A Realist Argument: Stopping Karabakh War Is in US Interests, and Here’s What the US Can Do

The war over Nagorno-Karabakh has reached a tipping point. Azerbaijan claims to have taken the strategic city of Sushi; if it also severs the land link between my homeland and Armenia proper, the prospects will be grim for Karabakh’s Armenians, who have populated these mountainous lands for millennia. In the best-case but less likely scenario, Karabakh’s trapped population would be deported in the biggest ethnic cleansing of the 21st century in Europe; in the worst-case and more likely scenario, they will be subjected to genocide.  

There is still time, however, to prevent these tragic scenarios from materializing. Doing so in cooperation with the other two co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group (Russia and France), both of which should be interested in discontinuing the hostilities, would advance some of America’s key national interests, as defined by the Commission on U.S. National Interests led by some of America’s most prominent realist thinkers.

First, a successful U.S.-Russian-French (EU) initiative to stop the war would help move U.S. relations with Russia toward normalization and make Russia somewhat less inclined to team up with China against the U.S. on a variety of issues. This would help to advance the vital U.S. interest in “establish[ing] productive relations … with nations that could become strategic adversaries, China and Russia,” in my view.

Second, such a trilateral initiative’s success in returning the warring sides to negotiations on a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict would advance the very important U.S. interests described thus: “prevent genocide”; “promote the acceptance of international rules of law and mechanisms for resolving or managing disputes peacefully”; and “prevent, manage and, if possible at reasonable cost, end major conflicts in important geographic regions.”

Third, if the U.S. government fails to act to stop the war, it would not only miss opportunities to advance these interests but would undermine another very important U.S. interest: “suppress terrorism (especially state-sponsored terrorism).” According to accounts in Western media, Turkey has sent thousands of Syrian militants to fight on Baku’s side. These include members of jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State (IS), Ahrar al-Sham, which has worked with IS, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which has been affiliated with al-Qaeda. Tolerating the fact that these numerous jihadists are gaining or enhancing their combat experience, while also earning a thousand dollars or more per month, amounts to the direct opposite of “suppressing terrorism.” Moreover, if the U.S. were to further tolerate Turkey’s unprecedented military support for Azerbaijan in this war and this support leads to Azerbaijan’s victory, then that would make leaders in Ankara conclude that yet again (after Syria and Libya) their military adventurism—uncoordinated with NATO—pays off. Such a development, which would run counter to the Trump administration’s repeated wishes for the Karabakh war to be stopped immediately, would undermine the U.S. vital interest of “ensur[ing] U.S. allies’ active cooperation with the U.S. in shaping an international system in which we can thrive.” U.S. is also obviously interested in stability in Afghanistan if only to prevent revival of terrorist bases there and Armenia is helping to defend that interest by keeping a brigade in the US-led NATO force in that country.

Venturing beyond the realm of realists’ cost-benefit analysis of America’s foreign policy, one could conclude that a successful U.S. initiative to stop the aggression against Karabakh Armenians would not only advance and/or defend the aforementioned U.S. interests but would be commensurate with some of America’s core values. Such an initiative would demonstrate America’s commitment to standing up not only for life and liberty but for other unalienable rights that are enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which Karabakh Armenians established on their ancestral lands as the Soviet Union fell apart, may remain unrecognized. But that has not stopped its inhabitants from embracing democracy and freedom. In contrast to Azerbaijan, ruled by the Aliyev clan for more than a quarter century, Karabakh Armenians are not ruled by a dynasty of any kind. Rather, they exercise their electoral rights to choose their leaders in regular democratic elections, prompting the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group to state that they “recognize the role of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh in deciding its future.” I am confident that a U.S. effort to help protect these rights would be appreciated not only by Armenians in both Nagorno-Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia but by hundreds of thousands of Armenian-American voters in the U.S.

There’s a variety of measures the U.S. can and should take in the longer term to encourage the negotiation of a lasting peace, but a number of urgent steps should be taken to compel the aggressors to conclude that the costs of continuing war will exceed the benefits for them.

First, the U.S., acting jointly with the EU, can issue credible threats that if Azerbaijan does not agree to a verifiable ceasefire and observe it, then the U.S. and EU will impose personal sanctions on government leaders and their families, freezing their assets in the West, cancelling their visas and permits and denying visas in the future. (Members of Azerbaijan’s ruling elite are especially fond of parking their wealth in the West and sending their children to study at Western universities.) If this doesn’t impress leaders in Baku, then the U.S. and its allies can initiate proceedings to subject Azerbaijan’s exports to prohibitive U.S. and EU tariffs (including exports of oil to Europe), freeze Azerbaijan’s assets in Western banks and exclude Azerbaijan from SWIFT.

Some combination of the aforementioned measures, which Russia can complement with its own punitive measures, can also be threatened with regard to Turkey if it continues its unprecedented direct military support for Azerbaijan.

“He who has lost his Homeland, has lost everything,” says an old Caucasian proverb. There is a real chance that Karabakh Armenians will lose not only their homes but their lives en masse. Thus, more than two millennia of continuous inhabitation of Karabakh by Armenians will be violently ended. As demonstrated above, preventing such a horrendous outcome is in U.S. interests and the U.S. should act on these interests now before it is too late.

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