The United States Should Recognize the Republic of Artsakh
Updated: Feb 4
Article by Arameh Vartomian,
The six weeks of bloody armed conflict between the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh, which Armenians call Artsakh, and Azerbaijan killed at least 2,425 ethnic Armenians and 2,783 Azeri soldiers as well as 143 civilians. The Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a fragile ceasefire for which the sides agreed to stop the bloodshed on November 10. The agreement, which has already been violated at least once by Azerbaijan, stipulates the presence of at least 1,960 Russian peacekeepers and a clause specifying that the peacekeeping mission could end if either side “notifies about its intention to terminate [the] clause.” The fact that the Russian peacekeepers could theoretically leave the region by 2025 could expose ethnic Armenians to yet another massacre and ethnic cleansing. The Biden Administration must lead the international effort in recognizing the Republic of Artsakh as an independent state; a move already made with overwhelming majorities by the French Senate and National Assembly.
Background of the Present Conflict
Armenia and Azerbaijan are two small nations in the Caucasus region, the area straddling between Asia and Europe between the Black and Caspian Seas. Along with Georgia, the two nations were absorbed into the USSR in 1922. The precise boundaries between the three Republics were fluid. In fact, they were admitted into the Soviet Union as a single Transcaucasian Socialist Republic.
Artsakh was an enclave within these Transcaucasian Soviet enclaves. In 1923, its population was 94 percent Armenian, but geographically, it was surrounded by Azerbaijan. As part of a broader campaign of reshaping the Caucasus region, the Commissar of Nationality Affairs Joseph Stalin removed Artsakh from Armenian control and declared it an autonomous administrative region of Azerbaijan. The move appears to be part of Stalin’s “divide and rule” strategy through which countries under the Soviet rule would always fight each other rather than their Russian overlords. Stalin’s decision has led to a hundred years of conflict between two neighboring countries, latest of which occurred on September 27 2020.
During the Soviet era, the majority Armenian population of Artsakh repeatedly requested independence or reunification with Armenia in the 1930s, 1945, 1965, 1967, 1977, all of which were quashed by Moscow. On February 20 1988, in the wake of Glasnost and Perestroika, the Karabakh Soviet of People's Representatives (parliament), with a nearly unanimous vote passed a resolution for reunification with Armenia.
This move infuriated Azeri nationalists who started the systematic killing of Armenians in the Sumgayit region of Azerbaijan hundreds of miles away from Artsakh. Pogroms and mass killings of Armenians continued in the cities of Baku, Sumgayit, Kirovabad, and others.
Seeing these violent treatments by Azeri nationalists revived the memories of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the Hamidian Massacres of the 1890s in the minds of Armenians. Determined not to let history repeat itself, Armenians of Karabakh armed and fought back.
After six years of bloody war which killed 30,000 and displaced over half a million, in 1994 the newly independent Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire. The ceasefire established the line of contact where Armenians had de facto control over Artsakh and seven historically Azeri populated districts. The seven surrounding regions were not a part of Artsakh until the 1994 cease-fire. Armenians argued that the seven regions provided a vital security buffer and a lifeline corridor between Artsakh and the Republic of Armenia.
Ever since 1994, the Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan had been involved in negotiations under the auspices of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group which is co-chaired by the United States, Russia, and France. The group was created to develop a meaningful and peaceful negotiation process. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan blamed each other for stalled negotiations.
The OSCE negotiations boiled down to two credible and conflicting claims in international law: the principle of territorial integrity versus the right to self-determination. Azerbaijan insisted on the return of the lands under international law, whereas Armenia argued that the people of Artsakh must have a right to decide their future without any outside interference.
The Recent Conflict Confirms that the Right to Self-Determination is the Only Peaceful Path Forward for All Parties
Among foreign policy thinkers, there is a reflexive–and arguably offensive–tendency to take the claims of each side to a conflict at face value, calculate the mean, and discover the perceived ideal solution. The simplistic “both-sides-ism” of international observers vis-à-vis the Artsakh war has been unproductive, to say the least. Using this formulaic approach, the traditional “ask” for Armenians is that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity must not be violated, while proposing some form of autonomy for Artsakh. But Azerbaijani sovereignty over Artsakh is not acceptable to the people of Artsakh for a variety of compelling reasons, including the very real risks of the ethnic cleansing of the local population. The genocidal rhetoric of Azerbaijani officials coupled with the committed war crimes has further exacerbated the existing threats. In fact, the Genocide Watch declared Azerbaijan’s role in the current conflict a genocide emergency that is at level 9 (extermination) and level 10 (denial). The threat is neither idle nor speculative.
Turkey and Azerbaijan Have a Lengthy Rap Sheet of Ethnic Cleansing
The hesitation of Armenians to put their guns down stems from their brutal historical record of constant existential threats. The horrific massacres such as Hamidian Massacre of the 1890s the Armenian Genocide of 1915, Sumgayit pogroms of 1988, Baku pogroms of 1990, and the Black January of 1990 have been rather traumatic experiences that explain the state of mind of Armenians. Needless to mention that these killings were perpetrated by Turkish and Azeri state apparatuses to exterminate the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian minority populations.
But massacres and pogroms are not mere historical memories. They are also happening today.
The first sign of trouble for Armenia and Artsakh was Turkey’s direct involvement in the war. Turkey, the perpetrator of the Armenian Genocide, supplied unmanned aerial vehicles, F-16 fighter jets, pilots, special operators, and command and control to Azerbaijan. Additionally, Ankara’s top political brass openly voiced its unwavering support for Baku.
For Armenians, Ankara’s military and political intervention in the war has instantly triggered the memories of the aforementioned national tragedies. Furthermore, genocidal tendencies live on social media platforms where Turkish and Azeri influencers share maps that wipe Armenia out of existence. No less troubling is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recruitment and transporting of Syrian jihadist mercenaries to fight against Armenians of Artsakh.
Second, Azerbaijan indiscriminately targeted civilian population and infrastructure through the use of banned cluster munitions, shelling of a church, a power plant, a hospital, and other non-military objects. Azerbaijan’s use of cluster munitions on civilians, for instance, has been widely documented in videos and by NGOs. According to Human Rights Watch, “Azerbaijan has repeatedly used widely banned cluster munitions in residential areas in Nagorno-Karabakh [Artsakh].”
Third, Azerbaijanis have committed numerous war crimes against captured Armenian soldiers as well as peaceful civilians. For example, Azerbaijan’s army personnel posted footage in which two unarmed Armenians were draped in the Armenian flag, mocked, and then executed. The cruel murder of a 26-year old disabled man and his mother too was a gross violation of the Geneva Convention.
Fourth, in 2011, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev promised that once the Armenian troops leave Artsakh, “[he will] grant the highest possible autonomy existing in the world to the people who live in [Artsakh] and who will return to [Artsakh].” Just a year later following his statement, Aliyev welcomed Ramil Safarov as a hero in Azerbaijan. Safarov, a member of the Azerbaijani army, was convicted of murdering Armenian Army Lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan during a NATO-sponsored training seminar in Budapest in 2004. During the seminar, Safarov broke into Margaryan's dormitory room at night and axed him to death. In 2006, Safarov was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in Hungary. After his request under the Strasbourg Convention, he was extradited to Azerbaijan in 2012. He was pardoned by President Aliyev, was elevated to the rank of major, and was lavishly gifted an apartment as well as eight years of back pay.
Finally, Azerbaijan’s government often insists on four UN resolutions calling Armenian troops to leave the Artsakh territories. But, if respecting the UN Security Council Resolutions means annihilation of the Armenian population who have repeatedly been subjected to ethnic cleansings, disobeying those resolutions only seems fair and logical.
The words of Soviet Physicist and Nobel Peace Laureate Andrei Sakharov’s are telling: “[f]or Azerbaijan, the issue of Karabakh [Artsakh] is a matter of ambition, but for the Armenians of Karabakh [Artsakh] it is a matter of life and death.”
In a certain sense, the Republic of Artsakh is the ultimate American story, the victory of people over their despotic sovereign. Our Declaration of Independence asserts that “to secure [life, liberty, and pursuit of Happiness] Governments are instituted . . . deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The consent of the governed in Artsakh is and has always been to live free and without oppression from Azerbaijan.
It is up to us to decide whether we recognize the international borders of Azerbaijan or Karabakh’s Armenians right to be alive. The international community must realize that, in light of the historical and current atrocities of Azerbaijan’s government against Armenians, it is irresponsible to demand that Armenians live under Azerbaijan’s sovereignty. The United States must help to end the bloodshed by recognizing Artsakh as an independent state.
Arameh Vartomian is a J.D. Candidate, Berkeley Law School Class of 2023.