A US pressure campaign is mounting against Azerbaijan, as it increasingly plays a large geopolitical role in the Caucasus and beyond. While Washington operates under the cover of helping out its new good friend Armenia, the assistant secretary of state recently made clear that the US machinations are really directed at two countries on Azerbaijan’s borders: Russia and Iran.
In November, the US Senate voted unanimously to halt all aid to Azerbaijan for the next two years. The provision must still pass the House, but the State Department has already signaled that it will pause the delivery of military support regardless.
Despite a 1992 law that prohibits assistance, other than specified support for nonproliferation and disarmament, to Baku. AFter 9/11, Azerbaijan allowed the US to use its territory to send troops to Afghanistan, and the US Congress carved out a waiver process for the State Department to send military assistance as long as it wasn’t being used against Armenia, and the US has sent aid every year since. For the past nine years, the State Department apparently hasn’t even bothered with ensuring the military hardware wasn’t used against Armenia. According to the Government Accountability Office the requirements for exemption haven’t been met and aid continues to flow regardless. The GAO report reads: “the agencies did not document how they determined that their programs would not be used for offensive purposes against Armenia.”
Regardless, Azerbaijan was unhappy with this decision to suspend military aid. At the same time, a group of 60 Senators and Representatives are calling for increased military aid for Armenia.
France is already upping its military support for Armenia, sending 50 Arquus Bastion armored personnel carriers, Thales-made GM 200 radars, and Mistral 3 air defense systems. There are also discussions to send CAESAR self-propelled howitzers.
Elsewhere, Azerbaijan is convinced that hybrid war tactics are underway in order to destabilize the country.
The US Embassy in Baku canceled a November 27 meeting of graduates from American universities after widespread reports from Azerbaijani sources suggesting that “the embassy intended to organize a meeting with its ‘spy network’ of Azerbaijanis allegedly “recruited as American agents during the period of study in the United States.”
Whether the individuals in question were spies or not, it shows that the government in Baku is on edge from the increasing pressure campaign coming from Washington. Baku has accused Samatha Power’s USAID of attempting to organize unrest against the government:
During 30 years long occupation of Azerbaijan’s land by Armenia when million more Azerbaijanis were subject of notorious and bloody ethnic cleansing the United States stood with aggressoor state of Armenia. Nowadays, the same policy continues in the same form and manifestation.… pic.twitter.com/sRrnmT8F3h
— Hikmet Hajiyev (@HikmetHajiyev) November 21, 2023
Azerbaijan announced shortly after the canceled US embassy gathering that it had summoned the envoys of the US, Germany and France for supporting the “illegal financing operations” of a local media outlet.
As is routine in these types of pressure campaigns and regime change efforts, the US launches hybrid war efforts and the target government responds with heavy-handed security measures. Western media then howls about violations of human rights and the pressure is amplified.
On Dec. 2, the The Washington Post editorial board ran a piece, “They reported the truth about corruption in Azerbaijan. Now they’re in prison.” It contains the usual allegations against a country that isn’t behaving as the US would like: an authoritarian regime cracks down on the press. One must assume that the “regime” just became “authoritarian” in recent weeks since the US had been sending military support for the past 21 years.
Why is the WaPo editorial board suddenly so concerned about the freedom of the press in Azerbaijan? Here’s the view from Baku:
Obviously, this article is another attempt to threaten and put pressure on the Azerbaijani authorities at the time of the arrival of the new US ambassador, as if to warn the Azerbaijani authorities that they had better come to an understanding with the new ambassador.
That new ambassador is Mark Libby who previously worked in Baghdad and as deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires at the US Mission to the EU among other posts. He left a faculty advisor position at the National War College in DC to take the position. What “understanding” is Libby being dispatched to reach?
On the surface, the US is trying to peel Armenia away from Russia’s orbit. This would mean that Washington needs to replace Moscow as the security guarantor for Armenia. In this case, an understanding would involve Azerbaijan standing down in its ongoing confrontation with its neighbor to the West.
But truthfully, the neocons in Washington are willing to gamble the security of Armenia as long as it furthers their goals in the region. As it stands now, Armenia is dangerously isolated after intentionally torpedoing its ties with Russia. The larger reason the US is upping the pressure on Azerbaijan has to do with Russia, Iran, and regional integration outside of western control.
Looking at a map shows how important Azerbaijan’s location is for major existing and planned trade routes through the region that have become crucial to Moscow since the start of the West’s efforts to isolate Russia. The same can be said about Tehran and efforts to isolate Iran. Just to emphasize how important Azerbaijan is in Eurasian trade, from Silk Road Briefing:
Iran’s Roads and Urban Development Minister Mehrdad Bazrpash met with Azerbaijan’s Deputy Prime Minster Shahin Mustafayev on Friday (October 6) to discuss bilateral coordination and the development of transport routes, water and energy programmes. The meetings are significant as it means that the controversial Azerbaijan annexation of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region from Armenia is effectively over, and that redevelopment of the region will now take place. Doing so opens up an eastern trade corridor that will stretch from Russia to Iran.
The [International North-South Transport Corridor] route links north-south between Russia and Iran, and east-west between China and Europe. Azerbaijan is the focal point where the two intersect.
The Iranian connection facilitates trade south across Iran to the Persian Gulf and further distribution to the Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia, including India’s west coast ports.
On the energy front, due to Russian companies’ large investments in the Azerbaijani oil and gas sector, it is one of the bigger beneficiaries of Brussels’ efforts to increase energy imports from Azerbaijan in order to replace Russian supplies. Azerbaijan is also importing more Russian gas itself in order to meet its obligations to Europe.
US Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien’s Nov. 15 comments during “The Future of Nagorno-Karabakh” House committee hearing are more instructive on US intentions in the region. Here’s what O’Brien said:
“A future that is built around the access of Russia and Iran as the main participants in the security of the region, the South Caucasus, is unstable and undesirable, including for both the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia. They have the opportunity to make a different decision now.”
O’Brien further explained Washington’s preference for a land corridor between Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave to run through Armenia. So here we get to the point of the US efforts.
Washington hopes to use Azerbaijan and Armenia and transportation routes passing through the countries to complicate Russian and Iranian plans to further develop trade corridors outside of the West’s control. Essentially, Armenia as a US proxy could effectively clog East-West and North-South traffic at the increasingly important Caucasus crossroads.
The problem for the US, however, is that by planting its flag in Armenia it has effectively isolated the country while uniting much of the rest of the region.
Shortly after the US held joint military drills in Armenia, Baku and Tehran announced that they will construct a corridor through Iran to connect Azerbaijan to its Nakhchivan exclave wedged between Armenia, Turkiye, and Iran. That means that the path between the Caspian and the Mediterranean Seas on increasingly globally-connected trade routes will now do a small curve in order to completely avoid Armenia.
This might not seem like much, but Azerbaijan and Turkiye had for years been pushing for a corridor through southern Armenia (they continue to make references to it, though now in the form of overtures to Armenia).
Previously, Ankara and Baku were increasingly talking about bringing about the corridor through Armenia by force. This caused tensions with Iran, which didn’t want to see a Turkish-Azerbaijani line cutting through the region. Tehran and Baku previously discussed a solution that included more direct transportation routes through Iran back in 2022, but all progress on that deal came to a halt when a gunman launched a deadly attack against the embassy of Azerbaijan in Tehran earlier this year.
Ties between the two countries were in a downward spiral ever since, giving hope to neocons in Washington that they could play the two sides against one another to destabilize Iran and derail integration projects in the region. The US overplayed its hand by leading Armenia down the primrose path, however. In September, just after the US and Armenia completed joint military drills, Azerbaijan launched its takeover of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh – presumably with the green light from Iran and the Caucasus main power broker Russia.
And not only did Azerbaijan and Iran restart talks on corridor cooperation, but they began sealing deals in quick succession. With the agreement to construct a corridor through Iranian territory, Tehran-Baku relations are on the upswing. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently stated that Iran is “determined to expand relations” with Azerbaijan “in all areas.”
Armenia’s leadership, on the other hand, has unfortunately positioned the country to lose no matter what, as it continues to poison relations with its regional backers, Iran and Russia. Short of reversing course and trying to improve relations with its neighbors despite decades of animosity, it’s hard to see a way that Armenia can come out of this crisis period in a better position, I can’t see it. Readers?
Assistant Secretary of State O’Brien met Aliyev in Baku on Dec. 6, and the next day Armenia and Azerbaijan issued an unexpected joint statement reconfirming “their intention to normalize relations and to reach the peace treaty on the basis of respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The two sides disagree over who should mediate the peace talks, however. Since the war between the two in 2020, Armenia-Azerbaijan peace talks have proceeded on two separate tracks, one mediated by Russia and the other by the EU and US. Armenia continues to pivot away from Russia and toward the West, exasperating Moscow.
“How much and where do the Westerners have to prove themselves, so that it becomes clear that they will never act in the interest of the people of other countries?” Russian foreign minister representative Maria Zakharova asked recently.
Azerbaijan continues to support regional settlements of regional issues, like the ‘3+2’ format (Türkiye, Russia, and Iran “plus” Azerbaijan and Armenia) for the security of the region.” This is opposed by the US, which wants a seat at the head of the table in deciding the future of the Caucasus.