After years of diplomatic dormancy, the U.S. has accelerated its efforts to facilitate a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But short of ensuring a just peace, the only thing the Washington-backed talks appear to have produced is the emboldenment of Azerbaijan’s aggression against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh (known as Artsakh in Armenian).
After Azerbaijan abandoned decades of multilateral diplomacy to launch a devastating military assault on Artsakh in 2020, a ceasefire agreement was signed that ostensibly put an end to active hostilities. Despite this, Azerbaijan has pressed its military advantage against Armenia through the invasion and occupation of its sovereign territory and the imposition of a humanitarian blockade on the Lachin Corridor—the only humanitarian lifeline connecting Artsakh to Armenia.
For over eight months, the region’s 120,000 Indigenous Armenians—who declared their independence in the early 1990s following escalating violence and ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan—have been deprived access to food, medicine, fuel, electricity, and water in what is nothing less than genocide by attrition.
Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one might think the expansionist assault on a fledgling democracy by a corrupt authoritarian regime engaged in weaponizing food would have elicited a strong response from the international community. But the desire to maintain favorable relations with Azerbaijan given its role as a European energy partner has outweighed any purported commitment to upholding human rights—bolstering Azerbaijan’s aggression.
The same week peace talks began in Washington, Baku tightened its blockade by establishing a military checkpoint at the Lachin Corridor. And when Washington-based talks resumed in June, Azerbaijan began shelling the region. In the months since, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been denied access to Karabakh—and later reported that an Armenian patient in its care had been abducted by Azerbaijani forces en route to Armenia for treatment.
This is the predictable consequence of Washington’s insistence on negotiations amid Azerbaijan’s blockade of Artsakh and occupation of Armenian territory. This has signaled to Baku that its strategy of coercive diplomacy is working, disincentivizing de-escalation, and forcing Armenia to negotiate with a gun to its head.
The Biden administration’s approach to Azerbaijan could not stand more diametrically opposed to its strategy toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Secretary of State Antony Blinken has vehemently maintained that there will be “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine“—Washington has forced negotiations on Armenia with such recklessness that the Armenians in Artsakh have been denied a seat at the negotiating table.
Washington has also actively strengthened Azerbaijan’s position by indicating support for Artsakh’s integration into Azerbaijan. Given Azerbaijan’s state-sponsored dehumanization of Armenians, the litany of human rights abuses perpetrated during and since the 2020 war, and its own disastrous domestic human rights record—it is impossible to imagine Armenians could ever live freely under Azerbaijan’s rule.
For Azerbaijan, this disingenuous participation in negotiations has allowed it to uphold the veneer of cooperation while engaging in conduct that has immeasurably set back the prospects of a durable peace. And while Secretary Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power have expressed their “deep concern for the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Washington has refused to impose costs on Azerbaijan for its attempts to subjugate the Armenian people through starvation and force. Administrator Power, who once expressed regret for not doing more to recognize the Armenian genocide while in office, now risks being a bystander as a second Armenian genocide unfolds.
Washington isn’t powerless to prevent ethnic cleansing. To deter Azerbaijan’s aggression, it could enforce restrictions on security assistance to Azerbaijan pursuant to Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act—as then-candidate Joe Biden pledged to do while on the campaign trail. Despite this, the Biden administration has twice since waived those restrictions—as successive U.S. administrations have for the last 20 years—on the grounds that cutting military aid to Baku would undermine efforts to contain Russia and Iran.
Washington’s approach to the South Caucasus has long been an afterthought of its Russia and Iran policy. The long-term ramifications of a peace that abandons a vulnerable community to the whims of their would-be oppressors is balanced against the illusory perception of Azerbaijan’s support for the containment of Russia and Iran. In that calculation, Artsakh’s Armenians are treated as little more than collateral damage.
But as Baku has repeatedly demonstrated, it has no qualms engaging with Moscow and Tehran at the West’s expense. Azerbaijan has allowed Iranian and Russian entities to purchase major stakes in the natural gas field that supplies Europe—and recently purchased significant quantities of Russian gas to meet domestic demand amid unrealistic export commitments. Azerbaijan has effectively provided Russia and Iran a backdoor into Europe’s energy market—a product of the misplaced belief that you can contain one corrupt authoritarian regime by appeasing others.
As Azerbaijan’s blockade of Artsakh threatens the very existence of the region’s Indigenous Armenians, it’s clear the West’s Faustian bargain with one of the world’s most oppressive regimes has produced the very outcomes it sought to avoid. Now’s the time for Secretary Blinken and Administrator Power to live up to their purported commitment to place human rights at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy, and make clear that authoritarianism will be confronted consistently—not only when convenient.
Alex Galitsky is program director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the largest Armenian American grassroots advocacy organization in the United States.
Gev Iskajyan is executive director of the Armenian National Committee of Artsakh, and is currently based in Artsakh living under Azerbaijan’s blockade.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.