I visited the area of the checkpoint the next day, looking down on it from a nearby mountain. Azerbaijan shows no intention of shutting it down, even though it would be easy to do so: it is a glorified tent that was erected in a few hours, and could be dismantled even quicker. Armenians rightly point out that repeated declarations of “deep concern” are meaningless; they can actually do harm if Aliyev concludes—as he apparently has done—that he faces no more than finger wagging and can ignore Blinken at will. Such attitudes makes peace less likely: Armenians recognize that Azerbaijani agreements are meaningless while Azerbaijanis see a lack of consequence as a reason to become even more aggressive.
Indeed, I traveled along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border close enough to see Azerbaijani forces and pick up Azerbaijani cell phone service. While the State Department waives—and will again this year—Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act in order to provide military assistance to Azerbaijan, I saw newly fortified Azerbaijani positions with advanced radar, missile launchers, and helicopter landing pads. Not far away, Azerbaijan is building airfields in areas with no civilian need. In essence, the U.S. government today finances an Azerbaijani military build-up aimed at eradicating the region’s oldest Christian community.
Perhaps it is time for Blinken to take a page from Ronald Reagan’s playbook in order to restore faith in American diplomacy and fortitude. In July 1987, Reagan reflagged Kuwaiti tankers to reinforce freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf. After a US escort ship struck an Iranian mine the following April, Reagan decided to retaliate against an Iranian oil platform. As per procedure, the Navy first broadcast warnings to the Iranians to evacuate and gave them time to do so. When it became apparent that the Iranians instead sought to reinforce the platform, a battle ensued and Iran effectively lost its navy.
Azerbaijan is not Iran. If the U.S. were to leaflet the illegal checkpoint and demand Azeris abandon the post within ten minutes followed by a drone strike to eliminate the illegal checkpoint, it might be a shot of adrenalin to diplomacy and ironically facilitate efforts at peace. Aliyev continues to push until someone pushes back. Armenia has not. Russia cannot. Should the United States act, Blinken might find that, in an instant, the United States’ word in the South Caucasus would once again matter.