After losing Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia embarks on a challenging journey between Russia and the West

“Recognition of Artsakh’s independence,” emphatically read the central banner at the rally in support of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, on September 30 in Athens. The rally was organized by the Armenian National Committee and symbolically took place in front of the European Commission Representation in Greece. However, the self-declared Republic of Artsakh (also referred to as Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh), until recently a de facto independent Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, is currently far from receiving any form of recognition. In fact, it will formally cease to exist after December 31, 2023, as Azerbaijan has already taken control of its territory.

Artsakh’s government made the painful decision to dissolve itself following a one-day Azeri offensive in mid-September, during which Yerevan refused pleas for assistance, fearing it could lead to an all-out war. This attack came after a nine-month blockade by Azerbaijan, which significantly restricted the flow of essential supplies to the enclave, leaving the local population exhausted.

Currently, almost the entire 120,000 Armenian population has fled Nagorno-Karabakh due to fear of brutalities and persecution under Azeri rule, with Yerevan calling the exodus of Karabakh Armenians an act of “ethnic cleansing” by Baku. At the moment, it remains unclear whether Azerbaijan will ever allow them to return and live safely in the region. This mass exodus marked the final chapter of a tragedy for Karabakh Armenians that began in 2020 when Azerbaijan initiated a 44-day war, resulting in the capture of the majority of Artsakh and its effective isolation from Armenia. The war resulted in the loss of over 3,800 Armenians and 2,900 Azerbaijanis.

“My grandmother was from Shushi (city in Nagorno-Karabakh), she left with her family over 100 years ago. History repeats itself and it’s tragic. The whole world is responsible, the West, Russia, Europe and the US.” said Maria Sarkiseva, a protester draped in an Armenian flag.     

Ohan, a Canadian-Armenian protester who happened to be in Greece on vacation, also expressed his frustration with the world’s lack of interest in the plight of Karabakh Armenians.

“There is another massacre happening against Armenians in the 21st century and the whole world, including the European Union, is silent about this whole situation, nobody cares. Neither the West nor the East is helping us; we are very disappointed with the policy of the whole world. Only God can help us,” he said.  

While protesters decried the entire global community’s lack of response, Yerevan has mainly focused its criticism on Russia. Recently, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that Moscow bears responsibility for what is happening to Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. After the 2020 war, Russia deployed 2,000 peacekeepers to the region with the task of protecting the Armenian population. Nevertheless, during the recent Azerbaijani offensive, their assistance was limited to providing shelter to the Armenians at their base and helping with evacuations.

In response to the criticism, Russia pointed out that Prime Minister Pashinyan recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan during an EU-brokered meeting with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev last October in Prague. Moscow argued that this recognition limited its ability to intervene. However, according to Tigran Mkrtchyan, the Ambassador of Armenia in Greece, Cyprus, and Albania, whom your author met at the Armenian embassy in Athens, Russia’s claims were not accurate. Mkrtchyan noted that Russia had committed “to ensure the security of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh” under the 2020 ceasefire statement.

“The issue is not about whether Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized as part of Azerbaijan or not. The issue was and remains the security and safety of the Karabakh Armenians and (their) possible status,”stated Mkrtchyan, who explained that the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has already impacted Armenian-Russian relations.

“This claim that Armenia recognized or Armenia did not recognize is absolutely irrelevant. Your (Russia’s) obligation was to make sure the safety is guaranteed in that area and you failed to guarantee that safety,” he added.

Prime Minister Pashinyan has also criticized the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) the Russian-led security alliance of which Armenia is a member. Despite the CSTO having a collective defense clause similar to NATO, it was not activated during the Azerbaijani offensive. Although ambassador Mkrtchyan stated that he could not excludethe possibility of Armenia leaving the CSTO, which “has not responded to the security needs of Armenia,” he made clear that this discussion has not happened yet on a government level, but it is widely taking place in Armenian society.

“Reviewing or revising our membership, I cannot elaborate on that right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was done in the future. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that Armenia is going to join another security alliance,” he said, adding that CSTO did not react when in 2020 Azerbaijan captured around 150 sq km of Armenian territory that it still occupies to this day.

Lately, Armenia has been making efforts to come closer to the West. In September, it conducted joint military exercises with the United States in its territory and agreed to increase military cooperation with France. Most notably, it ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. This decision drew harsh condemnation from Moscow, which stated that the ratification “will have the most negative consequences for bilateral relations.”

The ambassador admitted that the ratification of the Rome Statute has indeed created “a certain nervousness in Russia,”but he emphasized that Armenia’s cooperation with the West is not aimed towards Moscow and that Yerevan “does not want to play on the geopolitical differences between Russia and the West.” He underlined that Armenia’s strategy was to be “as self-sufficient as possible and not depend on any single country or any single alliance.”

“Maybe somebody in Russia sees this as something negative, that Armenia is cooperating with the West. Armenia’s cooperation with the European Union, with the United States, with Western countries is not at the cost of Armenia’s cooperation with Russia,” explained Mkrtchyan. He further highlighted that through cooperation with Western institutions, Armenia is aiming to become more democratic, stronger and more self-reliant.

However, while Yerevan has taken some steps toward closer cooperation with the West, Western countries have been cautious in their approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue to avoid upsetting Baku. Notably, the statement after last week’s meeting in Granada between Prime Minister Pashinyan, French President Macron, German Chancellor Shultz and EU Council President Michel did not contain any criticism of Azerbaijan’s actions. In recent years, and especially following the war in Ukraine, Baku has emerged as an increasingly vital natural gas supplier to the EU. Last July, the two sides finalized a new gas agreement with the goal of doubling natural gas deliveries by 2027.

At the moment, there is a growing sense of disappointment in Armenia due to the West’s reluctance to discuss imposing sanctions against Baku over what Yerevan considers the “ethnic cleansing” of the Karabakh Armenians. According to Mkrtchyan, sanctions are the “number one issue,” and he called on the European Union and the United States to take a more “assertive” stance and sanction Azerbaijan.

“In less than a week, 100,000 people moved out. And even now, nobody is seriously discussing about sanctions against Azerbaijan. War crimes have been committed, ethnic cleansing, bordering on genocide has been committed. And even now there are still uncertainties (about) whether to impose sanctions,”stated Mkrtchyan, adding that this is a failure of international order. 

“Gas deals or oil deals should not keep the EU from imposing sanctions. It’s silly to argue that if they impose sanctions, the Azeris will finish the gas deal because the biggest benefactor of the gas deal is Azerbaijan,” he explained.  Furthermore, Mkrtchyan emphasized that “Armenia is a European country,” and although he admitted that membership in the EU is not yet an official policy goal, he said that it could become one in the future.

Nevertheless, in order for Armenia to achieve its goal for self-dependence, there must be peace and normalization of relations with Azerbaijan, which means that Yerevan is currently walking on thin ice, as there is no guarantee that this will happen in the near future. If Baku refuses to allow the return of expelled Armenians to Nagorno-Karabakh or begins to threaten Armenia’s territorial integrity, tensions between the two sides may reignite. This will probably compel Yerevan to once again seek Moscow’s assistance, which will likely come at a high cost, considering the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. Russia has been using the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for decades as a means to exert control over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, acting as a guarantor of the balance of power through weapons sales. Russian officials have openly acknowledged this strategy.

At the moment, Yerevan cannot count on the West to play a decisive role in the event of a new conflict with Baku, as no NATO country maintains a permanent military presence in the Caucasus except for Turkey, which is Azerbaijan’s closest ally. Additionally, Europe’s reliance on Azeri gas, especially amidst the conflict in Ukraine, makes it difficult to envision the EU or the United States imposing sanctions on Azerbaijan any time soon. On the other hand, while Moscow may appear to have lost some of its influence over Baku and Yerevan, it retains a significant military presence in the region, with 2,000 peacekeepers stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh and around 10,000 soldiers across various bases in Armenia.

Regarding the possibility of lasting peace, the initial signs are not encouraging. Last week, President Aliyev withdrew from an EU-brokered meeting with Prime Minister Pashinyan aimed at normalizing relations. In his rejection, he criticized France for planning to sell weapons to Armenia, which he said could lead to “new conflict.” At the same time, he and Turkish President Erdogan have repeatedly called for the creation of the “Zangezur” corridor within Armenian territory, a position that is a red line for Yerevan.

Moreover, there are still a lot of open issues between the two countries concerning Nagorno-Karabakh. “There are still a lot of issues that need to be settled,” acknowledged Mkrtchyan , elaborating that those include the right of the Armenian refugees to return to Nagorno-Karabakh, their property rights, as well as an examination of potential war crimes committed against them by Azerbaijan and possible sanctions.

Aris Dimitrakopoulos
Aris Dimitrakopoulos
Aris Dimitrakopoulos is a freelance journalist and war correspondent. He has covered on the ground the wars in Ukraine and Libya, as well as Greek affairs, for local and international media outlets. You can connect with him on Twitter at @ArisDimitrako or reach out via email at arisdimitrako]at]