A Christian Nation in Trouble
Karabakhi Armenians shouldn’t have to sacrifice their safety and autonomy.
Azerbaijan’s blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave within its international borders, is now stretching into its eighth month. By blocking the single road that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia proper, the kleptocratic regime in Baku seeks to squelch the Karabakhi Armenians’ aspirations to self-determination and to humiliate Yerevan.
The good news is that Team Biden seems closely engaged with the crisis. The bad news is that Washington might be preparing to throw the Karabakhis under the bus, even as the administration has been helpful to Armenia proper in recent months.
On July 3, Kristina Kvien, the American envoy to Yerevan, sparked a justified freakout among the Armenians after she said in an interview that “all parties”—meaning the Azeris included—agree that “the rights and security of Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents must be guaranteed.” The subtext, as the Armenian government protested, was that the Karabakhi Armenians could live safely under Baku’s rule, as ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan.
Kvien later clarified her remarks, noting that “the United States does not presuppose the outcome of negotiations on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh” and “supports an agreement that is durable, sustainable, and lays the foundations for peace.” That’s good enough, so far as it goes. Still, the original remarks revealed an alarming naivete about the realities of the conflict.
Home to 120,000 Armenians, a quarter of them children, Nagorno-Karabakh is where the Armenian alphabet was developed. The Armenian people—the world’s oldest Christian nation—maintained a measure of sovereignty there even as the great empires traded control of the South Caucasus for centuries. Known to the Armenians as Artsakh, Nagorno-Karabakh was also the birthplace of the modern Armenian independence movement inside the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic (where it had been relegated by ethnicities commissar Stalin).
Amid the breakup of the USSR, the Karabakhis took control of the enclave in a war with Azerbaijan that saw both sides commit atrocities, including population transfers. Not even Armenia proper recognized the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, however, and the dispute soon emerged as one of the world’s most intractable “frozen conflicts.” In 2020, however, the Azerbaijanis managed to recapture much of the territory, and more recently, the Baku regime has made military incursions into Armenia proper, even leaking “torture porn” showing Armenian troops enduring unspeakable crimes.
It’s conduct like that that makes the Armenians gasp when they hear statements like Kvien’s. The regime in Baku doesn’t even respect the rights of its own population, let alone Armenian Christians whom it views as interlopers, whose ancient cross stones and cemeteries it destroys, and who have been the subject of decades of ethno-sectarian animus from official organs. The notion that the Karabakhi Armenians can “integrate” into Azerbaijan, or that Baku has already agreed to recognize their rights in any meaningful sense, is a dangerous fantasy.
The Azeris’ goal, as the Armenian analyst Eric Hacopian told me during a reporting trip last year, is to conduct ethnic cleansing Nagorno-Karabakh, establish a sovereign corridor across Armenia proper to their exclave of Nakhichevan, and ultimately to bring about the “Gaza-ification” of Armenia: a rump state with which the Azerbaijanis (and their Turkish allies) can do as they please.
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The moment is golden, from their point of view. Russia, Armenia’s historic protector, is distracted in Ukraine, and the 2,000 or so Russian troops tasked by the “international community” to protect the corridor between Nagorno and Armenia proper are sitting on their hands. The Azeri fisc, meanwhile, is flush with petrodollars for Western lobbying. Baku promises more gas than it can deliver to a desperate European Union, and sells itself as an anti-Iran spear tip to the Israelis and American hawks.
Even so, the P.R. and political tide may be turning in Western capitals. Notwithstanding Kvien’s naive remarks, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats have been quite strong in their support of Armenia; many officials in Yerevan credit Nancy Pelosi for putting a stop to the Azeris’ latest assault by taking a solidarity delegation. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, meanwhile, are making a bipartisan push to stop American military assistance to Baku. That pairing is especially notable, since both are normally hawkish on Russia and Iran but have clearly had it with the Azeris’ behavior.
Friends of Armenia, Democratic and Republican, must make it clear to the Biden administration that the safety and autonomy of the Karabakhi Armenians, and their preferences, can’t be sacrificed in any push for negotiated settlement to the conflict. Otherwise, America risks replicating the kind of border-redrawing from on high that gave rise to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem in the first place.