A campaign of ethnic cleansing is unfolding on the edge of Europe. Last week, Azerbaijan, a predominantly Turkic Muslim state in the South Caucasus, launched a blitzkrieg against Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave inside the country the size of Rhode Island that is home to 120,000 Armenian Christians. For months, Azerbaijan had blockaded the Karabakhi Armenians, closing off the Lachin Corridor, the only road connecting them to neighboring Armenia and the outside world. The starved population, armed only with small weapons, and with the Russian peacekeepers refusing to intervene, was no match for the onslaught.
An exodus of Armenian Christians has begun. The Lachin Corridor is blocked again, now by thousands of Armenians fleeing for their lives, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Although Baku promises the outside world that it will “reintegrate” them, Armenians find that impossible to believe. A news blackout prevents the world from seeing what’s happening, but there are many credible reports of atrocities.
No surprise. For at least a generation, the Aliyev regime in Baku has lied to its citizens, claiming that Armenian Christians, who have lived in Karabakh for centuries, are invaders—alien, subhuman, a cancer. Wherever it has had a chance, the Baku regime has destroyed Armenian churches and gravesites to erase evidence of Armenians’ indigeneity to the territory. Armenians know what’s coming. The only realistic hope for them is to leave—which has been Baku’s plan all along.
Ethnic cleansing is Azeri strongman Ilham Aliyev’s latest move in a conflict that dates to the fall of the Soviet Union—indeed, long before that. Nationalities commissar Joseph Stalin assigned Karabakh, which had been alternately a Persian and Russian province, to the newly formed Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1920s, even though the population of the region was overwhelmingly Armenian. At the same time, Stalin gave Azerbaijan the exclave of Nakhichevan on the other side of Armenia, on the border with Turkey. The division was part of a divide-and-conquer strategy, as well as a concession to Turkey, which negotiated for this arrangement on the part of its Azeri allies.
Karabakhi Armenians protested but had no real choice. When the Soviet Union fell in the 1990s, they again sought independence from Azerbaijan. Baku attempted to suppress the Karabakh movement militarily but lost in a brutal war that drew in newly independent Armenia, as well. After the war, Armenians controlled Karabakh, as well as seven surrounding regions meant as bargaining chips for a peace settlement that never materialized. A fragile ceasefire prevailed until 2020, when Azerbaijan, with substantial military assistance from Turkey, recaptured the seven regions and much of Karabakh itself. Russia brokered a new ceasefire that gave it peacekeeping responsibilities, including making sure the Lachin Corridor remained open.
The US foreign-policy establishment portrays Moscow as Armenia’s staunch ally. In fact, the Kremlin has tilted toward Azerbaijan. Baku has a lot to offer Russia. Even though it is a gas producer, and touts itself as an alternate supplier for Europe, Azerbaijan quietly purchases Russian gas, allowing Russia to evade Western sanctions. Azerbaijan also works with Russia and Iran on transport infrastructure aimed at bypassing Western influence. No surprise, then, that just before it invaded Ukraine in 2022, Moscow announced a new strategic alliance with Baku. The Kremlin is happy to make deals at Armenia’s expense—a historical pattern, as the Stalin-era map-drawing shows—if that means keeping Turkey and its protégé, Azerbaijan, happy, especially as the Ukraine war has turned out to be much longer and costlier than Moscow anticipated. Giving Turkey what it wants encourages Ankara to maintain its two-sided policy, now helping the Russians, now the Ukrainians.
All this explains why, notwithstanding its obligation as regional peacekeeper, Russia allowed Azerbaijan to choke Karabakh for months. There is another reason, too. Armenia has twice elected Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who has made no secret of his desire to reorient Armenia toward Europe and the West. Moscow would very much like to be rid of Pashinyan, and so it looks the other way when Baku embarrasses him. For example, when Azerbaijan launched a short-lived invasion of Armenia proper in 2022, Russia refused to intervene—again, notwithstanding its treaty obligations to do so. And Russia has allowed Baku to starve Karabakh and now begin ethnic cleansing. Moscow hopes all this will cause Armenians to overthrow Pashinyan, who frankly seems in way over his head.
What about the West? Human-rights groups—including American Christian groups, which have a long interest in Armenia as the first Christian nation and a rare safe haven for Mideast Christians—have urged the United States and Europe to intervene for months. The groups have international human-rights law on their side. In February 2023, the International Court of Justice ruled that the blockade of Karabakh violated the international anti-racism convention and ordered Baku to reopen the Lachin Corridor; Baku ignored the ruling. And the so-called Responsibility to Protect, which NATO invoked to justify bombing Serb army positions around Sarajevo in the 1990s, allows collective action to protect vulnerable populations from ethnic cleansing.
But democracy and international law only matter when great powers decide it serves their interest to promote them, and the United States and the European Union have mostly demurred. Azerbaijan has petroleum reserves that can serve as an alternate source of natural gas for a Europe desperate to end its energy dependence on Moscow. In addition, Azerbaijan can serve as a base for monitoring, and even attacking, Iran, which makes it useful not only to Washington, but Jerusalem, as well. Both the United States and Israel have supplied weapons to Azerbaijan, including in the run-up to this month’s campaign. Finally, Turkey backs Azerbaijan, and the West, which is accustomed to holding its nose and making deals with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, doesn’t want to annoy him.
Thus, Washington and Brussels have responded to the crisis mostly by issuing empty statements of concern and hosting desultory negotiations. In fact, when the West does intervene, it sometimes makes things worse. EU civilian monitors sent to the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan inform Baku of their movements ahead of time, allowing Azerbaijan to plan attacks.
Two weeks ago, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim told a Senate committee, “the United States will not countenance any action or effort—short-term or long-term—to ethnically cleanse or commit other atrocities against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Now that ethnic cleansing has begun, the Biden Administration is reduced to sending mealy-mouthed letters mourning the “loss of life.” Drawing a red line and then backing down doesn’t only expose Washington to ridicule. It further endangers Karabakh’s Armenians.
This isn’t the first time in history that the United States has raised Armenians’ hopes only to dash them. During World War I, at the time of what we must now refer to as the First Armenian Genocide, the United States initially supported the newly formed Armenian Republic’s claim for sovereignty. As the Versailles Peace Conference dragged on, though, Washington changed its mind. Helping Armenia would entangle the United States with Russia and Turkey, which wasn’t in America’s interest. Washington rejected a proposed League of Nations mandate for Armenia, which Turkey and Russia divided among themselves, the Russian territory eventually becoming part of the Soviet Union.
Something similar seems to be happening now. In fact, the ethnic cleansing of Karabakh probably serves many interests. For the Russians, it’s a way of pressuring Armenia to overthrow its pro-Western government. For the United States and Europe, it ends an embarrassing moral quandary and allows them to continue to curry favor with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Just as Moscow tries to pull Ankara to its side, Washington wants very much to keep Ankara in the NATO tent.
And for Turkey and Azerbaijan, it’s another victory in a plan to eliminate the Armenian Christian presence in the South Caucasus and create a pan-Turkic empire stretching from Istanbul to Central Asia, a dream that goes back to the time of the First Armenian Genocide a century ago, during which the Ottoman Empire killed up to 1.5 million Armenians in mass deportations. In fact, Baku already claims Armenia proper as “Western Azerbaijan”—a country that has never existed—and both it and Turkey insist on a sovereign corridor across Armenia to link Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan. Erdogan promises to “fulfill the mission of our grandfathers in the Caucasus.” Will the United States stop him? Will Russia?
All this is very bad news for Armenia and Armenians, who for millennia have lived in the uncomfortable space between great empires: Roman and Persian, Arab and Mongol, Ottoman and Tsarist—and now, NATO and Russia. Somehow, against all odds, Armenians have survived in the region. The world’s oldest Christian nation—whose turn to the faith predates the Constantinian conversion—endures as a nation and political community. It will surely survive this ordeal, too. But it won’t be easy, especially for the Armenians who, at the point of a gun, are slowly making their way through the Lachin Corridor this week.