While Russia has its hands full with the war in Ukraine, a human drama is playing itself out in the south, namely in the Armenian enclave of Karabakh, which lies within the territory of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan waged a war in 2020 to conquer the territory, which had been under the control of Armenia since 1994 and was physically connected to that country. Azerbaijan, much larger and militarily better equipped than the small and poor Armenia, was able to conquer large parts of Karabakh, but a Russian-mediated ceasefire did leave the core area with the capital Stepanakert under the control of the Karabakh Armenians.
The enclave has one thin lifeline to Armenia through the Latschin Corridor, from where fuel and food are imported, because Karabakh is far too small to be self-sustaining. Russia would watch over the armistice agreement, which also involves keeping the corridor open, and with its troops keep the two warring parties apart.
While Russia is traditionally friends with the likewise Christian Armenia and regards the Muslim Azerbaijanis with suspicion, it took a neutral stance in the 2020 war, which was already a setback for Armenia.
Since then, the Russia-Ukraine war has broken out and Russia has neither the capacity nor the interest to play the role of powerful arbiter between the two warring peoples in the Caucasus region. This further harms Armenia, because now Azerbaijan has taken advantage of Russia’s non-involvement and closed the road in the Latschin Corridor to effectively starve the people of Karabakh. This is happening with the expectation that the Karabakh Armenians will eventually leave their homeland and Karabakh can be ethnically cleansed. Revenge also plays a role, because with the separation of Karabakh in the early 1990s, parts of the Azerbaijani population were also expelled.
Currently, Azerbaijan has everything on its side: a strong international ally in the form of Turkey; money thanks to its oil wealth; an established quasi-dictatorial dynasty that does not have to fear uprisings or elections; a well-equipped army; Russia that no longer (can) stand up for Armenia, and also the West that looks the other way because they are embarrassed by Azerbaijan’s oil and gas.
Azerbaijan has now offered to take care of Karabakh from the east, i.e. from the Azerbaijani heartland, but Karabakh fears that by cutting the lifeline to Armenia, they will be engulfed first economically and then culturally by Azerbaijan.
Things are further exacerbated by divisions within the small enclave, where doves and hawks argue over the right approach: to accept Azerbaijan’s supremacy for the sake of material survival, or to displace them and defend what is left of Karabakh, even if it means even more hardship.
The same struggle is also going on inside the republic of Armenia, where the president, Nikol Pashinian, who is considered more moderate, is facing the hawks in the army. Meanwhile, the dictator Ilam Alijev in Azerbaijan sits firmly in the saddle.