In the next week or so, many thousands of human lives – of civilians as well as soldiers – could be lost in a war the great powers of the world seem unable to stop, and for which Turkey is egging on the aggressor, Azerbaijan. This war is over Nagorno-Karabakh, a small self-governing democracy of 170,000 Christians, settled in a mountainous enclave between their fellow Armenians and their Azeri enemies, with Turkey, still unrepentant about its Armenian genocide, on the horizon. The last war, in the early 1990s, resulted in 30,000 deaths and a “line of control” around the border over which the rival armies have faced off, but not fully engaged – until the last week.
Some history is necessary to understand Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh as it is known locally. This is a country in the clouds, as its mountains first appear after the seven-hour road trip from Yerevan (the Armenian capital) passing the looming shadow of Mount Ararat, in Turkey. A flight to the well-equipped airport at Stepanakert (the Artsakh capital) would take merely 20 minutes but the Azeri government has threatened to shoot down any passenger plane that tries. Any visit to this de facto independent republic earns a lifetime ban from entering Azerbaijan.
Interspersed among its hills are several thousand old Christian churches, some dating back to the 10th century, while in museums are manuscripts and archives testifying to the intense intellectual and religious lives of Armenians in these highlands and to the unique designs of the carpets still woven there.
In 1805, the region was annexed by Russia and a census proved that ethnic Armenians were in the great majority. So they were (at 94 per cent) in 1923, when Stalin fatefully made Karabakh an autonomous region (or oblast) of the Soviet Union’s satellite, Azerbaijan. Following the break-up of the Union, the people of Artsakh in 1992 declared their independence by an overwhelming vote.
That led to war fought by a quickly recruited Karabakh army with left-behind Russian tanks and support from Armenia. It was marked by one great war crime – a mini-Guernica – as Azeri forces deliberately shelled and killed thousands of civilians in schools and hospitals in Stepanakert, from a city higher in the hills that eventually fell to a daring counterattack.
Armenia prevailed and, for the next quarter of a century, Artsakh has been a stable and settled local democracy of ethnic Armenians, but with a culture and history and highland character. Its relationship to Armenia is comparable to that of Wales to England. When I visited on several recent occasions (at the request of the Armenian government) I was satisfied by the independence of its parliament and of its judges and lawyers but sorry for the conscription of its youth, made necessary by the hostility of its neighbour.
It would be intolerable if Artsakh were to be invaded and its people killed or forced to flee. Yet this is the declared objective of Turkey.
Despite its denials, evidence from France and Russia and the British media proves that in the last month Turkish companies have recruited and paid fighters from Syria to join the Azeri forces – proof that Turkey and Azerbaijan planned their attack in advance.
Authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev has for years been beating the nationalist drum stirring up racial and religious hatred against the Armenians and promising a happy homeland in Karabakh to his people once the region is successfully invaded and occupied. It may have been partly the need to deliver on his own rhetoric that has caused him to start this war, once he could be sure of Turkish support and at a time when Armenia is weakened by the pandemic. He denies being the aggressor, but this is not credible: he has everything to gain by it and Armenia has everything to lose, and no reason to commence battle. It has agreed to international calls for peace talks but Aliyev, bent on killing and conquest, has refused. Azerbaijan would in this respect be guilty of a breach of the UN Charter that prohibits any “armed attack against a member of the UN”. The Security Council should immediately refer the conflict to the International Criminal Court, which is now empowered to investigate the crime of aggression, which appears to have been committed by Aliyev with the support of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Aliyev claims the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan but this rests on Stalin’s 1923 decision to make the region an oblast. This status it has not had for the last quarter of a century after its people voted for independence and won the war they fought for their right to self-determination. International law allows what is termed the right of remedial secession, which has been accorded to East Timor, Kosovo and others and which should apply to Artsakh. It may have been better had they chosen to become a province of Armenia, but either way they must be protected against invasion.
Why was this long-simmering conflict not settled years ago? An international conference was set up by major powers in 1994 – the Minsk Process – but it did not proceed, partly because Azerbaijan would not allow Nagorno-Karabakh itself to be represented. Last week, the UK, France and Russia, as well as the UN, have called for the parties to negotiate but Azerbaijan, unlike Armenia, has refused. It wants to wipe out the Armenians in Artsakh and replace them with Azeris while Armenia obviously refuses to surrender them. That means a return to square one, which is war.
The result cannot be predetermined – if Turkey joins military forces with Azerbaijan, as Erdogan threatens, the Armenians will seek to rely on Russia, with which they have a military alliance. But Russia can be a fickle friend. Its oligarchs are more interested in their businesses with Azeri oil and gas and the Russian arms sales to Baku are massive (it sells Armenia the same arms but at a concessional rate). It was always a mistake for the Armenians to put their trust in the Kremlin, as they may find out. NATO is probably the only military alliance that can control the situation, but Turkey is a member of it (unlike Armenia) and Russia will object.
But the Armenians are a tough race, emerging from the genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks (who slaughtered more than a million of them in 1915-16). They have a diaspora that is powerful in the US and elsewhere (although the best-known Armenian is Kim Kardashian, Australia can boast Joe Hockey and Gladys Berejiklian). They will not surrender Artsakh and nor should they. Australia should not hesitate in its support for them – not for the sake of Christianity but for democracy.
Geoffrey Robertson QC is the author of An Inconvenient Genocide – Who Now Remembers the Armenians? (Penguin Random House)