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peace within reach: the u.s. provides a platform for peace between armenia and azerbaijan

Peace Within Reach: The U.S. Provides a Platform for Peace Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Author: Haley Nelson

May 10, 2023

Image source: U.S. Secretary of State Antony J Blinken Twitter

For the last two years, Armenia and Azerbaijan have narrowly avoided conflict in the Caucasus. There have been brief military confrontations between the two countries, but their postures have remained distant. However, as Russia's role as a regional mediator has been interrupted by its violent war against Ukraine, a gap has been left for the United States to bring the two countries together in the interest of “the people of Azerbaijan and Armenia.” The "tangible progress” made during U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s peace talks on May 1-4 have been underpinned by the United States continued efforts to advocate for the desires of both sides. Blinken's mediation efforts sought to facilitate a long-term deal in light of Washington's growing interest in the region, a deal that could bring much-needed stability to the region.

After months of stalled negotiations, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s peace talks with the Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers on May 1-4 in Washington, DC, alleviated some of the tensions between the neighboring countries. The four-day peace talks between Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and his Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan, did not end with a signed agreement, but that is not to say a peace deal is not on the horizon. "The two sides have discussed some very tough issues over the last few days, and they’ve made tangible progress on a durable peace agreement," Blinken stated at the negotiation’s closing session. With a peace deal “within sight,” some relief has been provided to the detrimental war that has plagued regional security for decades. 

These talks were the longest round of peace negotiations since the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement of 2020. Despite high hopes, in the last two years the European Union couldn’t deliver a peaceful resolution to this three-decade-long territorial conflict. In part, this was a failure of the EU. Political controversies blurred the end-goal and distracted leaders. And the sporadic meetings between European Union officials and regional officials could not provide the level of cooperation needed to meet each country’s list of demands. But the failure is also a consequence of the rapidly changing global landscape. 

Once Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, the EU struggled to balance its security interests and it became even less attentive to the crisis in Karabakh. Although many expected the war in Ukraine to encourage peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the EU couldn’t cooperatively craft a new strategy, and its diplomatic shortcomings delayed negotiations. It finally became evident that an alternative mediator was necessary after the EU ceased to bring Azerbaijan's President Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan to the negotiation table in March 2023. But, thankfully, the United States realized the political blunder and quickly stepped in.

Not only did the United States take up the challenge of inviting Azerbaijani and Armenian officials into the same room, Blinken was also able to make meaningful progress. As Blinken declared “there is an agreement within sight,” this meeting not only signaled that the two states are approaching a peaceful resolution, but also that the United States’ role as a mediator in the peace process between Baku and Yerevan is significant, even if quietly behind the scenes. However, without a concrete resolution, the two sides are still without a final agreement.

The May1-4 meetings in DC took place amid mounting tensions in the Caucasus, and months of stalled communications over Azerbaijan’s Lachin Corridor checkpoints. These checkpoints, installed on April 23, along the Lachin corridor’s only route connecting Armenia to Karabakh, have caused a lot of concerns amongst international actors. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry stated that the checkpoints were necessary to fulfill agreements signed in the 2020 ceasefire agreement, and that these checkpoints were implemented “in interaction with the Russian peace keeping force.” However, Armenia responded to this move, claiming movement along the corridor was entirely choked off by Azerbaijan’s State Border Service, causing great concerns over humanitarian violations. The U.S. State Department has expressed “deep concern” over the Lachin Corridor checkpoint, and the recent peace talks hoped to provide some solution to the ongoing issue.  

A U.S. State Department Official commented "About Lachin, we have been very clear throughout the last few months about the importance of ensuring the free movement of commercial and humanitarian traffic and people through the Lachin corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. We continue to engage in those discussions."

On the other hand, Azerbaijan has noted that the checkpoint was established in consultation with Armenia and that Yerevan has now established a corresponding checkpoint as is common on all international borders.

Diplomatic challenges between Armenia and Azerbaijan have become routine in the Caucasus since the 2020 war, but prior to the meeting with Blinken, tensions seemed to be approaching a breaking point. Days before the May 1-4 ministerial talks with Blinken, Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan notably announced that Armenia fully recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, but Azerbaijan must do the same for Armenia. And on May 3, the day prior to the conclusion of the peace talks, Pashinyan stated to the Armenian Parliament that Armenia does not have territorial aspirations, although some thought he was indirectly declaring rights over the disputed territory. “The government of the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Armenia must declare that they not only do not have territorial aspirations, but also will not have them. And this is the only principle that will give us the opportunity to have a state,” Pashinyan stated. These double-edged comments signaled to Washington that Armenia is prepared to discuss peace, but only if its interests are seriously considered and protected. 

On Azerbaijan’s side, on May 3, President Ilham Aliyev stated that conflict between the countries is not “good for Armenia or the region and … for Azerbaijan.” If a peace agreement is not reached, he added, Armenia “will have to find a place for them in this new geopolitical configuration. Because all geopolitical situations, not only in the region but globally, have changed.” Azerbaijan, without the same geographical and economic constraints Armenia faces, has benefitted from Europe’s search for alternative trade partners. But, with Azerbaijan’s expanding link to the West, it’s become more important than ever for Armenia to enhance U.S. engagement in order to reduce its long-standing dependence on Russia. “We have our place there, which is very stable, and which is becoming more and more solid. But for them, it will be a big challenge. So, I hope Washington negotiations will produce - if not results, at least signs of progress.” President Ilham Aliyev stated. 

These statements mark an important adaptation in Azerbaijan-Armenian relations. With Azerbaijan’s growing economy, Russia’s weakening mediation role, and the West’s emerging interest in the region, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been granted a rare opportunity to jointly establish firm relations with Washington. Traditionally, the United States’ relations in the region have been undermined by the Kremlin’s disruptive, conflict-prolonging efforts. But now, with shifting international relations, regional peace has become imperative for U.S. security, trade, and economic interests.

Efgan Nifti, Chief Executive Officer of the Caspian Policy Center, added that “peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan may lead to stronger U.S. engagement with the region that has become increasingly important for energy, security, trade, and transit, especially due to geopolitical developments such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China's expanding influence, and threats from other regional actors, including Iran's malign activities.” With these growing security concerns, a peace deal could guarantee relief, and it could avert some of the Kremlin’s hawkish security strategies. But, more so, a deal to de-escalate the tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan could allow the United States and its allies to begin focusing on larger issues in the region, like climate change, economic diversification, and great-power competition.

But “reaching an Azerbaijan-Armenia peace agreement will not be easy, and given outstanding issues between the two it may take a long time, despite all the U.S./EU high-level diplomatic efforts. Given current and emerging strategic imperatives it would not be prudent for the United States to condition its regional engagement to one single determinant that may or may not bear fruit. That would make potential spoilers all the more motivated to hinder both the peace process and potential U.S. engagement in the region,” Efgan Nifti added.

Although Blinken showed an optimistic outlook on the conflict, divergent views from Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership must be bridged for any document on peace to be signed. Leading officials from both countries are seemingly eager to end the conflict, and the growing presence of the United States in these discussions will serve the bilateral interests of both states. 

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