When hosting his second Summit for Democracy in March, President Biden declared: “I’m proud to stand with all of you to defend those fundamental values we all share: justice, the rule of law, free speech, assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and our core belief in the interest of human rights for every single individual in the world.”
Yet, six months later, the Biden administration largely continues to sit on its hands as the authoritarian regime of President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan succeeds in ridding the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which has been recognized as partly free by Freedom House, of its Armenian population.
Aliyev first tried to force Karabakh’s Armenians into leaving by blocking the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. When that didn’t work, the Azerbaijani authorities employed the military, killing hundreds and driving Nagorno-Karabakh’s meager defense force to lay down its arms. That triggered the exodus of Armenians from the land they have inhabited for more than two millennia, which they call Artsakh. More than 50,000 out of Karabakh’s 120,000 Armenians have been “forcibly displaced,” fleeing to the Republic of Armenia, according to Armenian authorities’ Sept. 27 estimate. Like Nagorno-Karabakh, the republic is classified as “partly free” by Freedom House. Moreover, its leader, Nikol Pashinyan, was invited to participate in the March 2023 democracy summit.
Yet, other than sending 85 soldiers to participate in a war game in Armenia and two senior officials offering some $11 million in aid, the Biden administration does not appear to have done much, at least not publicly, to stop or reverse the exodus from Karabakh (unless one counts the so far futile calls to Aliyev to express concern).
Of course, a hard-core realist can argue that, in this case, interests trump values for the United States. But the problem with that argument is that a number of key American national interests, as formulated in the report by the Commission on America’s National Interests (which was issued in 2000 but remains valid), are also at stake in this crisis.
First, the expulsion of Armenians from Karabakh will not only strengthen Aliyev’s regime, but it will also contribute to Turkey’s aspirations to become the hegemon in the South Caucasus, making its increasingly autocratic ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even less inclined to follow Washington’s lead. Such a development would run counter to the United States’ vital interest, as identified in the 2000 report, of ensuring US allies’ “active cooperation with the US” and the extremely important US national interest of “prevent[ing] the emergence of a regional hegemon in important regions.”
Second, Aliyev’s aggression toward Armenians could lead, if unchecked, to the resumption of a full-blown war. Given Turkey’s likely direct participation and Russia’s recent abstentions, such a war will probably lead to the complete defeat of the Republic of Armenia, which has already lost control of 200 square kilometers of its territory to land grabs by Azerbaijan, which is seeking a land bridge to Turkey. Such an outcome would run counter to the US national interest, as identified in the 2000 report, of “promot[ing] the acceptance of international rules of law and mechanisms for resolving or managing disputes peacefully.”
Third, America’s failure to act to convince Aliyev’s regime to stop starving, killing, and expelling Karabakh Armenians will run counter to the important US national interest of “prevent[ing] genocide,” according to the 2000 report. Karabakh Armenians are being subjected to genocide, according to Luis Moreno Ocampo, who was the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court until 2012.
The plight of Armenians is not of America’s doing. A string of poor leaders in Yerevan, Armenia, are at least partially to blame. Russia’s failure to live up to its formal and informal commitments to come to the rescue of Armenia and Artsakh played a significant role, too. But even though the current tragedy is not America’s fault, Biden should act to defend America’s values and interests by, at the very least, compelling Aliyev’s government to immediately offer legally binding, verifiable guarantees of security and safety for Karabakh Armenians as well as of their right to preserve their identity and culture.
Biden — who rightly criticized his would-be predecessor in 2020 for allowing Azerbaijan to impose a military solution and failing to “get involved personally” to “stop the advance of Azerbaijani troops into Nagorno-Karabakh” — should also use America’s leverage vis-a-vis Azerbaijan to force Aliyev to reverse his land grabs in Armenia. That leverage is significant, especially if combined with the punitive potential of America’s democratic allies in Europe. It includes an ability to credibly threaten and implement sanctions against key members of Aliyev’s corrupt regime, who park significant chunks of their wealth in the West and send their children to school there. In the longer term, it also includes the West’s ability to impose broader sanctions on Azerbaijan and to suspend aid to Azerbaijan.
“He who has lost his Homeland, has lost everything,” says an ancient Caucasian adage. More than three decades have passed since I lost my home village on the northern tip of Artsakh to a combination of Azerbaijani police and Soviet troops. There would be no home for me to go to even if Aliyev’s regime had allowed it. All that is left of my ancestral home is a twisted radiator. The village itself has been renamed, with the few surviving houses settled by Azeris. But tens of thousands of my Armenian compatriots still live in the beautiful highlands, as their ancestors did for more than two millennia. Do not let them become history, President Biden.
Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.