WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in the US Senate on Thursday voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would halt US military aid to Azerbaijan for the next two fiscal years.
If passed by the House and signed by the president, the bill, known as the Armenian Protection Act of 2023, would block the State Department’s ability to issue a waiver required under existing law in order for the United States to send military aid to Baku.
The measure, introduced by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), received bipartisan support.
Why it matters: The vote is Congress' clearest move yet to block US military assistance to Baku in the wake of its swift military takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh in September.
Last month, 91 lawmakers from both chambers penned a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for economic sanctions against Azerbaijani government officials for Baku’s “military attacks and brutal blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee Jack Reed (D-RI) and the then-chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez (D-NJ), urged Blinken in their own letter not to extend the administration’s waiver in response to Azerbaijan’s invasion of the until recently predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave on Sept. 19.
The Biden administration has balked at renewing the waiver, known as a Section 907, for the October 2001-enacted exemption to a 1992 law restricting US government aid to Azerbaijan until it takes “demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh."
On Thursday, the State Department's top official for European and Eurasian Affairs, Ambassador James O’Brien, told House lawmakers during a hearing that the Biden administration had no plans to issue a new Section 907 waiver.
US administrations have repeatedly issued the waiver since the exemption was introduced in 2002, citing national security concerns. From 2002-2020, Washington provided about $164 million in security assistance to Azerbaijan, according to the US Government Accountability Office.
What happened: Azerbaijan invaded the Nagorno-Karabakh region following a 10-month blockade of the Lachin corridor connecting the Armenian-majority enclave to Armenia.
The modern roots of the conflict date back at least to 1920, but it was largely frozen during the rule of the Soviet Union. Armenia took control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Lachin corridor in 1994, though the disputed territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
More than 100,000 people fled toward Armenia in the span of a week amid Azerbaijan's assault in September. The move was widely condemned, including by the United States and members of the European Parliament. Armenian officials and Western experts characterized the result of the invasion as ethnic cleansing.
“The Armenian Protection Act of 2023 is simple: It would hold Azerbaijan accountable for these actions,” Peters said Thursday. “As a result of Azerbaijan’s failure to meet the terms of our agreement, it would prevent the United States from sending military aid for a period of two years.”
“The [Biden] administration already has the authority to cut off this support, but as this conflict has unfolded, they have not taken public action,” he said.
Know more: Read Amberin Zaman's dispatch from southern Armenia in the immediate aftermath of the exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh in October.