By David L. Phillips and Van Krikorian
Violent conflict erupted in Nagorno-Karabagh (NK) on April 2, killing hundreds. Azerbaijan violated a cease-fire that had been in place since 1994. The situation remains extremely volatile, despite a temporary truce.
The United States and Russia must intensify their mediation. Negotiations should include representatives of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabagh. US law already calls for sanctions on Azerbaijan if it acts aggressively. The Obama administration should implement Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Azerbaijan to punish its aggression.
Nagorno-Karabagh is a disputed territory in the South Caucasus. Joseph Stalin included it in Azerbaijan as part of a broader effort to undermine the national aspirations of minorities in the Soviet Union. The Nagorno-Karabagh population held a referendum in 1991, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. Christian Armenians voted overwhelmingly for independence from Muslim Azerbaijan. In the ensuing conflict, over 20,000 people died and over 800,000 people were displaced. The war ended with a ceasefire but no peace agreement.
In 1989, the US Senate passed a resolution “[urging] Soviet President Gorbachev to restore order, reestablish unrestricted economic and supply routes to the people of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabagh, secure the physical safety of the people of [NK] from attack, and continue a dialogue with representatives of such region regarding a peaceful settlement of the dispute….” In 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed Section 907 into US law, which prohibits assistance to Azerbaijan if it engages in aggressive military actions against Armenia or Nagorno-Karabagh. Section 907 was an important deterrent, contributing to the cease fire.
In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama endorsed a “lasting and durable settlement of the Nagorno Karabagh conflict that is agreeable to all parties, and based upon America’s founding commitment to the principles of democracy and self-determination.” Since the conflict began, every US administration has been committed to a peaceful, negotiated solution.
Starting in 1994, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) spearheaded efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict Nagorno-Karabagh. The OSCE Minsk Group is mandated to mediate. It is co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation, and the United States. Attempts by Azerbaijan to change mediators have been rebuffed.
Tensions in this “frozen conflict” have increased in recent years. Escalating and well-documented ceasefire violations occurred without consequence. Inaction by the international community encouraged Azerbaijan’s coordinated assault. Azerbaijan recently spent $4 billion buying weapons from Russia. On April 2, Azerbaijan used its upgraded air and land weapons to attack on multiple fronts. Weapons included Smerch rocket systems, Grad missiles, Russian-made T-90 tanks, TOS-1A flamethrowers, modern helicopter gunships, as well as kamikaze drones. All told, over 40 Armenians were killed, including civilians. An ethnic Yezidi/Armenian citizen, was beheaded by Azeri troops. Over 200 Azeri soldiers died in the offensive. No territory was gained.
Azerbaijan did not act on its own. According to eyewitness accounts, Turkish troops and equipment were involved in battles near the Iranian border. The Azerbaijani offensive was immediately endorsed by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Nagorno-Karabagh will be returned to Azerbaijan.” Erdogan added, “We will support Azerbaijan until the end.”
Turkey is already a protagonist in this conflict. It maintained a blockade of Armenia since 1992. Erdogan scuttled the 2009 protocols to open the border and have diplomatic relations with Armenia, which Turkish diplomats negotiated.
Azerbaijan claims that Armenia instigated the recent conflict. However, Chatham House and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace maintain that Nagorno-Karabagh forces did not instigate attacks on Azeri positions. Armenians consistently proposed monitors and confidence building measures since 1994. Azerbaijan refused, calling for a military solution. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense initially took credit for initiating the offensive.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev relies on a combination of oil revenue, caviar diplomacy, and government crackdowns on fundamental freedoms to maintain power. In the face of the recent oil price crash, Azerbaijan’s economy is in decline and its currency has plummeted. Azerbaijan’s civil society continues to oppose the regime’s incarceration of journalists and human rights advocates. Igniting a war with Armenia, even a short one, aims at distracting the Azeri people from the regime’s abuses and economic insecurity.
It is no secret that Armenia has a strategic military relationship with Russia. It faces an existential threat from Turkey, as well as Azerbaijani aggression. At the same time, Armenia maintains good relations with the United States and the European Union. Armenia actively participates in NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program. A NATO official called Armenia’s contribution to international security “very impressive.” Armenia accepted more than 20,000 refugees from Syria.
Nagorno-Karabagh is one of the most dangerous places in the world today. With Russia and Turkey at odds in Syria, a proxy fight may be escalating. The US has a national security interest in preventing an all-out war, with regional implications.
The US and Russia have worked together more assiduously on Syria. They should also intensify cooperation through the Minsk Group. Specifically, the OSCE should deploy monitors around Nagorno-Karabagh to deter future aggression. The Armenian side is willing.
There is no military solution in Nagorno-Karabagh. The Minsk Group should rejoin its original configuration, including Nagorno-Karabagh representatives in negotiations. They should be a part of political talks, which affect the peace and security of their constituents.
The US must not soft-pedal Azerbaijan’s aggression. Nor can Washington condone Turkey taking up arms against Armenians. As we observe yet another anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, the US needs a fact based, principled approach to prevent the escalation of deadly violence in Nagorno-Karabagh.
(David L. Phillips Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights, Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Van Krikorian is the Co-Chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America.)