Azerbaijan’s Aggression Has Forced Armenia Into Russia’s Arms

Western leaders must realize that the threat to democracy in Yerevan isn’t the Kremlin; it’s Baku’s belligerent expansionism.

By , program director of the Armenian National Committee of America in Washington.
Armenian Army volunteer Armen Tadevosyan, 56, walks around the border town of Jermuk on Sept. 15, after the worst clashes since a 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Armenian Army volunteer Armen Tadevosyan, 56, walks around the border town of Jermuk on Sept. 15, after the worst clashes since a 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Armenian Army volunteer Armen Tadevosyan, 56, walks around the border town of Jermuk on Sept. 15, after the worst clashes since a 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. KAREN MINASYAN/AFP via Getty Images

For decades, Azerbaijan has been positioned as a Western bulwark against Iran and Russia, often at the expense of Armenia. The result has been the abandonment of one of the region’s only democracies to the whim of one of the most belligerent authoritarian regimes on Earth—forcing Armenia to become more dependent on Russia.

Despite Robert Cutler’s assessment in his recent Foreign Policy piece “Putin Is Turning Armenia Into a Russian Outpost,” the greatest threat to Armenia’s “liberal project” isn’t its alliance of necessity with Russia—it’s an expansionist Azerbaijan, which continues to use military force to consolidate territorial gains and circumvent multilateral diplomacy.

Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia has faced a constant threat to its security. The Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s left the fledgling state locked in an intractable conflict for decades while Azerbaijan and its patron Turkey imposed a blockade against 80 percent of Armenia’s land borders. Over the course of the next decade, Azerbaijan—with considerable economic support from the United States and Europe—would begin consolidating regional pipeline networks that deliberately sought to bypass and isolate Armenia.

For decades, Azerbaijan has been positioned as a Western bulwark against Iran and Russia, often at the expense of Armenia. The result has been the abandonment of one of the region’s only democracies to the whim of one of the most belligerent authoritarian regimes on Earth—forcing Armenia to become more dependent on Russia.

Despite Robert Cutler’s assessment in his recent Foreign Policy piece “Putin Is Turning Armenia Into a Russian Outpost,” the greatest threat to Armenia’s “liberal project” isn’t its alliance of necessity with Russia—it’s an expansionist Azerbaijan, which continues to use military force to consolidate territorial gains and circumvent multilateral diplomacy.

Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia has faced a constant threat to its security. The Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s left the fledgling state locked in an intractable conflict for decades while Azerbaijan and its patron Turkey imposed a blockade against 80 percent of Armenia’s land borders. Over the course of the next decade, Azerbaijan—with considerable economic support from the United States and Europe—would begin consolidating regional pipeline networks that deliberately sought to bypass and isolate Armenia.

Facing unilateral economic blockades, a volatile security environment, and an ambivalent West, Armenia was forced into a position of dependence on Russia.

Facing unilateral economic blockades, a volatile security environment, and an ambivalent West, Armenia was forced into a position of dependence on Russia. This deepening reliance on Russia, however, was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy due to U.S. foreign policy toward the region. Extensive energy investments by the West in Azerbaijan and Turkey accentuated Armenia’s economic isolation as well as the security threats it faced by emboldening Baku. This, in turn, forced Armenia deeper into the orbit of Russia’s regional security architecture—as Russia is the only force capable of projecting military power in the region. In short, Armenia has been treated as collateral damage in the West’s attempted containment of Russia and Iran.

But with Russia preoccupied with its invasion of Ukraine and its considerable military losses, Azerbaijan has grown even more emboldened and has shown it is willing to test the red line of Russia’s peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh (known as Artsakh by its indigenous Armenian population) as well as that of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Armenia is a member. Although Russia’s largely symbolic peacekeeping presence in Nagorno-Karabakh undoubtedly prevented the wholesale ethnic cleansing of the region at the conclusion of the 2020 war, Baku’s brazen assault on sovereign Armenian territory from Sept. 12-14, in the southern regions of Vayots Dzor and Syunik, has exposed the limits of Russia’s capacity to fulfill the role of Armenia’s security guarantor.


Azerbaijan’s unprovoked attack on civilian populations well within the undisputed borders of Armenia—including the town of Martuni, just 42 miles  from the capital, Yerevan—is in many ways a direct byproduct of the impunity Baku has enjoyed in the West, reflecting both an inability and unwillingness on the part of the U.S. government to hold its despotic partners in check. To this day, Azerbaijan has yet to be held responsible for the perpetration of major human rights abuses and war crimes—including the deliberate targeting of civilian populations with prohibited weapons, the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage sites, and the prolonged detention and torture of Armenian prisoners of war.

In fact, not only has Azerbaijan not faced any material consequences for its aggression, but it has been rewarded by the international community. Between fiscal year 2018 and 2019, the United States allocated over more than $100 million in military aid to Azerbaijan. Despite condemning this allocation on the campaign trail, U.S. President Joe Biden has since twice waived restrictions on military aid to Azerbaijan as stipulated under Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. And in early 2022, the European Union provided Baku with a $1.96 billion investment geared toward energy security and later vowing to increase its gas imports from Azerbaijan amid concerns that Russia would cut off Europe’s gas supply. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen even went so far as to describe Azerbaijan as a “trustworthy” partner.

Yet if the purpose of the West’s containment strategy is to push back against the type of authoritarian expansionism Russia is undertaking against Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine how investing in a state like Azerbaijan—a corrupt, authoritarian regime that outcompetes Russia and Iran in the race to the bottom on human rights—projects a message of democratic solidarity, particularly when it comes at the expense of a fledgling democracy like Armenia.

Armenia has consistently demonstrated its capacity to maintain an independent domestic and foreign policy, even in the face of considerable pressure.

Cutler’s argument also conveniently eschews the deep political and economic ties that exist between Azerbaijan and Russia. On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, signed an allied partnership agreement, which vowed to increase cooperation between the two countries, particularly in the sphere of energy.

In fact, the agreement came just days after Russia’s state-owned oil company Lukoil spent $1.5 billion to increase its stake in Azerbaijan’s largest gas field, bringing its ownership to 20 percent. Lukoil also holds a 10 percent stake in the South Caucasus Pipeline—as does the National Iranian Oil Company—which is a central node in the European Commission’s Southern Gas Corridor project designed to bypass Europe’s reliance on Russian energy. Azerbaijan has also used its extensive international money laundering networks to funnel millions of dollars into Russian government-linked arms exporters as well as U.S.-sanctioned Iranian companies.

Despite the claim that Armenia’s dependence on Russia makes it vulnerable to Moscow’s influence, Armenia has consistently demonstrated its capacity to maintain an independent domestic and foreign policy, even in the face of considerable pressure. Despite the observable pattern of Russia’s authoritarian diffusion in the post-Soviet world, Armenia has been able to develop and consolidate democratic institutions. Despite its security reliance on Russia, Armenia has participated in NATO-led peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And in spite of its economic dependence on Russia, Armenia has pursued deepening ties with the European Union—ratifying a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement in 2017 and expanding economic ties that have made the EU one of Armenia’s primary trade partners.

On the diplomatic front, Armenia has also recently sought to draw a clear line between itself and Russia in the context of the invasion of Ukraine. Yerevan sent a clear message to Moscow by refusing to fall in line on United Nations General Assembly votes condemning Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine, choosing to abstain. Azerbaijan, which has considerably less to lose and has routinely sought to position itself in the pro-Western camp, has consistently chosen to be absent on those votes.

This comes as no surprise. Azerbaijan’s recent invasion of Armenia’s sovereign territory is indistinguishable in form and substance from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As of this week, Azerbaijan now occupies around 3.9 square miles of Armenia’s internationally recognized territory, where it controls strategic road networks and transport corridors, inhibiting freedom of movement throughout the country. Armenia’s Human Rights Defender reported that during the assault, Azerbaijan deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure and forcibly displaced thousands of civilians. Over a dozen prisoners of war have been taken captive by Azerbaijan, with horrific videos surfacing of the abuse, torture, and summary execution of Armenian captives.

Azerbaijan’s actions demonstrate a flagrant disregard for the fundamental precepts of international law and a commitment to undermining international conflict mediation efforts. While paying lip service to peace talks, Azerbaijan has continued to use military force to pressure Armenia into additional concessions. Immediately before its assault on Armenia’s sovereign territory, it took control of the Lachin corridor—the main artery linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. In doing so, it displaced hundreds of families and placed at risk vital humanitarian supply lines by leaving Armenia with little more than a dirt road to access Nagorno-Karabakh’s increasingly at-risk Armenian population.

The continued use of military force against the indigenous Armenian inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia itself does not reflect a sincere commitment to peace on the part of Azerbaijan. Having seen force as an effective means of extracting concessions, the regime in Baku is determined to continue using acts of aggression to enforce its maximalist objectives.

This has primarily come in the form of Azerbaijan’s pursuit of the so-called Zangezur passage, referenced by Cutler. Under the Russia-brokered deal that ended the 2020 war, Armenia agreed to open economic links between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan—an Azerbaijani exclave bordering Turkey and southwest Armenia. For Azerbaijan, however, this corridor has taken on an explicitly expansionist dimension, with the government now making further territorial claims over Armenia’s southern province of Syunik. Azerbaijan’s apparent attempt to establish a sovereign corridor through Armenian territory by force stands diametrically opposed to both the 2020 cease-fire agreement and mediation efforts.

The only material difference between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia has been the response of the international community.

The only material difference between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia has been the response of the international community. But with the recent visit to Armenia by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—along with Reps. Anna Eshoo, Jackie Speier, and Frank Pallone—it appears there has been a shift in the West’s assessment of Azerbaijan’s role as a belligerent actor, reflected in the framing of the conflict as a struggle for the existence of an independent, democratic Armenian state.

Prior to Azerbaijan’s brazen assault on Armenia’s sovereign territory, the international community appeared willing to ignore Azerbaijan’s aggression in Nagorno-Karabakh to secure its assistance in the containment of Russia by way of energy supply. But since Azerbaijan’s incursion into Armenia, it has been increasingly difficult for the international community to hide behind the ambiguous line between the right to self-determination of the Armenian people and the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

By violating Armenia’s sovereignty, Baku has demonstrated that this conflict was never truly about the principle of territorial integrity for Azerbaijan. After all, if Azerbaijan’s objectives were limited to territorial control, there would not have been systematic destruction of Armenian cultural heritage sites, the deliberate targeting of civilians, and exceedingly inflammatory rhetoric from the regime in Baku seeking to erase the very existence of the Armenian people.

This becomes even more pertinent in the context of the unified global response to Russia’s authoritarian expansionism. What message does it send if the international community stands united behind Ukraine amid a corrupt, despotic regime’s barbaric assault on its territorial integrity but then ignores when Azerbaijan uses aggression against Armenia. By signaling that its response to authoritarianism is conditional, the West risks emboldening other expansionist regimes—particularly those like Turkey, which, in addition to its overt material support for Azerbaijan’s aggression against Armenia, continues to operate with impunity against Kurdish populations in Iraq and Syria and positions itself aggressively against Greece in the East Mediterranean.

With separate resolutions now introduced by Speier and Rep. Adam Schiff as well as Sens. Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio calling for the immediate cessation of U.S. military assistance to Azerbaijan and an investigation into Azerbaijani human rights abuses—and talks currently underway about the provision of U.S. military assistance to Armenia—momentum is building toward positive U.S. reengagement in a region where Washington has hemorrhaged influence for decades by granting Baku carte blanche and allowing Moscow and Ankara to consolidate their positions at the West’s expense.

If Washington wants to demonstrate consistency in its response to authoritarian expansionism, that must begin with an immediate halt to all military assistance to Azerbaijan, robust support for Armenia, and a commitment to multilateral diplomacy in finding a long-term solution to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh that respects the Armenian people’s right to self-determination. Anything less would not only signal to Azerbaijan that its actions are permissible but demonstrate the limits of the West’s ability to rein in its so-called partners—something that is sure to reverberate beyond the South Caucasus.

Alex Galitsky is program director of the Armenian National Committee of America in Washington, the largest Armenian-American grassroots advocacy organization in the United States. Twitter: @algalitsky

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