The End of the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and the Continuing Reduction of Armenian-Populated Lands

Let us begin with a paradox: “On September 20, 2023, the world political map underwent a significant change, but that change is not reflected on the world political map.” This seemingly nonsensical statement makes sense with the addition two Latin terms: “On September 20, 2023, the de facto world political map underwent a significant change, but that change is not reflected on the de jure world political map.” The de facto map, which shows actual power on the ground, was transformed by the defeat of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and its impending annexation by Azerbaijan. But as Nagorno-Karabakh was already part of Azerbaijan according to diplomatic convention, the official de jure map of the region registered no change.

From its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 until late September of this year, Azerbaijan did not exercise power over its full internationally recognized territory. Its southwestern corner was instead under the power of the self-declared and unrecognized state called Artsakh, better known as Nagorno-Karabakh. This Armenian-populated region functioned as a client state of the Republic of Armenia, if not as an appendage of it. In 2020, Azerbaijan defeated Armenia/Artsakh in a brief war and took control of most of the disputed territory, leaving only the core region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was connected to Armenia proper by the narrow Lachin Corridor, patrolled by Russian troops. Earlier this year, Azerbaijan cut-off access to the corridor, putting great pressure on Artsakh. On September 19-20, Azerbaijan’s military overran the entire area, after which Artsakh’s leadership announced that their statelet would be dissolved on January 1, 2024. As a result, Azerbaijan will for the first time control its entire territorial extent as recognized by international convention. But the de jure and de facto maps remain out of alignment elsewhere in the Caucasus, as two official parts of Georgia are still under the control of two Russian client states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

An extended New York Time headline of September 29 nicely captures the current geopolitical situation of the losing country: “Armenia: Cast Adrift in a Tough Neighborhood. While the Caucasus nation might want to reduce its reliance on Russia for a more reliable ally, Western nations have offered moral support but little else.” After independence in 1991, Armenia turned to Russia for military support, hosting a Russian military base and joining the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (along with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). But Russia was of little help in its 2020 war with Azerbaijan, in which Azerbaijan’s Turkish- and Israeli-made drones outperformed Armenia’s Russian-made armaments. Armenia then began edging away from Russia and toward the West, a process that accelerated after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Just before Azerbaijan conquered the rest of Artsakh in late September 2023, U.S. military personnel were helping train Armenian troops in Armenia. But the U.S. offered nothing beyond vaguely smoothing words after Azerbaijan’s military assault. As reported by the New York Times, the United States “has so far resisted placing sanctions on Azerbaijan for a military assault that the State Department previously said it would not countenance.”

The lack of support for Armenia by the United States is not surprising. The U.S., like most countries in most circumstance, stands in favor of the official de jure world political map, and is thus reluctant to acknowledge any alternative arrangements. (Although there are certainly exceptions, such as Washington’s recognition of the independence of Kosovo, which seceded unilaterally from Serbia and is thus unrecognized by the United Nations.) Brute geopolitical realities also favor Azerbaijan, as it is much more populous and economically developed than Armenia. As a relatively secular Shia Muslim nation, moreover, Azerbaijan is also a useful counterweight against Iran (more Azeri speakers live in Iran than in Azerbaijan).

Immediately after the fall of Artsakh, ethnic Armenians began streaming out of the region, seeking refuge in Armenia proper. It is expected that by the end of the year there will be few if any Armenians left in the region. Azerbaijan claims that Armenians could remain in place as Azerbaijani citizens. Armenians, however, point to Azerbaijan’s threats and purported atrocities, arguing, with some international support, that genocide would be the more likely outcome if they were to remain. Azerbaijani apologists, for their part, point to the fact that many Azeris once lived in what is now Armenia, but were themselves victims of Armenian-led expulsions (see the map below). It also true that ethnic Kurds, who were formerly the dominant population between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh proper, fled or were expelled after the expansion of Armenian power following the fall of the Soviet Union (see the map below). (Other Kurdish populations from both Armenia and Azerbaijan had been deported by Soviet authorities to Kazakhstan in 1937.)

From a world historical perspective, Azerbaijan’s conquest of Artsakh and the subsequent removal of the Armenian population from the region represents one more chapter in the long history of the diminution of the Armenian territorial sphere. As the paired maps below show, Armenians once constituted either a majority or a large minority over a broad zone extending across what is now eastern Turkey and beyond (unfortunately, the Vivid Map posted here has no key). Ottoman expulsions of Armenians before and especially during World War I, recognized by most historians as an episode of genocide, vastly reduced the extent of Armenian populated land. After the downfall of the Soviet Union, Armenian communities were either expelled from or voluntarily left many former Soviet lands. With the downfall of Artsakh, the contiguous zone of Armenian-populated territory is now reduced to the small rump state of Armenia.

Understandably, many Armenian-Americans have been enraged about the lack of U.S. action on this issue. As reported in the Guardian:

Everything that is happening today is utterly predictable, and much of it could be avoided with more forceful American action,” Paul Krekorian, the first Armenian American president of the Los Angeles city council, told the Guardian.

It’s a catastrophic situation. Genocide is happening before our very eyes,” Krekorian said. “And my country is doing essentially nothing.” Memories of the 1915 Armenian genocide, when 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians died under the Ottoman Turkish empire, remain strong in the community and many of the signs held outside the Ronald Reagan library referenced it and what the protesters saw as its echoes.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, few American media outlets have done much substantive reporting on this issue. At one time, something like this would have been a major news story. Over the past half-century, however, the U.S. new media have become increasingly insular, tightly focused on American politics, society, and culture, and hence little concerned with most events occurring outside the country. Economic globalization has oddly coincided with journalistic deglobalization.

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Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 3)

De Facto States and their Contested Boundaries

            Thus far we have looked at cases where the official U.S. government map has persisted in showcasing lapsed, divided, or phantom nation-states. Another way that is misleads is by not representing a class of functional states: those whose existence is officially denied by the international community.[1] Such polities have been called “de facto states” by Scott Pegg, who deems them the “flip side of the quasi-state coin.”[2]

Perhaps the clearest example of a de facto state that is consistently left off the map is Somaliland, a breakaway polity that proclaimed its independence from a disintegrating Somalia in 1991. In the decades since then, Somaliland has attained all the essential attributes of sovereignty except international recognition.[3] Remarkably, it has been described as the most stable and best-governed country in the Horn of Africa.[4] Nor has this gone unnoticed. Israel, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) come close to treating Somaliland as a sovereign state, while Djibouti, Turkey, and Denmark maintain consulates or their equivalent in the country. Wales has even awarded it full acknowledgement.[5] The UAE, in return for being allowed to establish a naval base, has gone so far as to promise to “protect the Republic of Somaliland from all external threats and protect Somaliland’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” [6] wording that echoes many declarations of formal recognition. The African Union, by contrast, vociferously rejects Somaliland’s claims. The resistance is understandable. Acknowledging any breakaway polity could encourage similar developments elsewhere in the volatile region.

While Somaliland may be a particularly clear example of the cartographically invisible states, it is by no means the only one. The most important of these, Taiwan, is also the most complicated and will be examined below. The others have powerful patrons, whom they effectively serve as clients. An extreme example is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a self-ruling entity that enjoys the recognition of exactly one UN member: Turkey. (Not surprisingly, it is often regarded as a Turkish puppet, especially in Greece.[7]) But several autonomous zones of the former Soviet Union operate in a similar gray area, enjoying some diplomatic recognition while arguably lacking full independence. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for example, are militarily and diplomatically supported by Russia and officially recognized by Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, and Nauru. Transnistria—a self-declared sliver of a state sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova —has a more shadowy existence. With an economy based heavily on smuggling and weapons manufacturing, it is sometimes regarded as little more than gangster turf.[8] Transnistria relies on Moscow to maintain its autonomy. Nagorno-Karabakh, in the Caucasus, is comparably dependent on Armenia. Despite having proclaimed independence as the Republic of Artsakh (an entity recognized by nine U.S. states, if not by Washington DC),[9] it is essentially administered as part of Armenia, with its citizens using Armenian passports.[10]

Rebuffed by the global community, these four post-Soviet breakaways responded by creating their own “international” organization, the ambitiously named Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations (a.k.a. the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States).[11] Diplomats from Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh have met periodically under its auspices, as if in pantomime of the United Nations. They have not been joined by representatives from the two newest self-declared states in the region, the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics, whose leaders have discussed merging their statelets to form something they call the Federation of Novorossiya (“New Russia”). Regarded as terrorist organizations by Kiev,[12] both of these “republics” were hived off of eastern Ukraine in 2014 by Russia-oriented separatists, aided by the Russian military.

Whatever one makes of these splinter polities,[13] their existence makes one thing clear: not all of the internationally recognized states that emerged out of the Soviet Union fully control the territories ascribed to them by the standard map. Unable to prevent the break-out of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), the “parent” republics of Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan have never exercised authority across their own full official expanses. Immediately on gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, all these fledgling countries saw border-altering struggles. While commonly deemed frozen conflicts,[14] they occasionally burst into bloodshed. Azerbaijan engaged in an inconclusive four-day struggle against Armenia and its client state of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) in 2016, and triumphed against them in a much more deadly war in 2020. After the latter struggle, Azerbaijan reclaimed more than half of the territory that it had lost to Armenia when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Yet all of these territorial changes go unmarked on the CIA map, which references instead the old internal political boundaries of the USSR, which in these instances have never served as de facto international divides. Like the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, such border changes are judged illegitimate and therefore ignored. What is frozen would seem to be the map, not the conflicts.

While the moral logic behind this refusal of diplomatic recognition is understandable, the public still needs some way to keep track of whose boots are on the ground. Some of these unrecognized states have endured for decades and may well persist for decades or more to come.[15] For the CIA map to be truthful, it should come with the caveat that it represents an idea of the world: a vision rooted in the world-order from the last century.

[1] Some political theorists regard formal recognition by the international community as a necessary condition for statehood. Thomas Grant (1999, p. 4), for example, differentiates “constitutivists,” “who argued that recognition is necessary to make a state,” from “declaratists” who claimed that recognition is “an acknowledgement of statehood already achieved.”

[2] Pegg 1998, p. 4. Other authors have used different terminology. Deon Geldenhuys (2009), for example, deems these non-recognized polities “contested states,” which he contrasts with “confirmed states.”

[3] See Somaliland’s official website:

[4] See “Somaliland: A Stable and Independent State, But Not Recognition,” by Nimo Ismail, World Policy Blog,  Feb. 21, 2017:

Somaliland is also somewhat democratic and moderately free, besting on this score several of Africa’s recent stars of economic development, such as Rwanda and Ethiopia. Freedom House rates Somaliland only as “partly free,” but it is the only country in the northeastern quadrant of Africa to receive that designation, the other being rated as “not free.” (See Freedom House, Somaliland, Freedom of the World in 2020: Nina Casperson, however, notes that in Somaliland, “the need for unity and the avoidance of internal strife has undermined what are otherwise significant democratic achievements (2012, p. 93).

[5] “Somaliland: Wales Strikes Out on Its Own in Its Recognition of Somaliland,” Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, March 6, 2016:

But as Wales is a non-sovereign polity, such recognition is merely symbolic.

[6] The quotation is from “Somaliland, UAE Sign Historic Economic and Military Pact,” The National, March 21, 2017:

[7] See, for example, “Opinion: Turkey’s New Invasion of Cyprus,” by  Andreas C. Chrysafis, Greek Reporter, February 28, 2018:

[8] This view of  Transnistria (formally called the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic) is articulated by Glenny (2008, p. 91). Nina Caspersen argues that such a depiction is unduly “alarmist”; Caspersen (2012, p. 46).

[9] See the Wikipedia article, “Political status of Nagorno-Karabakh”:  Intriguingly, two U.S. states have passed opposing bills recognizing the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

[10] But if Armenia exerts a significant measure of control over Nagorno-Karabakh, Nagorno-Karabakh also influences Armenia; see Caspersen (2012, p. 58).

[11] As little is available on this organization in English, I recommend the Wikipedia article:

[12] See “Ukraine Parliament Votes to Call Donetsk And Luhansk People’s Republics Terrorist Groups,” by Christopher Harress, IBT, Jan. 27, 2017:

[13] On unrecognized states more generally, see Caspersen 2012.

[14] See, for example, “Putin’s Frozen Conflicts,” by Robert Orttung and Christopher Walker, Foreign Policy, Feb. 13, 2015:

[15] On the assumption of impermanence, see Caspersen (2012, p. 103). As Pegg notes, “there is little incentive to devote much attention to de facto states because their ultimate defeat and reincorporation into existing states is both assumed and sought” (1998, p. 8).


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