What Should U.S. Do About Growing Conflict In Nagorno-Karabakh?

Patrick O’Malley

October 30, 2020

Last Friday, Mike Pompeo met separately with the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. They were there to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh, the mountainous region of Azerbaijan where fighting has spilled into its fourth week. Yet following the meeting, it is clear the only thing each side can agree on is the other’s blame.

Armenia’s large diaspora in America has been urging its government to take stronger action. The Armenian National Committee of America has led calls for sanctions against the top political and military leaders of Azerbaijan. Kim Kardashian, a perhaps unlikely figure in international relations, has called for an end to U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan.

How should the government respond to such entreaties?

To do nothing in this seemingly remote region of the Caucasus is not an option. America is a co-chair, along with France and Russia, of the OSCE Minsk Group – a troika that has worked to resolve the conflict since 1993. Yet to back Armenia – as many in the diaspora have urged – is unfeasible, not only for this mediation role, but also on the basis of international law and historical context. Were it to do so, there is little to suggest this would stem the conflict; at worse, it risks worsening it.

Separating fact from fiction in the media storm that followed the outbreak of hostilities has been difficult. However, perhaps to the surprise of many, this is a war that is happening within Azerbaijan – not Armenia. No country has recognized the “republic” that self-declared itself in the middle of the previous war.

Multiple judgments from the United Nations Security Council, General Assembly, Council of Europe, and European Parliament have on the other hand recognized Nagorno-Karabakh’s place within Azerbaijan. On this definition, there is only one nation, Armenia, firing inside – and upon – another.

No less than four United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions calling for the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces have gone unheeded. Despite the unambiguous language, little pressure has been applied.

To many, this may come as no surprise. Often UNSC resolutions are ignored. But in this case, it is – given three of its permanent members sit as co-chairs on the Minsk group. Russia, particularly, is Armenia’s largest economic partner. Yet in close to 30 years the status quo of occupation has not changed – much to the frustration of Azerbaijan.

For many in the Diaspora, this argument is transcended by that of self-determination. This is an area, after all, that is majority ethnically Armenian. Given their history of persecution, some Armenians see safety as secure only in independence, especially given Turkey is Azerbaijan’s ally.

Indeed, many find themselves in America today as a result of the Armenian genocide under the Ottoman government at the start of the 20th century. Those historical wounds, and the threat of its reoccurrence, obligates America – in their view – to look beyond the black-and-white world of law.

But to base foreign policy decisions on these kinds of arguments is dangerous. After all, Azerbaijan too can legitimately point to historical wrongs – and ones even more potent given they are still raw in those who experienced it when they remain alive today.

In the heat of the 1990s conflict, close to a million ethnic Azeris were expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories. The presence of a large number of displaced people in conjunction with occupying Armenian forces is a continued injustice to them – especially in light of all legal decrees in their support.

But if historical wrongs become an all-trumping factor, the logic for both is to keep fighting. For a third party, namely the United States, to weigh in on these emotionally charged arguments alone on either side would therefore be highly imprudent.

Fundamentally, Yerevan’s argument against the UN-ordered withdrawal relies on the need to protect ethnic Armenians. Indeed, the Prime Minister recently stated that Azerbaijan wants to expel them from these lands. To what extent this should be believed – in this day – should be questioned, when Baku has throughout the thirty-year mediation process stated its offer of autonomy to the region once foreign forces evacuate. Within the heat of the latest flare-up, it has again restated this commitment.

America should trust it, and on good evidence: Today, over 30,000 Armenians – excluding the occupied region – call Azerbaijan home. They do so freely, as do communities of orthodox Christians and Jews, in addition to a wide spectrum of other beliefs and ethnicities. Modern day Azerbaijan is not a homogenous state.

Furthermore, the claim to need to protect ethnic Armenians is also questionable when forces occupy not only Karabakh, but seven surrounding regions that were never majority ethnically Armenian. Though Nagorno-Karabakh accounts for 5% of legally recognized Azerbaijan, with the addition of these seven regions it rises to over 20%.

Calls for America to take more robust action in aid of Armenia must be disregarded. Were it to break from legal precedent – it would be going against precedent that the U.S .government  themselves have been critical in shaping. Already frustrated by thirty years of mediation that has delivered nothing for the return of its lands, Azerbaijan would only feel further aggrieved. In these circumstances, both sides would likely dig in.

Prudence must guide policy. Though emotions run heated on both sides, a cool head – guided by international law, and supported by the needs of people alive today, not the history of yesterday – is required of the U.S. government.