US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has hosted a high-level meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers Ararat Mirzoyan and Jeyhun Bayramov, in a bid to elevate Washington’s role as a mediator in the South Caucasus.
Monday’s meeting in Washington was the second involving the two countries to be chaired by Mr Blinken in less than five weeks.
Mr Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s commitment to peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“Direct dialogue is the best way to a truly durable peace, and we are very pleased to support that,” he said.
Mr Blinken said the 30-year conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has had taken a tremendous toll and left “scars that are deep”.
But following a truce that Washington brokered last September, Mr Blinken said: “What we are seeing now are real steps, and courageous steps, by both countries to put the past behind and to work toward a durable peace.”
Mr Blinken said the US strongly supports the sovereignty and territorial independence of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Before the meeting, Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of breaking a fragile truce in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The conflict over the landlocked region dates back to 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Armenian separatists seized the area in a move supported by Yerevan.
An ensuing war killed nearly 30,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
Despite a ceasefire mediated in 1994 by Russia, the US and France, peace negotiations struggle to move forward and fighting erupts frequently.
Ryan Bohl, an analyst at the risk intelligence company Rane, said Mr Blinken’s increased focus on the Armenia-Azerbaijan file is also meant to undercut Russia, which now finds itself preoccupied with the Ukrainian war.
“Beyond the typical Biden agenda of stability and human rights, the meeting in Washington is a clear shot at Russian influence in the region,” Mr Bohl told The National.
“It’s clear that the Russians, so tied up in Ukraine, can no longer police their own backyard.”
He said this creates “an opportunity for the United States to take steps into the region as a means to both reduce Moscow’s influence of post-Soviet space and to bolster Washington’s reputation as a peace broker”.
But he argued that Washington will lean on soft power and defence sales along with other leverage rather than sending peacekeepers.
Russia, which maintains close ties with Armenia, was seen before the war in Ukraine as the major power broker in the region. It leads the Collective Security Treaty Organisation military alliance of ex-Soviet countries, which includes Armenia.
Yerevan relies on Russian support and military guarantees because its defence budget is overshadowed by Azerbaijan’s spending on arms.
Azerbaijan has recently begun leveraging oil revenue as part of an attempt to overhaul its image in the West.