On June 27, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken resumed peace talks in Washington between an increasingly western-oriented, democratic Armenia and an autocratic Azerbaijan. A lasting, durable peace brokered by the U.S. in the South Caucasus could pave the way for the entire region to commit to democracy, religious and cultural freedom, and the protection of human rights.  

At the center of grievances is the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. It has its own government, educational system and defense forces. Thousands of cultural and religious monuments dot the region. The legal case for Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence is strong. Freedom House rates its government as more democratic than Azerbaijan’s.

The negotiations offer Secretary Blinken an opportunity to reconsider the U.S. approach to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Successive U.S. Administrations have embraced Azerbaijan’s dictatorship, banking on the stability he ostensibly ensures. 

In 2019, during the Trump Administration, U.S. military assistance to Azerbaijan increased to $100 million. Despite raising eyebrows on Capitol Hill, that military assistance helped fuel the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War where Azerbaijan, with major support from Turkey and foreign mercenaries, captured a large swath of Nagorno-Karabakh.

With the military balance shifted in Azerbaijan’s favor, Aliyev is now pursuing a maximalist position in peace negotiations demanding Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh submit to all of its conditions.   

The Lessons of Yalta

The 1945 Yalta Summit can provide Blinken with guidance in brokering peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan and avoiding the dangerous mistakes that plunged the South Caucus region into decades of repression, authoritarian rule and irreversible destruction of cultural and religious sites. 

At the Summit, President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin met at the Yalta resort in then-Soviet Crimea to finalize a post-war peace agreement. Roosevelt got Stalin to support a Declaration of a Liberated Europe which included an agreement on the rights of the people of central and eastern Europe “to choose the form of government under which they will live – the restoration of sovereign rights and self-government to those peoples who have been forcibly deprived to them by the aggressor nations.” 

The Soviets never honored the agreement, which proved disastrous for central and eastern Europe and Baltic states: a betrayal of U.S. values and the brutal imposition of Soviet rule for forty-five years.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Dan Fried, who worked for the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations, warned that peace brokers need to take care when negotiating documents based on general language of principles, like Yalta’s Declaration of Liberated Europe, with a leader who shares neither your values nor your underlying purposes.”

Blinken should stop accepting weak and vague assurances on the “rights and securities” of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians from an autocratic ruler like Aliyev who publicly boasts about ethnic cleansing and more military attacks on Armenia. Aliyev sent that message by launching an attack that killed four Armenian servicemen as peace talks occurred in Washington. An agreement where Azerbaijan makes no concessions and the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are left at the mercy of a kakistocracy would be a humanitarian and cultural disaster. 

Recent stumbles include Blinken’s bizarre endorsement of Aliyev’s “amnesty” offer to the elected leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh which is akin to Putin making a similar offer to Ukrainians in Donetsk.   

A snap peace after decades of conflict and Aliyev’s ongoing campaign of hate is not possible. A better approach is to pursue confidence-building measures including immediate lifting the Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the only route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians to Armenia.  Additional confidence-building measures include the return of all Armenian POWs and captured civilians and withdrawal of all Azerbaijani military personnel and installations from Armenia proper.  

During a June 21st hearing before the congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback warned Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are “another historic Christian population that’s going to get driven out if we don’t take some policy moves . . . you can see that’s what’s taking place in Nagorno-Karabakh, that Azerbaijan’s going to squeeze the place – just force the people to leave.” 

Selective sticks must be used with Azerbaijan. Section 907 sanctions should be applied to Azerbaijan for their blockades and offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Magnitsky designations must be considered against Azerbaijani officials for egregious human rights violations including the Lachin Corridor blockade. 

Carrots are plentiful which include bolstering economic and security ties and fostering greater American investment in sectors beyond oil and gas. The opportunity to bring the South Caucasus region closer to the U.S. and EU based on common values as Russia self-destructs would be one of the most significant foreign policy accomplishments in decades. 

Blinken has the tools to avoid the mistakes of Yalta and achieve real peace. It’s time to use them.