More than 120,000 Christian Armenians continue to face the threat of ethnic cleansing in Nagorno Karabakh, a region inside Azerbaijan. Over the past few weeks, the E.U., the U.S., and Russia have hosted rounds of talks about the crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But these meetings are unlikely to resolve the crisis, even though Armenia recently made painful and substantial concessions. Given the indifference and, frankly, complicity of outside powers, the Azeri strongman, President Ilham Aliyev, has little incentive to negotiate in good faith—and his declared ambitions include not only Karabakh, but Armenia itself. The international community needs to do more than convene meetings to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.
As I explained last year, the current crisis is the latest episode in a conflict that dates to the Armenian Genocide of 1915, when the Ottomans eliminated the Armenian Christians of Anatolia in hopes of creating a pan-Turkic empire that would extend from the Mediterranean through the Caucasus into Central Asia. Karabakh survived the genocide and Joseph Stalin made it an autonomous region within the newly created (and Muslim-majority) Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1920s. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Karabakh Armenians declared independence. A brutal war ensued, after which Armenians controlled Karabakh and several surrounding regions they held as bargaining chips for an eventual settlement.
In the succeeding decades, flush with money from its natural gas industry, Azerbaijan built up its military. In September 2020, the Azeris attacked and reconquered all the surrounding regions and parts of Karabakh. At the time, Turkish President Erdogan boasted of “fulfilling the mission of our grandfathers in the Caucasus.” Russia, supposedly Armenia’s protector, intervened only at the last minute and fashioned a ceasefire agreement in November 2020 that the parties agreed would last five years.
The Russian-brokered ceasefire has been a farce. Although it has some 2000 peacekeepers in the region, Russia has shown itself unable—or, more likely, unwilling—to stop continued Azeri aggression. Azerbaijan has launched two large-scale invasions of Armenia since the ceasefire was proclaimed, seizing significant territory while Russian peacekeepers stood by. Since December, Azerbaijan has blockaded Karabakh, creating a humanitarian crisis. In February, the International Court of Justice ruled that the blockade violates international law and ordered Azerbaijan to reopen the road that links Karabakh to the outside world. The Azeri government has simply ignored the ruling.
Azerbaijan can safely do so because it knows Russia would block enforcement of the ICJ’s ruling in the U.N. Security Council. This might come as a surprise to Americans, who assume that Armenia and Russia are partners. That hasn’t been the case for years. Armenia’s current government is pro-Western and has tried to balance the country’s economic and military ties with Russia with new links to Europe and the U.S. This is popular in Armenia. Armenians resent Russia’s failure to honor treaty obligations and protect Armenia when Azerbaijan invaded in September 2022, and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has publicly questioned whether Armenia will remain in the CSTO, the Russian-led security organization. A recent poll shows that a majority of Armenians now think of France and the U.S. as potential political partners rather than Russia.
In fact, Azerbaijan, not Armenia, has become Russia’s key ally in the South Caucasus. Two days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Aliyev traveled to Moscow to sign a cooperation agreement with the Russian government—an agreement, he boasted, “that brings our relations to the level of an alliance.” Azerbaijan touts itself as an alternative source of natural gas for Europe, but in fact it quietly purchases gas from Russian companies, thereby allowing Russia to avoid Western sanctions. It recently announced an Azeri-Russian-Iranian partnership to build a transport corridor to link the three countries—and exclude Western interests from the South Caucasus hub.
Western governments see all this, which explains why they have become increasingly active in the region. The U.S. intervened diplomatically to stop Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia in September 2022. Over strenuous Russian objections, the E.U. has placed civilian observers on Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan. And, as I wrote above, both the E.U. and the U.S. are now competing with Russia to resolve the crisis with diplomatic talks—on Western terms.
There seem to be limits, though, to how far the West will push Aliyev. Notwithstanding his ties to Putin, the West sees Aliyev as at least a potential foil against Russia—and, given the Ukraine conflict, the West is willing mostly to look the other way when it comes to Aliyev’s menacing of his democratic neighbor. The E.U. signed a deal for the importation of natural gas from Azerbaijan last summer and has praised Aliyev as a “reliable” and “crucial energy partner.” The E.U. might send civilian monitors, but it is unlikely to take too hard a line. The U.S. thinks it can perhaps use Azerbaijan to keep neighboring Iran in check; Israel thinks so too. So Aliyev can continue to play a double game, cozying up to Russia while remaining interesting enough to the West to avoid serious sanctions.
But without sanctions or other serious action, Aliyev will continue to treat Armenian concessions as invitations to engage in further aggression. For example, in negotiations in Brussels last month, both Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to recognize each other’s territorial integrity and discussed reopening railway connections based on mutual reciprocity. Pashinyan subsequently confirmed that Armenia was ready to recognize Azeri sovereignty over Karabakh (provided arrangements could be made to guarantee Armenians’ security there)—a painful public concession, apparently made at the urging of the U.S, which caused anger in Karabakh itself.
How did Aliyev respond? After Pashinyan’s statement, Aliyev again threatened Karabakh Armenians with ethnic cleansing and, for good measure, threatened Armenia as well. Armenia would have to agree to Azerbaijan’s demands with respect to border demarcation, he announced, or face further aggression. “The border will pass where we say,” Aliyev crowed. “They know that we can do it. No one will help them.” A bewildered Pashinyan asked whether Aliyev was already abandoning the position he had taken in Brussels and demanded clarification. The U.S. has not yet responded.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, American and European leaders have spoken of the need to defend democracy and self-determination against authoritarian aggression. That is precisely what is needed in the South Caucasus now. At the very least, Western sanctions against the Aliyev regime should be on the table. Even in realist terms, it would not be in the West’s interest to abandon Armenia, which is looking to reorient itself and which can serve, in time, as an important bridge between the West, the South Caucasus, and beyond. Unless the West creates greater incentives for Azerbaijan to negotiate in good faith, however, a humanitarian crisis looks about to unfold.
Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John's University.
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