By Alexander Miguel
In the aftermath of recent border skirmishes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the United States Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, visited Yerevan from September 17-19. The September clashes on Armenian soil represent some of the most bloody outbursts of violence after the brief 2020 war, which saw the partial Azerbaijani recapture of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, occupied by Armenian separatists since 1994.
Unlike the 2020 war, where fighting occurred within Nagorno-Karabakh (internationally recognized by most of the world as part of Azerbaijan), these clashes spilled blood on uncontested Armenian territory. Pelosi blamed Azerbaijan for the recent skirmishes: “Our delegation had been very outspoken, saying that this was initiated by Azeris and that there has to be recognition of that and how that will stop.”
Armenia is a small landlocked nation with few natural resources. Its neighbor, Azerbaijan, meanwhile has a population three times bigger, with access to valuable Caspian Sea hydrocarbon resources. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has aligned itself with Turkey based on shared pan-Turkic ideals, which also positions it in opposition to Iran, a country which seeks to undermine Azerbaijan to prevent nationalistic aspirations from its own very large Azeri population.
Meanwhile, Armenia is a formal military ally of Russia through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a rival to Turkey, a key North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally. Why has the United States pushed for a hawkish Caucasus policy, a region with few tangible interests, while Russia, a country with drastically more interests in the region, has done almost nothing?
The United States hosts one of the largest Armenian diasporas in the world, with an Armenian population between 1.2 and 1.6 million. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani diaspora in the United States is about half the size, at around 700 thousand. Besides many angry and frustrated tweets directed at the speaker of the house from the U.S.-Azerbaijani Network, this diaspora seems to lack the political influence in the United States to affect policy in the same way which Armenian-Americans can.
Armenian-Americans view Azerbaijan as a modern proxy for the Ottoman Empire’s responsibility in the Armenian Genocide, which killed over one-and-a-half million Armenians. When Azerbaijani news outlets put the Armenian Genocide in quotation marks preceded by the words “so-called,” they render few favors to themselves in restoring credibility with Armenian-Americans. Nor does it restore credibility with the United States, which has recognized the World War I-era atrocities as genocide since 2019 when the U.S. Congress passed House Resolution 296 and reaffirmed in 2021 by President Biden. For her part, Pelosi laid a flower on an Armenian Genocide memorial during her visit.
The CSTO (Russia’s counterweight to NATO) has largely stood aside during the conflict. It chose not to intervene in both the 2020 war and the September 2022 conflict. According to Article 4 of the CSTO Treaty (analogous to Article 5 for NATO), Russia is legally required to intervene militarily if an aggressor nation threatens an ally. Moscow, however, held off from intervening, citing that Armenia has been too intransigent on keeping Nagorno-Karabakh and that the security guarantees of Article 4 do not apply in this case. Moscow eventually did send 1,960 soldiers as part of a peacekeeping mission following a truce mediated after the fighting. However, this response was coordinated with Turkey and Azerbaijan and did not protect Artsakh’s claim to the territory.
Generally, Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized by the international community as the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan, even though Armenian separatists established the independent Republic of Artsakh and have occupied it for the last three decades. UN Security Council Resolution 874 in October 1993 unanimously recognized the region as belonging to Azerbaijan, including Russia. When Azerbaijan retook large sections of the breakaway republic, it was Azerbaijani soldiers fighting on Azerbaijani land. Under a strict reading of Article 4, Azerbaijan could not be an aggressor to oppose since it did not conduct attacks on sovereign Armenian territory as recognized by Moscow.
This, however, was not the case in September 2022. The September clashes occurred along the Armenian border held by Armenia proper. Each side blames its respective counterpart for the clashes, yet, importantly, the clashes did spill blood on Armenian soil. If Russia could ascertain Azerbaijani aggression, then Article 4 applies, and Russia would send direct military aid to defend Armenia. CSTO sent a delegation to Azerbaijan to assess the situation, although Moscow does not seem to have the evidence it needs to send more troops or punish Azerbaijan.
The recent call for partial mobilization and the organization of its conquest of four new oblasts in southeastern Ukraine reveal where Moscow’s priorities lie going into October 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want to deal with another war in the Caucasus until Russia has made clear progress in Ukraine. The protests in Dagestan provide a bad omen for any ambitious Russian military projects outside its borders: even if it were legally required to do so. The weak response from CSTO is a delaying tactic to refreeze the conflict until the Russians have a greater degree of stability to devote fuller attention.
Besides the United States and Russia, France has also mediated. Along with the United States and Russia, France holds one of three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, a task force established to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. These three countries have the largest Armenian diasporas in the world. Accordingly, Azerbaijan suspects the whole organization of Armenian favoritism, which has convinced France to lay off pressure from the largely toothless organization.
While less explicitly pro-Armenian than its American ally, France has joined in calls for Azerbaijan to respect Armenia’s territorial integrity. Still, the French have applied a more delicate hand. The statement refuses to acknowledge the complicity of Azerbaijan in order not to provoke Baku.
As winter approaches, France is exercising more caution regarding its relationship with Azerbaijan. With the move away from Russian gas, France and its European allies need to look elsewhere for cheap alternative sources of natural gas: one of which is Azerbaijan. Still, France holds a key position in mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which the United States is incapable of effectively doing. In a public opinion poll, when asked which countries had a “good” or “very good” relationship with Armenia, 92 percent of Armenians rated France accordingly (Azerbaijan was the lowest, at 3 percent).
The French are one of the few foreign actors able to coax the Armenians to the negotiating table for a truce with Azerbaijan. However, France and its European allies may face a crisis during the coming winter without the safe passage of Azerbaijani gas through the Caucasus to alleviate continent-wide energy price spikes.
A Macron-led France wants to assert itself as a more independent actor on the global stage, while Pelosi and other American politicians need to score political points at home. Russia provides only token support to Armenia, reducing its footprint in the southern Caucasus to its lowest point in two centuries. The French and Americans have succeeded in gaining soft-power influence in Armenia proper, though it still remains unclear what kind of assurances these countries provide for the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh or Armenians and Azerbaijanis on the border whose lives are burdened and threatened by a frozen conflict which no foreign power can resolve.
Alexander Miguel is an undergraduate student at Florida State University studying International Affairs and Religious Studies. He is specifically interested in the intersection between religion and geopolitics, with a primary interest in research into the Eastern Catholic Churches.