Commentary Magazine


Is Putin’s Next Move Against Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

As much as Azerbaijan orients itself toward the West, neighboring Armenia has planted itself firmly in Russia’s orbit. Indeed, Armenians are perhaps the only people who would willingly vote to embrace Russia rather than the West even if Russia did not lift a finger to influence or force them. Culturally, Russians and Armenians have much in common, and Russia remains Armenia’s chief patron.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into hot conflict almost immediately upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence by both states. In December 1991, Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh declared their own republic, one of those fictional states that the Kremlin has helped prop up with increasing frequency—for example, Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and more recently Crimea and Donetsk in the Ukraine.

Visiting Georgetown University Professor Brenda Shaffer is right when she writes in the Wall Street Journal that “Freezing lawless regions invites conflicts.” Nagorno-Karabakh has become a center for money laundering, weapons trafficking, and general instability. In sum, it has become the typical Putin proxy.

With the West distracted by events in Iraq, it seems Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh sought to make their move against a pro-Western ally which has moved to become an energy hub outside Russia’s orbit. Clashes began last week, and have escalated over subsequent days.

When it comes to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, there’s a tendency by American policymakers to engage in moral equivalence or simply to seek quiet, regardless of principle. This is wrong on four counts:

First, while Western policymakers see diplomacy as a means to conflict resolution, Russian Present Putin sees international relations as a zero-sum game in which for Russia and its client states to win, the United States and its allies must lose.

Second, whatever the emotional commitment many in the Armenian Diaspora in the United States have toward Armenia and their desire to seek acknowledgement for the events of a century ago, the fact of the matter is that the Armenian government has repeatedly undercut U.S. interests, even going so far as ship Iranian weaponry to be used to kill American soldiers in Iraq.

Third, it’s time the White House recognize that friendship and alliance go two ways. We cannot expect Azerbaijan to so continuously align itself with the United States and promote American interests if we turn our back on its friendship in its hour of need.

And fourth, there is no longer any excuse to not see Putin for what he is. No more Bush-era soul gazing, or Obama-era reset. That Bush and Obama hardly reacted when Russian forces invaded Georgia surely contributed to Putin’s willingness to invade Ukraine. That Obama fiddled and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to appease in the aftermath of that crisis only encouraged Putin to move once again to destabilize the South Caucasus, and its most consistent pro-Western republic. If the United States does not stand up for Azerbaijan, then Putin will understand that we are neither serious about freedom or liberty, friendship or alliance. In such a case, beware Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and even Poland.

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2 Responses to “Is Putin’s Next Move Against Azerbaijan?”

  1. JOE RIBAKOFF says:

    Between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Mr. Putin’s Russia is far more likely to attack Armenia. It has attacked Yerevan twice before. That which sets-off Mr. Putin into a Tsarist hissy-fit of near-abroad political violence is a condition that is more likely to re-occur in Armenia rather than occur for the first time in Azerbaijan.

    Mr. Putin has a domestic reason for Russian near-abroad violence. He attacked the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan to contain the contagion of democracy and keep the color revolutions from infecting Moscow. Mr. Putin’s army, pretending not to be his army, attacked the sovereign, independent, democratic country of Ukraine to quarantine Bolotnaya Square from an outbreak in Kyiv of infectious democracy.

    Armenia once had a government with a powerful parliament. That came to an end in 1999 when gunmen murdered the speaker. According to Alexander Litvinenko, Mr. Putin ordered the operation that destroyed the power of the Armenian Parliament.

    In 2008, demonstrators filled the streets of Yerevan to protest against a rigged presidential election. After Russia denounced the protest as a color revolution plot, the military opened-fired on the demonstrators. According to the government, 10 demonstrators were killed. According to eyewitnesses who do not work for the government, the death toll was far greater.

    Azerbaijan is aligned with the West, however, under the repressive government of Ilham Alyiev, it is free of the disease of democracy. Until democracy can spread from Baku to Moscow, Mr. Putin has no cause to attack Azerbaijan.

  2. ELLIOTT GREEN says:

    Michael, there are two issues that should not be confused here. One is whether it is better for US foreign policy to help Azerbaijan against Armenia. I do not address that issue. The other issue is the rights and wrongs of the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) case in itself. You fail to indicate that Artsakh has historically been inhabited by an Armenian majority, who were subject to dhimmi status while under Muslim rule. In the early Soviet period, Artsakh was assigned by the Bolsheviks to be an ASSR, an “autonomous republic” within the Azerbaijan SSR, that is, subject in some sense to the Muslim Azeris. Given that Azeris and the Armenians of Artsakh practiced mutual ethnic cleansing in the years 1988-1990, bringing them into one state would be a recipe for mass murder.

    Be that as it may, does Rubin see it as just that Soviet imposed boundaries be honored implicitly in the post-Soviet period?

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