WILL U.S. APPOINTMENT OF AN AMBASSADOR TO BAKU REMOVE WAR CLOUDS OVER NAGORNO-KARABAKH?
The appointment on May 24 of Matthew Bryza to be the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan not only offers an opportunity to overcome the recent chill in relations between the U.S. and Azerbaijan. It also offers a chance to reduce the possibility of a renewed war in Nagorno-Karabakh. As demonstrated by the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, so-called frozen conflicts can quickly become hot ones and Nagorno-Karabakh is no exception. There is now an opportunity for the U.S. to add its hitherto missing weight to the resolution of the interlinked issues of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armeno-Turkish normalization.
BACKGROUND: This contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh has been occupied by Armenia for sixteen years. Negotiations have gotten nowhere even though the principles of a peace plan are on the table. When Turkey sought to normalize its ties with Armenia after the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, it omitted to insist on an Armenian withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh, thereby antagonizing Azerbaijan. Since Washington has supported the delinking of these territories from normalization issues, U.S. ties to Baku have suffered. Those relations have worsened further due to attacks on the authoritarian and corrupt nature of the Azerbaijani state (which is hardly unique to the CIS), and due to Washington’s failure to invite President Ilham Aliyev to the nuclear security conference in Washington in April 2010, while it invited the presidents of Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey.
Consequently, relations between Baku and Washington deteriorated. However, equally importantly, Turkey changed its policy and now insists on a linkage between the normalization protocols and Armenia’s withdrawal from the territories it conquered in 1993-94. While this has improved the ties between Baku and Ankara, it also led Armenia to suspend the implementation of the original protocols in April 2010. What makes this situation dangerous is, first, that the appearance of political stalemate and Baku’s sense of being ignored by Washington led observers to claim that the U.S. could “lose Azerbaijan” and second, that Baku might start a war to recover its lost territories.
Undoubtedly there are those in Baku, notably Defense Minister Safar Abiyev, who argue that war is the answer and that the Azerbaijani army is ready to defend the homeland. Naturally such rhetoric generates counter blasts from Armenia, as do reports that Azerbaijan is preparing a military plan of operations against Armenia. Such reports have recently proliferated, leading observers to worry that a war might come soon. Indeed, Hurriyet Daily News reported on May 10 that Turkish intelligence recently thwarted an Azerbaijani military operation immediately before Turkey and Armenia signed the normalization protocols in 2009. No reports have confirmed that story.
IMPLICATIONS: Experts generally believe that if Azerbaijan would attempt a war, even a limited military option, it would be flirting with disaster, given Armenia’s military preparedness. Furthermore, Armenia would likely be able to count on Russian support given the Tashkent Treaty of 1992 and Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Second, only Moscow would benefit from such a war because until now Washington has clearly had little influence on Baku whereas Moscow could quickly bring all of the instruments of power that it possesses to bear on the situation.
As a sign of the tense relationship with the U.S., Azerbaijan cancelled some military drills it was supposed to conduct with the U.S. military. However, it appears that cooler heads have prevailed for now. In April, President Aliyev sent a delegation to Washington to explore ways in which the relationship could be retrieved. It was presumably pointed out that both sides needed to have strong representation in each other’s capitals, leading to Bryza’s nomination on May 24. If Bryza’s name is sent quickly to the Senate for confirmation, he could soon take up his post in Baku and help both sides retreat from a feverish relationship that has come perilously close to war. Now Washington will have the means to discuss with all the parties ways to bring the principles hitherto outlined as being germane to the realization of any peace process.
In fact, Nagorno-Karabakh is an area where Moscow and Washington have recently seen eye to eye and the warming of those bilateral ties could help facilitate progress here as well. Likewise, it is to be hoped that Washington will emulate Ankara and realize that the only way to strengthen overall peace and security in the Caucasus is to link the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue to the future normalization of Turkey’s relations with Armenia, even if this connection is not formally expressed in the relevant documents. The Turco-Azerbaijani rapprochement has not only led to new energy agreements between Ankara and Baku, it has also allowed Turkey to discreetly argue on behalf of Baku in Washington, e.g. pointing out the error in not inviting Aliyev to the nuclear security conference. In other words, the appointment, and hopefully confirmation of Ambassador Bryza’s nomination can play an important role in reversing the drift towards war and sense of political hopelessness that has been discernible in Baku’s approach to its situation. It may now have a strong advocate in Washington, and Washington may have an equally strong advocate in Baku to ensure Azerbaijan’s continued orientation to the West with regard to energy issues and supplying the NATO campaign in Afghanistan.
Of course, Bryza’s appointment does not guarantee a peaceful political resolution of the outstanding issues in Nagorno-Karabakh. But it does point towards a possible sequence of events that would redound to the mutual advantage of Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan while achieving a common Russo-American aim of peace in the South Caucasus. Five years ago, this author observed that the normalization of Turkey’s relations with Armenia, if tied (even informally) to a political settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, could engender a virtuous circle of events. Normalization would allow Turkey to confront more candidly its history with Armenia. It would also open up Armenia’s development and physical connection to Europe, allowing it to become more economically prosperous and integrated with Europe, and it would allow Baku and Yerevan to overcome their long-standing and unresolved antagonism. At the time it was even possible to see these processes as facilitating Turkey’s membership in the EU.
CONCLUSIONS: The opportunities were not seized at that time. However, while it may not be possible to generate the entire chain of events that could lead to Turkey’s membership in the EU at present, there clearly is an opportunity for the U.S. to add its hitherto missing weight to the resolution of the interlinked issues of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armeno-Turkish normalization. In view of the highly disturbed state of affairs in the South Caucasus due to the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh issue, Armeno-Turkish tensions over normalization and the results of Russia’s war with Georgia, progress along these lines is extremely desirable, even urgent. Failure to make political progress while the opportunity for doing so presents itself can lead desperate governments to think that a “limited” military adventure can overcome their problems or at least gain them the domestic support and foreign respect needed to move forward. Such considerations are always highly risky and could rebound back on their progenitors, making difficult situations worse. For these reasons, the appointment of a U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan could and hopefully will lessen the likelihood that war clouds will gather over Nagorno-Karabakh and that war rather than negotiations will be seen as the only way to overcome the present stalemate.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute,