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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