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Opinion: Why Armenia Stands Alone

Last week, an embattled democracy—Armenia—faced a lawless assault from an authoritarian adversary—Azerbaijan. But Western leaders who normally tub-thump for the territorial integrity of democracies were conspicuous by their silence. Ditto for most American Christian groups. Many US neoconservatives, meanwhile, have thrown their considerable weight behind the aggressors.

Azerbaijan’s latest incursion began on Tuesday. A massive Azeri artillery barrage struck military and civilian targets, killing more than 100 and displacing thousands from their homes in a matter of hours. Azeri troops seized positions inside Armenia, though the extent isn’t yet clear. Although the two countries have fought before, most recently in 2020 over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, this week’s assault was qualitatively different, infiltrating deep into Armenia’s borders.

Armenia—the victim in this situation—checks off all the right boxes, as far as the arbiters of “rule of law” and “international order” in Brussels and Washington are concerned. The country boasts the highest ranking in the South Caucasus region in The Economist’s Democracy Index, based on factors like electoral fairness, political pluralism, and civil liberty. Azerbaijan, by contrast, has been ruled by the same family for decades. The regime of President Ilham Aliyev suppresses civil rights and indulges in graft that is notable even by post-Soviet standards.

Yet the initial Western reaction to Azerbaijan’s aggression has been tepid, limited mostly to expressions of concern and calls for calm on both sides. American neoconservatives have generally been disgraceful, mocking Armenian losses and rooting for the Azeri dictatorship, mainly because they see Baku as a useful speartip against Iran and Russia. The Christian right in America, which one might think would feel affinity with the world’s first Christian nation, has remained silent.

Indifference doesn’t quite capture the Western posture. On the contrary, the West has been courting Azerbaijan in recent years, inking new gas deals and supplying millions of dollars in military assistance annually.

The contrast with the Ukraine crisis, another conflict in which an authoritarian state has attacked an aspiring democracy, is jarring. President Biden has described that war as part of an existential struggle “between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression”—a grandiose framing shared by the hawkish usual suspects on the American right. The United States alone has committed a staggering $50 billion to Kiev since the Russian invasion, in the name of democracy, self-determination, and international borders. Blue-and-yellow flags fly everywhere. So why ignore Armenia?

The answer lies in a combination of hypocrisy, cynicism, and shortsightedness. The West’s indifference to Armenia reveals once more that its concerns for democracy are highly selective, operative only where the West sees its interests at stake. Here, the West has concluded that its interest lies in appeasing Azerbaijan, which can help supply gas to Europe and check Russia and Iran in the South Caucasus.

But even on cold realpolitik terms, this is a mistake. The West has misjudged the situation. Azerbaijan can offer little to the European Union in terms of gas exports. And abandoning Armenia to its fate would do little to contain Russia or Iran. In the end, it would only lessen Western influence in the region.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan relates most directly to Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave populated by Christian Armenians but located within Azerbaijan, which is 97 percent Muslim. Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan during the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and Armenians controlled it, along with seven surrounding regions within Azerbaijan that Armenians seized as bargaining chips, for 30 years.

Sporadic negotiations failed to resolve the conflict, and in September 2020, Azerbaijan, equipped with Turkish and Israeli drones and Syrian mercenaries, launched a successful military campaign that regained control of much of the territory. A shaky ceasefire exists in Karabakh, brokered and enforced, intermittently, by Moscow. But the formal status of Karabakh and its inhabitants remains unsettled.

Azerbaijan launched last week’s attack out of frustration with the pace of negotiations and because it sees an opportunity to settle matters while the world is preoccupied with Ukraine. Armenia, still reeling from its defeat two years ago, has neither the incentive nor the ability to provoke anyone. The scale of this week’s aggression, as well as satellite imagery from before the attack, make plain that Azerbaijan and its patron, Turkey, had long planned the operation, and that the goal goes beyond resolving the Karabakh dispute.

Azerbaijan wishes to seize a swath of territory within Armenia to create a land link with Turkey. This link would facilitate Turkey’s grand policy of pan-Turkism, a union of Turkic peoples from Central Asia to Europe. Christian Armenians stand in the way of that project, as they did at the time of the Armenian Genocide 100 years ago. If one credits statements from Azeri leaders over the years, and Azeri actions where it already has access to Armenian sites, Azerbaijan wishes to ethnically cleanse Karabakh and eliminate Armenia itself.

Azerbaijan was emboldened to attack Armenia now because of a deal it struck with Brussels this summer. In July, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Baku to sign an memorandum that, in theory, would substantially boost Azeri gas exports to Europe—a substitute, the union hopes, for Russian gas. “You are indeed a crucial energy partner for us,” von der Leyen told a smiling Aliyev, “and you have always been reliable.” She said nothing about Azerbaijan’s menacing behavior toward democratic Armenia. As analyst Eric Hacopian observed, what could have been more of a green light to Azerbaijan than that?

In this case, though, the West is acting hypocritically without even advancing its own interests. In reality, Azerbaijan lacks sufficient gas to meet EU expectations, and the “critical infrastructure” for extracting and transporting Azeri gas is owned by the Russian petroleum giant, Lukoil. The deal will thus do little to end Russian dominance over Europe’s energy supplies, and may even line Russian pockets.

Or consider the canard that Armenia is “Russia’s satellite and Iran’s ally.” By contrast, the argument goes, the West can rely on Azerbaijan to check those two nations and advance Western interests. This is false. Russia has a military base in Armenia, but Russia has very strong ties with Azerbaijan, as well. Two days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Aliyev traveled to Moscow to sign a cooperation agreement with Moscow—an agreement, the Azeri strongman boasted, “that brings our relations to the level of an alliance.” For its part, Armenia has resisted supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite Kremlin pressure.

Russia has studiously maintained neutrality in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, in the current crisis, it has refused Armenia’s request for military assistance, even though it has a treaty obligation to protect Armenia if invaded. While Azerbaijan was attacking Armenia this week, Putin, Aliyev, and Erdogan were photographed sharing a friendly moment at the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand.

Regarding Iran, the situation is similarly complicated. Armenia has historical ties to Iran that go back millennia, and the Islamic Republic insists it won’t tolerate a change in Armenia’s borders now. But so far, Tehran has not offered Armenia real assistance. On the contrary, Iranian authorities vocally supported Azerbaijan’s 2020 action, cheering Aliyev’s “liberation” of Karabakh. And this month, Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan signed a joint declaration on developing a trilateral north-south transport corridor to link the three countries economically—and, of course, to cut out the West in the important South Caucasus hub. Supporting Azerbaijan against Armenia won’t isolate Iran.

There is a better way. The West doesn’t need to commit military resources in the South Caucasus. But the United States, for example, can stop supplying millions of dollars of military assistance to Azerbaijan, as it does every year, and can impose sanctions on the Aliyev family until Azerbaijan withdraws its troops from Armenian territory. The European Union can stop trying to make deals with a dictator whose conduct is scarcely different from Putin’s. And both Washington and Brussels can increase financial support for Armenia.

Doing these things would not only avoid the colorable charge of hypocrisy when it comes to democratic values. It would also advance Western interests in the region.

Mark L. Movsesian is the Law School’s Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and co-directs our Center for Law and Religion. This piece published originally in Compact Magazine on September 19, 2022.

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Opinion: Why Armenia Stands Alone