If you haven’t seen this harrowing BBC report from Nagorno-Karabakh yesterday, you should. Filmed as ethnic Armenian fighters and civilians withdraw from the disputed enclave yesterday, it shows Armenians praying for the last time in the medieval Dadivank monastery, a symbol of their ancient cultural and historic presence in the region, and burning down their houses before Azerbaijani troops, as well as ethnic Azeris forced out in 1994, roll in.
The six-week war was a sharp shock for Armenia, but it has lessons for the wider world. Perhaps 2,000 ethnic Armenian fighters were killed by the technologically vastly superior forces of Azerbaijan, whose Turkish and Israeli combat drones eviscerated first Armenian armour and artillery and then the outmatched troops huddling for cover in their trenches.
Despite a dogged defence which inflicted heavy (though unknown) casualties on the attacking forces — the technological imbalance was just too great. Azerbaijan, rich with oil wealth and backed by Turkey, simply had more resources to bring to the battle than Armenia, which had failed to modernise its armed forces in the generation since the last Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
But perhaps the real lessons are political: Armenia, a fledgling democracy under the pro-West reformer Nikol Pashinyan, was humiliated by the Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev, and his sponsor the Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Western capitals and human rights organisations had encouraged Pashinyan’s drive towards a looser relationship with Putin’s Russia — still the hegemonic power in the South Caucasus — and had lauded the Armenian leader’s democratic reforms and his push for a closer relationship with the EU and NATO.
None of that mattered. The human rights NGOs who applauded Pasinyan’s reforms were silent once the war began. EU officials who’d encouraged Pashinyan’s westward path limited themselves to empty expressions of concern as the fighting raged. When Armenia pleaded with NATO to intervene, NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg remarked, simply, that “NATO is not part of this conflict,” adding that “both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been valued NATO partners for more than 25 years”.
This is, of course, untrue: it was NATO member Turkey’s deployment of combat drones and F-16 fighters that swung the balance in Azerbaijan’s favour. Turkey also deployed thousands of mercenaries from the proxy militias who garrison the regions of northern Syria it has annexed in recent years, expendable cannon fodder shunted from war to war at Erdogan’s behest. Indeed, following Turkey’s invasion of Afrin in 2018 and of much of northern Syria last year, the flight of civilians from Karabakh will now be the third wave of ethnic cleansing enabled by NATO arms in as many years.
So much for the rhetoric of advancing human rights and democracy trotted out at security conferences and in thinktank papers by NATO officials, struggling to justify the alliance’s existence a generation after the fall of the USSR. Even the justification that the war somehow confronts Putin, offered by Erdogan’s pet thinktankers, is absurd: Pashinyan’s humiliation will see Armenia drawn back into Russia’s orbit, casting doubt on the country’s future Western path. Thousands of Russian troops have been deployed to areas of Karabakh where the Russian flag has not flown in decades, a long-standing Putin ambition enabled by the war.
Armenians who looked to the West will learn bitter lessons from this war, and so should we. All the rhetoric of human rights and democracy means nothing if it isn’t backed by hard power. As we re-enter a world of state-on-state competition and conflict, where dictators carve up weaker states between them with impunity, European countries as well as smaller Asian powers will need to learn to worry less about living up to lofty ideals and more about how to defend themselves from aggressors, alone if necessary.