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Armenia’s forgotten war

Historic Christian nation fights for survival amid regional bullies on a geopolitical power trip


Ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh flee their homes on Sept. 26, 2023, after Azerbaijan’s swift military operation to reclaim control of the breakaway region. Vasily Krestyaninov / AP

Armenia’s forgotten war
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IN A GLEAMING ROOM filled with white marble and gold-accented furniture, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev held court on Jan. 10 for a televised interview with selected local media. Dressed impeccably and flanked by his nation’s flag, Aliyev answered carefully chosen questions about diplomatic efforts with neighboring Armenia.

With a wave of his hand, Aliyev dismissed Armenia’s “Crossroads of Peace” proposal as public relations and renewed his insistence on building the Zangezur Corridor, an economic route through Armenian territory. “If the route I mentioned is not opened, we will not open our border with Armenia anywhere else,” Aliyev said. “Armenia will remain in an eternal deadlock.”

Negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been deadlocked since the two nations ended hostilities in 2020. When Azerbaijan seized control of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh last year, the international community ramped up pressure on the two sides to sign a peace treaty after decades of conflict. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called Aliyev’s Jan. 10 salvo totally unacceptable and a blow to the peace process.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev Uzbekistan’s President Press Office via AP

Ethnic Armenians have lived in the Caucasus for millennia, surviving ­centuries of genocide and deportation to remain one of the few Christian nations in the region. Armenians say the current “peace effort” masks a dark and long-standing agenda: wiping their country off the map. And with their very existence under attack, few key players on the world stage seem to care.

Part of the West’s seeming indifference to Armenia’s plight has to do with the region’s strange bedfellows. Armenia relies on Russia and Iran to counterbalance pressure from Turkey and Azerbaijan. But both of its unusual backers are currently distracted by conflicts elsewhere: Russia with its war in Ukraine, and Iran with its support for Hamas in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Adding to the complexity: Azerbaijan is a leading regional exporter of oil, and sanctions on Russian oil have made its resources even more valuable. Israel imports 40 percent of its oil from Azerbaijan, and the two countries have had a long-standing cooperation and alliance against Iran. Armenians were dismayed to learn that Azerbaijan used Israeli-made weapons in its recent offensive.

Soon after Azerbaijani troops entered Nagorno-Karabakh in September—causing 120,000 ethnic Armenians to flee to Armenia—U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned lawmakers of the possibility that Azerbaijan could invade Armenia itself in the near future. The lack of consequences for Azerbaijan in the invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh emboldened Aliyev in his long-standing goal of claiming Armenian territory and joining forces with Turkey to create a “pan-Turkic” confederation.

Even before the incursion into Nagorno-Karabakh, a region Armenians call Artsakh, Aliyev began referring to Armenia as “Western Azerbaijan.” Along with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Aliyev has become increasingly insistent on carving out a land bridge through southern Armenia—that “Zangezur Corridor” he mentioned. Through it, Erdogan and Aliyev hope to build connections between their countries and the region. The one big problem? Armenia still lies in the way.

Azerbaijani troops march through Khankendi (previously known as Stepanakert) on Nov. 8 during a parade dedicated to the third anniversary of their victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Azerbaijani troops march through Khankendi (previously known as Stepanakert) on Nov. 8 during a parade dedicated to the third anniversary of their victory in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Azerbaijani Presidential Press Office via AP

THE KINGDOM OF ARMENIA once stretched from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. That was back when Sumerians and Assyrians were its next-door neighbors, and legendary Armenian archers were the bane of Roman armies. In 301, King Tiridates III proclaimed Christianity as the official religion, making Armenia the world’s first Christian nation. During the centuries that followed, the Armenian people survived persecution in the Middle Ages, genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, and deportation to the Stalinist Soviet Union with their identity intact on the same historic land.

The Oghuz Turks—from which both Azerbaijan and Turkey claim common ancestry—arrived in the region from Central Asia in the eighth century. Prior to 1918, current-day Azerbaijan was a region of Iran. Both the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan were absorbed into the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution, and many of the current lines of strife in the Caucasus can be traced to Josef Stalin’s policy of dividing and deporting the groups he subjugated.

A pan-Turkic corridor through Armenia has been a longtime national objective of Turkey.

In a move copied from the ancient Assyrians, Stalin practiced forced relocation in order to break the spirit of ethnic groups and weaken their will for rebellion. In the South Caucasus, ethnic Armenians were made to live in regions that Turkic peoples, then called the Tatars, controlled. Likewise, people of Turkic heritage, ancestors of today’s Azerbaijanis, were moved to areas ruled by Armenians for millennia. That means both parties have historic claims to ancestral lands.

Under communism, Azerbaijanis and Armenians lived together relatively peacefully. But as the Soviet Union crumbled, new freedoms rekindled national identities across the former Soviet bloc. Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh, ­originally formed a province of the Kingdom of Armenia from 189 B.C. The ethnic Armenians living there fought to create their own autonomous region. They declared their independence from Azerbaijan in 1991, leading to war in 1992. With support from Armenia, they won that war in 1994.

In 2020, a new war broke out. Azerbaijan won, reclaiming the land surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Then Russia deployed 2,000 soldiers as a peacekeeping force to keep the Lachin Corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh open. But last December, with Russia’s attention on its war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan seized its opportunity.

Armenian protesters in Yerevan in December 2022 demand that Azerbaijan unblock the Lachin Corridor.

Armenian protesters in Yerevan in December 2022 demand that Azerbaijan unblock the Lachin Corridor. Aleksandr Patrin/Kommersant/Sipa USA via AP

PRIOR TO DECEMBER 2022, the trip from Armenia to the border of Nagorno-Karabakh on the Lachin Corridor—a sinuous 17-kilometer mountain road—took 25 minutes. On Dec. 12, 2022, Azerbaijan abruptly installed roadblocks on the Lachin road to stop the flow of food and supplies into the enclave. The blockade continued for nine months. Looming starvation and the collective global shrug demoralized the population. When Azerbaijani troops entered the capital of Stepanakert on Sept. 19, 2023, the government quickly capitulated. Nearly the entire population fled. Despite its promises of reconciliation and peace, Azerbaijan arrested eight senior Nagorno-Karabakh leaders. It has detained them on charges of terrorism.

After the military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey’s Erdogan sent Aliyev a congratulatory message that sounds ominous to Armenian ears: “We will continue to be by your side. We will achieve stable peace and prosperity in the South Caucasus. Together we will plan and take all steps toward stability, as we have done until today.”

According to the two presidents, peace and prosperity hinge on the Zangezur Corridor. It would run along the southern border of Armenia, linking Azerbaijan to the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, without Armenian checkpoints along the way. Nakhchivan lies along the southwestern border of Armenia, up against the northern border of Iran. Historically, railways built during the Soviet era linked the two regions, and during talks in 2021, Armenia expressed willingness to rebuild those lines.

Azerbaijan points to that language as a commitment to the corridor. Armenia has been less enthusiastic, especially when Azerbaijan and Turkey use thinly veiled threats. While Aliyev and Erdogan present the Zangezur Corridor as economically beneficial, many observers view the proposal as an excuse to bring more Armenian territory under Azerbaijani control.

Evacuees fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh wait in a traffic jam along the Lachin Corridor.

Evacuees fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh wait in a traffic jam along the Lachin Corridor. Grigoriy Pechorin/Sputnik via AP

“When it comes to Turkey, you cannot separate the economic from the ideological or vice versa,” says Alison Tahmizian Meuse, an Armenian American journalist based in Armenia. “A pan-Turkic corridor through Armenia has been a longtime national objective of Turkey that doesn’t change whether it’s a secular or Islamist government in power.” Such a land corridor, Meuse says, would strengthen Turkey’s influence in Asia in its competition with Russia and Iran, and would give Turkey easier access to Azerbaijan’s oil.

Armenians now fear Azerbaijan will continue its campaign to erase their heritage in recaptured lands. Just two weeks after the September military offensive, Azerbaijan reissued a map of Stepanakert—now called Khankendi—with street names changed to Azeri. One street is now named after Enver Pasha, a Turkish military officer and main instigator of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Details like that are not lost on an Armenian population that fled despite Aliyev’s promises to the international community that he would respect the rights of those who wanted to stay.

According to a September report by the Caucasus Heritage Watch, historic churches and monasteries in the Nagorno-Karabakh region are now under threat. Azerbaijan destroyed similar monuments on land that came under its control after the 2020 ceasefire. St. Sargis, a church in the village of Mokhrenes, was destroyed between March and July 2022 in violation of an International Court of Justice ruling ordering Azerbaijan to prevent such acts. Caucasus Heritage Watch analyzes satellite imagery to monitor changes in the landscape over time. In other regions, its researchers found evidence of churches entirely destroyed and replaced by mosques. In the region of Nakhchivan—under Azerbaijani rule since the collapse of the Soviet Union—all but two of 110 historic Armenian monasteries, churches, and cemeteries were destroyed between 1997 and 2011.

That has Armenians and international observers deeply concerned. Jacob Pursley is an American pastor at International Bible Church of Armenia, a church in Yerevan that helps refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. He likens Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s methods to those of Islamic terrorists like Hamas, weaponizing both archaeology and history: “They’ve taught the people in Azerbaijan that all the land is theirs.”


Regional conflict

Armenia and Azerbaijan are in the Caucasus, a transcontinental region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea that also includes Georgia and parts of southern Russia. The Soviet Union controlled the region from 1923 to 1991.

Original maps by Peter Hermes Furian/Getty Images


1991-2020

Nagorno-Karabakh, known also as Artsakh, was an autonomous region during the Soviet era predominantly made up of ethnic Armenians. But the territory was internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. After the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, the Republic of Artsakh declared independence, prompting war with Azerbaijan. Artsakh won in 1994 and expanded its borders with support from Armenia. But its independence was never officially recognized by any country—including Armenia, which became its main financial and military supporter.


2020-2023

In 2020 war erupted again between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Artsakh, with Azerbaijan achieving victory and regaining a significant portion of Artsakh’s claimed territory. Artsakh’s only access to Armenia after the war was via the 3.1-mile-wide Lachin Corridor, which was placed under the supervision of Russian peacekeeping forces. In September 2023, Azerbaijan took control over the remaining territory controlled by Artsakh with a military offensive, causing almost the entire population to flee to Armenia.


Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny is WORLD’s global desk chief and European reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute and Smith College graduate. She is the author of the novel Mountains of Manhattan and resides in Porrentruy, Switzerland, with her family.

@jlindschmitt

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