Armenia’s Russian-Backed Aggression a Danger to Region

T
he Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan was illegally occupied by neighboring Armenia during a three-year war that ended with a ceasefire in 1994. The occupied 4,440-square-mile territory – four times the size of Rhode Island – and its Armenian residents are so dependent on Armenia that they use Armenian currency. Much like the ongoing crises in Ukraine and Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh is an example of Russian meddling in the affairs of sovereign, democratic nations. In this case, Russia is trying to tip the scales in favor of its proxy Armenia.

There’s no dispute about the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. The United Nations and several other international organizations agree the land belongs to Azerbaijan and that it is under illegal occupation by Armenia. They also condemn the forced expulsion of Azerbaijani residents during the war.

Unfortunately, International denunciation has not moved Armenia toward the negotiating table. Instead, criticism has only made the regime – and its Russia backers – more intractable. Especially worrisome are the increasingly belligerent words and actions coming from its government. These threats are accompanied by new military hardware in the form of nuclear-capable missiles purchased from Russia and pointed at Azerbaijan.

The result is a toxic and unstable Armenian policy, supported and facilitated by Russia, which is escalating tensions in an already fraught part of the world.

It is clear to everyone except Armenia that discussions must be held between the two nations to reduce military tensions and, ultimately, to return the stolen territory to Azerbaijan’s control.

The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group have repeatedly called for the resumption of the negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Without negotiations, they say, “the prospects for renewed violence will only increase.” Talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan are “an essential element in building confidence and moving the peace process forward,” the co-chairs have said. Much as it does in lip-service talks with Ukraine, Russia shows two faces in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: It supplies Armenia with weapons while co-chairing the Minsk Group.

Despite pressure, Armenia has ignored all requests for peace talks. Since last September, the government has refused to engage in serious negotiations. Not only has Armenia turned its back on peace talks, it is sending aggressive signals related to militarization.

In his inaugural speech to the nation’s parliament last October, Armenian Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan called for the creation of a “nation army,” saying “the armed forces should play a greater role in the country’s social and economic life.” Sargsyan would require all branches of the Armenian government, its political bodies and civil society organizations to embrace roles in the nation’s defense. The nation-army would become a “workshop for military and patriotic education,” he said.

At the same time, Armenia is investing in game-changing new weaponry. The nation has received Iskander missiles from Russia, its regional sponsor, that can be fitted with nuclear warheads. Deployed along Armenia’s eastern front, the Iskanders can reach targets throughout Azerbaijan, including the capital, Baku. Russia and Armenia have also established a joint air defense system for the Caucasus region and created joint forces to “ensure security in the Caucasus region,” the two nations have said. All signs are pointing toward a further integration of Russian and Armenian forces.

Armenia’s dangerous tack is drawing critics from inside and outside the country.

Armenian opposition leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian has called for his nation to engage in a phased resolution of the conflict, the return of the occupied Azerbaijani territories and open borders to restore economic relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Ter-Petrossian also criticized the “nation army” idea, calling it ill-conceived. He said its goal is to maintain the status quo, just using different, more hostile language.

Azerbaijan has repeatedly sought to engage with Armenia to end the standoff, return the illegally occupied territory and resume trade between the two nations.

In October 2016, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev proposed making the Nagorno-Karabakh region an autonomous republic. The people of the region want to have a hand in determining their fate and this goodwill gesture accommodated that desire. The proposal was welcomed by the U.S.

Armenia’s reaction? Days after the Azerbaijani overtures, Armenia’s foreign minister declared that any potential settlement talks were frozen.

Azerbaijan and international observers can only conclude that Armenia has no interest in peace or negotiations.

Armenia has no legal claim to the Nagorno-Karabakh territory nor to the people it has subjugated. Its thuggish behavior is a risk to Azerbaijan and the region and cannot continue unchecked. Instead of rejoining the community of nations, Armenia continues to withdraw into its militarized, rogue-nation status.

With Russia’s help, Armenia is on the verge of becoming the North Korea of the Caucasus. It’s time for the U.S. and the West to get more involved and bring the parties to the bargaining table.

Eugen Iladi is a freelance reporter based in Virginia who covers politics, conflict and development in emerging markets.

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