They shiver in the cold while food supplies dwindle. The elderly deprived of medicine and children from emergency health care. They do not know if the electricity will remain on or when the next sniper bullet or missile will hit or where. But this is not Ukraine but rather the situation of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, known to the Armenians as Artsakh.
On December 12, Azerbaijani government-affiliated "environmental activists," backed up by Azerbaijan police, blocked the road in the Lachin Corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, that region's sole remaining lifeline to the outside world. Azerbaijan is a kleptocratic dictatorship where demonstrations and blocking of roads only occur if the regime says so. These were not so much activists but government employees bused in by the Baku regime. The oil-rich country has been ruled by the same Aliyev family since 1993, first the father, KGB General Heydar Aliyev, and then, since 2003, his son Ilham Aliyev. The younger Aliyev's wife has been vice president of Azerbaijan since 2017.
The blockade of Artsakh by Azerbaijan has been criticized in the West, by the Biden Administration, and by Pope Francis. USAID Director Samantha Power on December 15 called on the Lachin Corridor to be re-opened immediately and warned of the potential of "a significant humanitarian crisis." At the request of France and Armenia, the issue was to be raised at the UN Security Council on December 20. Perhaps by the time this article appears the siege will have ended. Or it may continue or stop and then start again at some future date. Rather than looking forward toward Armenian Christmas on January 6, the hardy inhabitants of Artsakh have to calculate carefully how to survive in the weeks ahead, how to feed themselves and keep themselves warm, and to be ready to defend themselves for an attack that could come at any time and that seeks to erase their existence. The people of Artsakh are steadfast but the objective is to shake that resolve over time.
The current situation is, of course, the result of Azerbaijan's Turkish-orchestrated military victory in November 2020, which ended the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. The tripartite November 10 Ceasefire Agreement that ended that conflict mandates free passage in both directions through the Lachin Corridor (also the release of POWs, which Azerbaijan has failed to do). Per the Agreement, Russian Peacekeepers are deployed to maintain the status quo but the Azeris rightly perceive that Russia is weakened by the ongoing war in Ukraine.
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Artsakh and Armenia – the latter paralyzed by the weak and incompetent government of Nikol Pashinyan – are mostly alone. Western apologists for Azerbaijan and Turkey, both emboldened by the Russia-Ukraine War, make much of Armenia's ties with Russia and Iran but neither of those countries, beset by their own crises, can do much and neither is going to spend any real blood or treasure to "rescue" the Armenians of Artsakh anyway. The liberal Western countries of Western Europe and the United States, focused on crises like the Ukraine War and concerns about China, often seem to have limited bandwidth when it comes to a "complicated" crisis in the Caucasus region.
Assuming that the current blockade is not the big one, it is more likely a dry run for Azerbaijan's eventual definitive assault on Artsakh. That could come as soon as spring of 2023 or perhaps in 2025 when permission for the presence of the Russian troops would expire unless both Azerbaijan and Armenia agree to an automatic extension.
The challenge for Azerbaijan is how to make that assault. The Baku regime is currently basking in the warmth of Western – especially European Union and UK – acceptance as it becomes an energy alternative to Russia. Ideally, given Western sensibilities, the Azeris and their Turkish partners would prefer a mostly empty Artsakh that would keep their own casualties low and avoid upsetting squeamish Westerners with the sight of two much Armenian blood too prominently displayed. Anything that keeps the Armenian population down, either by killing them slowly or ethnically cleansing them through migration is a goal for the Aliyev regime. That is why blockading the now besieged people of Artsakh with supposed "environmental protestors" is so on point for Western sensibilities. It plays perfectly into the liberal Western mindset, with the short attention spans, with the exaltation of supposed spontaneous rallies on certain favored issues. If the Azeris could figure how to tie their blockade to Western concerns about climate change or trans rights, they surely would have done so.
Azerbaijan's goal is to keep the simmering pressure on, one way or another, on both Artsakh and on the Republic of Armenia itself. As the Artsakh blockade entered its second week, Azerbaijan troops also sporadically opened fire on Armenians at border positions near Kutakan. Over the past year, this type of action has been a frequent hallmark of Azeri aggression, probing and pushing across the Armenian border, cutting roads, setting up checkpoints, grabbing high places, killing a soldier here, a prisoner there. In September 2022, open warfare broke out for 48 hours until American mediation secured a shaky ceasefire.
It is horrifying that a little over a century since the Armenian Genocide, we see once again another Armenian population threatened with extermination. Despite progressive rhetoric, we know that we live in an unjust world. The just solution would be that the Armenian inhabitants of Artsakh get to decide their own fate. They have repeatedly wanted independence in union with their brethren in Armenia. The reality of Nagorno-Karabakh, a conflict zone between briefly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan in the 1920s, is one of those many places where Soviet power imposed, through sheer force, temporary solutions that would eventually unravel. One thinks of places like Chechnya or Crimea after the fall of the Soviet Union.
If Azerbaijan was a democracy that respected its citizens, one could perhaps conceive of an autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh in that country. But this is impossible given the reality in Baku, not only a cruel and corrupt dictatorship but one that uses Armenophobia as a source of regime legitimacy. The preference for Baku is a Nagorno-Karabakh which has been emptied of its ancestral population, just the land, with no Armenians.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.