If Artsakh Falls
The blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh is the culmination of this campaign. If effected in full, that policy will be tantamount to ethnic cleansing.
On Monday, the Red Cross delivered 23 tons of flour to Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian territory that has now spent the better part of a year under an Azerbaijani blockade. The territory’s 120,000 residents, a quarter of them children, are facing mass hunger as the weather cools and supplies dwindle. Given the scale of the looming humanitarian catastrophe, the flour delivery is minor, and the Karabakh crisis isn’t close to being resolved.
That’s because the regime in Baku remains convinced that it has a golden opportunity to grab the territory and extinguish its residents’ longstanding claims to self-determination once and for all. The conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh, known to the Armenians as Artsakh, would represent the demise of yet another indigenous Christian community in a region that has lost far too many of them over the past two decades. And Western hawks would once more bear the blame.
I’ve repeatedly written about the origins of the crisis in these pages. Briefly: The mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh is the heartland of the Armenian people. It’s where they developed the Armenian alphabet and where they managed to retain sovereignty even as the wider South Caucasus traded hands between the Persian and Russian empires across long centuries.
In 1918, amid the collapse of the tsarist empire, Armenia and Azerbaijan (along with Georgia) declared independence. Then Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over three ethnically mixed regions: Nakhichevan, Zangezur, and Karabakh. Nakhichevan, lodged between Armenia and Turkey, fell into Azeri hands and remains an Azeri exclave today. Zangezur, in southern Armenia, fell into Armenian hands. The Karabakh question wasn’t settled, however, and soon the Soviet Union conquered the whole region. The Soviets initially resolved to grant the region to the new Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, but nationalities commissar Joseph Stalin reversed the decision, defining Karabakh as an autonomous territory inside the borders of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.
Often forgotten, the first tremors that led to the breakup of the USSR were felt in the territory in the 1980s, as Karabakhi Armenians agitated for independence under Soviet law. As the Soviet Union disappeared from the map, a brutal, six-year war broke out between the new republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh that ended with the Armenians taking the territory and expelling hundreds of thousands Azerbaijanis (who, of course, had conducted plenty of anti-Armenian pogroms of their own).
The Karabakhi dispute emerged as a “frozen conflict,” and so it remained for some three decades. That is, until 2020, when Azerbaijan—now flush with petro-dollars and newfound prestige in Washington, Brussels, and Jerusalem as an anti-Russian and anti-Iranian bulwark—forcefully captured much of the territory. Since then, Baku has mounted an all-out effort to intimidate the Karabakhis into surrender, including military incursions into Armenia proper, the deployment of Syrian jihadis, the leaking of what can be described only as “war porn” depicting Armenian soldiers under torture, and a downright bizarre propaganda campaign that seeks to cast doubt on the indigeneity of Armenians to the region by claiming they are actually Roman Albanians (a long-extinct people not to be confused with Balkan Albanians).
The blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh is the culmination of this campaign. The Baku regime insists that the Armenians who reside within its international borders must learn—and learn good and hard—that they are merely “ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan.” If effected in full, that policy will be tantamount to ethnic cleansing.
For one thing, even Azeri citizens of Azerbaijan lack fundamental rights under President-for-Life Ilham Aliyev, while the Karabakhi Armenians have now been accustomed to decades of democratic self-rule. For another, the Azerbaijanis have been injecting their own people with genocidal rhetoric about Armenians as ethnic “interlopers” who don’t belong in the region. There is no possible world in which the Karabakhi Armenians can “integrate” into Azerbaijan.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
If Baku’s dream of reconquest comes to pass, much of the blame would lie with the Western foreign policy establishment. The Aliyev Roll of Shame would include a who’s who of hawkish governments and individuals that, in recent decades, have made it their business to divide the world into simplistic Good Guy–Bad Guy binaries—with Middle Eastern Christians often finding themselves on the wrong side of the divide.
Offhand: The Trump administration, which raised nary a peep when Azerbaijan made its initial military incursion in 2020; European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who traveled to Baku and heaped praise on the Aliyev regime; the ultra-hawkish Hudson Institute, home to some of the most virulently anti-Armenian think-tankers on this side of the Bosporus; and successive Israeli governments, which supplied two-thirds of Azerbaijan’s weapons, including its most sophisticated arms, over the past five years.
Luckily, there is still time to avert calamity. Credit where it’s due: The Biden administration recently sounded strong notes against the blockade in congressional testimony last week. And a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, including normally hawkish figures like Senators Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Marco Rubio of Florida, has stepped up to demand an end to Azerbaijani aggression. Rescuing Karabakhi Armenians, as I’ve noted in these pages, doesn’t require troops on the ground. All it takes is a willingness to rein in an especially nasty client.