“Throughout our history, we’ve learned this lesson: When dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos; they keep moving; and the costs, the threats to [America and the world keep] rising.”
—President Joseph Biden, 2022 State of the Union Address
Why did Vladimir Putin risk a full-blown war in Ukraine? Why did he believe he could get away with invasion and aggression? We do not need to see into the Kremlin to appreciate the West’s role in encouraging Putin’s confidence by its response to the attack on Armenian separatists in Azerbaijan by the Azerbaijani Army in September 2020, the first outbreak of war in Europe since the 1999 Kosovo war. The West’s failure to respond to this war in ways established during and post-Cold War was a new precedent for resolving territorial disputes in Europe.
The surprise attack that launched the 44-day Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 was, in the words of U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio, “an attack by Azerbaijani forces [that] ignited a conflict that killed more than 6,500 people and displaced almost 100,000 ethnic Armenians.” The territories populated by ethnic Armenians at issue in the 2020 war were within a separatist region of Azerbaijan proper, a region Azerbaijan lost control over to local Armenians in the early 1990s in a brutal ethnic war as the Soviet Union collapsed.
The U.S. and most of its allies remained neutral in this unprovoked war waged by oil-rich Azerbaijan to settle a complex post-Soviet territorial and ethnic dispute that had been frozen for nearly 30 years. This neutrality was a clear change in policy since the U.S., Russia, and France had already invested nearly 30 years in mediating the conflict under the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group. None of the countries involved in mediation had a clear policy opinion as one of the sides in the conflict (Azerbaijan) broke the mediation format and decided to settle the conflict through war. This clear signal of neutrality as a European country decided to use war to settle a territory dispute was impossible to miss. With such a clear change in policy in post-war Europe, Russia could be forgiven for taking this as a signal that democracies and traditional institutions like the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union, and the OSCE would not interfere in Russia’s near-abroad even to restore international norms.
In spite of the West’s much stronger reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Azerbaijan has continued to test those limits. Its willingness to do so is a sign that Western policy is still undecided about what international norm it is trying to establish with the Ukraine response. This leaves open questions. What is the new international norm? Is there a level or conditions under which war will be permitted by the international community to settle disputes?
The most severe test of the West’s reaction since the 2020 war began on September 12, 2022, when Azerbaijan launched an unprovoked invasion of neighboring sovereign Republic of Armenia, killing hundreds, displacing over 7,000 people, and occupying positions inside Armenia’s borders in a few days of action. Unlike the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, which many observers saw as an internal matter in Azerbaijan, this test involved an international border. That Azerbaijan saw this as a worthwhile escalation in spite of the Ukraine response makes clear that the norm, whatever it is, is not clear.
Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia is a case study of dictatorships targeting democratic neighbors when those dictatorships see democratic neighbors as direct threats to their regional influence. The differences between the two countries in terms of democratization and economics are critical to understanding how an autocracy could perceive democratization as a threat to its position.
Azerbaijan ranks 190th out of 210 nations on Freedom House’s Global Freedom Index, classified as a “consolidated authoritarian regime.” In sharp contrast, Armenia has repeatedly held competitive elections and expanded civil liberties and the rule of law, classified by Freedom House as a “transitional regime.” Azerbaijan is also larger and wealthier than its democratizing neighbor, Armenia.
Compounding its general democratization trend, Armenia went through a revolution in spring 2018 that replaced a weakening post-Soviet oligarchic government with a popular government. This change, the culmination of a growing democratic movement, received support and significant attention from the west. From Azerbaijan’s point of view it would not be a stretch to think that a more popular Armenia might lead to a change in the stalemate of the Minsk Group process over the status in Nagorno-Karabakh. In other words, Azerbaijan, a totalitarian autocracy, could fear that the West may be more sympathetic to the Armenian position as Armenia drifted closer to Western norms, making the choice of war to change the status quo on the ground in the frozen conflict more attractive.
Unlike the response to Azerbaijani aggression, the response of the U.S. and European partners to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fundamentally changed the expected outcome of that war. What was originally predicted to be a quick victory for Russia, has turned into a drawn-out bloodbath. The damage to the Russian army, economy, and influence is orders of magnitude higher than what Putin must have expected the cost to be. All of these effects were achieved not only by direct U.S. and E.U. military aid, but also by the application of Western power against the diplomatic and economic resources Russia would need to fight the war. None of these effects were attempted in the case of Azerbaijan, leaving the international community with two completely different responses to two scenarios of war being used to resolve ethnic-territorial disputes between early democracies and autocratic neighbors.
Azerbaijan has not yet paid a price for its illegal attacks. While the U.S. has significantly shifted away from its traditionally neutral position in the Caucasus region—marked by the introduction of Congressional Resolutions, a change in rhetoric condemning Azerbaijan’s aggression, and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Armenia in the aftermath of the September 2022 invasion—the overall response has still hedged toward a diplomatic solution without parallel soft-power policy changes to raise the stakes of aggression.
Yet the history of the 30-year-old conflict, including the unprovoked attacks in 2020 and 2022, demonstrates that Azerbaijan does not prefer normalization, but pursues an opportunistic policy of maximalist gains through force when it believes the West will not respond. Absent a consequential response to Azerbaijan’s aggressions, it is incentivized to make such gambles even as it feigns diplomatic willingness in international forums.
Thus, the U.S. and international institutions have struggled with how to respond to Azerbaijan’s overt flaunting of norms around the use of force to settle territorial disputes. U.S. policymakers have condemned Azerbaijan’s aggression without any meaningful policy changes following the condemnations. In part, this is likely driven by the fact that Azerbaijan has an abundance of oil and gas, making it an attractive energy partner alternative to Russia. In addition, Azerbaijan has an aggressive ally in Turkey, a NATO member, and is a willing partner to Western powers in countering Iran. However, absent effective U.S.-led sanctions, Azerbaijan has been emboldened to continue its pattern of violence against Armenia and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is a pattern that endangers the very system the U.S. claims to be preserving with its aid to Ukraine.
Like the powder keg that led to the outbreak of World War I, military adventurism by autocracies endanger more than just the people caught in the crosshairs of dictators. Such aggression endangers all of us. Beyond the issue of an autocracy attacking a democracy, there is a humanitarian aspect to this conflict that the Western response has not addressed. Azerbaijan is overt in its racism towards Armenians, publicly celebrated brutality, documented war crimes, and clear genocidal intent against all Armenians, those in the Republic of Armenia as well as the minority Armenian population besieged in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention updated an existing “Red Flag Alert” warning on September 16th, 2022, stating: “Given the extreme racialized othering of Armenians by the Azerbaijani government, military, press, and educational system, any Azerbaijani incursions into territories that include ethnic Armenians can be expected to be characterized by genocidal atrocities.”
Setting and enforcing an international norm that makes such things extremely costly for those considering them is essential to mitigating risk of a wider conflagration. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proved what can happen when such norms break down. The Western response to that invasion showed what the international community is able to do to enforce those norms. Reversing it in one place while allowing the norm to be violated in another sets a dangerous precedent that will lead to more adventurism and testing of what a regime can get away with when it chooses war to advance its policies.
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