Imagine for a moment that we own adjacent flats. You are a little nervous around me because my rich cousin lives in the penthouse suite nearby, and I’m a bit of a bully. One day I go to the landlord and demand the use of your garage, and the landlord makes us share the garage whilst putting it under my name. Many years later you have the chance to challenge that, but the landlord doesn’t recognize what you have done. I continue to fight you on it, often with dirty tactics, until one day I decide I need half of your flat — the nice half, with the living room, kitchen, safe, front door, windows. Because it was always part of my apartment really. But it’s okay, you can still have the guest room to sleep in. You see, I need it to have a whole apartment the way I imagined it — and to connect it to my cousin’s suite. Makes sense, right? You will sign it over to me, right?
I hope you see and feel the lack of justice in this scenario. In this story I just told, the people involved are all nation states, and the houses are the land owned by those states. I could be talking about two current conflicts. The first has been in the news a lot recently: the war between Russia and Ukraine. In the second scenario, the landlord is also Russia. My cousin is Turkey. You are Armenia, and I am Azerbaijan. Despite the similarities between the two conflicts, the response by the US, UK and EU countries (the West) has been completely different. In order to understand why, we need to look at some history.
The roots of Armenia can be traced back to 2-3000 BC. The Armenian Empire reached its height as an empire in 100 BC under Tigran the Great, who was said to have conquered much of Syria and Lebanon. He was even considered the primary enemy of the Roman Empire for a time. The lands that are traditionally Armenian-controlled and populated are shown here:
Modern Armenia is only a sliver of what you see above. The western part was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1555, and the Armenians living there were killed — starting in the 1880s and culminating in the Armenian Genocide of 1915–17. The eastern part of Armenia was first conquered by the Persian empire, and then the Russian empire in the 1820s. The first Republic of Armenia was formed out of the eastern part and existed briefly after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, until 1920 when the same Red Army conquered it again, forming Armenia SSR. At the same time, Joseph Stalin gave the area we know as Nagorno Karabakh (or Artsakh to Armenians) to Azerbaijan SSR.
The first Nagorno Karabakh war was fought in the early 1990s, during the collapse of the USSR. It was a long and bloody war with atrocities on both sides, and it resulted in the formation of the self-determined, independent Republic of Artsakh. This republic had its security backed by Armenia, but formed its own government and military. Artsakh was not recognized by the UN or most of the world. Over the last 30 years Azerbaijan and Armenia have had intermittent clashes over the disputed region, culminating in the 44 day second Nagorno Karabakh war (2nd NK war) in 2020. In this war Azerbaijan conquered half of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh until a cease-fire was brokered. Despite two years of negotiations, no peace treaty has been signed to formally end the conflict.
The difference is the complete lack of an international response
This war is important for understanding the current conflict, and it is also an important precursor to the war in Ukraine. It was a war over a disputed region, which was also how the war in Ukraine started. It was the first war that saw significant use of drones in combat, to lethal effect. The war also involved heavy misinformation campaigns by both sides, with continuous efforts to withhold information, lie and discredit the other side. Like the Russo-Ukrainian War, in the 2nd NK war a much bigger country attacked a much smaller one (Armenia has three million people, Azerbaijan has 10.1 million and Turkey 82 million). But there was an important difference from the Russo-Ukrainian War: the complete lack of an international response. Despite the unmitigated aggression from one side, the international response was always “both sides, stop”. When there were reports of war crimes by Azerbaijan (white phosphorus use, torture and killing of prisoners, intentional targeting of historical monuments), nothing was done.
In the intervening years between the end of the second Nagorno Karabakh war and the fighting which started on 13 September, there has been a series of peace negotiations, the most recent of which was in Brussels. Azerbaijan has negotiated in anything but good faith. During the summer of 2021 they decided to advance their border several kilometres into Armenia’s territory, which cut off Armenia’s primary north-south highway. The Russian Peacekeepers assigned did nothing until Armenia counterattacked. There has been intermittent shelling of small villages in Nagorno Karabakh. There has also been the systematic elimination of Armenian churches and artefacts dating back to as long ago as the 5th century, as documented by Caucasus Heritage watch. After the destruction Azerbaijan would simply claim that there was no evidence that the lands were Armenian and that they were always Azerbaijani lands. Azerbaijan also returned a fraction of the POWs taken, after holding kangaroo court trials for some. Others simply disappeared. Then Azerbaijan created a monument for the war over the helmets of dead Armenian soldiers:
Azeri President Aliyev in the memorial to the 2nd Nagorno Karabakh war
What was the international response during this time? To reward Azerbaijan. Baku was a common location for sporting events, and Azerbaijan participated in most other important European social events during that time — including Eurovision. Azeri President Aliyev’s wife (also the vice president) is the current regional head of UNESCO. Most importantly, Azerbaijan recently received a huge natural gas contract from the EU.
The EU is turning to more reliable energy suppliers.
Today I’m in Azerbaijan to sign a new agreement.
Our goal: double the gas delivery from Azerbaijan to the EU in a few years.
🇦🇿 will be a crucial partner for our security of supply and on our way to climate neutrality. pic.twitter.com/fVHPr921Ui
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) July 18, 2022
Almost immediately following this gas deal, Armenia received these demands at the next peace conference:
During the negotiations, Azerbaijan presents territorial claims to Armenia from the Nrnadzor (Syunik) up to Yerevan.
— 301🇦🇲 (@301arm) September 13, 2022
Nikol Pashinyan is the current Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia. It at least seems that as a direct result of the increased revenue and relations with the European Union, Azerbaijan decided that they could bite off a huge chunk of Armenia, including the capital of Yerevan. Yerevan has over one third of the nation’s population and a large portion of its business interests.
All of this led to the resumption of hostilities on 13 September, when Azerbaijan shelled multiple cities in the Republic of Armenia — whose locations are shown in the map above. This aggression included attacks on two major Armenian military bases in the area and the seizure of 65 square kilometres of territory. In 2-3 days of fighting, Armenia reported over 500 casualties and Azerbaijan reported 360. Fortunately, a humanitarian cease-fire has been signed, which unlike in 2020 has lasted more than 12 hours. Damningly for Azerbaijan, there have been reports and videos of war crimes committed. Several Armenian soldiers were filmed being treated for non-fatal wounds and then returned dead to their families days later. There is also a video that was posted on Telegram by Azeri special forces of a woman soldier being horrifically mutilated, whilst the soldiers laugh and celebrate.
Only tangible action will stop Azerbaijan from pillaging Armenia
In the days since the ceasefire has been signed, four big things have happened around the conflict. First, the CSTO rejected Armenian pleas to intervene. (The CSTO is the former Soviet Bloc’s answer to NATO.) Second, Aliyev, Putin, Erdogan and the other regional autocratic leaders met in Sochi. Third, Azerbaijan started building up more forces on the Armenian border. Lastly, Nancy Pelosi and a US congressional delegation visited Yerevan. The timing of the visit is very interesting, and could signal the US seeing a chance to have a strategic partner in the region whilst Russia is tied up elsewhere. Whilst having the third in line for the US presidency visit Yerevan is a huge step, what actions will follow? Will the US stop military support to Azerbaijan? Start sanctions? Send aid or troops to Armenia? In light of the other events that have happened, it will take tangible action to stop Azerbaijan from pillaging Armenia.
Several years ago an article in the Economist quoted a Yemeni man in the middle of war and drought and famine saying they had “no one but Allah”. It was profound and heartbreaking to me that the major powers of the world cared so much for the oil and relations of Saudi Arabia that they — that we — did nothing whilst a small, poor country suffered and died. Now, the same dilemma faces us again. Will we stand by whilst another poor small country perishes, for the sake of the aggressor’s resources? Right now we are in bed with the dictatorship. Azerbaijan ranks near the bottom in all practical freedom rankings: freedom of press, freedom of religion, governance et cetera. Yet, whilst we sanction those next to them on the list, we are friends with Azerbaijan.
That same question was asked earlier this year when Russia attacked Ukraine. The choice was made by the US, UK and EU countries to sanction Russia and side with Ukraine. That choice came at the cost of ending many longstanding trade agreements and no longer having access to Russian natural gas. Why has the West abandoned its principles now?
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