At their core, both the U.S. presidential inauguration and the celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. have one thing in common: they both symbolize the triumph of liberty over the forces of oppression. As it happens, this weekend also features another blood-stained commemoration of freedom trouncing evil: “Black January,” the Russian massacre of Azerbaijan civilians on January 20, 1990, that failed to prevent the proud nation of Azerbaijan from achieving independence.
Though few outside Azerbaijan have ever heard of it, this date endures as an indelible reminder of the sacrifice borne by a people determined to win their freedom. And it should ignite in America a fierce resolve to support all those allies of ours who fall within Russia’s sphere of influence.
On January 20, 1990 — nearly two years before the official collapse of the U.S.S.R. — Soviet tanks rolled into Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku and slaughtered more than 150 unarmed civilians, including women, the elderly and children. The surprise attack was in an ill-conceived attempt by President Mikhail Gorbachev and Moscow to maintain power over Azerbaijan, as the satellite state fought for its independence.
Human Rights Watch described the Soviet army’s ruthlessness as “an exercise in collective punishment” and “a warning to nationalists, not only in Azerbaijan, but in the other Republics of the Soviet Union.” While Moscow’s brutality in the former Central and Eastern Bloc has been well-documented, the tragedy of Black January is unique because it ended any illusions of a collective Soviet identity.
The event also demonstrated to the world what an empowered Russia can — and is willing — to do. Though Moscow is considerably diminished since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is on the rise, and continues to consolidate its presence in the South Caucasus region, a fragile powder keg consisting of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Georgia, for instance, fought a brief war with Russia in 2008, but it appears that her newly elected prime minister is keen to restore relations with the Kremlin. Additionally, Russia’s arms supplies have always been a crucial element of Armenia’s national security strategy. This, despite Russia’s distinction as one of three co-chairs of the Minsk Group, an organization tasked with overseeing the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Given Black January’s prominent role in the country’s collective conscience, it should be no surprise that Azerbaijan is currently the only country to implement an independent foreign policy against its outsized neighbor. Importantly, Azerbaijan announced last month that it would shut down one of the last vestiges of the Soviet Union: a radar station that Russia leveraged to project strength in the South Caucasus region. Immediately afterwards, Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan indicated that his country would gladly house a new Russian radar installation on its soil.
For Washington, Azerbaijan is an ally too important to let down. Beyond its key partnership in America’s War on Terror, Azerbaijan is crucial to dealing with one of the greatest threats America faces: Iran. The South Caucasus is a breeding ground for terrorism, nuclear proliferation and drug trafficking stemming from Iran. Azerbaijan, however, has worked hard to counter the Iranian threat. In October, Azeri courts sentenced 22 Iran-hired spies to lengthy jail terms for conspiring to plot attacks on Israeli and U.S. targets. In addition, Azerbaijan supplies one-third of Israel’s energy needs. Azerbaijan has also shown time and again its ability to bring crucial energy supplies to Europe, which weakens Russia’s monopoly on European gas markets. And, it will continue to do so with its newly proposed Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP), which will create a coveted “Southern Corridor” to bypass Russia.
The important strategic role that Azerbaijan plays in the South Caucasus and for Europe is too vital to ignore. The U.S. could support Baku through a number of initiatives, starting with recognition and support of events like Black January. It could also be more assertive in leading the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, a resolution to the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will “require strong U.S. leadership for success,” which is also crucial to American security.
Finally, the U.S. could support Baku by making clear that America has its back in Congress and overseas. We need to support Azerbaijan and its ability to provide energy to its neighbors. Failure to support Azerbaijan would surely lead to Russian domination of the region.
Andrew Langer is the president of the Institute for Liberty. He has a degree in International Relations/Soviet Studies from The College of William & Mary.