Discover more from The UnPopulist
The Putin-Backed Ethnic Cleansing that the Western Press Isn't Covering
Armenians in the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh are being expelled because their prime minister isn't a Russian stooge
By Maria Titizian
A seemingly endless sea of cars inch their way through the Lachin Corridor, the only lifeline linking the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The situation is chaotic, almost apocalyptic: thousands of cars and trucks carrying over 100,000 people, trapped in a massive traffic jam that could be seen from space. The journey from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, to the village of Kornidzor in Armenia would typically take around 1.5 hours, but, during this mass exodus, it would require some 40 hours to cross the 77-km stretch of road.
A few days earlier, on September 19, 2023, Azerbaijani Armed Forces had launched a large-scale military offensive after a nine-month blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh. Following 24 hours of intense fighting, a ceasefire agreement came into force. With whole regions violently overrun by Azerbaijani soldiers, defenseless refugees flooded into Stepanakert. As the republic began to collapse, Azerbaijan opened the Lachin Corridor, precipitating the exodus of the entire population of Nagorno-Karabakh. They left behind homes, lives, memories and centuries of continual existence in Karabakh. When the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh arrived in Armenia, exhausted, malnourished, and traumatized, the realization of their dispossession was, for many, overwhelming. “You know, it was only when the volunteers handed me food and water after the crossing that I realized I am now a refugee,” one said.
In the midst of that suffering, attempts to retain self-possession took on a tragic aspect. One woman told an Armenian journalist that her last activity before leaving was to write a note for the Azerbaijanis saying, “In this house, there lived a dignified family. Please take care of it. And also, I beg you to water my flowers.”
The cities, towns, and villages of Nagorno-Karabakh, once bustling with life, are now ghostly reminders of what ethnic cleansing looks like. Abandoned homes and shops. Schools with no students. Deserted neighborhoods. Stray animals and pets left behind roaming the streets as Azerbaijani forces start to dismantle any trace of an Armenian existence.
Virtually synonymous with “frozen war”—the sort of conflict that the international community could never be bothered with reporting on or trying to understand—the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is, in its apparent endgame, both an immense (and overlooked) humanitarian catastrophe and a sobering geopolitical lesson. It shows how Russia can punish nations (even ostensible allies) that do not toe its line. And it shows that neglect by the West—toothless promises by diplomats, lack of interest in the press—can help to allow the catastrophe to unfold.
A great deal of background is necessary to understand what has happened.
The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region enclosed within the territory of Azerbaijan but with a majority population that is ethnically Armenian, is a disputed territory over which Armenia and Azerbaijan have gone to war three times. In 1923, as part of an administrative reorganization, Soviet authorities created the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and placed it within the territory of Soviet Azerbaijan. That precarious arrangement held throughout the Soviet period, but in 1988, with the Soviet Union buckling, NKAO petitioned to be reunified with Soviet Armenia. This move led to a chain reaction, with tensions inflamed through the region, and retaliatory pogroms carried out against ethnic Armenians throughout Azerbaijan. War and widespread ethnic displacement followed. The war—the First Nagorno-Karabakh War—was a triumph for the Armenian side, with Armenian forces taking control of not only the territory of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast but of seven adjacent regions. Hundreds of thousands of civilians, on both sides, were displaced as a result of the conflict.
A ceasefire was mediated by Russia in 1994 and signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh. For the next two decades, the region existed in a state of neither war nor peace, a frozen conflict, with periodic ceasefire violations and skirmishes.
In 2016, a Four-Day War erupted, resulting in the death of about 100 soldiers. Although there are disputing accounts of how the conflict started, the consensus of outside observers has been, as the EU think tank OSW put it, that “everything indicates that Azerbaijan took the initiative.”
The region was plunged into a deeper crisis on September 27, 2020 when Azerbaijan launched a massive offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh—called either the “Second Nagorno-Karabakh War” or the “44 Day War”. This time, Azerbaijan’s coordinated firepower, particularly its use of drones, overwhelmed Armenian resistance, with Azerbaijan taking the seven adjacent territories to Nagorno-Karabakh proper and taking the region’s second-largest city, Shushi. The war ended with, on the Armenian side, approximately 4,000 deaths, more than 11,000 wounded, and hundreds of POWs in Azerbaijani captivity. The Azerbaijan side reported approximately 3,000 killed. The 2020 conflict displaced around 90,000 people, or more than half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s total population.
After several unsuccessful attempts to stop the hostilities by the United States and France, Russia was able to mediate a ceasefire on November 9, which stipulated the withdrawal of the Armenian Armed Forces from the disputed region. Russia almost immediately deployed a peacekeeping mission, purportedly to protect the ethnic Armenian population of what remained of Nagorno-Karabakh. With significantly diminished territory, Nagorno-Karabakh was connected with Armenia solely by the Russian-administered Lachin Corridor.
This arrangement placed heavy pressure on Russia to enforce agreed-upon obligations. Historically, Armenian-Russian relations have been defined by a strategic partnership, and Russia has had a substantial role as guarantor of Armenia’s security post-1994. However, under Putin’s regime, Russia has gradually reneged on these obligations and tacitly encouraged Azerbaijan.
Following the end of the 2020 war, Azerbaijan has sought to impose a victor’s peace by attempting to coerce as many concessions from the Armenian side as possible. In May and November 2021, Azerbaijani Armed Forces launched military operations against the territory of Armenia itself, advancing several kilometers into Armenia and securing a number of strategic heights. The largest escalation after the 2020 war took place in September 2022, when Azerbaijan launched an invasion into Armenia proper and advanced deep into the Gegharkunik region of central Armenia, as well as carrying out operations in the southern Syunik region. The intense clashes ended with a US-brokered ceasefire. Over 280 were killed in the fighting, with around 600 injured.
Tensions continued to spiral and, in December 2022, self-described Azerbaijani eco-activists blocked the Lachin Corridor alleging illegal exploitation of mineral resources by Karabakh authorities. The purported environmental concerns soon shifted to outright calls for a total takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh. In February, 2023, the International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan to end the blockade and allow for the free movement of people, vehicles, and cargo. However, in the absence of enforcement mechanisms, Azerbaijan simply ignored those orders, including calls from the international community to open the road. In the meantime, natural gas and electricity lines from Armenia were intermittently cut, plunging the population into darkness in the cold winter months. In April, Azerbaijani forces, with the acquiescence of Russian peacekeepers, installed a checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor, a direct violation of the ceasefire that had ended the 2020 war.
The coup de grâce came this September, with Azerbaijan’s lightning strike on the region. Although Azerbaijan’s government claimed that it invited the region’s ethnically-Armenian population to stay—”guaranteeing safety”—this was, as Human Rights Watch put it, “difficult to accept at face value.” The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh knew that they could not survive long under one of the most authoritarian states in the world. Having faced continuous invasions by Azerbaijan since 2020, and cognizant of Baku’s categorical refusal to grant any level of autonomy to ethnic Armenians, the writing was on the wall and the population fled en masse.
The result is that, three years after the start of the renewed war, Azerbaijan has succeeded in ethnically cleansing Nagorno-Karabakh of its Armenian population—a potent term but one that has been overwhelmingly accepted by, among others, the European Parliament. With the Russian peacekeepers refusing to deter Azerbaijan from using force, and with the Armenian population facing potential massacres, President Samvel Shahramanyan of Nagorno-Karabakh, under intense Russian and Azerbaijani pressure, signed a decree dissolving all state institutions. As of January 1, 2024, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh will cease to exist.
Over 100,000 refugees are now in Armenia, homeless, rootless, and desolate. Financial aid packages including assistance for rent, utilities, and food were put into place to be distributed to the refugees. However, responding to the needs of so many for a small embattled country has proven to be a daunting task. Many gaps and challenges in the delivery of that assistance remain, compounding the dire condition of the refugees.
The blatant failure of Russia, Armenia’s erstwhile treaty ally, in protecting the rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh has become painfully clear. The primary issue appears to be Moscow’s discomfiture with Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist with a pro-democracy government. As the Kremlin’s media guidelines on the September fighting state, referring to Pashinyan’s alleged belligerence, “The Armenian Premier was probably pushed…by his Western ‘partners,’ who should now fully share the responsibility for their consequences.” Russian media was quick to pick up on the Kremlin’s prescribed talking points, with Lenta.ru, for instance, repeating a favorite phrase of the Kremlin’s in referring to Karabakh as “Azerbaijan’s internal business.” None of this has been lost on the Armenian public, who see how Moscow emboldened Baku and, instead of honoring its treaty commitments, stood by and watched the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh. In protest, holders of dual citizenship even photographed themselves tearing up their Russian passports.
There is a message in this that has lingered in the entire region since Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008: Western-leaning, pro-democracy policies will be promptly punished. Meanwhile, the West’s feeble attempts to prevent the catastrophe through statements that ethnic cleansing of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh would not be “tolerated” were just that: statements. The West appeared to hold to a naive belief that Azerbaijan’s authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev was interested in peace, and that therefore sanctions would be counterproductive—and, so, the West passed up its one viable means of checking Azerbaijan. Certainly, Azerbaijan’s “gas diplomacy”—the increasing reliance that the EU has on Azerbaijani gas—has made any prospect for sanctions unlikely.
More than a month after the people of Nagorno-Karabakh were forcibly displaced, the International Committee of the Red Cross published an image of Stepanakert at night, which read: “The lights may be on, but there is no one home. When people left their homes, power supplies had been cut in many residential areas. When power was restored, lights came back on in empty apartments.” Those empty apartments now stand as a stark metaphor for the expulsion of an entire ethnic group from their homes.
Maria Titizian is the editor-in-chief of Yerevan-based EVN Report, an online magazine, and a lecturer at the American University of Armenia.
This article was originally published at Persuasion, our editorial partner.