For much of last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken cajoled the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan to hash out a peace agreement to end a war that actually predates the formal independence of both states from the Soviet Union. On Sunday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev will continue those talks in Brussels.
The formula Blinken pushes is clear: Armenia will abandon any claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, a region populated by Armenians for millennia that is analogous to Jerusalem for Jews. Artsakh, the self-declared ethnic Armenian state that governs those portions of Nagorno-Karabakh that Azerbaijan has not ethnically cleansed, will cease to exist. Azerbaijan says it will treat Armenians with roots in the region as it treats its other citizens.
This provides little comfort for four reasons. First, Armenia and Artsakh are democratic, while Freedom House ranksAzerbaijan as among the world’s most dictatorial regimes, on par with the Chinese Communist Party and the Burmese military junta, less free than either Russia or Cuba.
Second, Azerbaijan denies Armenian heritage in the region. In nearby Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan bulldozed one of the oldest Christian cemeteries in the world in order to deny the historical presence of Armenians. Bizarrely, despite videos and before-and-after satellite images, it denies its actions. What Azerbaijan did, simply, would be akin to Palestinian extremists destroying the Mount of Olives cemetery.
Third, Azerbaijan denies the legitimacy of most ethnic Armenians’ residence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, while Blinken accepts Aliyev promises that Armenians can live as equals under the law in Karabakh, Aliyev regularly refuses to acknowledge ethnic Armenians as anything more than recent settlers, even if they can show land deeds dating back centuries and, until recently, family graves extending even further back. In a visit last week to nearby Goris, I met scores of Armenians who had been caught outside Nagorno-Karabakh when Azebaijan imposed its blockade, and whom Azerbaijan forces refuse to allow back arguing they are not legitimate Karabakhis.
This leads to the fourth problem. Both during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War and after, Azerbaijan has consistently failed to live up to its agreements. The Lachin Corridor blockade is just the most recent example.
There are two common patterns in American diplomacy that I documented in Dancing with the Devil. First, administrations rush diplomatic initiatives in the second half of their tenure to compensate for the failure of earlier, higher profile initiatives. Blinken failed badly with Iran, and so he now looks at Azerbaijan-Armenia peace to prove that he is neither America’s most ineffective nor naïve top diplomat.
Second, diplomats tend to see diplomatic processes as blue prints they can apply to other problem sets. Call it what it is: the grand strategists’ conceit.
Jerusalem should be worried. If Blinken succeeds, Israel will be in the Biden administration’s crosshairs. First under President Obama and now under Biden, top aides dismiss Israel’s terrorism concerns, turn the clock back on 30 years of diplomacy, and give Palestinians a free pass on their Oslo Accords commitment to end terrorism. Israel should expect a return to the 1949 Armistice line, with no adjustments made for towns or settlements across the border. Jewish heritage in the Old City of Jerusalem will be only as secure as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s or his successors’ word. Israel’s security concerns or its fears of Iran and Hezbollah’s genocidal ambitions will be no more valid than Armenia’s concerns about Turkey and Azerbaijan’s genocidal intent.
For short-term gain, Israel has sold Armenians down the river. The Israeli officials who blindly embrace Azerbaijan today and apologize for each Aliyev excess may not fully understand that they are creating a precedent and endorsing a formula that Biden and Blinken may very well seek soon to impose on them. They may believe in unfathomable, but in an administration where signatures on paper trumps reality, adversaries’ insincerity is wished away, and progressives consider Israel a settler-colonialist state, it may well be the new reality.