Short-Sighted U.S. Foreign Policy in the South Caucasus
A recent visit of foreign ambassadors and dignitaries to the liberated Azerbaijani town of Shusha was skipped by the ambassadors of the United States, France, and Russia. This appears to have been a coordinated diplomatic effort by the co-chairs of the Minsk Group. This did not surprise the Azerbaijani public as they have given the Minsk Group low marks because of its inability to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In pursuing their own national interests, they have prolonged the conflict.
The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war has made the already outdated Minsk Group irrelevant. Like similar mechanisms in international politics, the format will disappear unless it modifies its approach to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. If the Minsk Group focused instead on building peace, opening communications and implementing the November trilateral statement, which ended the war, it might be useful. However, raising the practically insoluble “status” issue without taking account of the newly emerged realities on the ground will only worsen the fragile peace in the region by emboldening the revanchist reactionary forces within Armenia.
The Biden administration’s approach to both countries clearly demonstrates that Washington is unable to fully grasp the new configuration in the region. U.S. officials and foreign policy experts keep repeating the old rhetoric that the conflict should be settled within the framework of the Minsk Group, which does not match the realities on the ground.
As a matter of fact, the Minsk Group enables Russia to sustain its influence in the region. Russia seized the opportunity provided by the short-sighted U.S. and French approaches to station its troops in Karabakh under the pretext of a “peacekeeping” force. The U.S. and French positions also contributed to this. The unwillingness of the former Trump administration to offer a plausible solution in line with international law made Russia the only player to put on an act as a more or less unbiased mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The short-sightedness of U.S. policy in the region was noticeable when the U.S. ambassador to Armenia made two official visits to Davit Tonoyan, Armenia’s former defence minister, but did not pay a visit to Tonoyan’s Azerbaijan counterpart. Washington needs to rethink a new strategy outside the Minsk Group that can contribute to peace and cooperation and decrease Russian influence in the region.
The latest phone call by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to congratulate Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s acting prime minister, to discuss a settlement within the framework of the Minsk Group once again proves that the Biden administration has failed to think outside the parameters of the Minsk Group.
Before that, Philip T. Reeker, a senior U.S. diplomat, while in Baku, discussed the resumption of substantive negotiations within the framework of the Minsk Group which is a sign that the U.S. approach lacks vision. The U.S. helped to make the war inevitable by emboldening the Armenian side to imitate the negotiations process for more than two decades. It is clear that Russia is interested in keeping the Minsk Group format for geopolitical reasons since it provides a format in which it can cooperate with the West in the midst of tense relations and maintains Moscow’s influence in the region.
Armenia remains Russia’s outpost in the region. The war has provided an opportunity to lessen Armenia’s total dependence on Russia. Azerbaijan’s offer to negotiate over contentious issues, has been ignored by Armenia. This allowed Russian troops to be stationed on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, giving Moscow control of Armenia’s state borders with three of its four neighbours.
A new American policy should encourage Armenia’s current prime minister to normalize relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan by implementing the November joint statement, opening communications, recognizing the territorial integrity of its neighbours, and opening state borders with both Azerbaijan and Turkey which would give a boost to the Armenian economy. Turkey is the only regional actor that can counterbalance Russian and Iranian influence in the region and the Shusha declaration sealed the Turkish presence there.
The U.S. should be supportive of Turkey and Azerbaijan’s joint economic and political projects in the region which are the only factor that allows Georgia to pursue an independent foreign policy. Georgia is a model of how Azerbaijan and Turkey can economically and politically diminish Russian influence in Armenia if the Biden administration adopts a plausible, realistic and national interest-driven approach to the South Caucasus. The elimination of Section 907 would once and for all be a positive step towards the adoption of such a rational approach.
Azerbaijan is the only country in the region that might facilitate U.S. interests in the Caspian Sea and the recent positive agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on the joint exploration of a gas field would be a huge boost in reducing Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. Moreover, the Trans-Caspian pipeline project could be realised in the future with U.S. support. It is clear that Azerbaijan is the strongest nation in the South Caucasus in economic, demographic and military terms. Alongside Turkey, Azerbaijan enables Georgia’s security with its large economic investments. If the U.S. steps up and convinces the Armenian leadership to accept realities and normalise relations with its two important neighbours, the South Caucasus will become a zone of peace, co-operation and economic prosperity. The independence of the regional states would be boosted alongside the facilitation of U.S. interests.