Secretary of State Antony Blinken is hosting talks in Washington this week betweenArmenia’s Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan and Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov, his latest effort to broker a peace agreement between the two countries.
Mr. Blinken has prepared the parties to expect several days of hands-on American mediation.This plan represents a significant expansion of Washington’s role as a peace mediator that should be lauded. In November, Mr. Blinken also hosted Messrs. Mirzoyan and Bayramov, but at that time he did little more than welcome his guests and encourage them to engage each other directly. Mr. Blinken now recognizes that, absent greater American involvement, Russia and Iran will work with the Armenians to spoil the peace process.
Some history offers essential context. In 2020 Azerbaijan won a decisive victory in the Second Karabakh War, reclaiming most of the territory that Armenia took from it in the First Karabakh War, which ended in 1994. In the final days of the conflict, however, Vladimir Putin, by threatening Baku with ballistic-missile strikes, forced Azerbaijan to halt its advance into Karabakh and accept Russian “peacekeepers” in that region, which is sovereign Azerbaijani territory and also home to a significant enclave of ethnic Armenians.
Mr. Putin also has been hosting talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, apparently playing at peacemaking while keeping the dispute on a low burn. A true resolution of the conflict would obviate the need for Russian forces in Karabakh, one of his two major tools for forcing Baku to respect his will.
Meanwhile, Russia has an unassailable military position in Armenia, home to at least threeRussian bases. Russian soldiers patrol key segments of Armenia’s borders, and Russian military officers entirely control Armenian air space.
By contrast, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has been remarkably successful at wiggling free of Moscow’s control—more successful than almost all other leaders of former Soviet republics. While fostering strong economic ties with Europe, to which Azerbaijan supplies oil and gas, Mr. Aliyev has simultaneously developed deep and enduring defense ties with Turkey and Israel.
Over the past decade or so, those ties helped the Azerbaijani military increase its power quietly but with remarkable speed. The power it revealed in the Second Karabakh War shocked many seasoned observers, including in Moscow but also in Tehran. Azerbaijan is the only country that borders both Russia and Iran. Its triangular alignment with Turkey andIsrael especially terrifies Tehran, not least because of the support it has among IranianAzerbaijanis, who constitute at least one-fifth of the country’s population and are the largest non-Persian ethnic group.
Consequently, Tehran works with Moscow and Yerevan, in a tripartite axis designed to counterbalance the Turkish-Israeli-Azerbaijani alignment. The axis is working to scuttle the peace talks. It has been aided, indirectly, by French President Emmanuel Macron, who has devoted significant energy to diplomacy in the South Caucasus, where his efforts clearly favorArmenia over Azerbaijan.
France is home to a large Armenian community. Thanks to its influence and to Mr. Macron’s penchant for idiosyncratic initiatives on the international stage, Paris has taken positions that, on balance, strengthen the Russian and Iranian game in the South Caucasus.
Which brings us back to Mr. Blinken’s changing view. In November he saw himself as the facilitator of European mediation led by Charles Michel, president of the European Council. In the meantime, however, Mr. Macron has, among other steps, pressured Mr. Michel to invite him, Mr. Macron, directly into the negotiations. These antics have made the European mediation illegitimate in Baku’s eyes.
Mr. Blinken now recognizes that the American track offers the only viable path to coaxingArmenia to make peace and, thereby, limit the forms of cooperation with the Russian-Irani an alliance that threaten U.S. interests.
The major sticking point in the negotiations is the status of the Karabakh region. The conflict won’t end until Armenia recognizes it as sovereign Azerbaijani territory. Armenian PrimeMinister Nikol Pashinyan doesn’t sound ready to take that step. “Russian peacekeepers must keep the Lachin corridor under control and ensure the operation of the corridor,” Mr.Pashinyan said Thursday, referring to the strip of land that connects Armenia to Karabakh.“No one except Russia has the right to control the corridor,” he added.
Mr. Putin is using the Armenians of Karabakh as pawns. Like the South Ossetians andAbkhazians in Georgia or the Russian communities in Ukraine, Karabakh offers him a pseudo-humanitarian justification for Russian imperialism. If Yerevan will only come around, the U.S.and its allies can work with it and Baku to safeguard the welfare of the Armenians of Karabakh without relying on Russian troops.
Unfortunately for Mr. Blinken, many influential friends of the Armenian-American community, such as Sen. Bob Menendez and Rep. Adam Schiff, refuse to urge Yerevan in this direction. Instead, they seek to punish any American officials who spotlight Armenia’s most egregious forms of cooperation with Russia and Iran.
Mr. Blinken understands the geostrategic stakes and is making a smart play. Will the friends of Armenia inside the Democratic Party trip him up? The next few days may provide us with the answer.
Michael Doran is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Peace and Security in the MiddleEast.