Leading up to the 2020 election, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, its disputed history between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and its geopolitical implications, along with many other critical foreign policy issues, have been largely ignored by the American media, which has focused almost exclusively on the US economy and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, the debate mentioned foreign policy only when discussing the impact of supposed “election meddling” by Russia, Iran, and China, and how to “make China pay” for failing to warn the world adequately about the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, journalists on the ground for The New York Times, along with other international media outlets, have reported on how they found “civilians huddling in basements” amid shelling and attacks from “Azerbaijani drones that hover overhead and kill at will.”
In response to Azeri attacks, Armenia has been accused of launching missiles into residential areas of Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, Ganja. Azerbaijani officials quoted by NPR said “one civilian was killed in the attack, and 32 more were injured” on Sunday, Oct. 4.
The complicated history of Nagorno-Karabakh is a large part of the reason why a true peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan has remained so elusive to this day.
Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan under international law. But its history has been fraught for over two hundred years, going back to 1805 when Tsarist Russia conquered the region, including all of what is now Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In the 1920s, commissar of nationality affairs for the newly formed USSR Joseph Stalin made the area of Nagorno-Karabakh part of Azerbaijan, despite the fact it was inhabited by a majority of ethnic Armenians.
A report in the online magazine Lawfare notes: “Censuses taken by the USSR reported that, in 1926, 89.1% of NKAO residents were Armenian and 10% were Azerbaijani. By 1989, according to the census, the population was 76.9% Armenian and 21.5% Azerbaijani.”
This policy lasted until Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, when many Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR) were given more autonomy and political reforms under what was known as glasnost, or ‘opening.’ Due to financial difficulties, the Soviet Union could not devote as many resources to conflicts such as this, either militiarally or diplomatically.
In February of 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh’s national assembly voted and demanded to dissolve its autonomous status, at the time controlled by the Azerbaijani SSR, and instead join the Armenian SSR. Subsequently a war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory, killing 30,000, and displacing about a million people. Armenia, for all intents and purposes, won that war, and took control of Nagorno-Karabakh, while also occupying seven smaller districts of Azerbaijan, forcing Azeris to leave the area.
While Armenia and Azerbaijan trade blame for recent attacks, the manufacturing and distribution of military drones, along with other weaponry, illustrate the heavy-handed role of the US, Turkish, and Israeli governments in this conflict, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Armenia has reportedly downed both Turkish and Israeli drones in recent days.
According to a number of reports in Israeli media, Elbit Systems, an Israeli private arms contractor, sold weapons to Azerbaijan, including armed drones. This weaponry has since helped shift the military balance of power in this conflict toward Azerbaijan, allowing them to act more forcefully, and at times with impunity.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev back in 2016 also said that his country had bought $4.85 billion in defense equipment from Israel.
US ally Turkey, according to a report by Reuters, has seen “military exports to its ally Azerbaijan rise six-fold this year, with sales of drones and other military equipment rising to $77 million last month alone before fighting broke.”
The US has also provided direct support. A report in Defense News highlights how the Pentagon and State Department have granted a “range of aid to Armenia and Azerbaijan.”
The Defense News article also chronicles three of the most recent and lucrative military contracts between the Department of Defense, US private military contractors, and the government of Azerbaijan.
Screengrab taken from a section of a Defense News Article Published on October 6th, 2020 with the Headline: “Democrats urge halt to security aid to Azerbaijan in Armenia conflict.”
These facts are often not mentioned in the mainstream American media, which instead focuses attention on the Russian arms provided to both the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Additionally, NATO says “it is not part of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh,” despite the fact that NATO’s second-largest military, Turkey, has so far offered strong military and diplomatic support for Azerbaijan.
According to an AP report, Turkey “has vowed to support longtime ally Azerbaijan ‘on the battlefield or the negotiating table,’ if needed.”
The AP report goes on to say: “Turkey is also Azerbaijan’s third-largest supplier of military equipment after Russia and Israel. It is known to have sold drones and rocket launchers.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has previously reported that upwards of 850 Turkish-backed Syrian fighters have arrived in Azerbaijan to support them in this conflict.
Turkey now may be on the precipice of sending their own military forces to Azerbaijan if requested by their Azeri allies.
Both the US and Russia have recently worked together, as well as independently, to negotiate a political settlement to this dispute. On Oct. 23, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, held separate talks in Washington, DC, with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
These peace efforts on the part of the US and Russia have so far proven unsuccessful for any real length of time, with a number of previously negotiated ceasefires broken within hours of signing, further fuelling a humanitarian crisis.
With this brief historical and current political context in mind, we spoke with Danny Sjursen, a US Army officer, graduate of and educator at West Point, and contributing editor at Antiwar.com, among other publications. Danny’s recent series of articles about the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh explain why it’s important for people in the US and around the world to understand the conflict from an anti-war perspective.
Our conversation with Sjursen took place on Oct. 16. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Andrew Corkery: Thank you so much for joining us, Danny. So why is the fighting starting up again, 26 years after the fraught ceasefire negotiations by Russia? Why is this the time for fighting to resume?
Sjursen: I think that there’s really three key factors. The most important one is, first, Azerbaijan is stronger than it used to be. It has always had more people. Now it has a lot more money. Caspian oil reserves, natural gas pipelines that have been built, mostly funded by Western oil companies, and built by Western oil companies, has given them a whole lot of money. So they now spend 3.5 times as much as Armenia on guns on arms. And they’ve imported 20 times as much as Armenia over like the last six years. So the scales have tipped.
Second major change: Turkey is off the rails. Okay. Sultan Erdogan has gone beyond the other Turkish leaders who vaguely supported their Azeri Turkic brother, and this guy’s been flexing his muscles in Syria and Libya And in the eastern Mediterranean, you name it, right.
And so he’s taking a full on position in support of Azerbaijan. I mean, he’s even been saying there shouldn’t be a truce. I mean, the truth is that the truce has broken down with sides attacking one another still.
The third one has to do with Russia and the United States. In the United States, Russia now is a straight up bad boy at the moment. Okay, villain, arch nemesis, everything that they’re involved in is bad by virtue of the fact that it’s done by a Russian. If Moscow does it, it’s meddling. If anyone else does it, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The point here is that it’s a very big change from 1994 when the US was trying to work their way into the Russia society and economy diplomatically with the new President Boris Yeltsin at the time.
Corkery: Right, so you mentioned Turkey, but could you just describe more about why Americans should care about this conflict, and how that fits into the geopolitics of this situation in how certain countries like the US, Turkey, Israel in particular are currently fueling this conflict? Why is that, how did that come to be, and how is the media miss understanding this issue?
Sjursen: So there has generally been a geoplical tilt of US foreign policy towards favoring Azerbaijan. And I think that’s important and driven by two things. One is the encircling of Russia with NATO and all this anti Moscow talk domestically in the US.
The second point is, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when oil was king, this desire on the part of the US to tap the Azeri resources. So we’ll look the other way. Even though for example there’s a mini-Stalinist authoritarian cult of personality, family dynasty in charge there, the Aliyevs. So the US will look past that and the human rights and will kind of back them vaguely.
Now, the problem here for Armenia is—they do have a lobbying organization in the United States, just go to Kim Kardashian’s twitter account, and you will see this is a woman who cares about Nagorno-Karabakh.
I’m not even making fun of her. I mean, there’s some people who are interested. There’s been protests in Hollywood about it, and that’s where a main Armenian American population is. But they have no oil. They have no oil, and they have a defense agreement with the Russians. They’re part of their NATO which is way less strong, way less aggressive. It’s called the CSTO, Collective Security Treaty Organization.
But here is really what the mainstream media is missing.The Azeri’s big brother supporters are the Turks. And they’re all in for Azerbaijan at this point. The Armenians’ big brother supporters are the Russians. Now, if you listen to enough Western media, they equate those two. So in other words, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have a patron, and in the view of Western media, Russia’s worse. So hey, it’s a wash. But the reality is Russia is way more circumspect, way more cautious, and way more restrained, in Nagorno-Karabakh at least. The Russians will look for reasons not to support Armenia. They don’t want to intervene with their military.
They could use this treaty, CSTO, with Armenia and other former Soviet countries, their version of NATO. And they could use that to roll in tanks. Now, whether that would be a good move or not is another debate. The point is they don’t think it’s a good move, not just tactically but politically.
One would think that the Iranians would back the Azeris. For example, 20% of Iranian people are Azeri ethnic Iranians. Iran is not an homogenous Persian state. That’s a myth. This means because of the large population, there are considerably more Azeri ethnic people in Iran then there are in Azerbaijan, which is another reason why one might think that Iran might tilt towards Azerbaijan. But they don’t, and they traditionally haven’t.
Iran doesn’t lean directly towards close relations with Azerbaijan because they don’t want a refugee crisis over their borders. So they don’t want Azerbaijan to overreach geopolitically, which they are now with this conflict with Armenia. It’s destabilizing.
Iran is also actually a little afraid of nascent separatism among their own Azeri population in northern Iran. For example, like an international Azeri community coming together. They want to tamp that down and control things from Iran, and it’s a Persian-dominated government.
Then there is the Israeli factor. Not often reported, especially in American media, but lots in the Israeli media, because Azerbaijan is tight with Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, tight, tight, tight. They buy a ton of arms from them. Israeli drones are killing Armenians today, suicide [drones], which is, you know, there’s like kamikazes. Fascinating that the Israelis would be using those. But nevertheless, they have supplied that, and there has even been a lot of talk of the Israeli intelligence Mossad being in Azerbaijan, which to some extent they probably are.
The Iranian position is that Israel is trying to encircle them, and get a base from which to do either regime change or subversive operations, which is not crazy, because if you read Israeli newspapers, I read them every single day on this issue on my news alerts, the Israelis admitted, they’re like, no, yeah, this is great. We like these Azeri people, they’re our friends, they’re Muslim, they’re really close to Iran, what a helpful thing.
And so Israeli planes are flying back and forth with arms and people. So that’s that’s important to understand, because Iran’s role in this conflict, also like the Russians, has been pretty restrained. In fact, if you look at the issue in general, the patrons Turkey and Israel, who are working their proxies that are vaguely connected to the West, are way more aggressive than the supposed Western media bad boys of Iran and Russia.
Corkery: Now, in describing this conflict, the media often refers to it as a “frozen conflict” flaring up again now. But why is it important to understand in particular, in your view, that this is a conflict that the United States need not be involved in militarily?
Sjursen: The US sees this conflict through a Cold War lens. We put on these Cold War-era goggles all the time. I mean, the arrested development of US strategic thinking is as frozen as this frozen conflict. This frozen thinking of believing that every conflict vaguely near Russia or not, that’s in the Caucasus or the Middle East, or Eastern Europe, has to be all about Russia.
Not to say that Russia has no interest in this region, because clearly they do and should if it’s close to them. But thinking they always have malign intentions, that it’s all about some sort of Russian great power politics and a desire to recreate their empire, is wrong. I don’t think Russia thinks it’s a good move strategically to get more involved militarily. It’s not in their interest. It’s only going to inflame the insurgency in the North Caucasus. isolate them further with the West with more sanctions, etc. And, frankly, I don’t think that they think they have as big of a dog in the fight as we think they do.
The more America looks at this as a Cold War conflict, or looks at this as a NATO conflict where they have to back Turkey, which luckily, I think anymore the Trump administration is pulling back from a bit. Trump said nice things about Erdogan and loves dictators like him. But I think that’s partly because ‘Madcap’ Erdogan and Turkey are legitimately all over the place, playing the Russians and Americans off one another at times. For example, Erdogan will buy Russian air defense systems, which means he can’t buy F35 planes from the U.S because they are totally incompatible. He’ll almost shoot French ships in the eastern Mediterranean over oil reserves.
But then he’ll also do something that totally angers Russia, whether it’s in Syria or Libya, where they’re on opposite sides of a civil war, and now where they’re on opposite sides in Nagorno-Karabakh. With that important context in mind, to get back to the larger question, you asked, this conflict is 7,000 miles away from the United States. I can’t see anything for the US to be involved with in this conflict besides diplomacy, where we would honestly come out and say we don’t have a dog in the fight. Attempting to be truly fair arbiters is really the only role we could have.
If anyone’s going to drive this conflict to be worse and even wider than it already is, it will be the Turks. The conflict is already really bad and it’s already big, But if the Turks make it worse, then that means, by extension, it’s also NATO and the US making it worse. And won’t that be fun? When a whole lot of thousands of civilians die because of bad behavior by NATO, not by Moscow, on the CSTO. You know, you say that kind of stuff in American media today, you get yourself in trouble, and you don’t get invited on MSNBC, but I’m sorry, I think we have to be intellectually consistent.
Corkery: One of the things that you alluded to before that I wanted to take head on now is that there are clearly oil and gas resources in this region that the United States and other regional players, such as Russia and Turkey, are really interested and invested in. These resources are related to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in a political and economic sense.
Could you talk more about how key oil and gas resources are at play here, and how American and Western companies are involved in that as well?
Sjursen: Energy resources allow the US to dominate the key areas of the world, including parts of Eurasia and East Asia, for example. But in Azerbaijan, look, it’s an alphabet soup. Following the acronym, BTC, the name of the pipeline, the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, which is the source of all this Caspian energy.
That BTC pipeline is, in some sense, a multinational conglomerate created and fueled by Western countries and companies that have funded it over the years.
The BTC pipeline and the Western interest invested in it are a path to isolate Russia. It’s about vertical versus horizontal—Which way is the energy going to go? Is it going to go horizontal to Europe? Or is it going to go vertical up to Moscow, and then to Europe?
The American position has been to cut out Armenia, and by extension, cut out their big brother, the Russians. To that point, there were two major deals in the late—mid- to late 1990s. The previous president of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, right before he died, came to the White House, and shook then Vice President Al Gore’s hand, and signed an oil and gas energy deal together with Gore and did a press conference.
Gore said all these nice things about him, which I made the point in my recent article about that being an inconvenient truth about his career. The great environmentalist who makes the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” was dealing in oil and gas energy, but he was working for Clinton.
Corkery: We are less than two weeks away from the 2020 presidential election, but nothing really regarding this conflict has come up from either the Trump or Biden campaigns, even though this story is a major foreign policy issue for the reasons you have already described.
Why is neither presidential campaign talking about this issue between Azerbaijan and Armenia, given how the US and its supposed allies, such as Israel, Turkey, and the UK, along with their private military contractors, have been or are currently involved in perpetuating this conflict?
Sjursen: I think that’s a really important question as we approach Election Day. The first reason that people aren’t talking about this, and I’m being serious, is not a joke, nobody knows about it. It’s obscure, obscure to obscure. The reason I’m talking to you about this is because I am a hyper geek, I love this stuff. I mean, I hate the fighting, but like, I’m into learning about it.
But If you read most of the explainers by the mainstream media, they’re trying their best, but they fired their foreign bureaus. And these explainers read like Wikipedia entries with a little bit of anti-Russia sprinkled in. Nobody knows about this. There’s a few people, I’m sure, in the basement of the State Department who know all about this ‘frozen conflict’ and predicted the whole thing, and no one listened to them. And they told them to go get their stapler, like it’s office space, and they got moved into the basement.
But the reality is Trump can’t find it on a map. Biden can probably find it on a map, because he’s a little more engaged in foreign policy, but the media doesn’t know what’s going on, either. So there’s a lack of expertise. So no one wants to look stupid. Because next thing you know, you’re Herman Cain, and you’re talking about ‘who’s the president of Becky, Becky, Stan,’ right? No one wants to be in that position.
And the second thing is I don’t think there’s a lot of partisan points to be gained on it.
Both Trump and Biden don’t think this is something that’s going to resonate with the American people, with voters. This is one in particular where I cannot see a major difference between a Biden policy on this and a Trump policy on this.
Corkery: So in terms of peace negotiations, could you close out this interview by talking about any prospects for a resolution to the conflict and how the regional and international actors like Turkey, Russia, and the US are involved in that process?
Sjursen: To be brief and clear: If there’s war, Turkey is going to be responsible in some way, a NATO member state with the second-largest army in NATO. If there’s peace, Putin will be responsible. I mean, think about that for a second. I mean, I abhor the Russian system of government. I don’t like anything that’s vaguely authoritarian. But oh, my goodness, what a situation. If this thing gets solved, or put back in the freezer, which is about the best we can hope for right now, it will be Putin playing King Solomon and cutting the Nagorno-Karabakh baby in half.