The US needs to send a strong message for Russia - opinion

Azerbaijan has implemented a blockade on the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia; which has rapidly become a humanitarian crisis. 

 US President Joe Biden welcomes Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to the White House, last month (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
US President Joe Biden welcomes Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to the White House, last month

In his historic speech to Congress, embattled Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky cogently made the case that the war against Russia went beyond Kyiv’s security and that it has been a fight to preserve democracy. 

By underscoring how Ukraine’s security and democratic ideals are inextricably linked to the US and their allies, Zelensky was able to deliver a powerful and resonant message that simplified the current crisis into a battle between good and evil. By doing so, Zelensky also made the case as to why another conflict taking place in that same part of the world should be receiving similar support and attention but sadly is not.

For more than three weeks now, Azerbaijan, one of the most repressive and autocratic countries in the world, has implemented a blockade to the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, which has rapidly become a humanitarian crisis. 

By cutting off the only link to the outside world, Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh have been denied much needed supplies like food, medicine and heating gas, as temperatures drop to freezing levels. This burgeoning humanitarian situation has led Human Rights Watch and the Pope to voice their concern for the 120,000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, including 30,000 children who are being deprived of basic human rights.

These actions further highlight how Azerbaijan continues to engage in a campaign of intimidation and fear against Armenians living in their ancestral homeland. Last winter, Baku turned to a similar playbook when they prevented Armenians from fixing a pipeline that was central in providing heating gas in subzero temperatures, after launching an illegal war against Armenia in the fall of 2020.

 US President Joe Biden welcomes Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to the White House, last month (credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS) US President Joe Biden welcomes Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to the White House, last month (credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

Past actions from  Azerbaijan

Under the false pretense of environmentalism, the group of Azerbaijanis who are currently blocking the road have claimed that they are raising the alarm about eco-terrorism in Nagorno-Karabakh. These are the same environmentalists who are wearing fur coats while releasing doves into the wild as a symbol of peace – a major faux pas in environmental circles since doves that are used that way are often injured or killed. The protesters are also from the same country that inflicted much harm to the environment during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. 

DURING THAT conflict, Azerbaijan used chemical weapons to burn down forests where civilians took shelter from Azerbaijan’s attacks. Video evidence also showed Azeri military forces using white phosphorus munitions containing elements of chemical weapons in the primary forests of Nagorno-Karabakh.

As part of this ecocide, Azerbaijan threatened the Persian Leopard, an endangered species endemic to the area as well as contaminating rivers and underground waters, while making the area inhabitable for people and wildlife living in the region.

Based on the evidence and its putrid human rights and environmental track record, Azerbaijan is a country that cannot be trusted. In many ways, it’s one of the reasons why Baku has grown much closer to Moscow in recent years. For example, two days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin signed a wide-ranging agreement with Azerbaijan, deepening their diplomatic and military cooperation. 

And while ties between Moscow and Baku grow closer by the day, Armenia is finding itself more isolated than ever before. Whether by design or not, Putin has been distracted by his war with Ukraine which Azerbaijan has taken full advantage of. But Putin may be intentionally letting this happen to send a message to the West that without Russia, there’s no regional stability. 

In other words, he’s basically inserting Russia’s sphere of influence without doing or saying much of anything, while allowing Azerbaijan to flex its regional muscles. It’s one of the reasons why Armenia has accused Russian peacekeepers of failing to prevent the illegal blockade of the road to Nagorno-Karabakh and its overall obligation and mission in the region. 

But what the world needs to remember is that Putin’s values are more aligned with Azerbaijan than they are with Armenia, a fledgling democracy. Put simply, dictators like to stick together.

THAT IS why the United States has a role to play. The Biden administration has an opportunity to also send a strong message to Russia vis-a-vis Azerbaijan – that wanton acts of aggression and the violation of basic human rights will not be tolerated. However, they have done the exact opposite. 

Days after becoming the first US president to recognize the Armenian Genocide, Biden waived section 907 of the Freedom Support Act which bans aid to Azerbaijan, which has basically given Baku a green light to act with impunity and no accountability. For a president who entered office claiming that human rights would be the central tenet of his foreign policy, it is inconceivable that he has allowed this blockade to happen.

What we have seen are hollow statements from the State Department calling on both parties to reconcile their differences, with little to no concrete action.

Washington should also be concerned about recent statements from Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev that reflect his true intentions. In a recent speech to the Community of West Azerbaijani’s on his 61st birthday, Aliyev unequivocally claimed that Armenia is their historical land while attacking critics in the United States for supporting Armenia. This follows a pattern of other speeches in which the petro-dictator has made the same argument and has even said that Yerevan, the capital of Armenia belongs to Azerbaijan.

What is happening in Ukraine is no different to that which is currently taking place against Armenians. These events are not mutually exclusive. Both countries are under attack by despots who have zero respect for the rule of law. Both are fighting for their sovereignty, survival, and the ideals of democracy. 

In that same speech to Congress, Zelensky also talked about the meaning of allies and alliances, specifically between Russia and Iran, and how one terrorist has found the other. The same can be said of Azerbaijan. Russia has found a like-minded ally in Azerbaijan.

It is time for the United States to hold Azerbaijan accountable and to put an end to their egregious behavior. They can start by implementing sanctions against Azerbaijan until they reopen the road to Nagorno-Karabakh. Democracy and innocent lives are at stake. Time is running out.

The writer is a communications strategist who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s a first-generation Armenian American and grandson to survivors of the Armenian genocide.