Biden and Putin have a new shared headache

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Azerbaijan on Tuesday announced it had launched “anti-terrorist activities” in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on what it said were Armenian military formations, creating a potential political dilemma for both U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Local officials and media reported explosions and sirens in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that is internationally recognized as Azerbaijan’s territory. Azerbaijan and Armenia have gone to war twice over the disputed region, most recently in 2020.

Though Putin has recently deepened Russia’s ties with Azerbaijan by signing a political-military agreement with the country only days before he launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Armenia has long been a close ally of Russia. On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry of Armenia called on Moscow to have 2,000 Russian peacekeeping troops already stationed in the region intervene in what it called Azerbaijan’s “full-scale aggression.”

Similar to Putin, Biden has stakes in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The United States established diplomatic relations with Armenia following its independence from the Soviet Union in 1992. After a brief skirmish broke out with Azerbaijan last year, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia and condemned Azerbaijan for what she called “illegal” attacks.

The United States established diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan in 1992, and the two countries have strengthened their trade partnership in recent years. Oil is the largest import to the U.S. from Azerbaijan, which became key after Biden banned Russian oil following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Newsweek reached out to the White House via email for comment.

Not all American lawmakers have approved of growing more aligned with Azerbaijan. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered remarks on the Senate floor earlier this month that denounced Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev for what he called the “ongoing ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

On Tuesday, Menendez reshared a message on X (formerly Twitter) that was posted on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s X account about Azerbaijan’s actions on Tuesday.

“Azerbaijan’s brazen assault on Nagorno-Karabakh further proves Aliyev’s malicious intention to wipe out the Armenian population there,” the message read. “The U.S. and international community must act.”

Putin also risks alienating two allies due to the conflict, and he already has frayed ties with Armenia due to what the country’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has said is Moscow’s lack of support for his country in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden
A conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia creates issues for both United States President Joe Biden (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L). The U.S. and Russia both have stakes in the two countries.
Photos by Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Earlier this year, Pashinyan threatened to pull Armenia out of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of six nations that’s been likened to a smaller version of NATO.

George Mason University professor Mark N. Katz told Newsweek that while Russia has sided with Armenia against Azerbaijan in the past, Putin has recently “been relatively indulgent with regard to Azerbaijan’s moves against Armenia.”

“There appear to be several reasons for this: 1) Putin has been unhappy with the increasingly Western-leaning Armenian government; 2) the war in Ukraine has reduced Russia’s ability to operate in the Armenia/Azerbaijan theater; and 3) Putin wants to avoid tension with Turkish leader [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan, who has been backing Azerbaijan against Armenia,” Katz said.

On Tuesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia urged negotiations while communicating with officials from both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova also addressed the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and said Moscow was “deeply worried about the sharp escalation of the conflict” in the region.

“Russia strongly encourages the conflicting sides to stop the bloodshed,” Zakharova said at a press conference. “Stop the military actions at once and return to political and diplomatic settlement.”

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