Karabakh is no more

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Nagorno-Karabakh

After thirty-five years of trying to break away from Azerbaijan, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have been forced to surrender, ending the last remnant of an Armenian world that once stretched all the way to Anatolia.

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh in the city of Goris, September 2023. Credit: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Nagorno-Karabakh, the long-disputed Armenian enclave, had been under bitter siege by Azerbaijan for almost ten months by the time the hatchet fell on 19 September. After 35 years of trying to break away from Azerbaijan, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh were forced into a definitive surrender within twenty-four hours of heavy fighting. Exodus has followed. Over 100,000 Armenians have fled down the winding mountain road, that connected their unrecognised statelet, to haven in nearby Armenia.

Nagorno-Karabakh has now joined a long list of lands emptied of its Armenians. Images from a ghostly Stepanakert, once the region’s capital, show it strewn with the possessions that could not be loaded on buses and trucks. Many observers had warned for months that a fourth war over Nagorno-Karabakh was coming, even as European diplomats hoped that Azerbaijan might be convinced to accept a negotiated settlement. While there is now a United Nations assessment team inside Nagorno-Karabakh, international efforts to help the Karabakh Armenians have come too late. Under the terms of its capitulation, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which had been renamed Artsakh in 2017, will cease to exist by January 2024 and many of its leaders have already been hauled into detention. Azerbaijan has won a devastating victory reminiscent of the Croats’ liquidation of Serbian Krajina in 1995 and has brought to a resounding end a project over which thousands have died since the 1980s.

As the seams of the Soviet Union began to split apart, Nagorno-Karabakh was the first of the ethnic conflicts that have marked many of those successors that emerged. After Mikhail Gorbachev began his doomed efforts to liberalise, conflicts long smothered by an iron hand from Moscow erupted into the open. In February 1988, the Karabakh Armenians voted for union with Armenia, seeking to rectify what they saw as a mistake that had left them stranded within Azerbaijan since the 1920s. Violence was immediate. By 1991, when Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence, Armenia and Azerbaijan had careered into a war that would last until 1994. Relations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis settled into a destructive cycle of mutual ethnic cleansing of which the flight of the Karabakh Armenians is only the latest example.

This time Yerevan did not intervene in the fighting, but the outcome will nevertheless be seen as a second catastrophic defeat for Armenia within three years. In 2020, after forty-four days of fighting that left over 7,000 dead, a Russian-brokered ceasefire forced Armenia to withdraw its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrender its role as the protector of the Karabakh Armenians to Russian peacekeepers. Many expected that this would freeze the conflict for at least the length of those peacekeepers’ initial mandate – five years – but the stay-of-execution for the Karabakh Armenians did not even last that. Russia, sapped of credibility and manpower by the war in Ukraine and increasingly reliant on its friendship with Baku, told its men to stand down. Azerbaijan’s authoritarian President, Ilham Aliyev, may well have forewarned Moscow in a wink-wink deal.

Armenia faces an unstable and uncertain future. It will struggle to absorb the sudden influx of refugees. The EU and US have already pledged humanitarian funds, but the challenge will be above all about integrating a traumatised population that had been on the brink of famine, and ensuring that Russia – which has fallen out with Yerevan – does not succeed in further destabilising Armenia.

As the Karabakh Armenians pour into the border towns and begin to disperse around Armenia, the dazed dreamland that follows all such defeats will begin to give way to anger and accusations of betrayal. Whether Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, his predecessors, or indeed Russia will bear the bulk of the blame will be fundamental to sketching Armenia’s place in a region in which it has few friends.

With Nagorno-Karabakh having been removed from the equation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, there may be an opportunity to settle differences and agree a comprehensive peace. This seems unlikely. Many in Yerevan are worried that Azerbaijan has irredentist designs over southern Armenia and may seek to press its advantage. There have been periodic skirmishes along the ill-defined border between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 2020, the latest of which came on Saturday, and Azerbaijan has seized much of the strategic high ground. Worryingly, Baku has been telegraphing for some time that it could carve a land-bridge to Nakhichevan, its isolated exclave sandwiched between Armenia and Turkey. Under the 2020 ceasefire, a transport corridor under Russian oversight was supposed to be created, but Armenia has dragged its feet. President Aliyev, who has begun speaking of Armenia as ‘Western Azerbaijan’, says that the corridor ‘will happen whether Armenia wants it or not’.

It is urgent for the European Union and the United States to clearly tell Azerbaijan that any efforts to push further into Armenia proper would be a miscalculation. France, which has traditionally fought the Armenians’ corner in Europe, is said to be considering sending arms to Yerevan. The little leverage Europe has in the south Caucasus has been painfully exposed as Russia and Turkey jostle to reorder and reconnect the region for a post-Ukraine and post-Karabakh order. Iran, which backs Armenia, is tetchy. It has been clear that it would oppose any efforts to cut it off from Armenia, as it seeks to avoid being hemmed in by Turkey and Azerbaijan, close partners with Israel.

Yerevan and Stepanakert bear some responsibility for the catastrophe that has unfolding. The Armenians ended the First Karabakh War in a commanding position. Yerevan not only secured Nagorno-Karabakh, but occupied seven adjacent Azerbaijani regions – cleansed of their inhabitants – that it could have traded for concessions and a final settlement. Repeated efforts in this direction over three decades ultimately came to nought, but mistakes and hubris meant the Armenians failed to transform their favourable position on the ground into any lasting strategic gain. The so-called ‘Karabakh Clan’ that was finally defeated by Nikol Pashinyan in the Velvet Revolution in 2018 received much of the blame in 2020, but talk in Yerevan is now more pointed at Pashinyan as Prime Minister.

Yerevan has few good options at its disposal. The outcome in Nagorno-Karabakh has underscored that Armenia remains stuck in its strategic straitjacket. While Pashinyan’s efforts to reorient Armenia away from Russia have undermined an already weak hand, many Armenians feel they have been betrayed and want to move definitively Westwards. Frustrated by Moscow’s inability or unwillingness to uphold its side of the 2020 ceasefire agreement, including protecting Armenia’s borders from encroachment by Azerbaijan, Pashinyan had been seeking to diversify the number of friends that Armenia could count on. He has spoken of withdrawing Armenia from the CSTO, the Russian-security alliance, and is joining the International Criminal Court, which has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia, which never trusted Pashinyan, is now pushing loudly for his overthrow.

Pashinyan is right that Russia is unreliable. The war in Ukraine has made Azerbaijan a key partner for Russia, on which it has become reliant as a transit route to Iran and beyond. But the US and Europe – which had deployed a border-monitoring mission to Armenia and had become the main mover in trying to unlock a comprehensive settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan – lack both the leverage and, often, the interest to offer Armenia anything more than supportive words. Moscow remains the only player with troops on the ground in Armenia. As the Karabakh Armenians emptied a historic homeland, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was jamming on-stage at the launch of the State Department’s ‘Music Diplomacy Initiative’.

Nagorno-Karabakh had once been the exception that proved the rule in the Armenian narrative. It was the last remnant of an Armenian world that once stretched all the way to Anatolia. Having been emptied of its people, its ancient monasteries are also now at risk. When you walk around Yerevan, the suffocating reminders of what was lost in the early twentieth century are all-pervading. The Armenians’ symbolic Mount Ararat, which stands inside Turkey, dominates the Yerevan skyline. It twinkles at night with military outposts watching the border. Nagorno-Karabakh will now join it.


Jacob Judah