Neil Hauer is a Canadian journalist reporting on Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone today who is unaware of the catastrophe in Ukraine, as Russia’s invasion of that country hits the 11-month mark.
But few could tell you there is another unfolding humanitarian crisis not far from there, on another edge of Europe, in the tiny, unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.
For more than a month, the residents of this disputed enclave in the Caucasus mountains have been cut off, ever since government-organized protesters from Azerbaijan, which claims the region, blocked the only road to the outside world on Dec. 12. Food and electricity are now rationed, gas supplies are regularly cut, and at least 100,000 civilians are effectively under siege.
This conflict may seem obscure and unimportant – an arcane dispute in a far-flung corner of the world with few implications for anywhere else. But the risks of a new war that could draw in regional and international powers – including Russia, Turkey, Iran and even the West – is high. International Crisis Group, the world’s premier conflict watchdog, named the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict (including Nagorno-Karabakh, or simply Karabakh for short) second on its list of conflicts to watch in 2023, behind only Ukraine. The time to react to the blockade is now.
The current crisis is the latest development in a decades-old conflict in a region whose complexity and diversity can prove challenging for even experienced observers. Once the southernmost region of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus gained the unenviable distinction of being the most violent areas of the disintegrating USSR in 1991. Its three newly independent states – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – saw no fewer than four separatist conflicts as other territories attempted to establish their own sovereignty while communist authority disintegrated.
One of these regions was Nagorno-Karabakh. When the Soviet Union’s internal borders were drawn in the 1920s, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was placed inside Soviet Azerbaijan – despite its overwhelmingly ethnic Armenian population. As the USSR began to crack in the late 1980s, the population of Karabakh demanded to be joined to Soviet Armenia. Ethnic violence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis escalated, and the USSR’s dissolution gave way to a full-scale war. When a ceasefire was finally reached in 1994, ethnic Armenians controlled not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but also seven adjacent provinces of Azerbaijan proper.
This situation persisted until 2020. Having rebuilt and modernized its army, Azerbaijan – backed by Turkey – launched a new war to redress its failure of three decades earlier. Through 44 days of war, Azerbaijan recaptured not only the seven provinces it had lost, but one-third of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, including the fortress city of Shushi. Russian peacekeepers were deployed to the remaining Armenian-controlled territory to maintain a fragile ceasefire, but Azerbaijan and its President, Ilham Aliyev, were not satisfied. For the past two years, Azerbaijan has continued its attempts to gain control over the rest of Karabakh – with or without its Armenian population.
Over the past few months, these efforts have picked up steam. Mr. Aliyev has sought to press Armenia into signing a capitulatory peace treaty that would see it abandon the Nagorno-Karabakh issue entirely and recognize the territory as part of Azerbaijan. In September, that took the form of a full-scale invasion of Armenia itself, with nearly 300 soldiers total killed in just two days.
When this did not achieve the desired result, Azerbaijan decided on a new tactic: using government-deployed civilian “protesters” to block the only road into Karabakh from Dec. 12 onward. For more than 40 days now, the only traffic in or out has consisted of a few Red Cross vehicles with urgent supplies. There are few signs that the blockade will be lifted any time soon.
The war in Ukraine has had knock-on effects that have been felt across the globe, but there are few places where deteriorating conditions are so clearly linked to that conflict as Karabakh.
Russia has traditionally been the main international powerbroker in the Karabakh conflict: It ruled the area for nearly two centuries, and maintains powerful leverage over a region that has long been peripheral for the West. Russia’s 2,000-strong peacekeeping contingent in Karabakh, as well as long-standing military bases in Armenia, reflects that.
But as Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine has faltered – leaving Russia internationally isolated and draining its resources – Azerbaijan has sought to take advantage. Russia has become ever more dependent on Azerbaijan’s co-operation: The two signed a treaty of alliance just two days before Moscow launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine, and have since signed deals for Russian gas sales to Azerbaijan (and further onward to Europe).
As a result, the Russian peacekeepers who are supposed to ensure free passage along the Armenia-Karabakh road have instead been unable to reopen the corridor. They have stood idly by and watched the blockade, despite the seeming humiliation of being helpless before another former Soviet republic that Moscow has long considered a junior partner.
Russian weakness has created an opening for Western countries to take a stronger role in regulating the conflict, one they had seemingly lost after the 2020 Russian-brokered ceasefire. The United States, for its part, has been forceful in condemning Azerbaijan’s aggression toward Armenia proper.
After last September’s invasion, then-U.S. house speaker Nancy Pelosi made an unprecedented visit to Armenia, naming it alongside Taiwan and Ukraine as “one of the forefronts … of the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.” While that effort helped forestall greater violence on the territory of Armenia, there has been little indication that the U.S. is willing to take the sorts of measures required to halt Azerbaijan’s siege of Karabakh. Expressions of concern do not seem sufficient to put an end to the blockade this time.
The European Union has similarly struggled to enable the peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict. In the wake of the September fighting, many European politicians condemned Azerbaijan’s invasion; the EU later deployed a civilian observation mission to the Armenian border, which was renewed and expanded just this month.
But Brussels’ actions before then may have directly contributed to Mr. Aliyev’s confidence that his invasion would not be opposed. In July, a smiling Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, visited Azerbaijan to sign a deal with Mr. Aliyev to expand the country’s gas supplies to Europe.
Ms. Von der Leyen, who described Azerbaijan as a “reliable partner,” drew heavy criticism from human-rights groups for indulging the Aliyev regime. It seems likely that the gas deal increased Azerbaijan’s confidence that the world would turn a blind eye to its September invasion.
The current struggle threatens to draw in other major regional players as well. Chief among these is Turkey, which supported Azerbaijan openly in the 2020 war and has backed it strongly ever since.
The close relations between the two countries – both Mr. Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan often describe their states’ fraternity as being “one nation, two states” – are only likely to deepen in the coming months as Turkey’s election nears. Mr. Erdogan has often sought to use foreign conflicts to bolster nationalist support and portray himself as a powerful and internationally respected strongman. As he approaches his greatest electoral challenge in years, he could look to use a new war between Azerbaijan and Armenia as another distraction from Turkey’s dire economic situation.
Iran, meanwhile, has rattled the sabre at Azerbaijan multiple times since the 2020 war, holding mass war games on their shared border and repeatedly stating that “Armenia’s security is Iran’s security.” In the event of a major military escalation, Tehran could easily be drawn in as well.
At the heart of this intractable conflict are fundamental differences between the kinds of countries and societies Armenia (and Nagorno-Karabakh) and Azerbaijan are today. Like most former Soviet states, Armenia has struggled with authoritarianism, but it made a key break with this past in 2018, when the “Velvet Revolution” brought current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to power. One of the few democratic success stories in the past few years, Armenia’s reforms earned praise from Western states and other international observers alike. In one example, the Economist named Armenia its 2018 Country of the Year for “having improved the most” in the past 12 months.
Mr. Pashinyan’s democratic mandate was renewed in 2021, in an election that was hailed by observers for being free and fair – not a small achievement in the wake of a devastating lost war. Nagorno-Karabakh, for its part, had a reasonably competitive election in 2020 and is ranked by the watchdog group Freedom House as “partly free.”
The contrast with Azerbaijan could hardly be more stark. There, Ilham Aliyev has ruled since 2003, when he was bequeathed the presidency by his late father, Heydar (who had led from 1993), and violently crushed his opposition after a sham vote. Elections have long since passed the point of farce in Azerbaijan: The country’s authorities infamously released the rigged results of the 2013 election a day before voting actually took place. Corruption is rampant, human-rights abuses are commonplace and protests are violently dispersed within minutes – another facet that makes the theatre of the supposed “eco-activists” currently blockading Karabakh that much more transparent.
Freedom House rates Azerbaijan as “not free,” with a score on par with nations such as China and Belarus, and describes Mr. Aliyev’s government as an “authoritarian regime.” This is to say nothing of the virulent, state-sponsored anti-Armenian racism in the country, perhaps most vividly captured in Victory Park in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. There, in 2021, grotesquely caricatured wax figures of Armenians dying in various gruesome ways were displayed proudly until international backlash persuaded authorities to remove them.
While it’s tempting for many observers to simply wave away this dimension as irrelevant, it’s hard to imagine many people would willingly give up living in a largely free society to a repressive dictatorship that despises them.
As the blockade of Karabakh continues, the most salient question to ask is how it might be brought to an end. The current realities are not encouraging on this front. Azerbaijan seems to show no signs of accepting anything short of a customs regime and its own checkpoints along the road from Armenia to Karabakh. It cites “security concerns” – despite this constituting a violation of the November, 2020, ceasefire agreement that Mr. Aliyev himself signed.
For the government and population of Nagorno-Karabakh, the very idea of this is anathema. Azerbaijani troops have proven again and again that they will gleefully murder any Armenians they can get their hands on, as they showed with summary executions during the 2020 war, during last September’s offensive and with Armenian POWs in captivity. If they were to have access to Karabakh’s civilians, and the opportunity to arbitrarily detain and murder them, there is no doubt that it would lead to a mass exodus and the final ethnic cleansing of the territory.
The Armenian government, meanwhile, has few options available: It is petitioning its international partners and launching legal appeals that have found some success. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly called for Azerbaijan to reopen the corridor – but there is little indication that Baku intends to comply.
Amid all of this geopolitical wrangling, it is regular people who are suffering. Much like Ukrainians hardening their resolve in the face of Russian brutality, the civilians of Karabakh have not been cowed but rather reinvigorated by their resistance to any possibility of being placed under Azerbaijan’s deadly rule. But that is not enough. Absent serious international pressure, Mr. Aliyev and his dictatorship show no signs of ceasing the blockade and the privations it is inflicting.
The world came to the aid of Ukraine and its people when they came under threat by a brutal neighbouring dictatorship. We wait to see whether the same will happen for the 100,000 besieged inhabitants of Karabakh.