Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the issue at stake, mediators are expected to be impartial between two parties to a conflict. Yet the Minsk Group’s co-chairing Western governments—those of the United States and France—clearly tilted toward the Armenian side in the just-concluded Armenia-Azerbaijan war over Karabakh (see Parts One and Two in EDM, November 25, December 1).
French President Emmanuel Macron sided with Armenia against Azerbaijan and Turkey even before the war’s outbreak. Already on August 30 Macron condemned Turkey’s “warlike rhetoric” for encouraging Azerbaijan’s “dangerous” territorial claims on Armenia (EurActiv, August 31). Following the war’s outbreak, Macron used the opportunity of a European Union summit in Brussels to attack Turkey again for its “reckless and dangerous” statements backing Azerbaijan. And he heated up his own rhetoric by claiming that Turkey had funneled hundreds of Syrian jihadi fighters to join Azerbaijan’s forces (see EDM, October 13). Macron telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin to share his alleged concern (EurActiv, October 2). The French leader persisted with this poorly substantiated claim throughout the war and repeatedly communicated it to Putin.
Further undermining the Minsk Group’s triple co-chairmanship, Macron suggested by telephone to Putin that Russian and French mediation efforts should continue both within and outside the Minsk Group (TASS, Elysee.fr, November 7), thus implying that Paris and Moscow could act together to bypass the US side of the triple co-chairmanship.
Following the Kremlin-brokered armistice, the Elysée Palace weighed in again on one side, advocating that “any lasting agreement must take into consideration the interests of Armenians,” while Turkey should “end its provocations in the region” (www.Elysee.fr, November 10). Speaking in the French National Assembly, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned Azerbaijan to “strictly respect its obligations” and warned Turkey to respect the armistice or else it would face European sanctions. At the same time, “France reconfirms its full friendship with the Armenian people in view of our close human, cultural and historical ties. We are on Armenia’s side in this dramatic context,” he boldly proclaimed (EurActiv, Arminfo, November 10, 11).
Relentlessly, the Elysée and Quai d’Orsay pursued the themes of protecting the interests of one side (the Armenian), ejecting phantomatic “Syrian mercenaries” from Azerbaijan and stopping Turkey from “fueling tensions,” as Macron and Le Drian framed those issues in public statements and telephone call readouts (Agence France Presse, November 19, 23).
Behind Macron’s theatrical posture lurks a multi-pronged domestic and international agenda: securing the significant French-Armenian vote in the upcoming presidential election; conveniently targeting “Islamist” Turkey to compensate for the French establishment’s failure to deal with Arab-Islamist terrorism in France; and undermining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by forming a French-led bloc in the Eastern Mediterranean against Turkey (Tablet, November 30). All those issues are far removed from the Karabakh conflict itself; yet Azerbaijan’s legitimate interests as well as the Minsk Group co-chairmanship’s credibility have become collateral targets of Macron’s outsized agenda.
Washington also aligned itself indirectly or directly with the Armenian side, abandoning the mediator’s equidistance. From the outset of the Barack Obama administration to the end of the Donald Trump administration, Washington allowed the Kremlin to replace the Minsk Group’s co-chairs as mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Disengaged, inattentive, and consumed with multiple external and internal issues (merely topped by the 2020 presidential election campaign), Washington was caught unawares by the Karabakh war’s outbreak and poorly prepared to react. The question as to another possible intelligence malfunction (akin, mutatis mutandis, to Georgia 2008 or Crimea 2014) seems to go unaddressed. Trump administration senior officials, on short-term tenures of office and no previous involvement with the South Caucasus, seemed to improvise their reactions. And their reactions seemed mainly inspired (akin to Macron’s) by vote-counting as well as by Washington’s unsettled relations with Turkey, rather than the merits of the issue at stake. Joseph Biden’s presidential campaign expressed itself in the same vein as the incumbent officials (see below).
The main themes running through the Secretary of State’s and National Security Advisor’s public statements during the 44-day war and afterward included: calling for an immediate ceasefire; asking Turkey (by name or by inference as “outside actor”) to stop supporting Azerbaijan; resolving the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict on the basis of the Helsinki Final Act; and resuming negotiations mediated by the Minsk Group’s co-chairs at the ambassadorial level.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told a press conference on October 14, “We ask that there be a ceasefire, as a beginning of a solution to the conflict. We have watched Turkey begin to reinforce Azerbaijan. We have asked every international player to stay out of the region” (The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, October 14).
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien publicized his remarks to Azerbaijan’s visiting minister of foreign affairs, Jeyhun Bayramov: “I pressed [sic] for an immediate ceasefire, then a return to Minsk Group-facilitated negotiations with Armenia, and rejection of outside actors further destabilizing the situation. There is no military solution” (Twitter, October 23).
Meeting separately with Bayramov and with Armenian counterpart Zohrab Mnatsakanian in Washington, on October 23, Pompeo “emphasized the need to end the violence and protect civilians,” resume negotiations under the Minsk co-chairs, and resolve the conflict “based on the Helsinki Final Act” (State.gov, October 23).
In Paris on November 16, Pompeo concurred with Macron that “Turkey’s recent actions have been very aggressive (Agence France Presse, November 16). And on the next day, in Istanbul (avoiding meetings with the government in Ankara), Pompeo welcomed the cessation of hostilities, urging the parties to resume Minsk co-chairs–mediated negotiations toward a “political solution based on the Helsinki Final Act” (State.gov, November 17). Finally, in his last appearance to a NATO ministerial meeting, on December 1, Pompeo condemned Turkey’s actions across the board, including its support for Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war (Hurriyet Daily News, December 3).
Along similar lines, as presidential candidate, Biden called for “stopping the advance of Azerbaijani troops into Karabakh,” denounced Turkey for supplying weapons and (allegedly) mercenaries to the conflict area, and warned that the United States under his presidency could impose sanctions on Azerbaijan under section 907 of the US Freedom Support Act (Arminfo, October 29).
Almost all of those public statements showed a mediating power tilting toward one of the sides. Thus, an unconditional ceasefire could only have stopped the Azerbaijani forces’ momentum. Washington’s calls ignored Azerbaijan’s repeated offers of a ceasefire conditional on Armenian forces’ withdrawal from the seven inner-Azerbaijani districts adjacent to Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh—in which case, Azerbaijan would commit not to pursue Armenian forces into Upper Karabakh. The hostilities were, after all, strictly confined to Azerbaijan’s own, internationally recognized territory.