House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a congressional delegation to Armenia last Saturday, September 17, making her the highest-ranking American official to visit Armenia since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in September 1991.
Pelosi’s decision to travel to Armenia just days before its Independence Day certainly signals US support for the country, which only recently engaged Azerbaijan in another round of bloody fighting that has left a trail of casualties.
Ahead of Pelosi’s visit, analysts were divided on whether the congressional trip meant US support for Yerevan against Baku or whether it was intended to consolidate Armenia’s truce with Azerbaijan. In any case, Pelosi’s unexpected trip to Yerevan was widely interpreted by states across the region, including Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia and Iran.
Once on the ground in Armenia, Pelosi was instrumental in rebuking Azerbaijan. After meeting Alen Simonyan, speaker of the Armenian National Assembly, she held a press conference and harshly criticized Baku.
“Armenia is of particular importance to us because — the focus is on security after Azerbaijan’s illegal and deadly attacks on Armenian territory. We and our delegation strongly condemn the attacks on behalf of Congress, which threaten the prospects for much-needed peace,” Pelosi said.
“We – our delegation said that very openly [conflict] was initiated by Azerbaijanis and that needs to be acknowledged,” Pelosi added, before noting that “we tried to blame Turkey and Azerbaijan for this conflict.”
Pelosi’s unequivocal and frank comments forced Baku to react. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry called Pelosi’s statement “deeply regrettable” and “unfair” and “a serious blow to efforts to normalize relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan”.
Still, it seems that the United States Congress is not finished on this matter. Pelosi stated that a resolution condemning Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia will soon be discussed in Congress and that several of the “strongest supporters of Armenia who have ever served in Congress” are ready to hold Azerbaijan accountable.
The visit was clearly planned by influential American-Armenian politicians to develop bilateral diplomacy. Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-CA-18) and Jackie Speier (D-CA-14), two Armenian-Americans, and Frank Pallone (D-NJ-6), co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, were the members the congress delegation on a visit to Armenia. In addition, Pelosi, the head of the delegation, is the representative of California’s 12th district, which is home to a significant number of Armenian-Americans.
“As Californians, all three of us recognize that 40 percent of Armenian Americans live in California. We believe this is a family visit for us because we are surrounded not only by their heritage but also by their great faith and patriotism in America,” Pelosi added during the press conference.
The large Armenian-American population of the United States is known to exercise significant political influence in the US Congress, although this has not always led to pro-Armenian results. For example, former President Donald Trump remained silent on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, declined to use the term genocide to describe the events of 1915, and increased US aid to Azerbaijan to $100 million a year.
But Congress has gone in the opposite direction. In 2019, the House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide as committed by Ottoman Turkey. “This is a great day for Congress,” Pelosi said at the time.
After that, Joe Biden pledged to the Armenian-American community during his 2020 presidential campaign that he would blame Turkey for its role in the genocide. As president, Biden later made history in 2021 by officially recognizing it as such. “The American people honor all those Armenians who lost their lives in the genocide that began 106 years ago today. We honor their story. We see that pain. We confirm the story. We’re not doing this to blame, but to make sure what happened never happens again,” Biden said in a statement.
Still, Congress has attempted to increase US support for Armenia. Members of both parties in the Senate and House of Representatives have called on the Biden administration to end its disproportionate aid to Azerbaijan and hold Baku accountable under Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken has confirmed that such aid to Azerbaijan “would not undermine or hinder ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful solution between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or be used for offensive purposes against Armenia”. However, Congress has found this argument unsatisfactory.
In February 2021, more than 100 members of Congress signed a bipartisan statement calling on the Biden administration to strengthen US-Armenia ties, denounce Azerbaijani aggression and increase US aid to Armenia. “We urge you to find ways in which we can provide additional economic assistance to Armenia to support its democracy and development and to respond to the significant number of displaced people fleeing the conflict in Artsakh. We also request that your government identify ways to enhance our economic, cultural and other ties with Armenia to benefit Armenia and the large Armenian-American diaspora in the United States,” they wrote.
Although it is unclear where US-Armenian relations are headed, an improvement in relations could have implications for Central Asia and the Caucasus. Armenia’s neighbor Iran, for example, has been closely monitoring the conflict just across its northern border, and Russia, an Armenian ally, also remains closely involved in the peace negotiations. Russia, which maintains several military bases in Armenia, signed a security treaty with Yerevan in 1977. Accordingly, an attack on Armenia would be counted as an attack on Russia and vice versa.
Russia’s influence in Armenia has not been overlooked by the United States, but Congress is more concerned about the threat to Armenia’s security than about turning the country into a geopolitical battleground between Washington and Moscow. At a recent press conference, MP Pallone, chairman of the House Energy and Trade Committee, said: “I say that we understand that Armenia is part of this security arrangement with Russia. Well, we’re not suggesting anything about it. What we are saying is that the United States is very concerned about Armenia’s security, we want to do everything we can to provide more support for Armenia’s security, and we will work to see what can be done by the United States — to to assist in the security of Armenia without reference to Russia or the Russian arrangement.”
It is noteworthy, however, that the Speaker of the Armenian Parliament recently said he was dissatisfied with the response of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to Yerevan’s request for help in its conflict with Azerbaijan. The spokesman, Alen Simonyan, also told national television that Armenia expects more concrete steps from Russia, not just explanations.
So while Yerevan’s request for Russian help went virtually unanswered, Pelosi’s visit could help stabilize Armenia’s regional position. If this course continues, Armenia could move away from Russia over time, which would lead to additional rapprochement between Washington and Yerevan.
Over the past year, the US Embassy in Armenia has been working to improve bilateral relations. For example, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried visited Armenia in June 2022 and discussed ways to develop Armenia’s democratic institutions and expand cooperation with senior Armenian officials. In addition, in May 2022, the United States and Armenia signed a Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Civil Nuclear Cooperation (MOU) to further enhance their strategic cooperation.
Despite some disagreements between the US Congress and the Biden administration, it remains to be seen whether the US State Department will fully support Pelosi and the stance of the congressional delegation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Furthermore, while there is little reason to believe that Armenia will soon turn its back on Moscow and turn to Washington, Pelosi’s trip could be a springboard for further political change in the Caucasus.
Mohammad Javad Mousavizadeh is a journalist and analyst on international affairs and foreign policy. He has written many articles for digital publications worldwide. He is also an English translator for Iranian newspapers and news agencies. Follow him on Twitter @mousavizadehj.