Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The West Must Act to Avert War in Nagorno-Karabakh

Without a strong-handed referee, Azerbaijan has increasingly moved to resolve its issues by force.

By , a journalist and the president of the Applied Policy Research Institute based in Yerevan, Armenia.
People hold protest signs and flags standing behind a barricade at night.
People hold protest signs and flags standing behind a barricade at night.
Azerbaijani protesters gather on the Lachin corridor in Nagorno-Karabakh on Dec. 13. Resul Rehimov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A woman in a crowd of protesters clutched a lifeless dove in her hand, its head flopping back and forth as she waved her arm in the air. The bird had apparently been squeezed to death while she spoke into a megaphone, delivering an impassioned speech honoring Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the 2020 war for Nagorno-Karabakh.

With dark humor, the strangled dove came to embody the broken peace process in the South Caucasus. The bird and its human handler were part of a show of political force by Azerbaijan in the Lachin corridor, the sole road connecting Armenians in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to the outside world. Since Dec. 12, Azerbaijani protesters have blocked the road with crowds of people and tent encampments, halting the normal movement of people and goods in or out of the enclave. The protests began with specific complaints around the mining of natural resources in areas held by ethnic Armenians. They grew into a broader nationalistic grievance, challenging the role of Russian peacekeepers and pressing for greater controls over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The resulting melee has choked off incoming cargo, cutting food, fuel, and medical supplies for 120,000 ethnic Armenians, according to population figures from local leaders. The U.S. State Department called on Azerbaijan to open the road and made a statement at the U.N. Security Council calling for the same. Samantha Power, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s administrator, warned the closure could “cause a significant humanitarian crisis.” Gas supplies to Armenian-populated areas were cut for three days, leaving people without heat in winter weather.

A woman in a crowd of protesters clutched a lifeless dove in her hand, its head flopping back and forth as she waved her arm in the air. The bird had apparently been squeezed to death while she spoke into a megaphone, delivering an impassioned speech honoring Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the 2020 war for Nagorno-Karabakh.

With dark humor, the strangled dove came to embody the broken peace process in the South Caucasus. The bird and its human handler were part of a show of political force by Azerbaijan in the Lachin corridor, the sole road connecting Armenians in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to the outside world. Since Dec. 12, Azerbaijani protesters have blocked the road with crowds of people and tent encampments, halting the normal movement of people and goods in or out of the enclave. The protests began with specific complaints around the mining of natural resources in areas held by ethnic Armenians. They grew into a broader nationalistic grievance, challenging the role of Russian peacekeepers and pressing for greater controls over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The resulting melee has choked off incoming cargo, cutting food, fuel, and medical supplies for 120,000 ethnic Armenians, according to population figures from local leaders. The U.S. State Department called on Azerbaijan to open the road and made a statement at the U.N. Security Council calling for the same. Samantha Power, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s administrator, warned the closure could “cause a significant humanitarian crisis.” Gas supplies to Armenian-populated areas were cut for three days, leaving people without heat in winter weather.

Nagorno-Karabakh is populated by ethnic Armenians who have pursued independence since the 1980s, when Azerbaijan and Armenia were part of the Soviet Union. Since 1991, these Armenians have built a self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, with an elected government and a range of public institutions. Officially, though, Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, whose government has spent 30 years trying to reassert federal control over the region and its residents.

In 2020, the status quo moved in Azerbaijan’s favor. A 44-day war established Azerbaijani control over much of the disputed area. However, part of it remained inhabited and self-governed by the Armenian population. Russian peacekeepers were deployed to assure protection for Armenian-held areas, as well as free passage through the Lachin corridor—the road that Azerbaijani protesters are now blocking.

Since February, the war in Ukraine has left Russia weakened and its capacity diminished. Without a strong-handed referee, Baku has increasingly moved to resolve its issues by force, even while those same issues are on the negotiating table.

Two parallel peace tracks—one facilitated by the European Union, the other hosted by Moscow—have aimed to de-escalate the situation and resolve contentious issues, including the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. But Azerbaijan’s superior military power and natural resource wealth have enabled it to drive the dynamics on the ground. On Sept. 12, it launched a punishing attack on Armenian territory, two weeks after peace talks between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had taken place in Brussels.

“The peace the way Baku envisions it is a peace that is entirely established on its own terms,” said Eldar Mamedov, a Brussels-based foreign-policy analyst. “Aliyev is trying to apply pressure on the Armenian side to re-integrate the Karabakh region into Azerbaijan proper.”

Armenians in Karabakh see full integration into Azerbaijan without security guarantees as a prelude to ethnic cleansing, either through direct violence or severe pressure to leave their homes. Azerbaijan has vowed to treat the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh as equal to its own citizens, which provides little comfort given Baku’s poor human rights record. Moreover, a series of gruesome incidents by Azerbaijani soldiers, including the execution of Armenian prisoners of war, sexual violence against women soldiers, and the mutilation and beheading of Armenian civilians have swelled their fears.

“The fate of the Karabakh Armenians is a core issue for ending the hostility between the two countries. No one has laid out what’s the best way,” said Zaur Shiriyev of the International Crisis Group.

Earlier this year, Armenian cultural heritage in Karabakh was targeted for erasure by a state committee in Baku, echoing the mass destruction of Armenian cultural artifacts in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. All of that has undermined confidence that Armenians have a safe place within Azerbaijani society.

In this toxic climate, the risks of escalation are not just clear, they are explicit pressure tactics. Azerbaijan has threatened a new, large-scale war if its demands over Nagorno-Karabakh are not met. Those demands have escalated since the 2020 war as Azerbaijan’s leverage has climbed; chiefly, they center on the full integration of Karabakh territory with no protected status for Armenians.

Most controversially, Aliyev has threatened that he would take by force a strip of land across central Armenia as an extraterritorial corridor linking Azerbaijan proper to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, as well as to Turkey. The Armenian section would likely be administered by Russia, giving Moscow a permanent foothold across Armenian territory and seeding the potential for chronic security flare-ups along the route. It could also cut off Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, from the southern regions of Armenia, creating economic, administrative, and humanitarian havoc.

The conditions for stability in the South Caucasus have broken down and will continually decline if they are left alone. Responsible powers need to reconfigure the dynamics in a way that ensures peace and prosperity for all, with no country eating its neighbor for lunch. Russia’s vision for the region may be one of ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, simply to justify its peacekeeping presence and give it a more permanent place at the juncture of Armenia, Iran, and Azerbaijan. But apart from that strategic upside for Moscow, constant conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is bad for nearly everyone. It encourages aggressive behavior from the stronger party, results in loss of life on both sides, and erodes Western influence and ability to negotiate a lasting settlement.

This is the time for the West to use its significant stores of unspent capital, through levers of hard and soft power, to bring Armenia and Azerbaijan back to the negotiating table. “There are considerations by Aliyev that would steer away from full-scale war, but it is not a given,” Mamedov said. “What would stop it is if the Western community, the U.S. and the European Union, sends a very clear message that Azerbaijan will pay a diplomatic and economic price.”

“You need to have a mediator that is able to coerce or incentivize a state to take a step forward. There is no other way to do it,” said Kamal Makili-Aliyev (no relation to President Aliyev), an associate professor at the University of Gothenburg who has written a book analyzing the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Without a strong guiding mediator, the outcome will be a “never-ending conflict in the Caucasus.”

The dangerous slide toward conflict is one that the West can skillfully resolve. While the European Union facilitated recent peace talks, it is still the United States that underwrites the weight of the Western position. Washington needs to act like the “supervisor” keeping diplomatic efforts on track, said Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. That means wielding tools that include suspending U.S. military assistance to Baku. The United States provided $164 million in security support to Azerbaijan from 2002 to 2020, without sufficient oversight of key conditions, such as ensuring it was not used by Azerbaijan for offensive purposes against Armenia.

Washington should also consider various economic sanctions on the country until Baku consistently chooses diplomacy over forcefully imposed outcomes. “More of a nuclear option would be Global Magnitsky Sanctions on [Azerbaijani] military commanders, if not on Aliyev himself and his family,” Rubin said. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which U.S. President Joe Biden permanently reauthorized in April, allows the United States to target foreign individuals involved in human rights abuse, freeze their U.S.-based assets, limit access to U.S. visas, and block business transactions.

Switzerland can become a more vocal guardian and guarantor of the Geneva Conventions, which are being violated on the ground. The European Union could impose targeted sanctions, consistent with its commitment to human rights. Pairing accountability with incentives, the European Union and United States can offer improved trade relations if the issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan are resolved. Baku can be a more responsible and productive partner for its allies if it curbs aggressive behaviors.

To get a comprehensive peace agreement in the South Caucasus, responsible powers need to leverage sweeteners and consequences to put states on a peaceful path. Armenia can also be pushed to take measures it has long deferred, including a process of transitional justice that accounts for abuses and violations on both sides over more than 30 years of conflict. It will take a major diplomatic investment, but there is a precedent for success with such an approach, even in long-running interstate conflicts. The investment will pay off in security restored, radical risks avoided, and sustainable value created in the region.

Ultimately, Makili-Aliyev said, “It is going to favor everyone involved.”

Lara Setrakian is a journalist and the president of the Applied Policy Research Institute based in Yerevan, Armenia.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.