Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Washington Misses the Point on Nagorno-Karabakh

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By Stephen Blank (06/18/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Presumably to fend off mounting criticism of U.S. policy, Ambassador James Warlick, the U.S. Representative to the Minsk Process on Nagorno-Karabakh, recently gave a series of speeches and interviews outlining U.S. policy on the Nagorno- Karabakh conflict. Warlick outlined U.S. support for the six principles that he said had already been agreed upon by all parties, and concluded that the main obstacle to resolving the conflict lay in the failure until now of the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments to make the hard decision for peace over domestic opposition. Warlick’s remarks reflect the Obama Administration’s failure to grasp what is at stake in the Caucasus or to take conflict resolution there sufficiently seriously.

BACKGROUND: Warlick’s six points are as follows: First, in light of Nagorno-Karabakh’s complex history, the sides should commit to determining its final legal status through a mutually agreed and legally binding expression of will in the future.  This is not optional. Interim status will be temporary.

Second, the area within the boundaries of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region that is not controlled by Baku should be granted an interim status that, at a minimum, provides guarantees for security and self-governance.

Third, the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh should be returned to Azerbaijani control. There can be no settlement without respect for Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, and the recognition that its sovereignty over these territories must be restored. 

Fourth, there should be a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. It must be wide enough to provide secure passage, but it cannot encompass the whole of Lachin district.

Fifth, an enduring settlement will have to recognize the right of all IDPs and refugees to return to their former places of residence.

Sixth and finally, a settlement must include international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation. There is no scenario in which peace can be assured without a well-designed peacekeeping operation that enjoys the confidence of all sides.

While these points are all essential to a settlement they do not resolve the fundamental issues of the conflict. Moreover, they have been agreed to for years so there is nothing new here.

At the same time, the Minsk process has long since proven itself to be a failure while Moscow has exploited and incited tensions here to its own ends. Those needs include permanent military bases in Armenia replete with large-scale deployments there and throughout the Caucasus, substantial arms sales to both sides, and the coercion of Armenia into dropping its attempts to orient itself to Europe and the EU in return for what amounts to a forced membership in the far inferior and more exploitative Customs Union.

Indeed, Moscow’s efforts to militarize the entire area may be seen in the recent arms sales it is making to Azerbaijan. Moscow is selling Baku 100 top of the line T-90 tanks, BAL-E coastal anti-ship missile systems, and 18 TOS-1A Sointsepyok multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). While the anti-ship missiles pose no threat to Armenia, the other systems certainly do. The news of these sales have forced Armenian observers and should force our own policymakers to ask exactly how Russia can pose as an impartial mediator while it conducts such policies.

And these are only the overt policies. Between 2010 and 2013, 38 Il-76 transports loaded with weapons from top to bottom flew covertly from Podgorica in Montenegro to Stepanakert, showing that Russia is covertly arming Nagorno-Karabakh. If one adds what we know of Russian policy and thinking from Ukraine to this mix, on what basis can we say that Russia and Washington see eye-to eye, as Warlick claimed?

IMPLICATIONS: Clearly, U.S. policy still refuses to grasp that resolving this conflict is very much in its interests as is a vigorous diplomatic initiative to regain a U.S. and Western position in the Caucasus lest another conflict breaks out and imperil vital European energy routes as well as regional security. The fact that both the Georgian and now Ukrainian wars – and Moscow’s acts in Ukraine are undoubtedly acts of war – have both had profound international repercussions should galvanize members of the Administration to awake from their dogmatic slumbers that the CIS is Russia’s backyard and that Washington should refrain from acting boldly there and actually attempt to resolve conflicts before they explode. Unfortunately, the evidence of U.S. policy as shown by Warlick’s speech shows that an understanding of what is at stake in the Caucasus if not Central Asia still eludes the Administration.

Neither is this confined to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Simultaneously with Warlick’s speech, the U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Richard Morningstar, gave a public statement warning the Azerbaijani government that its increasingly repressive measures against dissidents could lead to a Maidan in Baku, clearly infuriating the Azerbaijani government. While Morningstar is undoubtedly right that Azerbaijan has become much more repressive and is running serious risks, this kind of public lecturing in the absence of any U.S. willingness to engage with Baku on its most pressing security issues ensures in advance that all of its protests will go for nothing. 

Thus, we have a situation where the U.S. sees no need to explore initiatives for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, refuses to see, understand, and react to Russian threats to peace, and insists in the face of all experience and evidence that our main concern in Baku is human rights to the exclusion of anything else. Is it any surprise that Azerbaijani-U.S. relations are essentially a dialogue of the deaf?

There is a way out of this impasse but it calls for a fundamental change of outlook and policy. While it is indeed critical to the U.S. that Azerbaijan be internally secure; it is critical to Baku and indeed to Yerevan and Washington that this conflict be resolved. It has already taken the government in Yerevan hostage and is constantly in danger of getting hotter to the point of becoming another major international crisis. To improve its own position and the chances for genuine peace and security here, Washington must renounce its policy of moralistic disengagement and come to grip with realities.

If Washington wants both Baku and Yerevan (who are equally culpable) to improve their human rights records it must engage seriously with them on Nagorno-Karabakh to the point of proposing a wholly new format that breaks the self-imposed stalemate and helps both sides confront their domestic obstacles to peace. Moscow cannot be allowed to monopolize the discussion and ratchet up tensions while subordinating Armenia and ultimately Azerbaijan – as it clearly wants do – to Russian interests. 

CONCLUSIONS: Only by engaging these states seriously on the security issue of the greatest importance to them can the U.S. have any serious hope of improving conditions for human rights in either or both Caucasian states. Failure to grasp this elementary truth will lead to a situation whereby human rights in both countries will deteriorate and could well lead to domestic explosions in either Armenia or Azerbaijan. But beyond that, failure to engage only makes certain that Moscow will be the only alternative to these two states and that this conflict will continue until it is resolved either by Moscow’s dictates or by war. Are these outcomes really in America’s or these countries’ interest?

AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council. 

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