STEPANAKERT, NAGORNO-KARABAKH - The Holy Mother of God Cathedral in Stepanakert, the largest city in Nagorno-Karabakh and the capital of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, symbolizes the tragedy of recent fighting. Refugees—or “displaced Armenians” as UN bureaucrats call them—sleep in the basement with little hope of returning to Shusha, a mountaintop town, now controlled by Azerbaijani forces. The buildings of Shusha are visible when fog lifts, but Russian peacekeepers have blocked the road less than two miles away from the cathedral and warn that they cannot protect anyone who goes closer from the possibility of being shot by Azerbaijani snipers or the Syrian Arab mercenaries brought in by Turkey who support them.
Armenians are shell-shocked. The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute in its current iteration predates the fall of the Soviet Union when the largely Armenian region separated from Armenia proper by Josef Stalin and made an autonomous oblast within Azerbaijan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh voted overwhelmingly for independence, a move Azerbaijan tried—and failed—to crush militarily. The local military trained to defend their mountainous terrain from Azerbaijani soldiers and a stalemate persisted for the past thirty-six years. But when air raid sirens sounded early on September 27, a Sunday morning when most residents were home or at church, the regional military found itself fighting not only Azeris, but also Turks, Syrian mercenaries handpicked by Turkey from amongst their most radical proxy groups, and Israeli-made drones. The Armenians managed to hold their Azeri adversaries at bay for almost six weeks but, in the end, the qualitative edge given to the Azerbaijanis by Turkey and Israel proved too much.
Armenia and Artsakh accepted a hasty ceasefire imposed upon them by Russia as the least bad option given the apparent willingness of Azerbaijan and Turkey to conduct wholesale ethnic cleansing. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was triumphant. “This [ceasefire] statement constitutes Armenia’s capitulation. This statement puts an end to the years-long occupation. This statement is our Glorious Victory!” he tweeted, adding, “There is no issue of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status in this statement.” In other words, Azerbaijan had achieved through force and a surprise attack what it had not achieved in the diplomatic talks to which it had committed itself. That might have been bad enough, but Aliyev continued to argue that he had no intention to negotiate further regarding recognizing the status of Armenians in the region and their nearly three-decade-old self-governing entity.
Among the collateral damage from the forty-five-day war has been the Minsk Group’s diplomatic credibility. Russia appears to have hoodwinked and outplayed its American and French co-chairs in cutting a separate deal which enabled it to insert its own forces into the region in contradiction to its previous commitments to rely on neutral peacekeepers likely drawn from Scandinavian countries without a history in the region.
The United States, distracted by its election system and a White House skeptical of asserting Western influence abroad, has been largely silent with the exception of some pro forma but ultimately meaningless statements. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call for a return to the negotiating table is alone unlikely to persuade Azerbaijan. After all, from Aliyev’s perspective, his alliance with Turkey and its jihadist militias and its gratuitous violence toward Armenian prisoners pays more than diplomacy.
Absent American and French leverage, Aliyev might be right. But his triumphalism may also have been premature. He bragged about liberating Shusha but, while Azeri special forces and Arab militiamen may have reached the mountaintop town, Putin may have had the last laugh. There are no roads into Shusha from Azerbaijan passable by ordinary vehicles; all existing roads pass through Artsakh and are blocked by Russian peacekeepers. Aliyev has promised an Azeri return to Shusha but is unable to deliver. He has reportedly asked Putin for permission to build a new road but has yet to receive permission.
The United States and France should seize this opening and demand that any road construction be tied to the return of Shusha’s population to the city and a return to Azerbaijan’s Minsk Group commitments. Washington and Paris may have lost leverage by inaction when tested, but Aliyev would be foolish to believe that his economy and he and his wife’s personal assets can resist the full wrath of U.S. and European financial pressure. Nor is Putin likely going to fall on his sword for Aliyev when Russia has already achieved its goal: troops in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan may be an absolute dictatorship and a family fiefdom, but domestic politics still matter and amplify U.S. leverage. Aliyev may appear triumphant, but he is savvy enough to know that Azeris will soon learn the cost of their military victory. Not only do they now have jihadi Syrian militias on their soil who apparently refuse to leave, but they have also become a Turkish satellite state with Turkish troops on their territory. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s military assistance was not altruistic, but rather came at the cost of Azerbaijan’s true independence. Aliyev may view Erdoğan as an equal, but Erdoğan sees Aliyev as a subordinate, little different than the president of his puppet state in northern Cyprus. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan lost several thousand troops. Their families may be silent for now, but Aliyev’s inability to repopulate Shusha—the crown jewel of his expensive campaign—could amplify the domestic pressure he faces when Azeris realize their president was stupid to trust Putin.
Aliyev also erred in his refusal to negotiate Artsakh’s status. Armenia has long deferred recognition of the republic out of deference to the Minsk process. By embracing unilateralism, Aliyev is empowering Armenia to do the same. In the past, Yerevan may have also believed that such action could be provocative and upset the status quo. With Russian troops now separating Azeri forces from their Armenian counterparts, such considerations could fall by the wayside. Indeed, Aliyev’s actions could put a Kosovo solution for Nagorno-Karabakh on the table.
In short, the United States and France have more leverage in the Minsk Group than their leaders now realize. At first glance, the new status quo appears a defeat for Armenia and the idea of self-determination for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. But Aliyev’s miscalculations, mistakes, and triumphalist rhetoric may have just opened the door to a new status quo. It is time for the State Department and Quai d’Orsay to seize the opportunity.