If one were designing an international system from scratch, it wouldn’t feature enclaves or exclaves. States are violent institutions at the best of times, given to feuds and to border disputes launched over the smallest provocation. Nesting part of the territory of one state inside another seems like an excellent way to increase the chances of things going wrong. But the existing international system was not designed from scratch, and in the messy complexity of history enclaves have repeatedly emerged. The Republic of Artsakh, created in 1992, wasn’t technically an exclave of Armenia in Azerbaijan, but until last month it functioned very much like one, at least in the ways that count. For three decades, unrecognised except by a few fellow separatist movements, it encompassed the former Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, accessible only from Armenia and using the Armenian dram as its currency.
The war launched by Azerbaijan in September 2020 put an end to this. By the time a Russian-brokered ceasefire came into effect 44 days later, Azerbaijan had recaptured much of the territory seized by Armenia in the early 1990s after Soviet authority in the South Caucasus collapsed. Under the gentlemen’s agreement that Russia enforced in November 2020, the Artsakh authorities held on to a rump of territory around their capital, Stepanakert. By 2022, with the Russian army fighting an attritional war in Ukraine, maintaining a couple of thousand troops in Nagorno-Karabakh to ‘keep the peace’ was a luxury Putin’s government could ill afford. At the beginning of this year Azerbaijan imposed a blockade on what was left of Artsakh by closing the Lachin corridor, which connects it to Armenia, to all but the occasional Red Cross mission. Shortages of medicine and food followed. In early September Azerbaijani military forces began to gather in the area, and some over-enthusiastic soldiers took potshots at Karabakh Armenians. At around the same time, Russia appears to have told both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments it had no intention of preventing Azerbaijan from finishing what it started in 2020.
On 19 September Azerbaijani forces moved in, with only minor resistance from the Artsakh Defence Army. In some rural areas, villagers reported being forced out at gunpoint. The billionaire former Artsakh official Ruben Vardanyan was arrested as he tried to flee. With the writing on the wall, the republic’s leader, Samvel Shahramanyan, signed a decree formalising its dissolution, effective January 2024. The operation wasn’t bloodless – there were probably a couple of hundred dead on both sides – but it wasn’t as violent as some had feared. But the refugee exodus was dramatic. More than a hundred thousand people fled, fearing an imminent and more bloody sweep, or because – after everything that had happened – they couldn’t countenance living under Azerbaijani rule. Almost the entire city of Stepanakert emptied within days. The road to Armenia became a grim procession of packed buses, Kamaz dump trucks filled with people, and cars with belongings (carpets, oil, assorted boxes) strapped to their roofs. By 1 October more or less everyone had left. The final buses deposited refugees at the Armenian border, where some gave interviews. One resident of the city told the Financial Times that in Stepanakert now ‘only ghosts will be around.’
The Azerbaijani government had made its plans for Nagorno-Karabakh very clear. Ilham Aliyev, who has been president since 2003, wanted to reverse the humiliation of his father, Heydar Aliyev, who signed the 1994 ceasefire that left Armenia in control of the territory. Aliyev claimed that any ‘Armenian separatists’ who handed over their weapons would be granted amnesty, and that residents’ rights would be protected under Baku’s constitution. Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh didn’t find this at all convincing. But with the Russian government having decided it couldn’t afford to make an enemy of Aliyev over the matter, they were left with few options. In the preceding months, Russia’s envoy for the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, Igor Khovaev, had become a regular face in Baku. At his most recent audience with Aliyev, on 5 September, it seems that Khovaev communicated a Russian nihil obstat on the operation (this amounted to playing down the killing of a few Russian soldiers by the Azerbaijani army). Meanwhile, Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, traded public complaints with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and tried to court attention from the US. But though Samantha Power turned up on the border looking concerned and offering a paltry amount of aid, a stronger impression was given by photographs of Biden shaking hands with Azerbaijan’s foreign minister on 21 September. The impression was of a fait accompli: the delayed but accepted dénouement of the 2020 war.
The early histories of that war mostly cast it as one for technology enthusiasts: a story of aluminium drones prevailing over steel tanks and Israeli-made loitering munitions blowing up rusty 1960s Howitzers. John Antal, a retired US army colonel and military analyst, called it ‘the first war in history won primarily by robotic systems’. It’s true that Armenia’s Soviet-era air defence systems were no match for Turkish-built drones and other imported military equipment. But Azerbaijan had a better army across the board, even without Turkey’s assistance (it’s likely that some of the battlefield planning was done by Turkish officers). In launching the war it also took advantage of the element of surprise, catching Armenian forces out of their trenches. And the actual victories weren’t only down to superior technology. The town of Hadrut was taken by ground forces with the help of a few cluster bombs. The critical moment of the operation, the capture of Shusha/Shushi, saw the city infiltrated by Azerbaijani soldiers who had scurried over the surrounding hills armed with rifles and anti-tank weapons. Lost too was the fact that since the early 1990s Armenia’s population has collapsed, seriously altering the balance of forces. In any case, Azerbaijan routed Armenian defences in a few weeks, with Aliyev bragging in a televised address that they were chasing Armenians off ‘like dogs’, leaving Azerbaijan in control of three-quarters, and then all, of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Republic of Artsakh has gone, but what was it? When Armenia conquered the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast it expelled thousands of Azerbaijanis and tens of thousands of civilians were killed. From the perspective of Azerbaijan’s government, and probably that of international law, Artsakh was an illegal entity. In Armenia it was held up as a critical part of the modern Armenian state, to be defended on that basis and because of the obvious desire of the population now living there not to be ruled by Azerbaijan. Artsakh’s government was the product of a historical trend: the dwindling of the mixed identity of Caucasian cities during the period of Russian empire, which accelerated rapidly in the final years of the Soviet Union. Religious and ethnic identification is what you revert to when the transnational project fails. It can also contribute to that failure. The growth of the Armenian and Azerbaijani nationalist movements in the late 1980s coincided with similar destabilising movements in other titular nations. In the South Caucasus, national pride led directly to inter-ethnic conflict and mutual pogroms – including the Khojaly massacre in 1992, when at least two hundred Azeri civilians were killed by Karabakh Armenian forces. A stark repudiation of any sense of druzhba narodov – the friendship of peoples.
It’s an irony of history that the 1990s, an era associated in the West with post-ethnic liberalism, was also the era of major wars along ethnic lines in the Caucasus, Yugoslavia and beyond. Politics in Armenia and Azerbaijan often took the form of honour-nationalism, bound up with competing historical accounts going back to the Russo-Persian wars or even further. Claims of contiguous cultural history were marshalled in the service of slippery concepts: ‘territorial integrity’, ‘ancestral homeland’. The idea of mutual minorities and regional integration had vanished. What was left was vicious ethnonationalist sentiment, extending far beyond governing circles, as attested in the vandalising of cemeteries. In Armenia, any moves towards a pragmatic settlement were quickly suppressed. President Ter-Petrosyan, who had at one point countenanced a deal with Azerbaijan that would have included autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh, was forced out. The 2007 Madrid Principles, which sought a diplomatic settlement, were put aside. The movement that brought Pashinyan to the premiership in 2018 had much to be said in its favour, but it didn’t include a reappraisal of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Whenever Pashinyan showed signs of considering a compromise there was a strong domestic reaction.
The ugliness of Azerbaijan’s present actions are clear enough. It didn’t allow a UN mission to enter the area until 1 October, after almost the entire population had left. The threat of military force was ostentatious and, while stingy in its actual use, the effect was ethnic cleansing. There’s little question that the Aliyev government expected, and wanted, the Karabakh Armenians to leave. As recently as May, Pashinyan was hinting that Armenia might be willing to acknowledge Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan in return for security guarantees for its ethnically Armenian population. An orderly negotiated settlement wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility. Still, it would be a mistake to put the whole blame for the crisis on the autocratic nature of the Aliyev regime. To cast the conflict as an episode in the eternal war between democracy and autocracy, quite apart from the obvious distortion of fact, would also be to define it as interminable.
Another temptation is to make every war between minnows a symptom of a predetermined global trend: Russian decline, say, or ‘multipolarity’. That Russia’s overextension in Ukraine left little time for other matters was plain well before last month. Pashinyan’s public recognition that ‘we can’t rely on Russia any more’ came late, but it must have been acknowledged in private much earlier. For its part, Russia blamed ‘the inconsistent stance of the Armenian leadership, which flip-flopped on policy and sought Western support’. The US has been decidedly friendlier with Pashinyan than it was with his predecessors. American officials, including a US army delegation, have made a series of visits to Armenia, though it’s easy to overstate their significance. The US and Armenia held their first joint military drills – named Eagle Partner – on 11 September, but they were very limited in scale. Armenia has threatened to withdraw from the CSTO, the military alliance of six former Soviet states formed in 2002. But for now the Russian garrison at Gyumri (a short walk from the old Sev Berd tsarist fortress) is still in place.
Nagorno-Karabakh was always better viewed as an individual crisis with its own particular circumstances. The Azerbaijani government stressed that in moving to finish off Artsakh in September it was seizing the moment. ‘We could not do this earlier and it would probably not be a good idea to do it later,’ Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the UK said. ‘The stars aligned.’ Part of the constellation was Europe’s shift towards establishing better relations with Azerbaijan. An EU mission was launched earlier this year, nominally to monitor the stability of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, but it was set up in sleepy Yeghegnadzor, two hours’ drive from any border crossing. In July last year, Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Baku to meet Aliyev and sign a deal that was supposed to double the supply of natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe within a few years. The EU, she said, had decided to ‘diversify away from Russia’ in favour of ‘more reliable, trustworthy partners … I am glad to count Azerbaijan among them.’
The seizure of Stepanakert is a repellent solution to the problem of one part of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. But why stop there? Azerbaijan’s own exclave in Nakhchivan – on the Iranian border and separated from the body of Azerbaijan by a stretch of Armenia – is usually accessed by plane from Baku, or sometimes by way of a long bus trip through Iran. A land corridor through Armenia would be more convenient. Why not revive dormant claims that Armenia’s Syunik province is really Azerbaijani Zangezur? The senior advisers to Pashinyan and Aliyev went to Brussels to prepare for a meeting in Spain between the two leaders only for Aliyev to decide there was no need for him to enter negotiations. On 25 September, Aliyev and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan travelled to Nakhchivan, where Aliyev lamented ‘the severing of mainland Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan’ during the Soviet era. The foreclosure of the possibility of freedom of movement and regional integration is certainly disheartening, but it seems unlikely that this was what Aliyev had in mind.
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