KORNIDZOR, Armenia — Many of the men waiting at the Armenian border have been there for days.
When news broke on Tuesday that Azerbaijan had launched a major attack into the ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, dozens of them pulled on warm jackets and wooly hats and drove towards the checkpoint. Now they can only watch the road, once the sole highway cutting through the mountains to the breakaway region where their families live, hoping their relatives are able to get out.
Sleeping in their cars, peering through binoculars, or standing around smoking in small circles on the dusty asphalt, the group of about 40 Karabakh Armenians is only growing, with a sense of angry desperation permeating the air.
“Nobody is helping us. Not Armenia, not Russia, not the world,” said one man, spitting out his words with fury. “Look at my hands” — he held out a palm blackened with dirt — “I’m an honest guy, I’ve worked with these my whole life. Now they’re all I have to protect my family.”
A day earlier, he said, a fellow Karabakh Armenian had flown in from Russia and joined the group at the checkpoint on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Hours later he found out his two brothers had died in the fighting as the Azerbaijani army poured in. “He went crazy, he couldn’t sleep, he had to leave.”
A sense of abandonment
Just 10 kilometers from where the men have gathered, inside Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave Armenians see as their ancestral homeland within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory, desperate calls for help are growing, with many Armenians issuing dire warnings of potential genocide and ethnic cleansing.
The sense of abandonment is palpable. While Azerbaijan is firmly supported by Israel and regional powerhouse Turkey, Western leaders, particularly in Europe, are reticent to directly confront Azerbaijan over its offensive, not least because they have courted Baku for years in pursuit of natural gas deals — a quest that has only become more critical since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In a sign of those ties, just as Azerbaijan was driving home its victory, U.K. energy giant BP sent a senior delegation — including chair of the board Helge Lund and former CEO Lord Browne — to Baku to celebrate the centenary of the birth of former President Heydar Aliyev, father of current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and to cement a “long-term partnership” with Baku.
Even more worryingly for the Karabakh Armenians, their traditional protectors in Armenia and Russia now also look unlikely to rush to the rescue. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has said he “assumes” it is the responsibility of Russian peacekeepers to ensure the security of people in Nagorno-Karabakh, and has accused Karabakh Armenians of seeking to foment unrest against him in the wake of the lightning military offensive from Azerbaijan on Tuesday. Russia — overstretched in Ukraine — cannot do much either. Russian peacekeepers appear overwhelmed, telling thousands of panicking people heading to their base at a disused airfield in Nagorno-Karabakh, that there’s nothing they can do.
That leaves the 100,000 or so Karabakh Armenians inside the territory as hostages in a conflict where geopolitical heavyweights such as Turkey, Russia and Iran all have strategic interests.
For now, the pressure continues, with the Azerbaijanis pressing the Karabakh Armenians, who surrendered within a day, to fully integrate into the Azerbaijani state and the Armenian authorities hoping that the worst does not happen. At the city administration building in Goris, the closest city to the border and the first stop for any fleeing refugees, an elderly man in a flat cap points the way up the stairs to the deputy mayor’s office. Surrounded by potted plants and with Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh flags on her desk, Irina Yolyan said preparations for a mass evacuation were not being considered.
“We’re not talking about this at the moment — we are hoping a humanitarian disaster can be prevented,” she explained. “Of course if we could save people and take them in, we would do what we can,” she added.
But in a region that has been marked by war and civilian massacre, nobody can afford to take anything for granted. Forced to reject criticism that Armenia is doing nothing to prepare for large numbers of refugees, Pashinyan said on Thursday that the country was preparing to house as many as 40,000 people.
Armenians’ sense of helplessness has only been compounded by the speed of Azerbaijan’s tactical victory.
The three-decades-long “frozen” conflict turned hot again on Tuesday, when Azerbaijan began an “anti-terror activity,” with soldiers and tanks streaming across the contact line, capturing villages under the cover of artillery fire and missile strikes. The government in Baku insists the move came in response to “provocations” including landmine attacks that reportedly claimed the lives of four soldiers and two civilians. How the mines were laid on roads controlled by Azerbaijan’s far superior forces has not been revealed.
According to Karabakh Armenian officials, as of Wednesday evening, at least 200 people have died and 400 have been injured — including 40 civilians wounded and 10 killed. But getting information out of the region — or even inside the region — is complicated by power and communications outages that have left many villages without a line to the outside world.
Speaking to POLITICO in a series of frantic voice messages, one Karabakh Armenian in the de facto capital, Stepanakert, painted scenes of total chaos as people were called up to defend their homes. “When we heard the explosions, I ran to my daughter’s school — but there were young children whose parents hadn’t arrived yet. She felt responsible for them, and we waited for their parents to come before we left.”
“Like everyone else, we went to the underground shelters. Then, because I’m a man, they gave me a weapon and I went to the front lines.” He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that Azerbaijan could prosecute those who took up arms. “It’s been a year since we had reliable supplies of gas and food, but we tried to hold our positions until the civilians got out.”
Low on provisions due to an effective blockade imposed by Azerbaijan, the Karabakh Armenian forces were forced to accept a Russian-mediated surrender. Marut Vanyan, a blogger from Stepanakert, said residents had become spectators to the disintegration of their unrecognized state.
“Only the hospital has electricity, so I had to go there to charge my phone. The nurses say wounded soldiers are simply dying — others are emotionally shaken,” he said in a telephone interview. “On Republic Square, in the center of the city, refugees from the villages are gathering. Nobody knows what to do with them. The mayors’ office have put them in schools. Government officials are confused, and they don’t know what is going on.”
“Because of no electricity, people are cooking outside. The whole city smells of smoke.”
Many now fear that, as happened to Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh and its environs in the 1990s, they will be forced to leave their homes for good. Few trust Azerbaijan’s offer to open a “humanitarian corridor” to Armenia, and the checkpoint at Kornidzor is silent. For now at least, they’re trapped in limbo.
It’s a worry looming large for another Karabakh Armenian, Gayane Sargisyan, 29, who has lost people close to her in the fighting. “My mother’s brother is dead,” she said. “Well, he’s not really her brother — more like her cousin. That isn’t a rumor or guesswork, his name was on a list from the government. Together, we had to go down to the morgue to identify his body and make sure it was him. My best friend’s brother is dead — she found out this morning.”
Amid the chaos, Sargisyan received some good news. After a flurry of calls and desperate WhatsApp messages, she was able to find her grandfather, from a village near the contact line, alive and well.
But, she said, “for everyone who lost someone, the worst thing is working out where to bury them. Should we bury them here, then leave? Can you bury their body and then walk away?” Following the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, there were reports that those leaving territory they had lost to Azerbaijani forces had exhumed the bodies of their loved ones and brought them with them, fearing separation or desecration.
According to Laurence Broers, an expert on the region at Chatham House, with no international observers on the ground, some of the Karabakh Armenians’ fears have a precedent. While Baku, he says, will want to avoid allegations of atrocities in its newly conquered territory, “we have this history that when soldiers have come across some Armenian civilians who have stayed in place and not fled, they have been murdered. We saw this in 2016, we saw this in 2020. There’s a climate of impunity.”
In a message posted online on Friday, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy chief Hikmet Hajiyev said Azerbaijan had observed “strict observance of international humanitarian law” and stressed that civilians would be allowed out. “Military personnel who voluntarily lay down their weapons are free.”
As a result, statements from the EU and European nations like France and Germany raising fears of a humanitarian crisis are “incomprehensible,” he went on.
War or peace
Azerbaijani President Aliyev says his government is determined to offer rights and security to the Karabakh Armenians, turning the region into a “paradise.”
On Thursday, representatives of both sides met for talks on what comes next. Azerbaijan says the “constructive” negotiations are the start of a process of “reintegration” that will require the Karabakh Armenians to make good on a long-standing demand they lay down their weapons and accept being governed from Baku for good.
“If we want to see a future where people coexist and stand together, we have to support the peace process,” said Elin Suleymanov, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the United Kingdom. “On the Armenian side, they have to fulfill their part of the agreement in disarming the militias and disbanding their so-called government. On our side, it’s to provide for security and [humanitarian] supplies and act on a roadmap for integration.”
He denied that triumphant Azerbaijani soldiers would take out their three decades of anger and ethnic resentment on the civilian population. “We are not them, we will not do what they’ve done,” he said, referring to the killings and mass displacements that followed when Armenians took ethnic Azerbaijani towns and cities during the war of the 1990s.
On the other side, the region’s former de facto prime minister, Armenian-Russian oligarch Ruben Vardanyan, said Stepanakert is entering negotiations requesting the bare minimum. “The situation is dire: a huge number of casualties — dead, wounded or missing,” he wrote in a message passed out through an aide. “The main thing is to ensure that the civilian population is safe and have food and there is medicine for the wounded. It is also necessary to organize a search for the missing.”
Crisis in the Caucasus
Pashinyan’s government has faced fierce criticism from the opposition for its role in the crisis — first for officially recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory, and now for purportedly failing to prepare for a mass exodus, though the prime minister says space is being made ready for any potential refugees.
“The situation remains extremely tense,” he said in a statement on Friday, but “there is no direct threat to the civilian population.”
Meanwhile, with anger growing among the public, he claimed groups linked to “high-level circles in Nagorno-Karabakh” were working to stage “mass riots” inside Armenia designed to overthrow the government.
Russia has openly blamed the situation on Pashinyan’s shift to the West, in which his government provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine and invited U.S. soldiers for drills. In an interview with POLITICO last week, Pashinyan said the Russian peacekeepers had “failed” in their mission. A document obtained by independent Russian news outlet Meduza this week reveals officials told Moscow’s state media to pin the blame on Armenia and its “Western partners.”
On the ground, Karabakh Armenians say the reality is different and they’ve been abandoned by everyone they once relied on.
Tens of thousands of people leaving villages and districts around Stepanakert converged on the Russian peacekeeper base at a disused airport outside the city this week, desperately seeking supplies and safety. “My family village in Martakert region came under Azerbaijani control. All my relatives went to the airport,” says Vanyan, the blogger from Stepanakert. “But they say the Russians there told them: Why are you here? There’s nothing we can do for you.”