Biden’s Silence on the Nagorno Karabakh Crisis Jeopardizes the American Foreign Policy Agenda

Any student of political science in American universities has most likely learned about the partisan and ideological differences in approaches to international relations. Thus, one of the first things I learned as a college freshman was the differences between Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy matters. 

The conventional wisdom held that Republicans pursue a realpolitik approach, focusing more on practical and realist assumptions even if such choices undermine our values or grand ideals, while Democrats are more likely to consider human rights and democracy in their strategic considerations of policy choices. There are, obviously, nuances in this fundamental distinction, but the conservative-liberal divide on America’s policies and role abroad would largely hold, we were taught. 

Today, U.S. President Joe Biden’s inaction and silence on an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, in Europe’s backyard, shows that the textbooks of international relations may need to be updated. A lifelong Democrat who vowed to “rescue” U.S. foreign policy and “champion liberty and democracy” during the 2020 election, Biden is betraying his own promise by staying silent and refusing to take any meaningful steps as the 120,000 indigenous Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh are currently deprived of the most basic human rights and completely blocked off from the rest of the world by Azerbaijani military forces. 

The current blockade of the self-governing region, which lies at the heart of the decades-old Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, started last December when Azerbaijani state-backed “protesters” blocked the Lachin corridor, the only access route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The artificial nature of these staged rallies was clear as Azerbaijan ranks among the lowest on freedom of expression and civil liberties according to such reputable sources as the Freedom House and Human Rights watch. But if the evidence is not convincing of Baku’s artificial staging of these rallies, it is enough to look at the most recent crackdown on actual environmental protests in Azerbaijan’s Gadabay district where local protesters, including elderly women, were met with the brutal response of the riot police for voicing opposition to the construction of an artificial lake tied to the Aliyev family. 

The corridor has a vital strategic importance for the basic necessities of Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents, such as food and medicine supplies. The “unimpeded movement of goods and people” through this route was guaranteed by the Russia-brokered ceasefire that ended the brutal 44-day war over the region in which Azerbaijan gained control over a sizable territory, cutting Nagorno Karabakh’s land connection to Armenia. 

International calls from American and European officials and reputable human rights groups urging Azerbaijan to comply with its international obligations were ignored by Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leader Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in governing the oil-rich country in 2003 and has held the power since then. Azerbaijan also ignored the ruling of the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ judicial organ, mandating the unblocking of the corridor. 

The blockade has had a serious impact on the life of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, resulting in deaths of several people due to starvation and lack of treatment, as well as significant unemployment and extreme psychological pressure on the Armenian population of the region. But the humanitarian crisis in the mountainous region that has seen cycles of devastating wars in the last three decades entered a new stage on July 11 when the Azerbaijani government blocked even the Red Cross from transporting patients and humanitarian aid through the corridor. This decision has created a catastrophe for the Armenian population which will likely face starvation in the near future unless concrete and bold steps are taken. 

As Azerbaijan has moved to essentially suffocate the region into submission to Baku, thus jeopardizing the progress of Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks, the situation is reaching an inflection point. The UN Security Council held a meeting at the request of Armenia to discuss Azerbaijan’s ongoing genocidal campaign, and despite the targeted calls by the United States and other countries on Azerbaijan to lift the blockade, there were no concrete steps taken for immediate relief and to pressure Azerbaijan into cooperation.

Yet, the Biden administration’s response to the crisis has not gone beyond public statements by U.S. officials calling on the Azerbaijani government to unblock the corridor and allow the flow of humanitarian aid. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the “deteriorating humanitarian conditions” with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, but Blinken’s “deep concern” over the last few months and weeks has been insufficient to compel Aliyev to allow access to the fully encircled enclave. Biden has made no public statements or used his authority to engage on the issue at the presidential level, instead delegating it largely to the State Department. 

Instead of decisive steps to end the suffering in the region and prevent the further escalation of the situation, the Biden Administration has limited its policy only to mediation in the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks. But even as a mediator, the U.S. government has chosen the path of appeasing Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government by pushing the self-governing and democratic authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh to discuss integration with Azerbaijan. 

Speaking on Armenian national television, the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia stated earlier in July that the Administration believes in reliable guarantees for the security and rights of Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijani rule. It is somewhat puzzling, however, how refusing the legitimate right of self-determination to Armenians of the region who are currently being starved as a means of subjugation can be replaced with an authoritarian rule under which even Azerbaijani citizens do not enjoy safety, political rights and civil liberties. 

But aside from Biden’s unwillingness to recognize the righteousness of Nagorno-Karabakh’s plight in the conflict, it is the lack of meaningful response by the Administration to the more immediate crisis currently unfolding in the region that raises alarm. Since the beginning of his presidency, Biden has recognized the growing solidarity between the world’s autocracies, especially the threats posed by authoritarian Russia and China. To this end, in March, for the second year in a row, Biden gathered the world’s democracies, including Armenia, for the Summit for Democracy to create a common democratic front against the rising authoritarian tide. Obviously, Azerbaijan, one of the world’s most authoritarian countries according to the most reputable human rights groups and international organizations, was not invited.

Nonetheless, Armenia and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have come to realize that Biden’s support of democracy and human rights around the world are applied selectively. Democratic Armenia, abandoned by its treaty ally Russia, which continues deepening ties with Azerbaijan and has forfeited its alliance obligations as shown by the lack of response during the Azerbaijani aggression against sovereign Armenia in 2022, is now completely left alone. 

President Biden once denounced former U.S. President Donald Trump for his inaction during the 2020 war for Nagorno-Karabakh . “The Trump Administration must tell Azerbaijan that it will not tolerate its efforts to impose a military solution to this conflict,” the campaign statement read

Does the President still believe that the United States must put actual pressure on Azerbaijan to abandon its militarism and the weaponization of the current blockade to achieve its maximalist goals? Or were the promises and commitment to supporting democracy simply ways to cater to Armenian-American voters?

Biden faces a clear choice today: take decisive steps to pressure Azerbaijan into ending the blockade and starting constructive dialogue or allow the crisis to turn into a campaign of ethnic cleansing in which Azerbaijan will gain territory at the expense of human lives and the mass exodus of Armenians. The United States has many tools at its disposal to compel Azerbaijan to refrain from this unprecedented coercion, ranging from emergency humanitarian airlifts to economic and political sanctions.

If the Administration is opposed to placing sanctions on Azerbaijan to address the crisis out of fear of hindering the ongoing negotiations, then a policy option which Washington has refused to enforce is still available — one which requires no active steps on the American side and is, in fact, the morally and strategically wise choice that will save millions of taxpayer dollars. The U.S. government can and should finally stop waiving Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. Biden has continued the policy of previous administrations by waiving this law in order to provide tens of millions of dollars of military aid to Azerbaijan. 

While this waiver may have been justified during the Afghanistan war, what is the justification now for boosting the military potential of an oil-rich, authoritarian state with a dismal record on human rights? Ending U.S. military assistance to the Azerbaijani regime will neither affect the small amount of energy imports that Europe receives from Azerbaijan, nor will it hurt vital U.S. interests as the Global War on Terror is largely over. What it will do is send a strong message to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that his inhumane, coercive tactics and bullying à la Putin will not be tolerated.

Unless President Biden steps in now to address the crisis, Armenian democracy itself may be at peril, given the security risk posed by Azerbaijan. Inaction directly contradicts U.S. interests in countering malign Russian influence, as Armenia seeks to finally get rid of its unreliable treaty ally’s unwanted influence in the region. Unless Biden finally directs attention to what was once another Russian sphere of influence, the Administration will be contradicting its own stated foreign policy objectives which explain many of Biden’s policy choices, from the support of Ukraine to the goal of solidifying a common democratic front against the world’s autocrats. 

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