After the World’s Crocodile Tears for Armenians, What Next for the South Caucasus?

One can only be deeply moved by the sight of exhausted Armenians, fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh in droves. Over a hundred years after the Armenian genocide (perpetrated by the Young Turks in 1915-1917, though still not officially acknowledged by Türkiye), and the establishment of the first Armenian state in 1918, the lightning Azeri offensive forced the so-called “Republic of Artsakh” to capitulate to Baku. The 30-year-old republic will officially cease to exist on January 1, 2024.

Up until this point, more than 100,000 of its 120,000 residents have crossed the border into the Republic of Armenia through the Lachin corridor, the only passage connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has characterised this humanitarian crisis as an ethnic cleansing orchestrated by Baku. Azeris vehemently deny these allegations, emphasising the humanitarian aid provided to the remaining Armenians, while promising them the same rights as other Azerbaijani citizens.

The fear of living under Ilham Aliyev’s authoritarian regime, coupled with the deep-seated historical enmity between the two nations, has left Karabakh Armenians with very few options. All of this appears to be a natural progression following the ten-month blockade of the Lachin corridor, which deprived Nagorno-Karabakh and its people of essential supplies. The international community has not only failed to reverse the course of this siege but, worse yet, has fallen short in reassuring its population about its future.

The usually vocal and justly assertive EU in defending human rights and opposing any form of violence has, this time, chosen to remain silent. Only the European Parliament managed to raise a strong voice and condemn Azerbaijan. The crucial energy partnership, though, between Brussels and Baku diminishes the possibility of taking harsh measures against Azerbaijan’s aggression. On the other side of the Atlantic, Washington does not appear willing or able to risk direct involvement in the region, offering only general statements about “restraining further hostilities and engaging both parties in finding a lasting and sustainable peace agreement.”

Meanwhile, Russia, the most significant third-party actor in the region with troops on the ground, has done little to halt the Azeris. Moscow, deeply embroiled in its own war in Ukraine, was unwilling to support a country whose leadership repeatedly displayed signs of “disobedience”. Yerevan’s decision to condemn Russia’s attack on Kyiv and its recent alignment with the International Criminal Court in prosecuting Putin has outraged the Kremlin. Even if the Russians aim to appear as peace brokers in the Caucasus, their inaction has clearly undermined their role and presence there.

But who truly benefits from the current situation in the South Caucasus? Undoubtedly, Azerbaijan, capitalising on its rapid economic growth and geopolitical position, has built a robust military and, by forging the right alliances, launched an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. Their strategic goal of erasing the Armenian presence in the enclave was achieved with the second operation on September 19. However, this may not be the end of this long-standing conflict. Aliyev openly shares Turkish President Erdoğan’s grandiose idea of “one nation, two states” and envisions Türkiye as the mother and protector of all Turkic peoples.

Ankara has established a foothold in the Caucasus, and Turkish aspirations for an expanded sphere of influence from the Balkans to Central Asia seem promising. One of the last obstacles to this is southeastern Armenia, a narrow strip of land dividing Nakhichevan (West Azerbaijan) from the eastern part of the country. Azerbaijan has already threatened Armenia with the use of force if the “Angezur/Meghri corridor” does not open, disregarding Western appeals and Iranian warnings not to challenge the latter’s sovereignty.

It is concerning that the West appears comfortable with the two Turkic states acting as a bulwark against Russian expansion in the region. However, unchecked Turkish influence in the wider region may be difficult to restrain later, especially given Erdoğan’s unreliable relationship with the West over the past decade.

Israel, especially in light of the recent terrorist attacks within its territory, is poised to leverage its longstanding support for Azerbaijan. The latitude granted to its intelligence services to operate near the Iranian borders could potentially prove crucial in the event of a confrontation with Iran. In contrast, Tehran’s vocal support for the Armenians has proven to be ineffective. The situation may worsen for the Islamic Republic if Baku follows through with its corridor threats, cutting off Iranians not only from Armenia, but subsequently from their closest ally, Russia.

However, no matter how painful the situation is for the Armenians, the party due to receive the most blame for the current, dire situation of the “Artsakh” is the shortsighted leadership in Yerevan over the years. They proved incapable of keeping up with the developments and dynamics in their own neighbourhood and the wider world over the past three decades. Their heavy reliance on Russia, who has cleverly cultivated the myth of being the protector of Caucasus Christians, was revealed to be fragile. After the 2018 Armenian Revolution, the shift towards the West was sudden, unprepared, and without a deep assessment of the risks involved.

The Armenian exodus does not mark the end of the conflict. The complexity of Armenian-Azeri relations and the involvement of additional actors compared to the past create an explosive mix. The West, in general, needs to determine whether the protection of human rights and liberal democracy outweighs the allure of cheap natural gas prices. Armenia’s accession to NATO would have been a good first step in stabilising the region. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before a new spark ignites the entire region once again.