HomeNewsAnalysis | How the war in Ukraine helped stoke an Armenian tragedy

Analysis | How the war in Ukraine helped stoke an Armenian tragedy

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The exodus continues. In a matter of days, roughly half of the ethnic Armenian population of the highland enclave Nagorno-Karabakh have now fled their homes to nearby Armenia. They lived for decades in isolation and de facto independence within the territory of Azerbaijan, but a surprise offensive last week by Azerbaijani forces swiftly overwhelmed the mismatched defenders of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, known to Armenians as Artsakh, and triggered a new wave of displacement in a part of the world that has witnessed generations of ethnic strife and forced population transfers.

My colleagues on the ground along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border reported Wednesday that some 47,000 people of Nagorno-Karabakh’s more than 100,000-strong population had already crossed into Armenia. They were crammed into trucks and cars, their possessions piled high. Many more are expected to follow them; few may return.

The autocratic government in Baku has promised to safeguard ethnic Armenian rights and extend citizenship to the region’s inhabitants, but such is the depth of bad blood between both sides that few residents of Nagorno-Karabakh place much stock in those assurances. Refugees recount fleeing bombings and violence and say they fear persecution at the hands of a triumphal Azerbaijani state, which has already set about dismantling the autonomous political institutions that existed in the region.

“The buses keep on coming. We meet them here and then send them on their way to different regions across Armenia,” a local priest told my colleague Francesca Ebel in the Armenian town of Goris, speaking of the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. “Mostly, the people arriving don’t understand at all what has happened to them. At first, they experience stress, but then they realize they could never have stayed in Artsakh.”

The demise of the ethnic Armenian enclave has felt both sudden and slow motion. Western officials were stunned by Azerbaijan’s lightning campaign last week, and in the months prior had urged Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to exercise restraint and patience in his demands for the full restoration of his nation’s “territorial integrity.”

An Armenian exodus raises the specter of ‘ethnic cleansing’

But the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh had already endured nine months of a blockade after Azerbaijani authorities imposed checkpoints on the lone road connecting the enclave to Armenia. Food was running out in grocery stores and hospitals were low on critical supplies. Rights groups and international observers warned that Azerbaijan was creating the conditions for “genocide” in the region; Baku, which had prevented most international organizations from reaching Nagorno-Karabakh, rejected such claims and blamed the region’s separatist authorities for manufacturing a crisis.

Hovering above this all was the shifting role of Russia. A brief, lopsided war in 2020 saw Azerbaijan capture huge swaths of territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh from ethnic Armenian forces, which had in turn seized those lands during deadly rounds of fighting in the 1990s that displaced tens of thousands of Azeris. Russian peacekeepers were deployed to safeguard an uneasy peace, but they failed to prevent Azerbaijan from blockading Nagorno-Karabakh and could do little to thwart last week’s offensive, which effectively snuffed out the region’s political autonomy.

Analysts suggest this was, in part, a trickle-down effect of the ongoing war in Ukraine, provoked by Russia’s invasion last year. Though it has maintained solid ties with Azerbaijan, Moscow has long counted Armenia as an ally and security partner in its immediate neighborhood. But it appears to lack the capacity to enforce its role as peacekeeper and guarantor of stability not just in the South Caucasus, but in Central Asia, where it stood by as recent border skirmishes flared between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

“Russia doesn’t have the resources to make everyone scared of it as it could before,” Aleksandr Atasuntsev, a Russian expert on the Caucasus, told the New York Times. “Russia has one big goal — it wants to win in Ukraine and is ready to sacrifice a lot to achieve this, including allies.” He added that, in the wake of the Russian invasion, Moscow “can no longer play a restraining role” elsewhere in its neighborhood.

Exodus from Nagorno-Karabakh: ‘I never imagined we would ever leave’

For Moscow, the havoc befalling the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh marks a loss of prestige. “The dramatic photos of many frightened people at Stepanakert airport (in Karabakh) are an obvious visual rhyme with the photos of crowds at Kabul airport in 2021,” Alexander Baunov, a former Russian diplomat, told Reuters, referring to the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. “Moscow concluded from the Kabul pictures that America was weak and that the historical chance to deal with Ukraine had come. Who will draw what conclusions from the Karabakh pictures?”

But recent events also reflect a change in the geopolitical winds. The Kremlin does not disguise its contempt and distrust for Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in 2018 amid anti-government protests against a corrupt, Russia-backed regime. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pashinyan has attempted to accelerate an Armenian pivot to the West with steps that included a tranche of humanitarian aid to Kyiv and planned military exercises with the United States.

Earlier this month, Pashinyan told a leading Italian newspaper that hedging its bets with Moscow was a strategic mistake for Yerevan. “Armenia’s security architecture was 99.999 percent linked to Russia, including when it came to the procurement of arms and ammunition,” Pashinyan told La Repubblica. “But today we see that Russia itself is in need of weapons, arms and ammunition and in this situation it’s understandable that even if it wishes so, the Russian Federation cannot meet Armenia’s security needs.”

“There is no way to interpret this in any other way but [an] ‘in your face’ signal to Russia,” Volodymyr Dubovyk, director of the Center for International Studies at Odessa Mechnikov National University in Ukraine, told Foreign Policy, gesturing to how one of the Kremlin’s closest post-Soviet allies has drifted away. “This illustrates how Russia’s invasion backfired terribly. This is important for Ukraine: that Russia’s isolation strengthens.”

But that had consequences for the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Russia less invested in buttressing the Armenian cause. The strategic reality of the situation is heavily in favor of petro-rich Azerbaijan: From a state of relative parity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan’s economy is multiple times the size of Armenia’s, its military far superior, and its relations with regional heavyweights Turkey and Russia more stable. The war in Ukraine has also spotlighted European need for Azerbaijani energy exports, though many E.U. governments are belatedly trying to apply pressure on Azerbaijan.

Armenia’s pivot to the West may have come too late. “For the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, this rapprochement would surely come too late,” Thomas de Waal wrote in Foreign Affairs. “With Baku already in control, it is difficult to imagine an outcome that would protect their historic legacy and assure their survival in large numbers. The repercussions, recriminations, and the human cost of their defeat will reverberate for decades to come.”

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