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Azerbaijan’s war against Armenia matters as much as Russia-Ukraine. India must stand with Yerevan

Historical prejudice has made the world ignore Azerbaijan's war in Armenia. Delhi must train Yerevan's armed forces.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev [Reuters]

Were you ever taken in by the Western preachers of peace who hectored India for refusing to reprimand Russia after its invasion of Ukraine? If so, you ought to familiarise yourself with the plight of Armenia—an unlikely post-Soviet democracy in the South Caucasus whose survival is being imperilled by the mercenarism of our Occidental missionaries of international order. Their impulse to punish Russia for waging war against Ukraine has prompted them to reward Azerbaijan, a spectacularly corrupt hereditary dictatorship at war with Armenia.

The European Union “is turning to trustworthy energy suppliers. Azerbaijan is one of them,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, declared in July. Weeks after she flew home, Europe’s newly emboldened partner proceeded to slaughter more than 200 Armenians in a fresh episode of a protracted pan-Turkic campaign to coerce Armenia into complete submission. There was much noise in the West, but no meaningful intervention was staged to aid Armenia, a state that—for all its ills—ranks as less corrupt on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index than at least five EU states and eight NATO members.

“Universal” principles are for the weak: Cold self-interest disguised as altruism governs the West’s own conduct on the international stage. Europe has decided, autonomously or under American pressure, to emancipate itself from Russian sources of energy. And it has chosen Azerbaijan as an alternative supplier. It does not matter that Azerbaijan is also waging its own revanchist war against a sovereign neighbour—or even that it is more despotic, illiberal, and repressive than Russia. What matters is that Azerbaijan is not Russia. It does not matter that Armenians have endured centuries of mass murder, death marches, forced conversion, and deportation and displacement from their natal lands by the Turks and the Azeris—the word genocide was, in fact, invented by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944 to convey the scale of the concerted liquidation of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkey between 1915 and 1921. What matters is that Armenian lives do not much matter.

A troubled history

A historically alert person may detect in the indifference to Armenian life the residues of an ancient prejudice. Armenians, escaping oppression and pogroms over the centuries, dispersed across the world. They received a warm welcome in many parts of Asia, and they repaid that welcome with a disproportionate contribution to their host societies: India, with which Armenia has had relations for nearly 2,000 years, is among the nations enriched by the Armenian diaspora.

In other places, however, Armenians’ ingenuity and adaptability bred contempt for them. They were branded “eastern Jews” and treated with suspicion and scorn. A minor unpleasant personal experience with an individual in the 1920s drove George Orwell to generalise that he “saw the force of the proverb ‘Trust a snake before a Jew and a Jew before a Greek, but don’t trust an Armenian’.” Memos by British Foreign Office officials of the time such as D’Arcy Godolphin Osborne hiss with a deep racist hatred of Armenians. Having incited the Armenians to fight the Soviets with false assurances of support, the British abruptly abandoned them. As early as 1920, Osborne’s boss, Lord Curzon, admitted privately that “we intend to do as little as we can for Armenia”.

This tradition of apathy, disdain, and betrayal helps clarify why Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, felt sufficiently confident last week to brag openly that he had “started the Second Karabakh War.” Aliyev was alluding to the 44-day war in 2020 over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The region, inhabited by Armenians for longer than a millennium and replete with their monasteries, sought to join Soviet Armenia in the aftermath of the Red Army’s invasion. On 4 July 1921, the Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union voted to approve the merger. The next day, however, disregarding demography and democracy, Joseph Stalin gifted Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

Then, in 1988, nearly seven decades after Stalin’s ukase, the local Armenians held a referendum to secede from Azerbaijan. The vote went largely unrecognised, and hundreds of Armenians were massacred in the Azeri cities of Sumgait and Baku. And so, when the USSR finally disintegrated, Karabakh found itself inside the Soviet-drawn frontiers inherited by Azerbaijan. A vicious trench war erupted in the mountainous terrain. Armenia, plunged into literal darkness by acute power shortages, captured Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjoining lands. It was the first major Armenian victory on its own soil in a thousand years.

An international forum called the OSCE Minsk Group was convened in 1992 to enable the belligerents to negotiate a final settlement. Its progress was impaired by routine outbreaks of hostilities until its was undone completely by Azerbaijan when it commenced a full-blown war in September 2020.

Unlike Armenia in 1991, however, Azerbaijan in 2020 did not fight solo: Its troops were trained, equipped, and superintended by Turkey—a member of NATO—which also trafficked a thousand Syrian mujahideen on its payroll to serve as cannon fodder. “One nation, two States” was their official motto. The murderous pan-Turkism that animated the joint enterprise against Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian State, acquired an explicitly religious gloss with the participation of fighters from Pakistan, which does not recognise Armenia, in the cause of the ummah.

Their deeds on and off the battlefield—torture, beheadings, mounting the decapitated heads of Armenian civilians on the carcasses of pigs—would make ISIS blush with pride. Aliyev opened a museum in Baku, the Azeri capital, whose chief exhibits were the helmets of Armenian soldiers slain in war.

When India helped

None of the powers that dispense lofty sermons on peace today lifted a finger at the time. To its abiding credit, India was one of the few nations that offered Armenia tangible support in the form of arms in its moment of need. Three separate sources confirmed to me that Delhi had come close to airlifting a cache of sophisticated weapons, but the war had plunged Armenia into such disarray that the administration in Yerevan, operating without a command structure, was unable to figure out how to receive the materiel.

By the first week of November 2020, Azeri forces were punching into Shushi—the high mountainous linchpin of Armenian defence. Fearing a total rout, Yerevan effectively agreed to cede substantial tracts of territory as part of a humiliating armistice mediated by Moscow.

Azerbaijan wants more than disputed land and access to roads connecting it to the Azeri exclave of Nakhichevan. It wants to drive a corridor through the heart of Armenia’s southernmost province to create an unimpeded link between Azerbaijan and Turkey. Being “a defeated country”, Aliyev told his troops earlier this month, Armenia has no right to resist Azerbaijan’s demands. What makes him so certain? Well, as Aliyev helpfully explained, “The fact that Azerbaijan is right is not questioned by major international actors.”

Where Delhi must come in

Armenia is reacting to Baku’s bellicosity in contradictory ways. On the one hand, its government is preparing the population to accept its capitulation to Azerbaijan’s demands by arguing that doing so will herald peace and prosperity. History cautions against this course of action because concessions by Armenia, far from resulting in the recession of Azeri-Turkish aggression, have tended always to increase the appetites of its enemies. Nibbling away at Armenia’s periphery, Azerbaijan has already registered rhetorical claims to it its territorial core.

At the same time, Armenia is increasingly turning to India for its defence needs. Yerevan recently placed orders for an indigenously developed missile system and artillery guns.

Ordinarily, India should not interfere in the affairs of other nations or become a party to distant conflicts. But non-interference by Delhi in this particular clash is unlikely to persuade Armenia’s adversaries to keep out of India’s affairs. It would behove us to remember that the forces that seek Armenia’s annihilation yearn also to reduce India. To deny them total victory in Eurasia is to delay and foil their designs in South Asia.

Only Armenians can ultimately save Armenia. But it is in India’s interests to do more than transfer weapons to Yerevan. It should offer to train Armenia’s armed forces. Delhi could also send a high-level delegation to Yerevan to demonstrate to Ankara, Baku, and Islamabad that India is keenly interested in the security of the region.

The West’s decision to sacrifice Armenia on the altar of Azeri aggression is, apart from everything else, phenomenally stupid for two reasons: One, Azerbaijan does not have the natural resources to meet even a small fraction of Europe’s requirement; two, a quarter of the gas fields that are supposed to feed Azerbaijan’s future supplies to Europe is, in fact, owned by Russia.

India’s choice to stand with Armenia at least has the virtue of being smart.


(c) 2022, The Print


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