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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Armenia: The Forgotten Conflict

Azerbaijan is doing in the Artsakh region what Russia is doing to Ukraine—but the U.S. and Europe are looking the other way.

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A room in the Museum of Fallen Soldiers in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh. Credit: Ondřej Žváček

Territorial conquest is back around the globe, whether we like it or not. For decades, the internationalist fantasies of the bipartisan establishment have driven us to support expensive and unwinnable projects in every place from Kabul to Kiev. Internationalist overstretch weakened America from a unipolar position after the fall of the USSR to the current multipolar order. 

In the vacuum left by an America weakened by government incompetence, military overstretch, and economic insolvency, the neocon cousins of the liberal internationalists see the fraying order and believe the solution is indiscriminate American intervention. Yet the right answer to American decline isn’t to waddle even more into peripheral conflicts around the world, but instead to defend our homeland against emerging threats from both near and far.

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The internationalists in both parties are intent on convincing Americans to direct taxpayer dollars to Kharkiv that still looks better than parts of San Francisco—at least before Gavin Newsom gave the city an emergency face-lift in preparation for Xi Jinping’s recent visit.

Amid this narrative onslaught, one such invasion has gone conspicuously forgotten: Azerbaijan’s invasion in September of the previously autonomous Artsakh region adjacent to Armenia.

Some context: Artsakh has been populated mostly by Armenians since antiquity. Armenians are Christians who speak an Indo-European language. When the Soviets took control of the Caucasus in the early 1920s, they designated Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous oblast within Soviet Azerbaijan, recognizing its unique majority ethnic Armenian character in the otherwise Azeri republic. Azeris are Muslims who speak a Turkic language. This situation held until the late 1980s, when tensions boiled over into violence. It wasn’t long after the fall of the USSR in 1991 that war erupted in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1992-1994.

Against all odds, the Armenians won the war and established control over Artsakh. Azerbaijan worked with its pan-Turkic big brothers in Turkey to slowly rearm, aided by two decades of military assistance from the U.S. American taxpayers were made for 20 years to arm the greatest enemies of the world’s oldest Christian country. Even worse, supporting Azerbaijan seems like the rare case where American foreign policy elites understood the sin they were committing but still did it—and did it for money.

In 2020, Azerbaijan invaded Artsakh and defeated the Armenians in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. All of the American military assistance helped. They regained much of their lost territory and reduced Artsakh to a single road link to Armenia, the Lachin Corridor. In late 2022, they blockaded the road and slowly choked Artsakh to death. When Azerbaijan formally invaded again in September 2023, Armenia was completely outmatched and sued for peace after a day. Now, in just a few weeks, over 100,000 Armenians have fled their ancestral homeland in Artsakh to live as refugees in the rest of Armenia.

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In other words, Azerbaijan is doing the same thing to the Artsakh region that Russia is doing to Ukraine—but the U.S. and Europe are looking the other way and pretending not to notice. It is because Azerbaijan has one of the most effective lobbying operations in the U.S. and other Western nations.

Bankrolling it all is oil and gas. Azerbaijan’s largest employer, taxpayer, and piggy bank for influence-peddling is the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR). SOCAR has a fancy office that opened in Washington, D.C. in 2012, right around the time Azerbaijan was campaigning for exemptions in the Iran sanctions that would allow construction to continue on their Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). If that was the goal of SOCAR’s office, it worked. President Obama’s 2012 Executive Order on sanctions exempted the pipeline, and so did the Iran Freedom and Counter Proliferation Act.

John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and now heading up “clean energy” projects for Biden, was the co-founder of the Podesta Group, the D.C. lobbying firm that represented the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the United States from 2009 to 2017. John left the firm early on, but kept close ties with his brother Tony, the other co-founder and principal. In 2016 FARA filings, the Podesta Group made 17 pages of contacts on behalf of Azerbaijan that year. By comparison, another client of theirs, India, had four pages. All of those contacts paid off; between February and June of 2016, the Podesta Group was paid $379,325.73 for its work on behalf of the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

All of that caviar has made Azerbaijan a lot of powerful friends. American interests abroad shouldn’t be guided by foreign lobbyists, but all too often, it seems that's exactly who is making the crucial decisions on how and where to divert our precious resources. Unfortunately, American foreign policy is heavily influenced by whoever can write the largest check—or, in the case of Ukraine, whoever can write the largest check to the President’s ne’er-do-well son.

The right solution isn’t for the U.S. to militarily intervene in Artsakh, any more than we should be militarily engaged to allow Ukraine to recapture the Russian-occupied regions of the Donbas. Rather it is for the U.S. to disengage by ceasing its layers of explicit and implicit support for Azerbaijan.

Chief among these layers of support is Section 907. In 1992, Congress passed the Freedom Support Act. Included in the legislation was Section 907, which explicitly banned the U.S. from sending direct aid to the government of Azerbaijan. This legislation worked as designed until 2001, when the Senate adopted an amendment that allowed the president to waive Section 907, which American presidents have done annually ever since. Put another way, since 2001, the U.S. has provided military assistance to Azerbaijan—our foreign policy elites helped build the war machine used to push Armenians out of Artsakh.

Much of that military assistance would have been beyond Azerbaijan’s means if not for the various gas pipelines they have built with Western assistance. Europe needs gas to fuel its economy, and America sits atop one of the world’s great gas bounties. We could have supplied Europe with a near-endless supply of liquified natural gas, but instead, we acceded to the climate change agenda. We restricted our gas industry at home, while encouraging our biggest oil and gas companies to lead all sorts of projects abroad. The climate cult made Azerbaijan and its petro-pals flush with cash.

All Armenia needs is a fair chance. Armenia needs America to stop enabling Azerbaijan.

The ways to do it are simple. Shut down the Azerbaijan lobby. Cease publishing its lies in the complicit U.S. press. Stop delivering military assistance to Baku’s dictator. Unleash the American energy sector and use our bountiful resources to undermine Azerbaijan’s gas markets in Europe. 

This last part is key: Greater American prosperity, made possible by a robust revival of America First policies at home, can usher in a new era of peace around the world. Imagine America unburdened by heavy-handed influence peddling at the highest echelons. Imagine America unashamedly pursuing its own interests.

It’s time to stand up for what's right. It’s time to stand up for American interests.