By MOVSES TER-OGANESYAN and SUREN SARGSYAN*
Due to the Soviet Union’s policy of divide and rule, the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. unleashed devastating wars over disputed territories. The longest running territorial dispute in the post-Soviet space has been over Nagorno-Karabakh (NKR or Artsakh) between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This conflict is unique because it is not a proxy war between Russia and the West, and it’s fascinating considering America’s posture during its early stages.
Nagorno-Karabakh had a 90% Armenian population, but Josef Stalin transferred it to the rule of Soviet Azerbaijan to sow ethnic unrest, making both groups easier to control. In 1991, NKR held a referendum and declared its desire to become an independent state. Unable to stomach the overwhelming support for secession, the Azeri government began the indiscriminate shelling and blockade of the civilian population of the enclave. This episode was preceded by bloody pogroms of Armenians in the Azeri cities of Baku, Sumgait, and Kirovabad, as well as state sponsored deportations called Operation Ring.
Armenia did not remain idle after witnessing Azerbaijan’s targeting of NKR’s civilian population. Many Armenians feared that the Azerbaijani belligerence was a prelude to yet greater violence akin to the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey at the turn of the 20th Century. While Karabakh’s Armenians received support from Armenia, Azerbaijan received support from their ethnic kin in Turkey, mujahedeen fighters from Afghanistan, and Islamists from Chechnya. Due to Armenia’s victories on the battlefield against Wahhabi and Azerbaijani extremists, the already landlocked, tiny, country of 3 million, is blockaded by Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Due to this blockade, U.S. Congress passed Section 907 of the FREEDOM Support Act in 1992, banning direct aid from the U.S. to Azerbaijan unless the president determines that Azerbaijan takes demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other punitive uses of force against Armenia and NKR. Azerbaijan thus became the only country in the post-Soviet space slated to not receive U.S. aid.
This policy remained unchanged until just after the 9/11 terror attacks. President Bush requested a waiver of 907 to allow Azerbaijan to receive aid. Every year since then, the president has waived 907 allowing this oil-rich nation on the Caspian Sea to receive $20 million in American aid.
April 2016 saw the biggest explosion of violence along the Line of Contact between NKR and Azerbaijan since the 1994 ceasefire agreement signed by Armenia, NKR, and Azerbaijan. In launching these attacks, Azerbaijan violated the preconditions set by Section 907. The text of the waiver does not mention that aggression cannot be directed against NKR, a crucial point of the original text which helped ensure cessation of hostilities. Omitting this language has certainly emboldened the political and military leadership of Azerbaijan to see what they can get away with. Coupled with the laissez-faire attitude of the Trump administration toward the region, it is a matter of time before Azerbaijan tests the waters once more.
In an obvious violation of the ceasefire terms, Azerbaijani Army officers trained by the U.S. Army as part of the U.S. aid to Azerbaijan were found killed in action in the Armenian village of Talish during the fighting in April. Colonel Vugar Yusifov was trained at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona in 2007. On the night of April 3, 2016, he commanded the Special Forces Unit that attacked the village. Lieutenant Colonel Murad Mirzayev attended the Defense Language Institute in San Antonio, TX in 2005-6. He also completed Marine Corps officer training courses in Quantico, VA and Fort Lejeune, NC.
What makes these violations more brazen are the heinous crimes (multiple beheadings, and the execution and mutilation of three elderly civilians) attributed to the regiments commanded by these men. The crimes prompted bipartisan calls for Leahy Law investigations by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA), and Ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY).
Lest the international community wait for Azerbaijan to engage in large scale military adventurism as witnessed in April 2016, America needs to rethink its position of providing aid to an already wealthy aggressor which violates U.S. law.
*Ter-Oganesyan and Sargsyan are Caucasus policy experts. Ter-Oganesyan is a fellow at the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute. Sargsyan is cofounder of International and Comparative Law Center, Yerevan Armenia.