The rare images coming out of Stepanakert depict the terrifying spectacle of a population starving, thirsty, harassed and terrorized as the world seems to look on with almost complete indifference. As the situation in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) continues to worsen by the day, the warning signs of an impending disaster are becoming more and more prominent. What could be the worst-case scenario, and to what extent will those involved respond?
What do 120,000 human lives in danger represent in the 21st century? To Westerners who value democracy and human rights, it seems to be a drop in the bucket. The rumors that are circulating only increase the anguish of what is amounting to irremediable ethnic cleansing. The different scenarios brilliantly evoked by Sossi Tatikyan are clear enough to understand that the anti-democratic character of the Aliyev family regime, does not allow us to hope for the possibility of Armenian autonomy in Azerbaijan, as seen with Quebec in Canada, or Catalonia and the Basque Country in Spain.
Understanding the Azerbaijani Narrative
Officially, the regime in Baku is not demanding the expulsion of Armenians from the former autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Instead, they are requesting that Armenians consider themselves Azerbaijani citizens if they wish to continue living there. Currently, Armenia has no protection mechanisms in place for its nationals. All Artsakh Armenians have Armenian citizenship, with only a small minority holding Russian passports. There is every reason to believe that Baku will not open the Lachin Corridor, but rather the Aghdam road, where some of the supplies for the Russian peacekeeping troops transit.
Initially, the Azerbaijanis will hunt down able-bodied men over 40, starting with those who participated in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War (1991-1994), and try them in their war courts for crimes of terrorism and secessionism. Following this, they will open the proposed so-called “Zangezur corridor”, under the control of the Russian army and the Russian federal security (FSB) services. Finally, armed with their advantage on the ground and their external support from Turkey, Russia, Israel, and the United Kingdom, they will proceed with a redrawing of the border, reopening the Pandora’s box of Azerbaijani enclaves in Armenia, inherited from the Soviet period.
All this will be done without proposing any reciprocity regarding the fate of the Artsvashen enclave, which has remained within Azerbaijani territory since 1990.
In short, the goal is to eliminate any possibility of a viable Armenian state with secure borders, a functioning economy, and sufficient natural and water resources to ensure its economic and human development.
Currently, every possible means is being used to exert maximum pressure and make daily life unbearable for Artsakh Armenians. If Artsakh is abandoned, this will become the daily life of Syunik region’s inhabitants.
Leaders in Europe and the United States are attempting to reassure the Armenian public, or at least put the gravity of the crisis into perspective. From their point of view, 120,000 human lives may not carry much weight on the chessboard of international relations, especially at a time of war in Ukraine and the rise of BRICS, which are challenging the international system established by Western countries.
According to the West, Armenians need only recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Artsakh, and everything will return to normal. However, they fail to consider that a new Nakhichevan will only increase Russia’s influence in the region, given that it shares a border with Azerbaijan and is heavily invested in hydrocarbons and circumventing international sanctions. In this case, there is no modest-sized country capable of alienating Russia.
Azerbaijan remains officially neutral, but due to its position of strength and in the context of the war in Ukraine, has managed to raise the stakes with the West and Russia. Its regime understands that it cannot be on bad terms with its big brother to the north, as Russia is both a source of capital flows and the penetration of fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam via the autonomous region of Dagestan.
There’s no doubt that the war in Ukraine has pushed Russia into Azerbaijan’s arms. But opponents of the Armenian government in Armenia and the diaspora commonly express the following viewpoint: “If Armenia had diligently worked on implementing the terms of the 9th point of the trilateral agreement signed on November 9, the closure of the Lachin Corridor could have been avoided. Furthermore, Armenia could have established vital rail and road connections with both Russia through Azerbaijan and Europe through Turkey.”
The argument that the Armenian leadership’s recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity calls into question the tripartite ceasefire agreement of November 9, 2020, has its limits. Pro-Russian circles engage in scapegoating and seek to find rationality in Moscow’s actions. Few, however, are willing to explicitly criticize Russia’s duplicity.
Armenia’s readiness to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity if security guarantees were put in place has completely changed the situation. Russia is not responsible for the misfortunes of Artsakh Armenians, and Russian peacekeeping troops continue to receive food and basic necessities by land and air without any issues.
There are no longer any red lines or equilibrium, only a headlong rush that lacks rationality. If the Ukraine War ends in a Russian victory, the ideal of a sovereign Armenia will be lost. If it suffers a heavy setback, Armenia will become even more vulnerable, and its security architecture will be totally defeated.
What About the West?
In Armenia and among certain diaspora communities, naivety is still the order of the day. This naivety is based on the belief that the EU and the U.S. would ensure Armenia’s security in the event of its withdrawal from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO0, which displays an ignorance of both history and realpolitik.
It is a historical truth that Russia has abandoned Armenia three times in the past.
- In 1918, on Lenin’s order, Russian troops left Erzincan province and the whole of Western Armenia. Armenians accused Russia and the People’s Committee of vile betrayal.
- In 1920, when the Lenin-Ataturk plan was implemented, Armenians accused the Russians of treason. Prime Minister Hamo Ohanjanyan considered Russia to be an openly hostile state toward Armenia.
- In 1991, when Soviet troops and the Azerbaijani OMON carried out ethnic cleansing in Artsakh and the territory to its north, Armenians accused Russia of betraying them.
While Moscow granted Nakhichevan and Artsakh to Azerbaijan in 1921, the West’s behavior was also far from glorious. Despite Yerevan’s appeals to the Allied Powers for help in the face of the war launched by Kemalist Turkey, the League of Nations abandoned Armenia in September-November 1920. The Bolsheviks intervened and sovietized the part of the prey that the Turks had not yet devoured.
Today, it’s naive to think that the recognition of the reality of the 1915 genocide by these powers will lead to the deployment of coercive international mechanisms to prevent the completion of the same genocide in Artsakh.
In an interview with Le Point magazine, French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the current blockade in Artsakh. However, he also did not propose a range of diplomatic and economic sanctions against Azerbaijan to ensure compliance with the resolutions of the International Court of Justice.
So, what does Armenia have to offer Azerbaijan? The only valuable proposition –– serving as a crossroads for dialogue between Russia and the West –– is now also within the purview of Baku, which has skillfully positioned itself within the international system.
What Could Be the Worst-case Scenario?
Suppose Azerbaijan opens a corridor, not at Lachin but at Aghdam. The President of Artsakh signs a decree of self-dissolution for Artsakh’s institutions and resigns before fleeing to Russia. A purge begins, with men who have taken part in the recent wars being targeted. The most daring flee into the mountains to continue the guerrilla war. The West does not budge, claiming that even Armenia has recognized Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over the Armenian enclave.
In the second stage, the Meghri corridor with Russia is opened. The Russians deploy their weapons and FSB services along the border with Iran to control the comings and goings of goods, men and merchandise. In Yerevan, they congratulate themselves on the fact that peace is still possible.
However, can we realistically hope for a lasting and just peace? A Nagorno-Karabakh emptied of its Armenian population and threatened with the destruction of its thousand-year-old heritage, will not bring peace, security or stability to the region.
We may witness a radicalization of certain branches of the diaspora, violent demonstrations against Azerbaijani diplomatic representations and perhaps even a radicalization of Armenian youth who may resort to armed violence as a means of expression. With nothing left to lose, let’s play for all we’ve got.
But it’s in Armenia where the worst may happen. A wave of destabilization, provoked by the influx of Artsakh refugees, who may seek revenge on the authorities who have “sold them out”. Thus, the liberal-democratic West, through blindness or cynicism, or both, has failed to see that this “valiant little ally”, according to former French Prime Minister George Clémenceau, has been sacrificed on the altar of realpolitik and neo-imperial geopolitics. Referring to the chess game being played out between Russia and Turkey, the consequences of which will have serious repercussions for the stability of a Europe that is already discredited. A Europe that continues to think that an Armenian life is not equal to that of a Ukrainian or a Kosovar.
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