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Tragedy and Opportunity in Nagorno-Karabakh

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The United States has tended to think about this crucial region too little and too late. But a strategic opportunity still exists.

In the span of mere days, the long-disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, home to Armenians since antiquity, has disappeared as a political entity. By the evening of September 29, almost 100,000 people, over 80 percent of the enclave’s population, had crossed to Armenia, fleeing with the clear encouragement of the Azerbaijan regime.

The Azerbaijanis seized back control of this region from a self-styled independent state, closely tied to Armenia itself, in a series of military campaigns beginning in 2020 and culminating in a lightning strike on September 19-20. The triumphant mood was palpable in Baku when I visited just prior to the latest attack—from huge electronic displays of patriotic flag waving on the skyscrapers that had been built with oil and gas riches to a carpet woven with a map of Nagorno-Karabakh, which a museum guide breathlessly described as “our land.”

Back in Yerevan, the capital of the Republic of Armenia, the mood was considerably darker. On the first day of the beginning of the latest attack, a senior Armenian foreign ministry official was anticipating the collapse of resistance. “It’s a series of actions that can lead to only one thing—the complete ethnic cleansing of Nagorno Karabakh,” he told me.

This humanitarian disaster is taking place as the world watches, issuing ritual statements of condemnation but apparently unable to intervene. Armenia is left largely on its own to cope with a massive influx of people who have been forced to leave possessions and homes, some lived in for centuries, with no hope of return. Azerbaijani forces are arresting Karabakh Armenian leaders, preparing to hold show trials for their “crimes” of resistance. Any acts of resistance are likely to justify brutal and violent repression of those who remain.

Armenians are haunted by the historical memory of the Turkish genocide of 1915, when a million or more Armenians were murdered by the Ottomans amidst the chaos of World War I. U.S. Agency for International Development director Samantha Power, a witness to similar scenes of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the author of a hallmark study of the failure to respond to genocide, came to Armenia immediately after the attack, offering condolences and a mere $11.5 million in refugee aid.

This war in what seems like a distant and peripheral corner of the world deserves our attention. It is a test of the willingness to tolerate acts of violation of fundamental human rights, at a time when these values are on the line in the nearby war in Ukraine. As in that war, the Russian state is asserting its imperial heritage and is determined to punish those whom it sees as disloyal and turning to the West.

The Azerbaijani offensive is possible only because of a de facto alliance of autocrat Ilham Aliyev with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. Armenia and its democratically elected government led by Nikol Pashinyan are being punished by Putin for the crime of seeking to broaden ties to the United States and the European Union. Weakened by war in Ukraine, and worried about losing control of its former imperial backyard in the South Caucasus, Putin decided to greenlight the return of Azerbaijani rule over Nagorno-Karabakh and abandon Russia’s traditional role as a protector of Armenia.

Russian peacekeeping forces in Nagorno Karabakh have become nothing more than doormen for the ethnic cleansing operation.

 “The Russian peacekeeping operation is a sham,” a veteran Armenian political leader told me. “Without the agreement of Putin, neither Azerbaijan nor Turkey could have pursued this war.”

Meanwhile, the conflict is hardly over. An emboldened Azerbaijan, handed a virtual blank check by Turkey and Russia, demands, and prepares to seize, a land bridge across Armenian territory that will connect it to the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhichevan and through that to Turkey. Azerbaijan dictator Aliyev now talks of recovering “western Azerbaijan,” referring to claims on Armenia itself, a claim manifested in attacks along the border, including in recent days.

The immediate origins of this war lie in the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, a moment I witnessed first-hand as the Moscow bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor. A mass movement of Armenians rose up to demand independence and the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to their territory. The region had been placed in the 1920s by Joseph Stalin under the authority of the ethnically Turkish Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, an act that Armenians had long seen as unjust.

As Soviet authority waned, both Armenia and Azerbaijan claimed independence, leading to a fierce war that ended in a 1994 ceasefire. The war left a legacy of mutual acts of ethnic violence and deepened hatred. The fighting left the Armenians in control of a vast swath of Azerbaijani territory, including establishing a land corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. They avoided the sovereignty issue by establishing an independent Nagorno-Karabakh.

The plan was to trade most of the captured Azerbaijani land for a permanent peace, but compromise proved elusive. Conflicting claims of sovereignty could not be resolved, despite the efforts of a group formed by Russia, the United States, and France. Intransigence on both sides grew as time went by. Eventually, the Azerbaijanis regained military strength, using oil and gas revenues to buy advanced arms from Turkey, Israel, and Russia (which supplied both sides), along with Turkish training and officers, to try to resolve the conflict by armed means.

In a weeks-long offensive in 2020, coming when the world was distracted by Covid-19 and the United States was under the isolationist rule of Donald Trump, the Azerbaijanis restored control of all of their occupied territory and much of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. The Russians only intervened at the end to negotiate a ceasefire that ceded much to Azerbaijan and implanted Russian troops on the ground as “peacekeepers.”

Armenian officials believe relations with Moscow had already started to fray after a civic movement brought the reformist government of Pashinyan to power in 2018, removing more pro-Russian leadership. “It started when Russia didn’t like a more open, democratic Armenia,” the senior foreign ministry official said.

“The Russians are much more comfortable working with Azerbaijan than with the current Armenian government,” says Tigran Grigoryan, the head of the Regional Center for Democracy and Security, an Armenian-based think tank. “Aliyev and Putin speak the same language. That is not true for Putin and Pashinyan.”

Still, the Armenian government has been very careful not to upset its traditional allies in Russia, joining the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) organized by Moscow along with Belarus and a handful of other former Soviet republics. The reality is that the Russians retain huge leverage in this small nation—a Russian army unit remains based in northwestern Armenia near the Turkish border and patrols that border. Armenia remains dependent on Russia for most of its energy needs, including the operation of a dangerously aging nuclear power plant. Furthermore, millions of Armenians work in Russia, with their remittances key to the economy back home.

“We never wanted to provoke Russia,” the senior official said. “Why should we? We always wanted more room to maneuver.”

Russia has traditionally opposed the expansion of Turkish influence in the region, but amid the Ukraine war, the situation has completely changed, and Russia is clearly far weaker than before. “The Russians needed a new status quo in the South Caucasus,” explained Grigoryan. “They could tolerate the Turks, but their main concern is the West.”

Armenian analysts compare this to the bargain that the Bolshevik leaders struck in 1921 with the Turks to oust a British-led intervention into the South Caucasus. That deal included the decision to give Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

In broader historical terms, this is the delayed resumption of “a protracted process of imperial disintegration,” says Ukrainian historian Igor Torbakov, a prolific writer on the collapse of the Ottoman and Russian empires. That created “imperial shatter zones” from the Middle East and the Balkans to the Caucasus, leading to forced “unmixing of peoples.” The Bolshevik deal with Kemalist Turkey restored the empire and created a relative peace for seventy years but “the Soviet implosion opened up the nationalist Pandora’s box for the second time in the 20th century,” Torbakov says.

For the Armenian government, the clearest signal of Moscow’s abandonment came a year ago when Azerbaijani attacks along the border with Armenia itself—beyond the Karabakh region—failed to trigger a Russian response. This was a violation of commitments that should have been the result of Armenia’s participation in CSTO.

Pashinyan began to speak out more openly about Russia’s failure to live up to its expected role. Both the European Union and the United States stepped up efforts to mediate the conflict, leading to two rounds of talks convened by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in May and July of this year which seemed to be leading toward some agreement. But Putin stepped in and called his own meeting in Moscow, a move meant “to remind people who is the master of the house,” the senior Armenian official recounted.

Moscow has been openly carrying out a verbal war with the Pashinyan government—responding angrily to even small gestures of independence such as the dispatch of a humanitarian aid mission to Ukraine led by the prime minister’s wife and the holding of a small-scale joint military exercise with the U.S. 101st Airborne carried out just days before the Azerbaijani attack. Former Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev warned Yerevan against “flirting with NATO.”