Conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh demands American diplomacy — without NATO overreach 

Early this year, the United States placed Azerbaijan on a watchlist for violating religious freedom after it invaded Nagorno-Karabakh, a region with Christian religious sites. The move, which could include sanctions, is one of several steps the United States has taken to punish Azerbaijan for its unprovoked aggression; in November, the Senate unanimously voted for legislation to reduce military aid to Azerbaijan.  

Potential sanctions and limiting military aid are part of a growing consensus that aiding Azerbaijan is not a priority for the United States, if it ever was. But the vote raises questions about the United States’s role in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict overall. 

Reducing conflict abroad is a noble goal in American foreign policy, but the way that Washington has historically approached foreign conflict has often exacerbated it. Lawmakers should acknowledge two realities and act accordingly: first, that the outcome of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict has limited connections to American interests and security, and second, U.S. involvement in the conflict has typically been a method of combating Russia that could lead to longer-term conflict, both in the Caucasus and between the United States and Russia directly.  

Instead of ignoring the atrocities of unprovoked conflict and ethnic cleansing from Azerbaijan or arming either side, the United States should become a mediator. 

Reducing arms shipments to Azerbaijan is a necessary start. Azerbaijan has been a crucial supplier of energy to Washington’s European allies after Russia’s war in Ukraine began, but these foreign relationships are not enough of a reason to contribute to a conflict through military means. 

As American lives and core interests are not at stake, it would also be a mistake to hint at military support for Armenia, as joint exercises did in September. Likewise, designating Armenia as a military ally, as some in the foreign policy community have previously argued, should be recognized as a move that would bring more risk to the U.S. and no clear benefit for the American people. 

Armenia has geographic and economic links to Russia, and Russia has long sought dominant influence in the Caucasus. As a result, American leaders have chosen to treat the region as important for security — or in reality, crucial for combatting Russia. This reactive foreign policy has contributed to worsening relations with Russia and unnecessary regional violence. 

Despite Russia’s historical links to Armenia and aid in times of conflict, its failed efforts to prevent conflict in 2020 and 2023 have led to an increasing sense in Armenia among its people and its leader, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, that the nation would need to look elsewhere for military and diplomatic support. In an October 2019 poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, 88 percent of Armenians surveyed named Russia as among the most important political partners of Armenia; after the Russian failure to moderate the 2020 conflict, the number dropped to 50 percent. 

As the October 2023 conflict demonstrated Russia’s failures, Armenia drifted further from Russia. Pashinyan publicly indicated that relying on Russian security had been a mistake and took steps to join the International Criminal Court, which had issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin. But the Armenian drift, encouraged by the United States, is not an adequate reason to push the country further from Russia; there is ample evidence that the expansion of NATO and its influence closer to Russia has historically increased Russian aggression, specifically in the Caucasus. 

Shortly after the 2008 Bucharest summit, during which the United States pushed for Georgian NATO membership, Russia invaded Georgia, as its conflict with the breakaway region South Ossetia turned into full-scale war. Fifteen years later, Russia still occupies 20 percent of internationally recognized Georgian territory. At the summit, Putin had warned that the expansion of NATO closer to Russian borders would be viewed as a “direct threat.” While Russia is in no position to use its own military to pressure Armenia or Azerbaijan, lawmakers must recognize that Russian reactions to NATO overreach in the Caucasus have exacerbated regional conflicts. 

Armenia’s drift away from Russian influence could tempt officials from the United States to combat Russia in the region via proxy. But Azerbaijan’s aggression demonstrates the need for a resolution, and the United States can best provide it with diplomacy, in the hopes of bringing stability to the region. Beyond promoting diplomacy, American interests are not directly linked to promoting war through providing arms in the regional conflict. 

Instead of expanding the role of NATO and Washington in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, the United States can and should continue to use diplomatic and humanitarian methods to mediate the conflict, as head of USAID Samantha Power and Secretary of State Antony Blinken did when the conflict began. Less provocative and more effective than military involvement, Washington would be wise to learn the lessons of its previous failures by choosing diplomacy. 

America’s embrace of great power competition in the South Caucasus has incited Russian aggression by threatening Russia’s perceived regional influence. Overall, these mistakes have reduced the likelihood that the United States and Russia, two nuclear superpowers, can engage diplomatically and effectively. 

Zachary Weiss is a political risk analyst living in Tbilisi, Georgia, who has conducted research concerning foreign and domestic politics in the Balkans, Caucasus, and Central Asia.  

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