US Ambassador’s Parting Salvo Asks for Territorial Concessions in Karabakh

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After completing his three-and-a-half year tenure in Yerevan, US Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills has chosen to leave while making incendiary remarks rather than parting quietly with fond memories.

During his term in Armenia, a remarkable transformation took place in the country. While Armenia became more visible on the international scene, domestic changes heralded a new era particularly with the advent of the Velvet Revolution.

Any country, regardless of size, has a role to play on the strategic balance of powers, especially in the Caucasus region, which has become a powder keg.

In his parting salvo, Mr. Mills gave a long interview to EVN Report (https://www.evnreport.com/politics/u-s-ambassador-mills-i-leave-inspired-and-hopeful), where he covered much of the developments in the region during his tenure in Yerevan. To say the least, his remarks and views created a bitter aftertaste in Armenia with regard to the solution of the Karabakh conflict.

The Armenian media, in Armenia and in the diaspora, has reacted vehemently to his statement, even hurling personal insults at the ambassador. It would be foolhardy and naïve to hold Mr. Mills personally responsible for those remarks. We do not need to shoot the messenger instead of the message. We have seen in the case of one of his predecessors, namely John Evans, a single word, “genocide,” cost a diplomat his position and destroy his career. Ultimately history will vindicate Evans, but it has not helped his case in the present.

These policy statements are carefully crafted at a higher level, at the State Department, and trusted to individual diplomats to enunciate. Basically, that was the mission of Mr. Mills, to deliver the message to the Armenian people, no matter how unpalatable it was. His successor, Lynne Tracy, cannot deviate from the script either.

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During that notorious interview, Mr. Mills stated, “I was surprised when I first got here and found out that most Armenians I met were adamantly opposed to the return of the occupied territories as part of a negotiation settlement. … It has long been my government’s understanding of why the occupied territories were originally seized; they would be land for a peace option,” he said. “So I was very surprised that there was no support for that anymore.”

Originally the idea of territorial concession was adopted by Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, incidentally the mentor of the current acting prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan. But that view cost him the presidency and support for that position has been eroding with the public ever since. Armenia was eventually able to force a cease-fire on Azerbaijan in May 1994, after taking strategic heights in the battlefront, and which entailed seizing control of some territories (seven regions in all) outside the historic boundaries of Karabakh.

In one village nestled under the city of Shushi, called Karintak, there was not a single family left which had not lost a member. The Azeri army was raining rockets over the civilian population indiscriminately. That is why people in Karabakh refuse to cede a single inch of territory.

Ter-Petrosian still believes that inflexibility is a sure path to war but the majority of the population thinks otherwise, particularly after the Azeri blitzkrieg of April 2016. The post-independence generation is more security conscious and believes that Armenia’s safeguard begins in the Karabakh mountains.

The strategic drive is to populate those areas rather than cede them to the enemy.

Currently, President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton is on a mission to Moscow. Mr. Bolton is not known as a suave diplomat and nothing good should be expected out of his trip to Armenia. That trip coincides with the president’s blunt pronouncement that the US will further build up its nuclear arsenal and not be intimidated by Russia and China, called out by name. Certainly, that will be the thrust of Mr. Bolton’s message.

While Mr. Trump knows that President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China are not the type of statesmen who will blink, as Mr. Bolton travels further south, where he is scheduled to visit Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, he may wreak havoc in that region. His sole mission in the Caucasus will be to contain Iran at any price.

Some commentators believe that Mr. Trump’s call to arms is more motivated by domestic factors than international issues. In view of the forthcoming mid-term elections, Mr. Trump’s advisors have urged him to take a more aggressive posture to overcome the erosion of the Republican seats in the House and Senate races.

Naturally, that kind of posture tends to grease the wheels of the military-industrial complex, which sets higher store in the president’s moral compass, as was revealed in his treatment of the Saudi Kingdom, after the murder of a dissident journalist.

Mr. Mills and his successor are the extension of the same policy in the Caucasus. He has surmised that the return of lands was one of the core tenets of the Madrid Principles.

By mentioning that one aspect of the Madrid Principles, Mr. Mills is taking apart an entire deal which also has other components. If the deal is about land for peace, where is the other component which ensures the safety of the population of Karabakh after it gives up its strategic positions?

The ambassador states that he was surprised to find out there was no appetite for territorial concessions on the Armenian side. How was it that he was not similarly surprised when Azeri President Ilham Aliyev repeatedly threatened that he would occupy not only Karabakh but also Armenia proper?

The resolution of the Karabakh conflict has been entrusted to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, chaired by the US, Russia and France. Thus far, the code of conduct has been to have coordinated, united pronouncements by the three co-chairs. But by Mr. Mill’s unilateral statements, it seems the US has been breaking away from the established protocol.

Last but not least, Mr. Mills’ position favors Azerbaijan for the latter’s $5 billion arms purchases from Israel and its willingness to allow Israel to spy on Iran and if necessary to use its territory as a launching pad to stage an attack against Iran.

As far as Iran is concerned, and perhaps also Russia, Mr. Mills has an incongruous message for Armenia. He pontificates in the following manner: “Ultimately, what we want for Armenia is that it follow its own foreign policy based on a very basic principle; Armenia is a sovereign nation, it should make its own decisions based on its own interests and the interests of the Armenian people.”

In the same breath, he delves into the Iran issue, and after giving the same diatribe (“Iran is an exporter of terrorism,” “Iran’s mischief in Syria,” “Hezbollah,” etc.) he asks Armenia to stand up and bash Iran. He said, “But if your voice is going to be heard in the international community, you also have to accept some responsibilities.”

Mr. Mills’ advice amounts to double suicide: give up Azeri territories without peace guarantees so that Mr. Aliyev marches into Armenia. You have to antagonize Iran because we want you to do it as part of “your voice in the international community,” even if Iran is your only pipeline to the outside world, as proven during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

Certainly Armenia and Karabakh have to use their official channels to make their voices heard. But it is incumbent upon the diaspora Armenians, particularly in the US, to react. In order to be able to react effectively, the community has to be politicized. The mid-term elections are ahead. No party and no candidate has made an issue of the State Department’s toxic policy vis-à-vis Armenia or Karabakh.

Only Armenians can raise their voices in an organized or coordinated fashion. Other groups have been vitally involved in protecting and defending the interests of their ancestral lands.

If the diaspora is to mean something to Armenia, it has to become the extension of its foreign policy in faraway lands.

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