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Western Inaction on Nagorno-Karabakh: Is It Impotence or Indifference?

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This analytical article by Dan Perry is republished from Newsweek. Dan Perry is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press.

It is a grand vexation of geopolitics: the failure of powers to act while action is possible. It can lead to tragedy, decimate power hard and soft, and leave a mess behind,.

So it has been in Nagorno-Karabakh, the restive province of Azerbaijan. No matter where one stands on the complex and emotive dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region, it is safe to say the West comes away looking ridiculous from the sudden exodus of its 120,000 indigenous people.

This shocking event, which many see as one of the largest cases of ethnic cleansing in recent history, creates the world’s newest refugee crisis. It coincided with the sudden collapse of the self-governing authority in the region after a Sept. 19 military attack by Azerbaijan – even as the European Union and the United States inadvertently provided a smokescreen with “peace talks” that diplomats kept claiming were “promising.” And though The New York Times claims no one saw this coming, to me it seems preordained by Western inaction, whether due to impotence, inattention or indifference.

From a broader perspective, it’s understandable that few wanted to take a side on Nagorno-Karabakh, a complicated situation with some moral ambiguity. Armenians see the province as a heartland of an empire that once covered most of the Caucasus, parts of Turkey and beyond. But history intervened, the Soviet Union eventually gobbled up the region, and Nagorno-Karabakh was handed to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan.

For the Soviets, such shenanigans were a feature, not a bug. They purposely scrambled ethnic groups and moved internal borders around to complicate the prospect of republics becoming independent countries.

Thus was a Slavic-populated strip of what might have been Ukraine appended to Romanian-speaking Moldova—yielding Trans-Dniester, a separatist region where wars have been fought. A similar strategy also applied to Ukraine to which territories that might plausibly have been in Russia were added; it is no reprieve for Russian President Vladimir Putin to appreciate that this stoked the war there. And so it was with Nagorno-Karabakh ending up in Azerbaijan.

In all cases, when the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago, none of these countries had the presence of mind to dump these territories, whose unhappy populations anyway diluted the ethnic majority of the dominant group. In this, the newly formed countries found allies in the West. Traumatized by history, Western nations had little patience for separatist movements or border changes. Once you start, the thinking goes, there will be no end to the demands of squabbling tribes. On the one hand, true enough; on the other, a recipe for another kind of trouble.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, ethnic Armenians won control in a war in the early 1990s in which hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis were displaced. The area became a “self-governing entity” within Azerbaijan—but really self-governing, with massive ties to Armenia: the people had Armenian passports and not Azerbaijani ones, while living in territory which still was internationally recognized as Azerbaijan.

The issue became an obsession to the Baku-based regime of Ilham Aliyev. This regime is dictatorial (ranking 157 out of 176 on the Democracy Matrix index), kleptocratic (if the Pandora Papers be believed), and hostile to Armenians (see this Reuters story). In 2020, Azerbaijan attacked, winning back much of the lost area but keeping a rump Nagorno-Karabakh in place. At this point Aliyev decided to test Western resolve.

In September 2021, Azerbaijan launched a series of attacks on Armenian sovereign territory. Then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) chastised Aliyev, but no one threatened concrete action. So, in December 2022, Azeri “eco-activists” blockaded the Lachin Corridor which connects what remained of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. In February the International Court of Justice ordered the blockade ended, which Azerbaijan ignored, again with impunity. In June 2023 Baku dropped the eco-activist ruse and totally blockaded the region, not even allowing through Red Cross humanitarian missions.

At this point Luis Moreno Ocampo, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, stepped in to declare Azerbaijan’s action a “genocide” by starvation, according to Article 2C of the UN Genocide Convention. Other experts, from the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention to Juan Mendez, the former chief genocide advisor at the United Nations, agreed. Yet even as people scrounged for turnips in the besieged area, no outside government lifted a finger. The UN Security Council and U.S. Congress conducted inconclusive debates.

For governments to accept Ocampo’s logic would require them to take action under the Genocide Convention. Yet the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan left no further patience for international adventure. So great is Western timidity that there was not even serious talk of economic sanctions.

Aliyev had a plausible argument on his side—the inviolability of borders, even silly ones created by the Soviet Union. So, he evidently calculated that no one would stop him and attacked on Sept. 19. Within a day the self-government folded and soon thereafter the entire population fled to Armenia; just a few miles away.

There are now plenty of questions. Should there be a right of return? Under what conditions? Could the status quo ante be restored? Can there be restitution of properties? Should the departure be considered an ethnic cleansing, yielding war crimes charges?

What is not in question is that the mass exodus is an embarrassment to Western powers—as evidenced by the tragic visage of Western humanitarian officials like Samantha Power who finally remembered to arrive upon the scene and survey the empty streets.

I write this from Yerevan, where I am advising an Armenian NGO trying to build civil society in the young democracy. There is debate here about what to do next. Some want to war crimes charges. Others want to focus on the future, and put aside the conflict that has for long defined their country. But no one has a kind word for Western democracies that stood by while tens of thousands were being starved.

I do not think the world wanted to appear so impotent. I don’t think the West wants governments to blatantly ignore the International Court of Justice. I don’t think the U.S. wants a world without rules. So why did the world ignore Ocampo? Does Azerbaijan’s natural gas and oil explain all?

The West’s mobilization on behalf of Ukraine—with weapons and funds, but not with direct involvement—obscures a more fundamental truth: We are born alone, we live alone and we die alone. You want to talk about shared values? That and four dollars will buy a cup of coffee.

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