In December, three months after the devastating September 2023 Azerbaijani offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh displaced more than 100,000 Armenians, Yerevan and Baku engaged in bilateral talks that “reconfirmed their intention to normalize relations and to reach a peace treaty on the basis of respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
While it is important that both sides remain engaged in negotiations, a sustainable peace settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains elusive. The question in Washington remains: Can the United States do anything to help the situation?
Throughout the high-tension episodes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, each side has further entrenched its own nationalist rhetoric. Yerevan has primarily been concerned with the security and status of Karabakh Armenians who, since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, were increasingly faced with the threat of ethnic cleansing (a development that has, in fact, occurred, according to the European Parliament). Meanwhile, Baku has focused on restoring its territorial integrity as the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh statelet was always internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s latest offensive resulted in the forceful integration of Nagorno-Karabakh, resembling Russia’s 1999-2000 reabsorption of Chechnya after the Soviet Union’s collapse gave way to a separatist war. However, myriad problems remain unresolved and may once again provoke conflict in the South Caucasus.
The more than 100,000 Armenians who fled the region face uncertainty in the Republic of Armenia. After enduring a nine-month Azerbaijani blockade of vital supplies from Armenia and the outside world, Karabakh Armenians are facing harsh conditions in Armenia proper — the state is unable to allocate sufficient resources for many families, and many working-age people are unable to find jobs. According to official Armenian figures, 38% of the refugees now live in Yerevan, but the cost of living in and around the capital is far more expensive than anywhere else in the country.
Despite support from Europe and the United States, which have been minimal thus far, absorbing more than 30,000 Karabakh Armenian refugees after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and 100,000 after September 2023 is no easy task for a country of three million people, especially since they have cultural and linguistic differences from their ethnic kin raised in the Republic of Armenia. The difficulties imposed by the inflow of migrants have led more than 10,000 Karabakh refugees to settle elsewhere, with a majority choosing Russia, motivated primarily by family bonds and other connections there.
Given that economically challenged Armenia is finding it difficult to reintegrate Karabakh Armenians into society, it remains an open question whether there is an opportunity for these migrants to return to their homes in Karabakh.
After Baku established control over Nagorno-Karabakh, hundreds of Armenian monasteries, churches, cemeteries, and shrines are now at risk of erasure, as evidenced by Azerbaijan’s previous cultural erasure that occurred after the war in 2020. One of the authors of a 2019 report documenting previous instances of cultural cleansing referred to Azerbaijan’s actions in the region as “the greatest cultural genocide of the 21st century.”
Despite Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s announcement that the “Armenian population living in Karabakh will soon see a change for the better,” Armenians are skeptical of returning to their original homes without international oversight. At present, it is estimated that only a few dozen Karabakh Armenians remain in the region and most who have fled express little interest in returning without international guarantees following decades of ethnic hostility.
The possibility of renewed escalation still hangs over the region. President Aliyev’s insistence on establishing what Azerbaijanis call the “Zangezur corridor,” which would connect its mainland territory with its exclave Nakhchivan, negatively impacts the progress of peace talks, with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan calling such demands “totally unacceptable.”
President Aliyev had previously made remarks with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that such a corridor could be established by force, irrespective of Yerevan’s wishes. Such rhetoric has alarmed Yerevan and gravely concerned Iran, one of Armenia’s largest trade partners. In October, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said his country is “strongly opposed” to such a corridor that would disrupt the land border between the two countries. Tehran has proposed an alternative route through Iranian territory.
Prospects for the United States to make an impact in peace negotiations are dim.
Yet, Azerbaijan has remained adamant about establishing a corridor through Armenia, as President Aliyev said in the January 2024 interview. Aliyev mentioned that if the Zangezur corridor is not opened, Azerbaijan will not “open [its] border with Armenia anywhere else.”
Lastly, the status of the remaining Armenian prisoners of war hangs in the air. A swap of 32 Armenian prisoners and two Azerbaijani captives that took place between the countries in December 2023 was widely welcomed by the international community. Armenian human rights activists said there were still at least 23 Armenians in Azerbaijani captivity, including former de facto politicians from Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian prisoners should have been released in accordance with the November 2020 ceasefire agreement. To achieve long-lasting peace, respecting previous agreements is necessary.
Considering these factors, what could Washington’s impact on the Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations look like? Currently, it is difficult for the United States to act as a direct broker of peace. Azerbaijan no longer supports Western-backed platforms for negotiations and instead champions bilateral talks or Moscow’s brokerage, as Russia has pivoted from providing meaningful support to Armenia. In effect, Baku, which previously welcomed Western mediation, ended its support for Western-mediated platforms after achieving its aims of dissolving the breakaway statelet.
American-Azerbaijani relations rapidly soured in the final months of 2023, especially following US Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien’s Congressional statement that the US had canceled high-level bilateral meetings and engagements with Azerbaijan while expressing sympathy for Armenia. Although diplomatic meetings resumed after O’Brien’s announcement, prospects for the United States to make an impact in peace negotiations are dim.
Europe’s opportunities to play a role are also almost nonexistent as France, which hosts a sizable Armenian community, sent weapons to Armenia following the September 2023 Azerbaijani offensive. This has resulted in an escalation in tensions between Baku and Paris, as Azerbaijan arrested a Frenchman in December 2023 on espionage charges, to which France responded by expelling two Azerbaijani diplomats. At the same time, Baku has cracked down on independent journalists in Azerbaijan in a hunt for “US spies.”
Rather than attempting to steer peace negotiations directly, several principles should guide Washington’s policy toward the two countries as they seek to stabilize their relations.
These include continued encouragement for prioritizing diplomatic solutions to mitigate future conflict, supporting future conversations regarding the return of Karabakh Armenians to their homes in Azerbaijan and political prisoners and POWs to Armenia, and following through on current humanitarian assistance to Karabakh Armenians in Armenia. While Azerbaijan has invited Karabakh Armenians back to the region (granted that they apply for Azerbaijani citizenship and would have no special rights or guarantees), it is clear that they will need international oversight to feel safe returning to Azerbaijan.
Still, as things stand now, the likelihood of the integrating Karabakh Armenians into Azerbaijan, even with international involvement, appears slim. This process will likely only come in the event of genuine reconciliation between Armenians and Azeris. Washington should continue encouraging the two countries to advance toward such an agreement.
The United States is currently unwilling to do much more diplomatic work in the South Caucasus. But it can pursue a limited set of initiatives to make peace in the region more likely and long-lasting.