Los Angeles Politics

U.S. peace talks try to stop war between Armenia, Azerbaijan

The Biden administration is hosting risky peace talks this week between bitter South Caucasus rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan, hoping to avert a second major war in Eastern Europe with the two sides far apart.

The talks — the first to bring together the foreign ministers of the two countries in a room for multiple days — started Sunday night and are scheduled to end Thursday.

U.S. officials have been tight-lipped about whether any progress has been made.

“We remain committed to promoting a peaceful future for the South Caucasus region,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said on Wednesday. “We believe that peace between these two countries is possible. We believe that there is not a military solution to this.”

But military actions have overshadowed diplomatic gestures in recent months. The two former Soviet republics have disputed territory for years. Fighting in 2020 killed nearly 7,000 soldiers, and deadly skirmishes broke out again just last month.

The crux of the dispute is a breakaway enclave of territory within Azerbaijan that is populated by ethnic Armenians and controlled by pro-Armenian separatists. The contested region is known to Azerbaijan as Nagorno-Karabakh, and to Armenians as Artsakh, a mountainous area slightly larger than Rhode Island.

Russia, the European Union, Turkey and even Iran have had their fingers in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict at one time or another. The United States stepped into the fray late last year when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, pulled together his counterparts, Ararat Mirzoyan of Armenia and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov, for an initial contact.

Blinken is overseeing this week’s talks with Mirzoyan and Bayramov, who have consistently appeared somber in photographs released from the meeting site just outside Washington.

Ahead of the meetings, Blinken spoke with the top leaders of both countries, urging diplomacy but also scolding Azerbaijan for blocking access to Nagorno-Karabakh by setting up a checkpoint along the Lachin corridor, the lone land route between Armenia and the disputed enclave.

Armenia claims the restricted access has denied the population food, medicine and other humanitarian needs.

“We have not parsed our words about the need for the free flow of traffic and people and commerce through the Lachin corridor,” Patel said. “That continues to be the case.”

The U.S. is often seen as favoring Armenia, primarily because of support in Congress for large Armenian American constituencies in Southern California and elsewhere.

But some U.S.-based pro-Armenia activists criticize the Biden administration for continued military aid to Azerbaijan and what they consider to be insufficient humanitarian aid for the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

“For our government to truly act as an honest broker, they must stop military aid to the aggressor,” Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said. He was not optimistic about the outcome of this week’s meetings.

The Azerbaijan Embassy in Washington did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Alliances in the conflict have shifted over the years. Initially, Russia backed majority-Christian Armenia over majority-Muslim Azerbaijan, which had the support of Turkey.

But Russia is now bogged down in its disastrous war on Ukraine and less able to supply Armenia with weapons and other material support, analysts say. Armenia also came away from the fighting in 2020 with heavy losses and was forced to cede some territory to Azerbaijan under the terms of a Russia-brokered cease-fire agreement.

A report by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence late last year predicted Azerbaijan would be the “country most likely to renew large-scale conflict” in an effort to “consolidate and expand the gains” from 2020.

“Armenia is less likely to initiate fighting because of the deteriorated state of its military in the aftermath of the 2020 conflict,” the report said. “The Armenian Armed Forces suffered heavy equipment and personnel losses during the conflict in 2020 and have been unable to reconstitute because of funding and procurement issues.”

That may make Armenia more willing to compromise, analysts say, despite what some perceive as having the U.S. in its corner.

While U.S. officials have not discussed details of the meetings, reports in Armenian and Azerbaijan media suggest the two countries will sign a “normalization” pact, which would open the way to renewed ties and broader agreements.

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