This is Why Peace Between Azerbaijan and Armenia Matters

By Glenn Corn

Glenn Corn is a former Senior Executive in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who worked for 34 years in the U.S. Intelligence, Defense, and Foreign Affairs communities.  He spent over 17 years serving overseas and served as the U.S. President’s Senior Representative on Intelligence and Security issues.  He is an Adjunct Professor at the Institute of World Politics.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE / OPINION – On December 8, 2023, the Governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia announced that they had reached an agreement on the exchange of Prisoners of War (PoW) and on continuing to work toward signing a Peace Agreement between the two countries.  In their announcement, the sides also stated that they intent “to normalize relations and to reach the peace treaty on the basis of respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The announcement, which comes at a time of great international instability and conflict, deserves attention in the U.S. and should be viewed positively given the possibility that a peace agreement between the two countries could lead to greater stability and development in the South Caucasus region.  Peace between the two nations would also be a further blow to the efforts of the Governments of Russia and Iran to use continued conflict between Yerevan and Baku to assert control over this important region. 

The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has existed for a very long time and most recently, resulted in a brutal war fought by both countries in the first half of the 1990s, and a prolonged state of hostilities between Baku and Yerevan from 1994 to the autumn of 2023, over control of an area known as “Nagorno-Karabakh” (NK) (Mountainous Karabakh) or simply Karabakh.  This disputed territory was occupied by Armenian forces during the first “Karabakh War” and was controlled by pro-Armenian groups supported by Yerevan and Moscow while formally recognized as being part of Azerbaijan. 

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In the Autumn of 2020, the Azerbaijanis launched an offensive against Armenian backed forces aimed at liberating NK, resulting in the second “Karabakh” war that saw significant Azerbaijan military successes, before Moscow stepped in to broker a ceasefire in November 2020. But in September 2023, the Azerbaijanis launched a new offensive aimed at securing control over all of the areas of NK that had remained in Armenian hands after November 2020. 

Unlike in previous fighting in the region, during the Azerbaijan September 2023 offensive, Russia appeared unable to intervene and stop the Azerbaijans and Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan decided not to send Armenian military forces to the region to try to counter Baku and instead, formally recognized Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over NK. 

The response was both courageous and significant because Pashinyan appeared to place the interests of Armenian proper over the interests of the “Karabakhi Armenians”, opening the door for a possible peace treaty between Yerevan and Baku and badly needed economic development for Armenia.

Geographically, Armenia is a land locked country wedged between Turkiye, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Iran.  In 1994, when Armenian backed forces seized control of NK, the Government of Turkiye (GoT) closed its borders with Armenia in a sign of support for its ally Azerbaijan, and refused to open the border until NK was returned to Baku’s administration. As a result, Armenia became almost exclusively dependent upon Russia and to a lesser extent, Iran, with almost all of the country’s trade and transportation having to go through those two countries.  But neither Iran or Russia proved capable or willing to help Armenia address its serious economic problems and Moscow and Tehran appeared happy to have a monopoly on relations with successive Armenian governments, with Russia seeing Armenia as a vassal state.  As long as Armenia and Azerbaijan were in a state of war, Moscow benefited by keeping the Yerevan dependent on Russian military assistance and protection.  And, despite the fact that the U.S. has a large and very vibrant Armenian diaspora, Washington was unable to develop strong bilateral ties with Armenia for years with Yerevan being under heavy Russian influence.

Pashinyan however, was elected in 2018, with what appears to be a mandate from the Armenian people to expand the country’s trade and security relations with new partners and address long term system problems that plagued the Armenian economy and left the country lacking in development and prosperity.   

The new Armenian Prime Minister quickly made it clear that Yerevan would no longer allow the Russians, or Iranians, to exploit the NK conflict to keep Yerevan dependent on either country and, would start to better develop Armenia’s relations with other partners.  Pashinyan’s courageous actions upset Russian President Vladimir Putin and there is little doubt that Putin has used Russian influence among Armenian opposition parties to try to destabilize and undermine Pashinyan. 

The Kremlin cynically played Baku against Yerevan and vice Versa for years, selling arms to both nations and encouraging each to mistrust and fear the another.  But Baku’s success in the second Karabakh war, and successful operations in September 2023, undermined and weakened Moscow’s influence over both countries and the return of NK to Azerbaijani control has further strengthened the chances that the two countries can secure a peace agreement. 

With NK now under Azerbaijani control, Ankara now has good reason to open up its borders with Armenia and allow cross border trade to expand between the two states, which will benefit Armenia and the entire South Caucasus region. 

For years, Turkish officials have reminded the Armenians that a resolution to the NK conflict would result in economic and trade benefits for Yerevan and recent developments in the region seem to have opened the door for not only improved ties between Baku and Yerevan, but more importantly, Ankara and Yerevan.

Azerbaijan’s control over NK did lead to a mass exodus of ethnic Armenians from the region based on widespread fears that the Azerbaijanis would engage in “genocide” or atrocities against any Armenians left in the region, and the return of a large number of Azerbaijanis to NK who were forced to leave during the first NK war to live as refugees in other parts of Azerbaijan.

And while some commentators have referred to the exodus of Armenians from NK as “ethnic cleansing” by the Azerbaijanis, to date, there has been no evidence that Azerbaijan forces are pursuing a policy of extermination or indiscriminate targeting of Armenian civilians.  

Given the ugly history of fighting and atrocities committed by both sides of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, it is not hard to understand why many Armenians are afraid to remain in NK and will likely be hesitant to return to their traditional homes in NK.  But Azerbaijani President İlham Aliyev has promised to treat all residents of NK as equals under Azerbaijani law and to avoid engaging in abusive behavior towards ethnic Armenians in NK in the future.   

Of course, it is now critical that international actors interested in seeing a lasting peace in the South Caucasus, including the U.S., Turkiye and the European Union (EU) ensure that Baku lives up to Aliyev’s promises.

Another potential problem standing in the way of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been continuing Armenian fears that Azerbaijan would not stop at retaking control over NK but would also attempt to seize additional Armenian territory. 

That’s all the more reason why the agreement reached earlier this month is an important development that needs to be encouraged and protected.  Both sides need to understand that following through on this commitment will bring them economic and security benefits. 

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To protect and further promote the positive developments taking place in the South Caucasus, the U.S., Turkiye and EU also need to take concrete steps to protect Pashinyan and his government from future Russian meddling and interference.  This type of assistance will also be important for Baku, where the Russians and Iranians will likely attempt to use their influence to undermine the peace process and encourage the Azerbaijanis to take steps to risk future destabilization. 

In addition to providing both Baku and Yerevan the economic incentives to further promote the peace process, Washington, Brussels and Ankara should also provide Intelligence and Security Assistance to each country in order to maintain a balance of power between the two states and enable both countries to protect themselves from almost certain outside meddling and interference.

Securing a lasting peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia could give the world hope that other similar ethnic and religious-based conflicts in the world can be resolved.  While it is clearly too soon for those who champion peace over conflict to declare victory in the South Caucasus, the recent developments between Armenia and Azerbaijan indicate that both sides in this historical conflict are moving towards towards peace and the U.S. and other responsible countries and international institutions need to help protect this progress from the threat of those forces in the world today that prefer destabilization and conflict.

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