Toward the end of the Cold War, no corner of the Soviet Union was bloodier than the South Caucasus, and, today, it’s on the verge of exploding again. A starvation through siege campaign by Azerbaijan in the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh amid a power vacuum in the wider region presents a dilemma for Washington: Should the U.S. cooperate with Vladimir Putin’s Russia to release a humanitarian chokehold and defuse a political powder keg?
That is the current reality in Nagorno-Karabakh, which thanks in part to Bolshevik Moscow’s skullduggery, ended up under Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized borders. In the aftermath of an early 1990s post-Soviet war, the disputed territory was locked behind defensive positions and only accessible through Armenia—until Azerbaijan launched a campaign in 2020 that saw it capture considerable territory. Then, authoritarian Azerbaijan began blockading the self-ruling enclave nine months ago, by closing the Lachin Corridor—the sole lifeline road to Armenia and the rest of the world—and shutting off energy supplies and internet infrastructure.
Azerbaijan’s blockade has turned the mountainous treasure into a gloomy outdoor prison, even refusing the Red Cross’s humanitarian supplies for the region’s 120,000 people. The result, as human rights organizations and local journalists have noted, are devastating: massive unemployment; shortages of survival musts, from basic food to medical supplies to vehicle fuel; and deaths among vulnerable populations, including toddlers and unborn children. On Sept. 6, the inaugural International Criminal Court prosecutor testified at the U.S. Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, arguing that the siege amounts to genocide. Earlier, on Aug. 16, the blockade was discussed at the U.N. Security Council.
What happens next—preferably, an enforceable U.N. Security Council resolution—depends on whether two key foes can decide to work together.
Russia and the U.S., along with France, have co-chaired the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Minsk Group—tasked with mediating the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh—for decades. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the group effectively stopped functioning. That changed in July, when the co-chairs met in Geneva, during an unpublicized gathering revealed in an interview by a well-informed Armenian analyst, to discuss the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh.
U.S. engagement with Russia is vital due to the latter’s importance and impotence alike. Following Azerbaijan’s 2020 war against Nagorno-Karabakh—which saw a combined 7,000 soldiers die, and nearly a third of the native Armenian population flee—Russia deployed troops to reinforce its own regional interests and to manage the Lachin Corridor. But today Russia seems unable, or unwilling, or both, to keep the corridor open.
Given Russia’s Ukrainian preoccupation, Azerbaijan is using the blockade to finish off the lingering ethnoterritorial conflict by driving out the region’s Armenians for good. It’s a goal entirely within Azerbaijan’s reach as a distracted world is impassively looking away. Even the Azerbaijani parliament’s recent branding of Armenians as “a cancerous tumor of Europe” provoked little to no outrage.
The three actors trying to mediate the conflict are the U.S., Russia, and, to a lesser degree, the European Union. But the U.S. is the only one that has the tools—ranging from enforcing the statutory Section 907 to introducing executive sanctions—that could end the blockade. Azerbaijan’s belligerent dynasty worships the lavish lifestyle—including a real estate empire in London—that could be a prime target of such actions.
But an enduring solution to the wider Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict that creates lasting security mechanisms can only come with the U.S. and Russia—and only if they cooperate. Overconfident Azerbaijan, which leverages its energy riches with Russia and the West alike, is less likely to successfully resist this unlikely union of geopolitical foes.
The need for such a solution is high not only for humanitarian reasons. Azerbaijan’s siege of Nagorno-Karabakh could morph into an unmanageable war, attracting powerful players. Azerbaijan’s ethnolinguistic patron Turkey eyes southern Armenia for an unrealized objective of the WWI-era Armenian Genocide: a sovereign Pan-Turkic connection. This troubles the Turks’ historical rival, Iran, which says it won’t tolerate losing its ancient border with Armenia. This alarming scenario nearly materialized last year, when Azerbaijan launched an invasion of southern Armenia in September 2022, occupying sovereign Armenian territory. The danger of war still looms.
The hopeful news is that Russia and the U.S. already agree on something—that Nagorno-Karabakh’s 2,500-year-old Armenian presence must endure. But words alone won’t deter Azerbaijan, which is deliberately inflicting conditions that are aimed at doing the opposite. It holds an airtight siege not only on food imports or civilian movement (the few allowed to leave are periodically abducted), but also through its border guards, who have reportedly shot at farmers and keep targeting them.
Still, U.S.-Russian cooperation would not automatically guarantee a fair peace, especially if a deal is made behind closed doors. The two powers could be tempted by the prospects of a seemingly easy solution—pressuring Nagorno-Karabakh to agree to Azerbaijan’s every demand, including capitulating to a food-for-subjugation arrangement that would reward the siege and reinforce the region’s isolation. Yet a lack of U.S.-Russia cooperation would have a similar, if not worse, impact.
Washington has many problems, but on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict it really needs to do one thing: make up its mind. A “durable and dignified” regional peace, to borrow the U.S. State Department’s words, requires Washington to decide how to treat a tyrant. In this case, the U.S. must either sanction one or work with the other. If President Joe Biden won’t keep his promise of sanctioning the Azerbaijani tyranny that’s strangling 120,000 people, then he must cooperate with the Russian pariah.
U.S. inaction on Nagorno-Karabakh won’t punish Russia but, instead, handhold it in greenlighting a genocide.
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