US’ Distant Approach to Karabakh Issue

Orkhan Jalilov Analysis 3 September 2021
US’ Distant Approach to Karabakh Issue

From 1994, the United States developed interests in the South Caucasus region linked to the presence of oil in the Caspian basin and its agenda of diversifying oil production and transportation. The US also officially voiced neutrality and is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group with Russia and France on Nagorno-Karabakh to find a peaceful settlement of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The United States does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent republic, and holds that the future status of Karabakh is a matter of negotiation between the parties with the aim of achieving a lasting and comprehensive political resolution of the conflict. 

During the six-week fighting in the Karabakh region last year, Washington’s actions were limited in urging the sides to stop fighting due to the fact that the war coincided with the US presidential election.

The US’ lack of involvement is in line with the Trump administration’s broad “America first” foreign policy, signaling a partial withdrawal from the international stage. America’s gradual withdrawal from the South Caucasus is a trend that has been observed for the last decade.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan energy pipeline that brings oil to Europe from Baku was extremely close to the warzone, but the energy markets have shifted a lot in the past decade, so that pipeline is not as essential to European and US energy security as it was, in 2010’s.

“We have not seen the president [Trump] or senior leaders rise up to the occasion in this time,” Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment said, adding that this conflict has been less of a priority for the Trump administration than previous administrations. 

In an October 28 statement, President Biden said his predecessor Donald Trump must push for an immediate de-escalation, “leading a diplomatic effort to end the fighting, together with our European partners”.

He also called for “stopping the advance of Azerbaijani troops into Karabakh,” denounced Turkey for supplying weapons and mercenaries to the conflict area, and warned that the United States under his presidency could impose sanctions on Azerbaijan under section 907 of the US Freedom Support Act.

The new U.S. administration's foreign policy for the South Caucasus region remains unclear, although five months have passed since President Joe Biden took office in January. Biden’s administration has not contacted Baku with regard to regional developments, including the latest war in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region.

President Ilham Aliyev is convinced that Washington’s new government should deliver a balanced foreign policy in the region with regard to its relationships with Armenia and Azerbaijan as a Minsk Group co-chairing country.

“Mr. Blinken called Pashinyan, I don’t know what they talked about, but again, the balance is disturbed. I am not saying that we are waiting for the call of Mr. Blinken. But it’s a co-chair country. They should at least behave in the way that is balanced,” Aliyev said during the international conference titled “New vision for South Caucasus: Post-conflict development and cooperation” in Baku on April 13. 

In a phone call with Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on March 6, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken said the US welcomed efforts aimed at achieving lasting peace in the region.

Earlier, in his confirmation hearings in January, Blinken said the US should boost the security of Armenia and step up its involvement in the Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations to help prevent another war in the region. He believed that the conflict still needed a permanent settlement and the US would engage with key stakeholders to find it. 

Daniel Baer, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former US ambassador to the OSCE, believes that the new US administration should see the South Caucasus region as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of serious US engagement

Baer explains that more active US diplomacy in South Caucasus could guarantee more hope for progress. He is convinced that the Biden administration can take four steps to encourage Armenia and Azerbaijan toward lasting peace, including contribute to the implementation of the ceasefire, support humanitarian work and resettlement activities, drive a region-wide economic development strategy, and reinvigorate diplomacy.

Meeting separately with the Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers in Washington, on October 23, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo “emphasized the need to end the violence and protect civilians,” resume negotiations under the Minsk co-chairs, and resolve the conflict “based on the Helsinki Final Act”.

When Azerbaijan took over the skies in its fight with Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh last autumn, winning the air war with the Turkish, Israeli, domestic-made and kamikaze drones, one thing started to become clear to U.S. Army strategists: It’s becoming easier to hunt and kill troops than ever before—and to do so on the cheap.

“You can see video of tanks being hit by an unmanned aerial system, artillery positions being hit by an unmanned aerial system, troops being hit by an unmanned aerial system,” said Col. Scott Shaw, the outgoing head of the US Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group. 

He added that what has become apparent after Azerbaijan routed Armenia last fall is that not only will the U.S. military no longer enjoy uncontested air superiority against peer rivals like China—something Defense Department officials have long resigned themselves to—but that poorer nations can buy themselves a respectable air force mostly off the shelf.