by Mark Movsesian
Christians around the world are marking Advent, the period in the church calendar that anticipates Christmas. People are decorating their homes and schoolkids are rehearsing their lines for annual Christmas pageants. It’s a happy, forward-looking time.
In the South Caucasus this Advent, though, Christians face the threat of ethnic cleansing. Last week, the Azeri government blocked the road that links the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, home to 120,000 Armenian Christians, to the outside world. No supplies have reached Karabakh for days. The local government has rationed food and essential goods and services. Schools have closed. Hospitals warn that they will soon run out of critical medication, but Azerbaijan has indicated that it will shoot down any aircraft that attempt to deliver humanitarian aid. For good measure, Azerbaijan also temporarily cut off the only natural gas pipeline that supplies the region—in the middle of winter, when temperatures are below freezing.
Azerbaijan, which is Turkish in culture and 97 percent Muslim, wishes to end the Armenian Christian presence in Karabakh and force Armenians to cede territory in Armenia proper for a land bridge to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhichevan on the Turkish border. Karabakh, which is home to centuries-old monasteries and churches, is one of the few places in the Middle East where indigenous Christians still comprise a majority of the population. But that may not be the case much longer. The conflict has the potential to become a serious humanitarian crisis.
Last week’s aggression is the latest episode in a pattern that dates to the Armenian Genocide of 1915, when the Ottomans eliminated the Armenian Christians of Anatolia in hopes of creating a pan-Turkic empire that would extend from the Mediterranean through the Caucasus into Central Asia. Karabakh survived the genocide and Joseph Stalin placed the region within the borders of the newly created Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1920s. When the Soviet Union dissolved in the 1990s, Karabakh Armenians declared independence. A brutal war ensued, after which Armenians controlled Karabakh and several surrounding regions they held as bargaining chips for an eventual settlement.
In the succeeding decades, flush with money from its natural gas industry, Azerbaijan built up its military. In September 2020, equipped with billions of dollars’ worth of high-tech weapons—including lethal drones from Turkey—and assisted by Turkish special forces and Syrian Islamist mercenaries, Azerbaijan attacked and succeeded in reconquering all the surrounding regions and parts of Karabakh. Turkish President Erdogan boasted of “fulfilling the mission of our grandfathers in the Caucasus.”
Russia, supposedly Armenia’s protector, intervened only at the last minute and fashioned a renewable ceasefire agreement in November 2020 that the parties agreed would last five years. Under the terms of the ceasefire, no Armenian military remains in Azerbaijan and Russian peacekeepers control the only road that connects Karabakh with the outside world. Azeris are frustrated by the speed of negotiations. This past fall, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale invasion of Armenia proper, which ended only when the U.S. prevailed on Azerbaijan to cease operations. Azeri forces maintain positions in sovereign Armenian territory.
In last week’s violation of the ceasefire agreement, Azeri government operatives disguised as environmental activists staged a “protest” that closed the road out of Karabakh. The operatives, who claimed to be concerned about ecological conditions at Karabakh mines, fooled no one. Azerbaijan is one of the most repressive countries in the world, and it’s inconceivable that protests would be allowed unless the government had sponsored them. Sources on Twitter revealed that the protestors were Azeri special forces dressed in civilian clothes and supporters of President Ilham Aliyev. In one particularly absurd moment, one of the ostensible nature lovers, dressed in a fur coat, held up a dove as a symbol of peace. She shook the dove so angrily that she broke its neck.
The main point of this operation is to show Armenian Christians in Karabakh that Azerbaijan can cut them off from the outside at any moment and give them a taste of what will happen once Russian peacekeepers depart. Obviously, the Azeri government hopes to convince Armenians that their best option is to leave now, while there’s still time. Once that happens, from the Azeri point of view, the Karabakh issue will have been solved. And Azerbaijan hopes to use the Karabakh Armenians as hostages while it pushes for its land bridge inside Armenia, which would realize the pan-Turkic ambitions of a century ago.
The “protestors” have created a standoff with Russian peacekeepers, who so far have done nothing to clear the road. A couple of possible explanations for this passivity exist. Russia, currently bogged down in Ukraine, may fear a conflict with Azerbaijan, which would open a second front in the South Caucasus. Or perhaps Russia and Azerbaijan are working together. In recent months, Russia has been relying on Azerbaijan to avoid sanctions on the sale of Russian gas. Russia quietly sells gas to the Azeris, who can then sell gas in Europe—thereby providing cash for Russia and plausible deniability for European politicians, who continue to praise Azerbaijan as an alternative energy source. In return, Russia seems willing to look the other way when Azeris menace Armenians.
Moreover, Armenia has been reevaluating its security relationship with Russia, especially since Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia this past fall. Notwithstanding treaty obligations and a formal request from Armenia, Russia failed to offer military assistance to Armenia. During a meeting of CSTO, the Russian-led security organization, in Armenia last month, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan publicly embarrassed Russia by refusing to sign the meeting’s final communique. As a genuine free market democracy in a part of the world where such things are rare, Armenia is a rebuke to authoritarians like Putin (and Aliyev). By allowing the blockade of Karabakh, Putin may be trying to teach Armenians a lesson.
Western governments, including the U.S., condemned Azeri actions last week. And the West has been stepping up financial assistance to Armenia. But, so far, there have been limits to Western help. The thinking is that helping Armenia, even if Armenia deserves it, would inevitably relieve pressure on Russia. Given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West does not want to do that—and so it rewards an even more corrupt dictatorship, Azerbaijan, that similarly oppresses a democratic neighbor.
Western governments need to act now. They can make clear to the Azeri leadership that good-faith negotiation is the only plausible resolution of the Karabakh conflict and that they will personally be subject to sanctions if the blockade continues. They can organize a humanitarian airlift to Karabakh if necessary. And they can begin to think seriously about a joint, international peacekeeping operation in the region while negotiations continue. Otherwise, the result of Western inaction may well be the ethnic cleansing of one of the last Christian regions in the Mideast.
Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.