It was Mao Zedong who said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” That harsh lesson certainly applies to the long-running battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested territory known as Nagorno-Karabakh — where Azerbaijan this week imposed its sovereignty by force of arms.
For Armenians, who live in the long shadow of the 1915 Ottoman genocide, the plight of an estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenians in Karabakh has been haunting. Lacking the military power to rival Azerbaijan — and without protection from Russia, the United States or even Armenia itself — the Karabakh Armenians were forced to surrender in two days.
Representatives of the Armenian government that had been running Karabakh met Thursday with Azerbaijani representatives for what officials in Baku said were “constructive” talks. The meeting was evidence that Azerbaijan was reestablishing authority over territory it had controlled legally, but not in fact, and that Karabakh Armenians were submitting to the new political reality they had long hoped to avoid.
At least 200 Karabakh Armenians died in the fighting that began Tuesday, according to local reports, as Azerbaijani artillery pounded Karabakh’s small military force and Baku’s commandos seized strategic high ground. Armenian social media carried wrenching stories about families searching for missing children and thousands gathered at the airport in Stepanakert, the region’s de facto capital, hoping to flee.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made a televised address Wednesday night that seemed intended to stem a flight of Armenian residents who fear that Baku plans to “ethnically cleanse” the territory. He said that Armenian residents would be treated as “citizens” and that Baku would pursue only “criminal” separatists.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s decision to stay out of the conflict has brought intense criticism inside Armenia from those who feel Pashinyan abandoned his ethnic brethren. Even some of those critics conceded in interviews Thursday that Yerevan lacked the firepower to combat Aliyev’s takeover. Armenia was badly outgunned in the 2020 war that reversed nearly three decades of Armenian control of the region, and this mismatch has only grown worse.
Global power politics overlay this week’s dramatic events. The Karabakh turmoil results in part from the vacuum in the region caused by Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine. Moscow had a small, 2,000-member peacekeeping force in Karabakh that was supposed to prevent conflict. The Russians proved powerless, and Russia said some of its soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani fire this week.
Armenia, which has relied for a century on Russian protection, had begun doubting Moscow and started pivoting to the West this year, hoping for more reliable allies. The Biden administration offered diplomatic help in trying to broker a settlement between Baku and Yerevan, but without effect. The Pentagon this month sent roughly 100 U.S. soldiers to Armenia to train its military, nominally for peacekeeping operations, but they departed on schedule as the assault on Karabakh was underway.
Armenia’s pivot West was probably badly timed. It alienated the Russians without bringing reliable Western help. The Armenians, especially in Karabakh, were isolated and vulnerable — waiting for foreign deliverance that never came. In that respect, it was a cruel recapitulation of modern Armenian history.
The Biden administration has tried for the past two years to prevent a violent resolution of the Karabakh problem by seeking a durable peace deal between Baku and Yerevan. That effort seemed to be progressing, but in the end, Baku decided to gain sovereignty by force rather than negotiation. After the assault began, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Aliyev and urged a ceasefire, which followed soon after.
The armed takeover of Karabakh has been coming in slow motion since Azerbaijan won a 2020 war for control, reversing the breakaway status Armenian troops had won in battle in 1994. Armenians in the enclave had hoped for some form of independence rather than a compromise deal with Baku, which retained authority under international law. It never came. Azerbaijan, flush with oil wealth, grew stronger year by year. Eventually, the hammer fell.
Azerbaijan began a slow strangulation of Karabakh in December, when a government-backed organization closed the road to Armenia, known as the “Lachin Corridor.” Karabakh was gradually starved of food and fuel — and by this month, basic supplies of flour and other essentials were said to be exhausted. That’s when Aliyev struck militarily.
The Biden administration’s policy now is to prevent the ethnic cleansing that Armenians fear. Blinken is said to have urged Aliyev to grant what amounts to amnesty to the Karabakh Armenians and provide reliable guarantees for their security. The United States also hopes that a lasting accord between Armenia and Azerbaijan will be possible now that the Karabakh issue has been resolved at gunpoint. But that overlooks the deep mistrust and anxiety felt by Armenians, which will only increase after this week’s armed takeover.
Karabakh lies at one of the world’s most dangerous intersections, where the ghosts of the past stalk every living resident. An example of this bloodknot is the 1937 novel “Ali and Nino,” set partly in the mountain forests of Nagorno-Karabakh. It opens with a professor in Baku asking his students whether the surrounding region “should belong to progressive Europe or reactionary Asia.” A charming Azerbaijani prince who is one of the heroes of the story opts for Asia and forms a love match with a Georgian princess. It’s a love story, but it’s animated by the conflict between East and West. The darkest passages of the book take place in the “black garden” of Karabakh.