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Is the Biden Administration Fueling A New Caucasus Crisis?

Biden Nagorno-Karabakh

President Joe Biden won plaudits for formally recognizing the Armenian genocide last month despite furious Turkish lobbying to block the move. Just days after the move, however, Secretary of State Antony Blinken essentially undercut the administration’s moral clarity when it waived Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, a law meant to dis-incentivize Azerbaijani aggression and ethnic cleansing.  Whereas in the past, the White House and State Department could argue that Azerbaijan had met the terms of the waiver by committing to Minsk Group diplomacy and acting as a counter-terrorism ally, the facts belied such a finding this year.

The oil-rich dictatorship’s surprise attack on Nagorno-Karabakh and its embrace of Syrian mercenaries who were veterans both of Al Qaeda-affiliated group and the Islamic State violated its commitments. Simply put, Blinken’s Section 907 waiver was a violation of U.S. law that it will be up to Congressional oversight to remedy if both Congress and U.S. policy in the region are to retain credibility.

The ramifications of Blinken’s cynicism, however, are now playing out in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan justified its invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh in the fact former Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had assigned the mountainous region to Azerbaijan as he sought to jumble boundaries in the 1920s and the United Nations had chosen to ignore the region’s subsequent plebiscites. Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev made clear after the ceasefire that his goals were territorial conquest of Armenia proper.

After Blinken signaled that Azerbaijan would face no consequence for its aggression and indeed would receive a financial reward, Aliyev concluded he could push forward with his plans. On May 12, 2021, Azerbaijani forces entered more than two miles into Armenia proper. Subsequent efforts to negotiate their withdrawal failed.

Two days ago, the situation escalated significantly, when Azerbaijani forces opened fire on Armenian troops on the Armenian side of the border, killing one. Last night, Azerbaijani forces crossed the border again and captured six Armenian soldiers. Azeris then circulated photos on Telegram of the Armenians bound and face down in the mud.

There is a tendency within the State Department to embrace equivalence between aggressors and victims. Blinken’s team evidently saw Armenian genocide recognition not as righting a historic wrong and embracing moral clarity, but rather as a concession to Armenia that it needed to match with one to Azerbaijan. Rather than jumpstart Minsk Group diplomacy to resolve disputes, encourage co-existence, enable cultural preservation, and end Azerbaijan and Turkey’s blockade of Armenia, Blinken signaled to Aliyev that he could literally get away with murder.

In effect, Blinken today is repeating the mistake that April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, made by appearing to greenlight Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Iraq and James Jeffrey, a Trump administration special envoy and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, made when he greenlighted the Turkish invasion and ethnic cleansing of Kurdish-populated districts in Syria.

Until and unless the State Department upholds the content of U.S. law on Section 907, blocks aide, and holds Aliyev responsible for his embrace of terrorist mercenaries, Blinken can expect Azerbaijani aggression to continue.

Blinken may see himself as a peacemaker, but his neglect and moral equivalence are, at least in the South Caucasus, having the opposite effect.

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. He also regularly teaches classes at sea about Middle East conflicts, culture, terrorism, and the Horn of Africa to deployed US Navy and Marine units.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Murat

    May 27, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    America made two big mistakes in its foreign policy over the past 80 years. First, the U.S lost Iran that was the biggest arms market and the closest ally in the Middle East. That was on Carter. second, Obama did it on failed coup in 2016, with the encouragement of you and people like you. Biden has a slim to none chance to win back Turkey relations as it used to be.
    for the security of Israel, we need a Turkey that we can trust not a new Iran.

  2. Slack

    May 28, 2021 at 3:14 am

    NO SURPRISE here, really. US likes to play the double game (all around the globe). As always, Uncle Sam’s right hand doesn’t want to know what the left hand is doing and vice-versa.

  3. Mario DeLosa

    May 28, 2021 at 12:50 pm

    While I disapprove of the machinations of the Biden administration, the fact is that Turkey has hardly been a trustworthy partner for at least a decade. What piques my curiosity is what Russia may be doing. Firstly, Russia has never been friendly with Turkey; bear in mind that in WWI Moscow had its sights set on Constantinople. Secondly, Russia has typically sided with Armenia for religious reasons. We shall see what ultimately develops. Will Russia keep on playing up to Turkey in an effort to pry it away from NATO or will it come down on the side of Armenia in an effort to counter Turkish ambitions in the region.

  4. Artem

    May 29, 2021 at 5:44 am

    I can see here that people here in comments mix Russian Empire and modern Russia – these are indeed two different countries. Modern Russia tried to get good relations with both sides from the 1991. Soviet Russia had good relations with Turkey Republic, and even more important, Putin had good relations with Erdogan. They made a number of important deals like the one on Nuclear Power station and S-400 sale.

  5. Zara

    May 30, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    Thank you, Mr.Rubin for this great piece, for your commitment to tell the truth on this immoral, double standard political policy makers.

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