The Volokh Conspiracy

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Armenia, On Its Own?

The West's indifference so far results from hypocrisy, cynicism, and shortsightedness about its own interests


Last week, a dictatorship—Azerbaijan—invaded the territory of an aspiring democracy—Armenia. Hundreds of Armenians were killed in a matter of hours, and Azerbaijan infiltrated deep inside Armenian territory. Although the two countries fought two years ago over the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh—Armenian in population but within the borders of Azerbaijan—this invasion was qualitatively different. Resolving the Karabakh conflict was not the aim. Azerbaijan seeks large swaths of territory inside Armenia to create a land bridge to Turkey, thus establishing a pan-Turkic union from Europe to Central Asia, long the goal of Azerbaijan's patron, Turkey. Armenians stand in the way of this project, as they did 100 years ago, at the time of the Armenian Genocide.

Given the Western reaction to the recent invasion of another aspiring democracy—Ukraine—by a different dictatorship—Russia—you might have expected the West to rush to Armenia's support. The West's initial reaction, though, was rather different: half-hearted expressions of concern, coupled with calls for both sides, the aggressor and the victim, to stop fighting. Why?

In Compact Magazine this week, I explain that the West's indifference to Armenia results from a combination of hypocrisy, cynicism, and shortsightedness. The West's concern for democracy is highly selective, operative only where the West sees its interests at stake. Here, the West apparently has concluded that its interest lies in appeasing Azerbaijan, which can help supply gas to Europe and check Russia and Iran in the South Caucasus.

Hypocrisy in the pursuit of national interest is one thing: not admirable, but not uncommon and at least comprehensible. Here, though, the West is acting hypocritically in a way that goes against its interests. Azerbaijan can offer little to the European Union in terms of gas exports. And abandoning Armenia to its fate will do little to contain Russia or Iran. In the end, it will only lessen Western influence in the region:

In reality, Azerbaijan lacks sufficient gas to meet EU expectations, and the "critical infrastructure" for extracting and transporting Azeri gas is owned by the Russian petroleum giant, Lukoil. The deal will thus do little to end Russian dominance over Europe's energy supplies, and may even line Russian pockets.

Or consider the canard that Armenia is "Russia's satellite and Iran's ally." By contrast, the argument goes, the West can rely on Azerbaijan to check those two nations and advance Western interests. This is false. Russia has a military base in Armenia, but Russia has very strong ties with Azerbaijan, as well. Two days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Aliyev traveled to Moscow to sign a cooperation agreement with Moscow—an agreement, the Azeri strongman boasted, "that brings our relations to the level of an alliance." For its part, Armenia has resisted supporting Russia's invasion of Ukraine, despite Kremlin pressure.

Russia has studiously maintained neutrality in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, in the current crisis, it has refused Armenia's request for military assistance, even though it has a treaty obligation to protect Armenia if invaded. While Azerbaijan was attacking Armenia this week, Putin, Aliyev, and Erdogan were photographed sharing a friendly moment at the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand.

Regarding Iran, the situation is similarly complicated. Armenia has historical ties to Iran that go back millennia, and the Islamic Republic insists it won't tolerate a change in Armenia's borders now. But so far, Tehran has not offered Armenia real assistance. On the contrary, Iranian authorities vocally supported Azerbaijan's 2020 action, cheering Aliyev's "liberation" of Karabakh. And this month, Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan signed a joint declaration on developing a trilateral north-south transport corridor to link the three countries economically—and, of course, to cut out the West in the important South Caucasus hub. Supporting Azerbaijan against Armenia won't isolate Iran.

Thankfully, it looks like the West, or at least the US, may be beginning to see the light. The US has stepped up its involvement, green lighting a visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Armenia this past weekend and hosting a quick meeting with the belligerents in New York. The US doesn't need to commit military resources. But it can stop supplying millions of dollars of military assistance to Azerbaijan, as it does every year, and can impose sanctions on the family of Azeri strongman Ilham Aliyev until Azerbaijan withdraws its troops from Armenian territory. For its part, the European Union can stop trying to make deals with a dictator whose conduct is scarcely different from Putin's. And both Washington and Brussels can increase financial support for Armenia.

You can read my whole essay in Compact here.