Azerbaijan’s blockade of Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh is now entering its fourth week. Grocery store and pharmacy shelves in the capital Stepanakert now lie bare.
Azerbaijani diplomats initially denied any blockade. Baku’s narrative boils down to the claim that the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijani, therefore Armenian residents must either depart or depend on Azerbaijani largesse. Armenians argue both that they have the right to self-determination in Nagorno-Karabakh, and that Azerbaijan’s eliminationist rhetoric makes any dependence upon Baku’s goodwill suicidal. Navigating this dispute was the basis of the decades-long Minsk Group process that collapsed in the last months of the Trump administration. Regardless of perspective, the fact that Azerbaijan uses starvation as collective punishment to advance its interests is undeniable.
History will not be kind to the Biden administration if it allows the situation to continue.
Certainly, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has agency and bears ultimate responsibility. However, U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken cannot deny accountability.
After all, even after Azerbaijan launched its military attack on Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh, Blinken greenlighted continued military aid to Azerbaijan in defiance of Congress and U.S. law.
Biden states “diplomacy is back” as a mantra, but when he signals there is no consequence for defying him, diplomacy loses any meaning.
Neither Biden nor Blinken appear to care much about diplomacy in the region. In his first briefing of the year, State Department spokesman Ned Price shirked responsibility. “It is not for us to prescribe what a comprehensive solution to this conflict looks like,” he stated. “That is the hard work that the parties themselves will have to do.”
Nor is both-siderism an excuse. In September 2022, Cornell University released a study using satellite imagery that showed “near-total erasure of Armenian heritage sites” in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. In a Senate hearing two months later, Amb. Philip Reeker, the State Department’s senior advisor for Caucasus negotiations, acknowledged under questioning that he had seen numerous videos of Azerbaijani forces summarily executing Armenian prisoners.
Neither Reeker nor Karen Donfried, assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, could explain why, in Senator Bob Menendez’s words, the United States “has done nothing to verify the videos and the evidence of cluster munitions, of white phosphorus, which are illegal.”
Such a performance harkens back to the failure of both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his senior aides’ inability to explain why they did not bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz, even when they knew about the atrocities conducted there. Apologists might say that against the backdrop of World War II, other targets took precedence. In the Caucasus now, however, no such argument could hold, given the power differential between the United States on one hand, and Azerbaijan and Turkey on the other. Blinken has many tools at his disposal. Ending the waiver of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act is only the first among them.
Time to Shine a Light
The moral deficiency of current Biden policy extends to Samantha Power. The USAID administrator based her career on her castigation, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell, of U.S. unwillingness to prevent genocide. She dealt extensively with the legacy of Raphael Lemkin – a Polish lawyer who coined the term genocide, and the founding father of the Genocide Convention – and fully embraced his work. She details at length how among Lemkin’s greatest influences was the early 20th century Armenian Genocide. To sit aside, remain silent, and refuse to assist the Armenian population when it faces starvation, will permanently stain her legacy and stunt her ambition to one day herself become secretary of State.
U.S. officials may sidestep responsibility by arguing that Nagorno-Karabakh is far away and that Washington has no ability to help. This is false. Not only does the United States have financial leverage over Azerbaijan, but the United States could also provide immediate relief by providing meals and other supplies from the Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey.
Think tank warriors on Pennsylvania Avenue may deny that any blockade exists, but why should the State Department not send diplomats to Lachin to observe for themselves? Genocide thrives in the dark. It does not proceed so smoothly when a light is shined upon it. Biden and Blinken must stop extinguishing the like.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).