Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

How Azerbaijan is Lobbying Washington to Sanitize its War

Documents reveal a flurry of activity to convince beltway elites that Armenia is the aggressor and the U.S. should favor Azerbaijan.

As conflict heats up over Nagorno-Karabakh, a tiny Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, a covert battle is taking place on Capitol Hill to win the hearts and minds of lawmakers in Washington.

Since hostilities began on September 27, hundreds of lives have been lost as Azerbaijani drones have flown within 20 miles of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, and an Armenian strike was carried out on a military base in Azerbaijan’s second city, Ganja. 

“The next targets could be oil and gas facilities in Azerbaijan, or Yerevan and Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku,” reports the New York Times, an escalation with the potential to draw in Turkey, Russia, and Iran on opposing sides.

Well-armed and financed Azerbaijan is receiving assistance from Turkey, an American ally. Turkish drones and jets have been exacting civilian casualties on Armenians, and as TAC previously reported, Armenians are in danger of ethnic cleansing once again.

“Civilians are bearing the brunt of surge in violence,” reported the International Committee of the Red Cross on October 2. They added, “Civilian deaths and injuries, including of children, have been reported on both sides of the line of contact, and in Armenia.”

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has ramped up its public relations campaign, employing not one but six of K Street’s heavy-hitting firms, including the Livingston Group, Stellar Jay Communications, BGR, the Podesta Group, and DLA Piper. Last year the country spent $1.3 million on lobbying.

Armenia traditionally lobbies through American community groups, and has just one firm working for them, Alston and Bird. The contract was signed September 16, so it’s unclear how much money they will spend petitioning Washington this year, but documents reveal they haven’t spent any money lobbying since 2016.

Azerbaijan, on the other hand, lobbies in much the same manner as a Gulf State—though with considerably less resources—and has a long history of extensive lobbying efforts. 

In an attempt “to whitewash its dictatorial image…the autocratic government of Ilham Aliyev has unleashed spin-doctors, duped reporters, and led one of the most brazen pushes to abuse American lobbying loopholes of any foreign government,” wrote Casey Michel in 2016.

For years, lobbyists on the dime of Azerbaijan have met with universities, think tanks, and members of Congress. They’ve arranged the placement of favorable op-eds in outlets like The Hill, the Washington Times, the Daily Caller, National Review, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. These articles were initially published without disclosing the authors’ financial ties to Azerbaijan.

While oil-rich Azerbaijan’s lobbying slowed after 2016 due to the collapse of its currency, Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) documents reveal a flurry of recent activity aimed at convincing Washington elites that Armenia is the aggressor and that the U.S. should favor Azerbaijan in the conflict.

When American lobbying and public relations firms are hired by foreign countries, they are legally required to register their clients with the Justice Department under FARA. They are also required to provide a list of the activities they undertake on behalf of the foreign country.

Azerbaijan’s hired K Street guns are distributing what are euphemistically referred to in FARA documents as “informational materials.” These materials could be more accurately described as propaganda. The documents distributed on Capitol Hill highlight Armenia’s “provocative actions,” its “illegal” role in the conflict, that Armenia allegedly “kills Azerbaijani civilians, including children,” and how “Armenia’s leaders have been actively undermining the ongoing peace process.”

The documents lobbyists distribute on Capitol Hill make some incredulous claims: that “Armenia has long been involved with Middle Eastern terrorism,” that “Azerbaijan has been consistent in urging substantive and result-oriented negotiations in order to achieve a breakthrough in the conflict,” and that “Turkey is not directly involved and is not a party to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.”

5430 Informational Materials 20200930 75 by Barbara Boland on Scribd

5430 Informational Material… by Barbara Boland

5430 Informational Materials 20200928 73 by Barbara Boland on Scribd

That last assertion stands in direct contradiction with reports that Turkey has been heavily involved in the conflict, even going so far as to send 1,000 jihadist fighters from Syria to aid Azerbaijan. 

As TAC previously reported:

On October 2, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that an estimated 150 high-ranking Turkish military officials were stationed in Azerbaijan command centers. Armenia’s National Security Service also publicized intelligence data showing that the Turkish Air Force is directly involved in Azerbaijan’s attacks against Artsakh.

Although Turkey denies involvement, satellite imagery confirms that at least two Turkish Air Force F-16 jets were present at Ganja International Airport in Azerbaijan earlier this month. Baykar, a Turkish drone manufacturer, also supplies Turkish TB2 drones, some of the deadliest flying over Stepanakert, according to the New York Times.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev said this week that thanks to the drones, “our casualties on the front shrunk…. These drones show Turkey’s strength. It also [shows Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan…empowers us.”

Erdogan has backed Azerbaijan to the hilt.

“Once again I condemn Armenia that attacked Azerbaijani lands yesterday. Armenia must withdraw from the places it occupies. The crisis that started with the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh in the region must be put to an end,” said Erdogan. 

“Turkey will continue to support Azerbaijan,” he added.

Turkey’s “full support” motivated Azerbaijan to reignite fighting in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told the AFP. He added that the current conflict has seen the “active engagement of terrorist groups from the Middle East in the conflict zone,” and he described the role of Armenian forces as a “counter-terrorism operation.”

Turkey’s involvement is so egregious that Canada has halted arms sales to Ankara while it determines whether its drone technology was used improperly by forces fighting in Azerbaijan. But U.S. security aid to Azerbaijan, to the tune of roughly $100 million in 2018 and 2019, has continued unabated.

From Defense News:

  • Last year, DoD awarded VSE Corp., of Alexandria, Va., a $10 million contract for unspecified counterterrorism and intelligence equipment, and in-country training in support of the Azerbaijan Maritime Security Program for the Caspian Sea.

  • Also, Smiths Detection Inc., of Edgewood, Md., was awarded a $16 million contract for X-rays and screening equipment, “to counter transnational threats,” according to the DoD announcement.

  • In August, DoD awarded United States Marine Inc., of Gulfport, Miss., a $7.6 million contract for 15 9-meter, multi-use explosive ordnance disposal response craft.

The U.S. recently supplied aid to Azerbaijan for boats, X-ray scanners, and underwater surveillance gear meant to help the country patrol its border with Iran and the Caspian Sea. 

Worse still, Armenia’s prime minister Pashinyan has charged that the U.S. is doing nothing to stop its ally Turkey from using American-made F-16 jets against ethnic Armenians in the disputed mountain region.

Meanwhile, some of Azerbaijan’s paid propagandists from years past are writing op-eds without disclosing their conflicts of interest. Brenda Shaffer, whose piece previously received an editor’s note and clarification from both The Washington Post and The New York Times, is now writing on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict for the think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Shaffer had failed to disclose to the New York Times that she had been an adviser to Azerbaijan’s state-run oil company. No disclosure exists on her latest FDD piece, even though it is about how the “Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict Poses Threat to European Energy Security” and Shaffer is FDD’s senior advisor for energy. Shaffer’s piece is hardly neutral, describing the conflict as having begun “following the Soviet breakup, when Armenia invaded neighboring Azerbaijan, captured close to 20 percent of its territory, and turned almost a million Azerbaijanis into refugees.”

The bottom line: these documents are sanitizing Azerbaijan’s role in the conflict and paint Armenia as the aggressor. Even as Azerbaijan carries out a campaign against the Armenian population that might presage another ethnic cleansing, the U.S. continues to supply Azerbaijan and Turkey with millions of dollars in weapons and security assistance.