State calls for Azerbaijan to pull back forces from Armenia border

The State Department on Friday called for Azerbaijan to pull back forces near its border with Armenia amid rising tensions between the two countries.

The criticism comes after the Biden administration approved delivery of U.S. security and military assistance to Azerbaijan that is receiving pushback from Democrats.

Deputy State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter did not address a question from The Hill on whether the administration will revoke such funding, but was critical of Azerbaijan’s actions. 

“We’re closely monitoring the situation along the demarked border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Military movements in disputed territories are irresponsible and they are also unnecessarily provocative,” she said. 

“We’ve seen the reports of some withdrawal and would welcome that, if confirmed, but we expect that Azerbaijan to pull back all forces immediately and cease further provocation. We’ve also urged both sides to approach demarcation issues through discussion as well as negotiation.”

Armenia is raising alarm that Azerbaijan launched an incursion into its territory Wednesday, a charge that Azerbaijan rejects, saying it only deployed border guards in the region. 

The latest dispute comes less than six months after Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease-fire that ended a month of devastating conflict over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, expressed deep concern over reports of the alleged border incursion and called for a review of U.S. policy towards Azerbaijan. 

“It is past time for the United States to recognize that our policies have emboldened Azeri President Ilham Aliyev to escalate militarily, risking another war,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

Schiff called the decision by the Biden administration to issue a waiver allowing the delivery of military and security assistance to Azerbaijan “unjustified.” 

“Azerbaijan is taking these actions just days after the State Department issued an unjustified waiver of restrictions under Section 907 against direct aid to Azerbaijan,” he said. “We should not be providing military funding to a nation that habitually engages in human rights violations and violates the sovereignty of its neighbors.”

Section 907 of the Arms Export Control Act requires the State Department to certify to Congress that U.S. security assistance to Azerbaijan will not contribute to conflict in the region and issue a waiver allowing the delivery of such assistance. The waiver has been issued annually since 2002. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken notified Congress in April that it was issuing the waiver under section 907. The move is likely to draw increased scrutiny amid the most recent dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Thursday criticized Azerbaijan as instigating conflict with Armenia and called for the Biden administration to “engage on this issue at the highest levels.”

Defense Department spokesman Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton T. Semelroth said the Pentagon is closely monitoring the situation along the “un-demarcated border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

“We review thoroughly any potential assistance to Azerbaijan to ensure it will not undermine or hamper ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan and will not be used for offensive purposes against Armenia,” the spokesman continued.

“Our non-lethal security assistance to Azerbaijan is in the U.S. national security interests, and helps enable Azerbaijan to secure its southern and maritime borders to reduce the threat of terrorists, [weapons of mass destruction], and other illicit trafficking. For example, just recently the x-ray scanners we provided were used to identify a large shipment of heroin at the Iranian border.”

The U.S., France and Russia are parties to the Minsk group that since 1992 have sought to work with both Armenia and Azerbaijan to negotiate a political solution to the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and other disputes between the former Soviet Union countries. 

The latest dispute has drawn the attention of French President Emmanuel Macron, who issued a statement on Thursday that was critical of Azerbaijan, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who called his counterparts in Baku and Yerevan. 

Phillip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Europe and Eurasia, has spoken separately with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the past two days, according to their respective foreign ministries.

Updated: May 15 at 1:30 p.m.