Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabagh, the Caucasus, war. What’s going on? (Like we didn’t have enough to worry about, what with riots, wildfires, and the plague.) Here are the players. I’ll give you political and historical background and the dynamics of the powers involved, and will game out scenarios. The conclusion, though, is not for armies and dictators, but for you and me. Don’t skip to the end, though. Read.
1. Armenia is the world’s very first Christian country, with an alphabet a saint created in a dream vision and a language so distantly related to the other Indo-European tongues (English, French, Latin, Greek, etc.) that it might as well be from another planet. Armenians for over a millennium have been largely isolated, an island in a Muslim sea. The last independent Armenian kingdom was overwhelmed in the 14th century: most Armenians lived under Turkish rule thereafter and Ottoman Turkey, following a policy of ethnic cleansing to create a homogenous state, systematically exterminated its Armenian population during World War I. The word “genocide” was created expressly to describe that crime. The surviving sliver of historical Armenia ruled by Russia declared independence after the Bolshevik revolution. Russia reconquered it and little eastern Armenia, essentially a survivor state, was a Soviet republic till the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The present-day Armenian republic has a small Yezidi Kurdish minority but is otherwise almost completely ethnically homogeneous. Armenia has no significant natural resources other than rock, grapes, and apricots, and is landlocked. Russia dominates Armenia economically and politically, and uses it as its southernmost military outpost.
2. Azerbaijan (the name comes from Atropates, the Iranian commander of the northwestern region, which was once a Persian province) is predominantly Shi‘a Muslim. Most of its people, the Azeris, are ethnic Turks, culturally closest to Iran but politically allied with Turkey. Azerbaijan was subject to the Russian Empire before World War I and after brief independence became a Soviet republic till 1991. The country is oil rich and thus of considerable economic importance to both Russia and the West. The capital, Baku, is on the Caspian Sea, and used to be a boomtown with many ethnic groups— Armenians, Jews, Russians, Greeks. Politically the Azeris are close to Turkey. Israel maintains forward listening and military assets in Azerbaijan close to its enemy, Iran, and pays for its parking space with advanced military equipment. Azerbaijan’s government is an all-in-the-family affair, and the privileged clan were part of the KGB and Communist Party nomenklatura in the good old days.
3. Nagorno-Karabagh means “Mountainous-” (Russian) “Black Garden” (Turkic and Persian). The population is majority ethnic Armenian, but Stalin assigned it and another historically Armenian province, Nakhichevan, to Azerbaijan as part of the divide-and-conquer strategy of Soviet nationalities policy. Azeris conducted numerous pogroms of extreme brutality against Armenian populations in both Karabagh and Azerbaijan proper, particularly in the cities of Sumgait and Baku, both before Soviet rule and after its collapse. Nakhichevan was ethnically cleansed of Armenians entirely; and in the 1990s Azerbaijan destroyed tens of thousands of medieval Armenian monuments in the town of Julfa: the worst case of cultural vandalism anywhere in the world since World War II. Tens of thousands of Armenian refugees fled Azerbaijan, mainly to Armenia and Russia.
In the 1980s, when Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika (“reconstruction”) made it possible for Soviet citizens to voice old grievances in public, Armenians began to agitate for the independence of Nagorno-Karabagh (called by the name Artsakh in Armenian) from Azeri rule; and a long and bloody war ensued. Armenian forces conquered Karabagh as well as large surrounding buffer zones abutting the Armenian frontier. Tens of thousands died on both sides. Nearly a million Azeris and Kurds fled or were driven from their homes and have lived as refugees in Azerbaijan for over a generation in harsh conditions. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at war since their independence, and international diplomacy has not succeeded in bringing an end to their simmering conflict. The only power that has hitherto intervened militarily is Russia.
4. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan lie south of the Caucasus mountain range. The other Transcaucasian (i.e., south-of-the-Caucasus-mountains) state is Georgia (no relation to the US state; its native name is Sakartvelo). Georgia is a multi-ethnic state, ecologically varied and agriculturally rich. The Georgians are Orthodox Christian, with a culture— architecture, music, written script, literature— closely related to that of Armenia. Both Armenian and Georgian culture also have a very strong Iranian component. Georgian is an isolate, that is, a language with no other relatives anywhere except a handful in its immediate vicinity (Mingrelian and Laz). Georgia has a large Muslim minority, as well as an indigenous Jewish community that has never experienced persecution over the two and a half millennia of its existence. Armenians were for generations the economic and cultural dynamo of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, which was the administrative metropolis of the entire Caucasus in the days of the Russian Empire. Among the minorities of the north Caucasus are the Chechens, with whose Islamist terrorist movement Russia fought a long war from the 1990s into the early years of the present millennium; the Abkhazians on the Black Sea coast, whose territory Russia invaded and conquered from Georgia in the post-Soviet period; and the Ossetians, the last living descendants of the Alans, an ancient Scythian (North Iranian) people. The Scythians were the nomadic horsemen of the steppes described by ancient Greek historians. Russia invaded and occupied the Ossetian province in Georgia fourteen years ago. Georgia, with two chunks bit out of it, is very fearful of Russian aggression and is very friendly to the United States and the West. It is far too deeply within the geographic sphere of Russian influence for America to extend it NATO membership or to offer meaningful support and protection. Georgia favors Azerbaijan over Armenia but maintains correct relations with the latter.
5. Turkey. In recent days, the long-simmering war over Karabagh has flared. It may draw in military intervention by Turkey to the west. That country’s militant Islamist ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dreams of restoring the vast Ottoman Empire, and expresses open contempt for Armenians. He is also bitterly anti-Semitic. In the last two days, Turkey has shot down an Armenian warplane and has begun shipping Islamist Syrian mercenaries into Azerbaijan. The other big regional player is of course Russia, to the north. It has an equally dictatorial, nationalist president, Vladimir Putin, a former secret policeman who employs any means necessary to crush internal dissent and to pursue the grand policy of restoration of Russian hegemony over the former Soviet republics. Russia and Turkey could clash in the coming days. They have historically competed for power in the Caucasus, and have fought over a dozen wars with each other in the last three centuries, as Russia has steadily invaded and conquered lands to its south, often on the pretext of liberating indigenous Christians (Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks) from Muslim rule. Turkey has never won a single one of those wars.
However, Turkey is now a member of NATO: if there were to be a clash in which it could prove it was attacked, Erdogan might invoke the organization’s Charter to compel military assistance for its defense from other members of the alliance, including the USA. Turkey became a member of NATO, though, when its government, laws, and society were strictly secularist and it conformed, at least in some respects, to the democratic values and institutions of the other members of the Western alliance. It no longer does, and its NATO membership is more a problem to its fellow members than an asset. Were Turkey to go to war with Russia, nobody would come to Turkey’s aid, and Turkey would be defeated.
6. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan border on Iran, to the south, and both maintain good relations with it, especially Armenia. About a third of all Iranian citizens are Azeri (=Azerbaijani) Turks by nationality, but they regard themselves as Iranian first. Iran has no imperial pretensions— it has not invaded any other country for centuries— but it employs Hezbollah and Hamas to extend its influence as a regional power. It is also seeking to become a nuclear power and Israel, which the present Iranian regime has vowed to destroy, will prevent this by any means necessary. Saudi Arabia and the Arab states on the Persian Gulf also oppose Iran and have been fighting a long and bloody proxy war against it in Yemen. Iran has nothing to gain from an escalation of the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, nor can it afford to fight a full-scale war elsewhere. It has offered to mediate.
7. Russia will either let the two sides bloody each other, so that they learn a lesson, and then step in; or will impose binding arbitration earlier if in Putin’s judgment the situation is going so far out of control that there is a threat to stability in the larger region. The president of the United States, Donald Trump, seems to have established a fairly good working relationship with Russia, to the extent that such relations are possible. He will not be led by Turkey, and will unapologetically defend American interests as he sees them. If Trump is re-elected, he may put together a peace deal to bring Iran’s economy in from the cold. One attraction of such a deal would be to take some of the wind out of Turkey’s sails. It would also make the Persian Gulf and Arabian peninsula safer, which is good for business. Taking out the factor of Hamas and Hezbollah might also encourage a new Palestinian Arab leadership in the Land of Israel to come to the table and negotiate a realistic peace. If there is a hotly contested, protracted court battle over the results of the November general election, the new administration in the United States may not be in a position to act as an effective ally or partner in the Near and Middle East for a long time.
Those, then, are the players. Karabagh raises humanitarian concerns: the welfare of the Armenian majority is at risk, and the plight of the Azeri refugees is serious. However the people who shape world politics are not interested in these matters. As the Jews learned during the Nazi Holocaust, there is a bitter truth that small peoples have to digest: Nobody Cares. At least, governments don’t. Economically, the outer world does care, though, just a bit more, since even a purely local war in the Transcaucasus poses threats to the pipelines and affects oil and gas supplies, just for starters. Militarily, Armenia probably has the advantage unless Turkey intervenes in a major way. If that happens, Russia will probably act and will certainly defeat Turkey militarily. The longer-term consequences of war between Russia and a NATO ally, military and political, are unpredictable. None of the scenarios for a future after that looks very good. In a limited war, Russia could assert total dominance over the Transcaucasus and possibly proceed to annex Adjaria— the remainder of the Georgian Black Sea coast, from Abkhazia to the Turkish border. A landlocked, truncated Georgia would cease to be a viable sovereign entity. In a war spilling over Turkey’s borders, Russia could establish an independent Kurdistan, as it tried to do after World War II in northern Iran. This could have untold consequences, not least in Syria and Iraq. And that is without taking the factor of the Americans into account.
The US has a major military base at Incirlik, in Turkey: were Russo-Turkish fighting to spread into Anatolia, Turkish defenses would probably collapse very quickly. America might become involved in the conflict, simply because our army would find itself in the line of fire, and escalation could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. Could that happen? It could, because once such a war begins, its progress is unpredictable and usually disastrous. There are so many factors in this conflict, so many interlocking interests, external players, and potential dangers, that even a scholar with a lifetime of experience in the region cannot keep track of everything as events unfold. It would take steady, far-sighted, dedicated men and women at the helm of state, on all sides, to avoid possible catastrophe and bring Karabagh and the neighborhood back to the status quo ante.
Is nuclear war a real concern? Yes. Crises have become unmanageable before, as during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, but the world was fortunate then. In Washington, an exceptional group of young, cool headed, highly professional, deeply principled men led by John F. Kennedy got us through. In Moscow, our President had a worthy counterpart in Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, an adroit politician who had brought his country out of the deep freeze of Stalinism and sent the first man into space. Khrushchev toured our farms, appreciated our industry, and he and his wife Nina admired the peaceable, friendly amerikantsy. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were front line veterans who knew firsthand what war really is. They didn’t want it, and they were able to avert it.
The Soviet Union and the United States of America during the Cold War also had secret weapons that are little discussed nowadays. Both of these weapons had names ending in –ian. Theirs was named Anastas Mikoyan. Ours was Edward Djerejian. They were diplomats, and they had a common language, Armenian, which they spoke together when they met, just outside a conference room, or on the way down a corridor. And when they spoke it, they fell into the cadences of a culture that has seldom had anything to do with power politics, hate propaganda, or missiles. They worked together to calm things down and brought some of that calm back to their bosses. Armenian is best suited to asking after the health of family, to offering a friend some good food, to raising a glass in a toast. When all the geopolitical bullshit seemed impenetrable, those two statesmen in their informal chats could get around to what’s real. Your family. Your home. The fruit ripening in your garden. God making sure the sun comes up every morning. You know, the same sun shines, the same grapes grow, in Armenia (where the toast is, Kenátset, “To your life!”), Georgia (Gágmarjos, “May you be victorious!”), Azerbaijan (Sherefé, “To honor!”), and here in California, too.
Maybe there are problems we will have to live with, however imperfectly. Maybe Armenian and Azeri nationalists will have to relinquish some of their irredentist dreams and give a little. Maybe the countries surrounding them will get tired of posturing, warmongering dictators. It is the hope of this old man, after a lifetime in the study of the Transcaucasus, that these ancient great civilizations of the Near East, who have given humanity the poets Shota Rustaveli, Nizami Ganjevi, and Sayat Nova, will stop, just stop, this fucking war. Now.
For Tariel and Avtandil’s sake, for Leila and Majnun.
When Sayat Nova sang, Ashkharumen akh chim k’ashi k’ani vur jan is indz ama, “I will not heave a sigh in this world, so long as you are my love,” whose dark eyes was he gazing into? He was an Armenian. He lived in Georgia. He sang his first immortal verses in Azeri.
There’s room for everybody. The hell with the politicians and the generals. Come on to my house. Try these pears, melons, almonds, figs, pomegranates, fresh from right here in the Central Valley. And let me fill your glass.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let’s drink to each other’s health in these times and to the living memory of the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who I wish were with us here but who’s certainly looking down hoping we’ll all act like responsible and compassionate people. He once said:
“Let us not be blind to our differences— but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Amen to that. L’Chaim! To life! And to peace.
Fresno, California, 30 September 2020.