential foreign policy advisor Hikmet Hajiyev said Wednesday that the country aimed to “peacefully reintegrate” Armenians living in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh and that it supports a “normalization process between Armenia and Azerbaijan”.

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