US Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia on Friday, September 17, along with a Congressional delegation, at a time when the region is experiencing a churn of power dynamics and international alliances. Pelosi became the latest addition to the cauldron when she openly and directly blamed Azerbaijan for the recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. She issued this statement while addressing a press conference right after being awarded the Order of Honor by the Armenian parliament.
Ms Pelosi’s Accusatory Statement
In fact, Ms Pelosi not only issued a stark, statement on this bilateral conflict, accusing Azerbaijan of conducting “illegal and deadly attacks” against Armenia, but also blamed Turkiye for provoking Azerbaijan into attacking its neighbor. Russia, which has strong relations with both these countries probably never expected close ally and CSTO member Armenia to choose this time to play a balancing act between two great powers. Thus, in one fell swoop, the US has thrown the South Caucasus region into a fresh diplomatic whirlwind.
Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry issued a strongly worded statement, terming Ms Pelosi’s accusations as “unsubstantiated,” “unfair,” and “unacceptable.”
On the same day, Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson of the Kremlin, regretted Pelosi’s “loud announcements” and called for a “quiet and businesslike” approach to address the volatile situation in the region.
A Strategic Shift in Washington?
While in her press conference, Pelosi tried to frame her visit as a step towards strengthening parliamentary relations between the US and Armenia, talking about the contribution of the Armenian-American community and reminding the press about the US government’s formal recognition of the Armenian genocide in 2019, there is more to these moves than meets the eye.
The US’s direct entry in the South Caucasus at a time when relations between two former Soviet countries are fraught with tension signals a new proxy alliance or a strategy to make things more controversial and messier in this under-reported region.
By siding openly with Armenia, the US is offending Russia, which has been diplomatically active in the region since the breakup of the USSR and has accommodated both countries in different regional alliances. Moreover, Moscow’s mediation in 2020 resulted in a ceasefire after the deadliest clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan after more than 200 soldiers from both sides had lost their lives. It had even stationed troops in the Lachin Corridor to prevent another flare-up between the hostile neighbors. Regrettably, both nations accused each other of violating the ceasefire agreement which resulted in the clashes.
The US has traditionally accepted Russian influence in South Caucasus. It has been particularly quiet on matters in this region since the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, in which, despite active efforts of the US for Georgia, it lost territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After more than a decade, the change in the US approach towards the region brings many factors to mind.
Analyzing US Motives
The Ukraine war is the first. Russian gains in Ukraine and the helplessness of the western world to adequately ‘punish’ Russia have made US and Europe desperate to find new ways to isolate Russia diplomatically. But there is a clear difference between their approaches. In July this year, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, visited Azerbaijan to discuss the prospects of a gas deal as an alternative to Russian gas. Earlier in September, EU officials invited both Armenia and Azerbaijan to a summit in Prague while offering to mediate a fresh peace deal between them.
While Europe is trying to expose the weak underbelly of Russia by making diplomatic overtures to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Washington has decided to play one country against the other in order to put Russia into a diplomatic fix. It is a very strategic move by the United States and a golden opportunity for it to forge ties close to the Russian border with one of Moscow’s closest strategic allies.
Repercussions for the Region
The ground reality of the tiny South Caucasus region is very interesting. While Turkey and Russia often vied for influence in this region, and their efforts were limited to regional issues, the entry of the US will have more far-reaching influences, beyond Nagorno-Karabakh.
Iran will be noticeably alert at this development as it borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Tehran has had tense relations with Baku, due to the latter’s close ties with Tel Aviv and irredentist claims over Azeri territory in Iran, a growing US-Armenian alliance will make it warier of its neighbors. These developments will also be cause for concern in Moscow which has a military base in Armenia and is a key ally of Iran.
Will Armenia Gain Diplomatically?
Armenia cannot be blamed entirely for playing into Washington’s hands. Since the 2020 ceasefire that saw it lose control over Nagorno-Karabakh, Yerevan has felt let down by Moscow. Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan probably saw no other way out of these diplomatic crossroads except for calling Washington for help. Yerevan is now in a stronger position to bargain with both Russia and the United States. However, the aggressive and confrontational stance taken by Washington has increased and the risk of conflicts even more. This new US move in the South Caucasus will complicate things, with only Armenia able to use it for gaining short-lived leverage over Russia.