End American Military Aid to Azerbaijan
Why are we funneling money to a corrupt despotism in a far-off land?
As President Joe Biden commemorated the Armenian genocide on April 24, his administration continues military cooperation with Azerbaijan. Emboldened by its military victory over Armenian forces in 2020, Azerbaijan is pressing its advantage to impose a coercive “peace” on the South Caucasus. The U.S. has no business in helping Baku achieve its goals, in any way or shape, much less with the American taxpayers’ money.
On April 23, just the day before the commemoration of the Armenian genocide, Azerbaijan established a checkpoint on the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-majority enclave within the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan, with Armenia through the so-called Lachin corridor. This was done in a blatant violation of the provisions of the trilateral statement between Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan that put an end to the war in 2020.
According to the deal, Russian peacemakers were deployed to the region, ostensibly to guarantee its implementation, including securing the road in question. Yet they appeared to look the other way as Azerbaijan proceeded with blocking the corridor. Regional analysts suggest Moscow’s collusion with Baku. Even in the unlikely case that Azerbaijan acted without at least a prior heads-up with the Kremlin, this development only highlights the unreliability of Russia’s claims to play a stabilizing role in the region.
The erection of the checkpoint is a culmination of a months-long policy of isolation of the Karabakh Armenians, mixing blockade of the enclave and threats of what could amount to ethnic cleansing. Earlier this year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) of the United Nations ordered Azerbaijan to end its blockage of the Lachin corridor. This binding order demanded that Azerbaijan “take all measures to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the corridor in both directions,” according to M.P. Arusyak Julhakyan.
Not only did Azerbaijan ignore that order, but its autocratic president, Ilham Aliyev, issued fresh threats against the local indigenous Armenian population to accept Azerbaijan’s citizenship or leave the territory. Given that Azerbaijan is a hereditary dictatorship that scores at the very bottom of international democracy, human-rights, and transparency rankings, this ultimatum essentially amounts to a demand that the local population submit to a despotic rule that denies rights even to Azerbaijan’s own citizens.
Add to that an anti-Armenian speech at the official level in Baku—recently, Azerbaijani parliament called the European citizens of Armenian origin a “cancerous tumor.” Since Baku has completely ruled out any form of even a limited cultural autonomy for the Karabakh Armenians, it can only be concluded that it is creating conditions that would push them to leave their ancestral homes in what could qualify as ethnic cleansing.
The U.S. State Department expressed its deep concern about the actions of Azerbaijan. Yet Washington can go further and impose real costs on Baku by ending military cooperation with the country. To accomplish that, the U.S. should only follow its own legislation by invoking the Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which was adopted in early 1990s to block any U.S. military assistance to Azerbaijan during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. In fact, this is what a bipartisan group of sixty-nine members of the House of Representatives is currently demanding.
That provision was waived for the first time in 2002 and annually ever since, in the context of the so-called “Global War on Terror.” The GWOT created a whole sprawling network of relationships with unsavory regimes in the wider Middle East judged helpful in fighting terrorism. According to Security Assistance Monitor, a Washington watchdog, in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 alone Azerbaijan was the beneficiary of more than $100 million worth U.S. security aid.
With the GWOT winding down and the U.S. reorienting towards great power competition, there is no reasonable justification for keeping those relationships intact. The absurdity of waiving the Section 907 in 2023 is underscored by the fact that it was introduced when it was the Azerbaijani territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh that were occupied by the Armenian forces while today it is Azerbaijan that is destabilizing the region.
When Secretary of State Blinken was pressed on this point by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, he offered only a weak defense: The $700,000 set aside for Azerbaijan for the next fiscal year would be used to train Azerbaijani officers, in the hope, as Blinken put it, of fostering their development of a “Western orientation.” He didn’t elaborate on what exactly that meant, but if “Western orientation” is synonymous with respect for international norms, then years of U.S. assistance, on the face of it, missed the mark: The Azerbaijani military has committed amply documented abuses against Armenian prisoners of war and civilians. Baku’s official rhetoric and actions do not augur any positive change in the near future.
Equally groundless is the assumption that such aid will make Azerbaijan more receptive to American interests. Azerbaijan’s relationship with the West is strictly transactional, mainly based on leveraging the country’s (limited) oil and gas reserves as an alternative to the Russian supplies. Yet while hawkish Washington cheers on Azerbaijan, think tanks like the Hudson Institute are busy pitching the country as a bulwark against Russian and Iranian influence and thus deserving of U.S. support. In reality Baku is very careful not to antagonize Moscow. Azerbaijan’s government is fully entitled to conduct its foreign policy in accordance with what it sees as the country’s national interest, but there is no reason why the U.S. has to fund it.
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Blinken then produced a supposed trump card justifying continued military cooperation with Azerbaijan—the threat from Iran, with which Azerbaijan has a long border that “needs to be protected.” It is unclear why protecting Azerbaijan’s border with Iran should be any of the U.S.'s business. Azerbaijan has intense security relationships with Israel and Turkey and is (or should be, at any rate) more than capable of defending its own borders.
Of further note, Azerbaijan is far from blameless in its tensions with Iran. Since the war, Azerbaijani leadership has only intensified its irredentist claims against both Armenia and Iran. To the extent that the United States should get involved, it needs to call on both Azerbaijan and Iran to resolve their differences diplomatically rather than one-sidedly supporting a government that is actively stoking tensions.
The Biden administration needs to act coherently with the spirit of its commemoration of the Armenian genocide and stop any military aid to Azerbaijan. Such support neither reflects American values nor advances American interests.