Azerbaijan, Armenia Respond to Growing US Engagement in South Caucasus

Azerbaijan, Armenia Respond to Growing US Engagement in South Caucasus

On June 19–20, the ministers of foreign affairs of Azerbaijan and Armenia, Elmar Mammadyarov and Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, respectively, visited Washington, where they met with United States National Security Advisor John Bolton (Mfa.gov.az, June 19; Panorama.am, June 20). According to the foreign ministries of the two South Caucasus countries, the main issues discussed with Bolton were the resolution of the Karabakh conflict and “the situation in the Middle East” (BBC News—Russian service, June 21). The meeting took place on the sidelines of an Azerbaijani-Armenian foreign ministerial, with the mediation and involvement of the co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group (Trend, June 20). For the first time since 2009, talks in this format were held in the United States (BBC News—Russian service, June 21). And Bolton’s personal involvement in the process further pointed to growing US interest in the South Caucasus.

As Jamestown Foundation writes in an article "Azerbaijan, Armenia Respond to Growing US Engagement in South Caucasus", this attention coming from the White House is naturally affected by recent developments in US-Russian relations. In some quarters, cooperation between Washington and Moscow (along with the European Union) to peacefully resolve the recent constitutional crisis in Moldova (see EDM, June 10) has generated hope for similar US-Russian coordination on the Karabakh issue.

Washington’s closer engagement with the South Caucasus and its problems has been a consistent policy of the Donald Trump administration (see EDM, June 11). That trend was particularly exemplified by John Bolton’s visit to all three South Caucasus republics in October 2018, following his meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin (see EDM, October 29, 2018). During his trip, Bolton called on the newly established government of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to take “decisive action” on resolving the Karabakh conflict. However, Yerevan pushed back at the time, and Pashinyan declared, “Bolton, or anyone for that matter, cannot speak on my behalf” (Asbarez, October 29, 2018).

The latest talks, in late June 2019, between Bolton, Mammadyarov and Mnatsakanyan, as well as the concurrent foreign ministerial in Washington brokered by the Minsk Group provided no tangible results on resolving the conflict. The joint statement given by the Russian, French and US Minsk Group co-chairs, following the three-hour long meeting, in particular contained nothing new or promising (Trend, Vestnikavkaza.net, June 21). “There are still serious differences between us [Baku and Yerevan]. In general, these are the same proposals. For 15 years, we see the same ideas, the same peace plan,” Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Mammadyarov told reporters after the meeting with his Armenian counterpart (Azadliq.org, June 21).

The growing US interest in the South Caucasus is also (perhaps primarily) driven by the mounting tensions between Washington and Tehran. The United States has, on many occasions, appealed to regional countries—particularly Azerbaijan and Armenia, the two Caucasus countries that border Iran—to adopt Washington’s agenda concerning the Islamic Republic (EurActiv, October 24, 2018). Indeed, this issue was clearly discussed during Bolton’s meeting with Mammadyarov and Mnatsakanyan last week. And the former US ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, mused that it was probably the main topic of the talks: “Bolton doesn’t care about Nagorno-Karabakh. His focus is on Iran,” he suggested to journalists (BBC News—Russian service, June 21).

Nonetheless, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan have so far been reluctant to engage with US policies against Iran or to provide a foothold for possible military operations against the latter. In Azerbaijan’s case, cooperation with the US on issues of mutual interest and concern is supremely important (see EDM, June 11). But the political leadership in Baku does not wish to pursue this cooperation at the cost of courteous relations with Tehran. Notably, any turbulence in the mutual relationship would jeopardize Azerbaijan’s multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects with its southern neighbor (e.g., the International North-South Transportation Corridor). And serious instability in Iran would likely cause an influx of refugees from across the border, especially of ethnic Azerbaijanis living in northern Iran, thus challenging the smaller country’s social and economic stability (see EDM, March 20).

The Trump administration’s push for Armenia to come into compliance with US sanctions against Iran was not welcome in Yerevan during Bolton’s visit there last October. Pashinyan, made clear to the US delegation that, as a landlocked country with closed borders with two of its four neighbors, Armenia has no choice but to maintain “special relations” with Iran (RFE/RL, November 2, 2018). Moreover, following his departure, members of the Armenian expert and political community heavily criticized the US official’s remarks. For example, Vigen Sargsyan, the former defense minister of Armenia, condemned the statements of the US delegation, stating that “the impression was created that Bolton is not an advisor to the US president, but to the prime minister of Armenia, who came to tell him what to do and what not to do” (Caucasuswatch.de, October 31, 2018). Another bone of contention between Yerevan and Moscow has been the Armenian government’s decision to send a peacekeeping contingent to Syria—a move designed to offer political support for Russia’s intervention on the side of Bashar al-Assad. The US has rebuked the move, but Pashinyan’s government angrily rejected Washington’s pressure (EurasiaNet, February 14, 2019; Armenian Weekly, February 19, 2019).

Certainly, Washington’s renewed interest in the South Caucasus is welcomed in both Baku and Yerevan. But when it comes to finally resolving the decades-long Karabakh conflict, so far the greater US involvement has not brought the two conflicting sides any closer to an agreement. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s current preoccupation with Iran is not an issue on which full-throated support by either Armenia or Azerbaijan should be expected. Still, other areas of mutual concern, including regional stability, counter-terrorism cooperation or energy security, may provide a rich menu to pursue for as long as the US remains engaged in the region.

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