What Does Nagorno-Karabakh’s Fall Mean for Great Power Influence?

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! It’s good to be back to debate the week’s foreign-policy news. Where in the world are you writing from this week?

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt. I’m in London this week, and I have to come clean with you: I’m actually in the pub. I even ran into our editor. It’s already evening here, the Wi-Fi in my hotel is broken, and so here I am. This debate should be an easy win for you, at least if you assume I can’t hold my liquor.

MK: Ha. I’m envious. A British ale sounds pretty good right now. I am still on black coffee here in Washington.

[Editor’s note: I can confirm that only caffeinated beverages were consumed—in the course of FP business.]

Given your constraints, maybe I will throw you a softball and start with a subject not in my wheelhouse: What the heck is going on in Nagorno-Karabakh, and what should Washington do about it?

EA: Oh, Nagorno-Karabakh. Among the many things about foreign affairs these days that makes me need a drink is the fact that once-obscure minor territorial disputes related to the collapse of the Soviet Union have escalated to the point that people in Washington have heard of them. Nagorno-Karabakh is another formerly frozen conflict in the Caucasus region and the site of a major 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan recaptured most of the ethnically Armenian enclave in 2020 and has been slowly strangling the remaining residents by restricting food and supplies. Now Baku claims to have captured the whole area, and there’s a mass exodus of Armenian speakers. It sounds as if most of those leaving are terrified that if they remain, they’ll be killed—the Azerbaijani government will not offer guarantees about their safety.

As far as I can tell, the U.S. government is mostly an onlooker here. Maybe some diplomatic efforts, but nothing else concrete. It’s really interesting how differently Washington is treating this from Ukraine—another war that resulted from the legacies of the Soviet collapse.

MK: The logic of U.S. foreign policy in Europe and the Indo-Pacific is relatively straightforward. The regions are divided into the good guys (U.S. formal treaty allies and other partners) and the bad guys (the revisionist autocracies). Washington supports its friends and stands up to its enemies.

In other regions, like the Caucasus, U.S. policy is less clear-cut. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is a U.S. enemy or formal treaty ally. So this means the U.S. interest and means of engagement are less obvious, though the United States does have an active Armenian diaspora community that sometimes raises the profile of this issue. Washington would, of course, prefer peace and stability and for the two sides to reach a peaceful negotiated settlement. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks to try to resolve this issue this year.

EA: I thought Washington stood for democracy and human rights. Isn’t Armenia mostly democratic and Azerbaijan a revisionist autocracy?

In some ways, I think it’s the opposite of what you’re suggesting. Armenia may be democratic, but it’s historically aligned with Russia. Azerbaijan is close to NATO member state Turkey. It’s also an utterly vital source of gas for Europe now that the links to Russia have been cut. There are plans for Baku to supply almost one-fifth of the European Union’s natural gas by 2027. Perhaps that’s why European leaders have been so tight-lipped on the subject and why—despite pressure from MEPs in Brussels—sanctions appear to be off the table for the moment.

It’s also true that the ability of U.S. policymakers to shape outcomes here is very slim, and when they do try, they mostly mess it up—see then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit a few years back. The 2020 war was ended only through Russian mediation. But it doesn’t speak well of U.S. foreign policy that all the principles U.S. officials claim are overridingly important elsewhere just don’t seem to apply in Nagorno-Karabakh.

MK: You are right that Armenia is freer than Azerbaijan. (Freedom House lists the former as “partly free” and the latter as “unfree.”) Washington does obviously care about democracy and human rights, but the first priority now is stability. The United States, France, and Russia have all called on Azerbaijan to halt the violence. (Maybe there is still room for cooperation between Washington and Moscow after all.)

But none of the major powers have much influence. These were, after all, former Soviet republics, so Washington has never held great sway in this part of the world.

Russia has been more active as a mediator in the recent past, but it is now tied down with its war in Ukraine.

I do wonder if Baku saw this as a moment of opportunity, with the major powers distracted, to employ force to settle this long-standing dispute once and for all.

EA: I have very little doubt about that. Russia is just not capable of responding in its usual regional role right now, and that does have consequences.

Actually, this whole incident should be a warning to those in Washington—and more so in Eastern Europe—who argue that the collapse of Russia should be the goal of the war in Ukraine. A lot of these frozen conflicts might have gone the way of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s—ethnic cleansing, civil war—if Russia hadn’t intervened with peacekeepers. Now, those peacekeepers were also Russia’s way of keeping influence. But it wasn’t all bad. A weaker Russia will offer regional revisionists more scope for their intentions.

I was struck by the fact that when Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week, they did so in another contested region. Nakhchivan is an Azerbaijani exclave bordering Iran that isn’t connected to the rest of Azerbaijan. Instead, it’s divided by a strip of Armenian territory. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Aliyev’s next step was to try to grab a corridor of Armenian land to connect the two.

So why doesn’t Washington care? I thought an attack on sovereignty anywhere was an attack on it everywhere.

MK: I thought your belief is that Washington is engaged in overreach and needs to practice a foreign policy of restraint.

EA: I do. I’m just confused why you’re arguing for it this time.

MK: The United States is the most powerful country in the world, but it cannot do everything everywhere all at once. It prioritizes Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and the Middle East in its foreign policy because these regions contain the greatest concentrations of wealth, power, and danger. The United States is already countering Russia’s war in Europe, deterring China in the Indo-Pacific, and addressing various challenges in the Middle East.

The crisis in the Caucasus, while tragic, does not carry the same stakes for Washington, and, as you note, Washington’s ability to do anything about it is limited.

EA: OK, you got me. I’m not confused at all. I’m just trying to point out the hypocrisy that many in Washington—most notably the Biden administration—have about foreign policy. Values are the most important thing, until they’re not.

It would be more helpful if we had a debate about which values to prioritize, or how to spend scarce resources, than lecturing the world about the “liberal order” and then looking hypocritical later.

But I guess we should pivot to the Biden administration’s defense of the liberal order in Ukraine—I hear that we’re sending ATACMS soon. Or maybe not.

MK: Yes, it was a dramatic couple of weeks for trans-Atlantic security. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to the United States to ask the U.S. Congress for increased aid, but he was met with a frosty response from some House Republicans.

And President Joe Biden flip-flopped again on another major weapons system for Ukraine. After refusing to send ATACMS (a longer-range missile system that would allow Ukraine to strike deeper into Russia, Russian-occupied Ukraine, and the Black Sea) for months, Biden has apparently changed his mind. This weapon now joins tanks, aircraft, HIMARS, cluster munitions, and air and missile defenses on the long list of things Biden opposed sending to Ukraine until he supported them.

Sending ATACMS is the right move, but Biden’s indecision is contributing to the perception that he lacks a clear strategy.

And these two things are related. Many analysts attributed Republicans’ resistance to increased military support to Ukraine to isolationist sentiment. But the president has not effectively made his case.

Listen to what House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said about Republicans’ skepticism: “What is the plan for victory? I think that’s what the American public wants to know.”

EA: I really love the fact that “isolationist” has now become such a meaningless phrase that it’s used to describe Republicans who want to lower aid to Ukraine in order to prepare for a potential war with China. I heard someone describe Ted Cruz as an isolationist recently! Completely out of touch with reality.

You’re not wrong that support for the administration’s Ukraine strategy is in decline. And a big part of the problem is that they genuinely don’t seem to have a strategy. They’ve used maximalist language for 18 months, refusing to consider how the conflict ends until Ukraine wants to think about it and arguing that there can be no compromise on questions such as Crimea. Unsurprisingly, they now find that they are trapped in a corner of their own making: Absolute military victory is not on the table, but they don’t want to dial down support and risk Russia gaining the upper hand either.

More generally, this is part of the reason Zelensky had such a bad trip to the United States and Canada last week. In addition to all the public relations gaffes—like the Canadian Parliament giving an actual former Nazi a standing ovation—it was clear that there’s declining political appetite in the West for his hectoring about aid levels. There’s even a spat with Poland over grain, which led the Poles to suspend arms transfers to Ukraine. If Kyiv isn’t careful, it may begin to alienate its allies.

MK: There is still deep Western support for Ukraine. Other than the Poles, the Europeans are still on board. In London, where you are now, for example, the Conservatives and Labor are united in their support for Kyiv.

EA: Yes, but support is declining in Europe, too. As the historian Niall Ferguson pointed out recently, cross-European support for Ukraine-related funding, refugees, and aid is down anywhere between 10 and 20 percentage points in the last year. It’s a broader problem than just U.S. public opinion.

MK: In the United States, I think Congress can be kept on board, but Biden needs to make a better case. He is the commander in chief, but he has yet to give a major address to the nation about U.S. interests in Ukraine and his strategy for securing them. There is only one bully pulpit, and he is not using it.

EA: Maybe, and he’s certainly trying to capitalize on the administration’s successes in the war in Ukraine. His campaign put out an advert that highlights Biden’s role in Ukraine. I’m not so sure that’s a smart move. The way support has been falling, the war in Ukraine risks becoming an issue in next year’s presidential campaign.

Before we wrap up, I did want to get back to Canada. It has been a very strange week for the Trudeau government. In addition to the Nazi snafu, they also accused the Indian government of killing a dissident on Canadian soil. Pretty inflammatory stuff! And of course, it puts the U.S. government, which is cozying up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a difficult position.

MK: Yes. A major priority of the Biden White House is trying to figure out how to win over the “swing states” in the global south. Washington has often hoped that India, as the largest democracy in the world and a longtime rival of Beijing, would become a major strategic partner in the competition with China. There has been some progress. India is a key member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, for example. But New Delhi often disappoints.

Still, these new allegations—if true—would make a new low. Assassinating dissidents on Canadian soil reminds one more of Saudi Arabia and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi than something the free world should expect of an emerging democratic partner.

EA: For me, it just speaks to the need for flexibility in U.S. foreign policy. Washington has placed its hope in India for several years now, with many assuming that if they can just get India on board, they’ll not just help with China, but also be a reliable U.S. ally. That’s not a great assumption.

U.S. officials need to figure out how to work with India—and Saudi Arabia and other unpleasant states—without necessarily tying the United States to them too strongly. This is why the current model of comprehensive U.S. alliances that require the United States to align fully with one state on all issues is a poor approach to an increasingly multipolar world. I’ll be interested to see how the Biden administration reacts to this. Thus far, they’ve been pretty quiet about the whole thing.

MK: You are right. They are doing their best to avoid commenting on this in public.

Speaking of the public—and public houses—how was your pint?

EA: It certainly makes your arguments more tolerable. Maybe I’ll try this again for future columns!

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