A humanitarian crisis in the long-disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is exposing both the weakness of Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, and the failure of the Biden administration to deliver on promises to defend Armenians from the risk of another genocide.
Generally ignored by the rest of the world, Nagorno-Karabakh is a sliver of land in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas. Its people have been tormented for 35 years by on-and-off fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Until recently, both countries claimed sovereignty over the territory, but recently Pashinyan unilaterally gave up Armenia’s claim to the home of some 120,000 ethnic Armenians, a move that is seen as treasonous by most of his constituents.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has grabbed the upper hand in this conflict by imposing a blockade on the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The blockade has choked off supplies of food, medicine, and fuel to Armenians in the region.
Russia is nominally Armenia’s ally and responsible for peacekeeping in Nagorno-Karabakh but has allowed Azerbaijan to carry out this aggression. The Biden administration so far has done nothing for the besieged Armenians.
Ethnic Armenians have lived in Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh in Armenian) for millennia. It was recognized as part of Armenia in 1920 by the League of Nations—the precursor of the United Nations—only to be transferred to Azerbaijan on the orders of Joseph Stalin a year later, in 1921, after the independent Armenian Republic was occupied by the Red Army.
The most recent war ended on November 9, 2020, with Armenia’s defeat. Azerbaijan used Turkish special forces and Syrian jihadist mercenaries to force Pashinyan to sign a ceasefire on highly unfavorable terms.
Armenia’s parliament appointed Pashinyan, a former newspaper editor, as prime minister in June 2018 after he led a protest movement in the streets of Yerevan and promised to crack down on corruption and pursue stronger ties with the West. Instead, he has allowed corruption to fester, cuddled up with Russia’s Putin regime and let Aliyev call the shots in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia’s military has been left to languish without adequate funding, equipment, or leadership.
Washington shares some of the blame. The U.S., France, and Russia were co-chairs of the Minsk Group, part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in trying to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. After Azerbaijan thwarted the process by attacking Nagorno- Karabakh, Russia sent in troops with the ostensible assignment of “peacekeeping.”
Last November, two years after signing the ceasefire, Pashinyan handed control of the Lachin corridor to the Russians. When he followed up by giving up claims to sovereignty in the territory, Russia had a convenient excuse for allowing Aliyev to put up his blockade.
Now the Pashinyan government is blaming the West—rather than Armenia’s duplicitous and treacherous ally, Russia—for not doing enough to save Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Some prominent members of the Armenian diaspora and ethnic Armenian lobbying groups have joined the chorus, turning this situation into a public relations problem for the Biden administration. Having promised, in a statement issued on the Armenian Remembrance Day of April 24, 2021, to prevent a second Armenian genocide, Biden is now being put on the spot.
Pashinyan’s unwillingness to protect Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh should come as no surprise to Washington. In July 2019, barely a year after he came to power, officials at the U.S. embassy in Armenia confided to me that he was uninterested in any serious reform and had no plans to embrace the West.
The State Department’s 2022 Armenia Country Report found that no corruption cases against current and former high-ranking government officials had resulted in convictions. A survey conducted by the International Republican Institute in March found Pashinyan’s popularity rating at home approaching single digits.
Meanwhile, Pashinyan has pursued a cozy relationship with Russia, as displayed by his trip to Moscow to attend the May 9 victory parade, Armenia’s membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, and Armenia’s role as a major conduit for goods bypassing Russia sanctions.
Pashinyan also has managed to exasperate one of Armenia’s major allies, France. In an apparent frustration with Pashinyan’s defeatist approach to Nagorno-Karabakh, President Macron recently responded to a question raised by a French lawmaker by promising to take a tougher stand than that of Pashinyan in defending Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. “I am the only one who has a clear position and message on the issue of Artsakh,” Macron declared.
The only thing working for Armenia and the people of Nagorno-Karabakh is that Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev may be running out of time. He knows he is unlikely to receive much more help from Russia if Putin is toppled because of his botched invasion of Ukraine. As a result, Aliyev has switched from the “caviar diplomacy” of negotiations to “barbwire diplomacy” of effectively creating a concentration camp for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The international community is beginning to take note of this strategy. A high-level UN panel of experts recently urged Azerbaijan to lift the Lachin corridor blockade. A former International Criminal Court prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, issued a report this month describing the blockade as genocide. In a statement delivered before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress on June 21, former U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback said Washington “cannot allow another Armenian Christian genocide or crimes against humanity to unfold in Nagorno-Karabakh. Let us take our stand now like our American forefathers who stood with the persecuted Armenians during their holocaust.”
U.S. State Department officials realize that peace with Aliyev is not possible on honorable and humane terms, though they do not publicly acknowledge that. Forcing Armenia to give away Nagorno-Karabakh and sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan has been Russia’s plan. Russia needs peace in the South Caucasus on its own terms as soon as possible, and certain elements of the U.S. bureaucracy are willing to let that happen. The result would be an even stronger alliance among Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
To avert a catastrophe, the Biden administration should join France in the United Nations Security Council in calling for UN-mandated peacekeepers to be sent to Nagorno-Karabakh immediately. If Russia blocks such a resolution, the U.S. should consider bilateral action, perhaps in collaboration with France and Greece, Armenia’s historic partner.
Washington can also help boost pro-Western political parties in Armenia. The largest of them, the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA, had a high-level visit to Washington in April. The NDA leader received a warm welcome from several congressional offices and through their lobbyist, The Livingston Group, helped organize the Congressional hearing on Nagorno-Karabakh on June 21. The administration can do much more to build stronger ties with the NDA and signal that it will not tolerate police brutality against the party’s members as they are about to embark on a nationwide protest movement against Pashinyan.
To make a meaningful pivot toward the West, Armenia needs genuine pro-Western leadership. Pashinyan has neither the intention nor the capacity to make such a move and to undertake much needed reforms, including in national security and defense. Pashinyan has managed to alienate almost everyone. He has to go.
Dr. David A. Grigorian is a Senior Fellow at Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is a 27-year veteran of the IMF and the World Bank, where he spent much of his career working on the Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asia, and was the editor-in-chief of “Corruption in Armenia” report.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com.