Talks continue quietly between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Armenian counterpart Armen Grigoryan as the Biden administration seeks to conclude within months, if not weeks, a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s motives are not altruistic. Both entered office with grand diplomatic ambitions: reconciliation with Iran, peace in Afghanistan, and an end to entanglements in the Middle East. Today, the Middle East is in flames and the Afghanistan remains a stain on America’s reputation. In addition, the White House managed twice to be on the wrong side of the Ukraine War: First, Sullivan sought to convince Volodyrmyr Zelensky to flee into exile. Zelensky refused but as Ukrainians defied the odds and intelligence assessments, the White House scrambled to prevent any Ukrainian action that might cause Putin to lose too much face.
The current rush for peace in the South Caucasus fits a pattern in which incumbents rush initiatives as elections approach in order to redefine personal legacies. It is not just President Joe Biden. As the public turned on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, President George W. Bush rushed separate peace processes with North Korea and the Palestinians. Likewise, as Benghazi threatened to overshadow Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s legacy, she suddenly revived and rushed a flawed Somalia political process that now threatens to drag the Horn of Africa into war.
Peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan are advanced. Rather than agree on specific borders, Sullivan has proposed both sides agree on how many square kilometers Armenia and Azerbaijan will be, an idea that theoretically bypasses disputes over maps and the difficulties of demarcating borders. Such a formula would also facilitate eventual land swaps, especially among the many enclaves that former Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin created.
Biden, Sullivan, and Blinken may want a quick deal, but there are three reasons why Armenia should not allow Washington to bully it to achieve one. First, too often, the State Department seeks to force concessions from democracies like Armenia, Cyprus, Israel, or Ukraine because it is easier than forcing dictators to bend. Second, to be an even broker, the State Department inadvertently encourages extremism as dictators make ridiculous claims believing American mediators will split the difference. Finally, too many American diplomats still believe parties enter negotiations sincerely, rather than as a means to delay and distract.
Armenians are pro-peace, but peace must bring security. Armenian negotiators should demand the United States recognize both Armenia’s borders and its total size. Russian President Vladimir Putin explained his inaction in the face of Azerbaijani aggression in Nagorno-Karabakh with reference to the 1991 Almaty Declaration in which the newly-independent states recognized both the “territorial integrity of each other and inviolability of the existing borders.” Azerbaijan applauded. But if the Almaty Declaration is immutable, then Washington should not only demand the immediate withdrawal of all Azerbaijani forces from Armenian territory, but also recognize the Armenia-Azerbaijan frontier as laid out by the 1975 Soviet General Staff map. These should be prerequisites before negotiations begin rather than agenda items.