August 8, 2022 - 2:00pm


“Don’t believe Armenian lies”, reads a sign in the window of a sleek glass and steel building in the centre of Baku. Outside, London-style electric taxis speed through the spotless streets, their doors emblazoned with slogans like “Karabakh is Azerbaijan.”

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was practically destitute, penniless and in a state of political turmoil. Three decades on, it has boomed on the back of its vast oil and gas reserves, becoming one of the world’s fastest growing economies, while its authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev, has prioritised stability above all else. Now, he seems set on resolving the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh once and for all.

Within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised borders, the disputed region, 150 miles west of the capital, has been governed since the collapse of the USSR by its ethnic Armenian majority as the unrecognised “Republic of Artsakh”. A brutal war in the 1990s saw the Yerevan-backed separatists conquer swathes of territory, before Baku’s forces took much of it back in a second brutal war thirty years later.

Moscow brokered a ceasefire in 2020 that put an end to the fighting, but forced Artsakh to surrender all but its capital, Stepanakert, and the towns and villages around it. Now, the Armenians living there fear they could soon lose that as well with both sides squaring up for an existential clash. Last week, Azerbaijan launched “Operation Revenge”, claiming that Artsakh fighters had opened fire on its troops — despite the fact the separatists are dramatically outnumbered and outgunned by Baku’s army. Its elite units pushed into the buffer zone supposedly protected by Russian peacekeepers, who were either unable or unwilling to do anything about it, and reportedly killed two Artsakh soldiers in the process.

The Kremlin last week called on both sides to respect the ceasefire but its reputation and its capacity to intervene overseas is evidently not as fearsome as it once was, after months of catastrophic operations in Eastern Europe. But it’s not only Russia that is distracted by the invasion of Ukraine. Just last month, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen landed in Baku to sign a deal with Aliyev that will see Brussels get its hands on more Azerbaijani gas to help fill the shortfall left by Russia choking off supplies. The bloc has previously accused the country of systematically erasing historic Armenian heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh to support its narrative that the separatists are not indigenous to the land. But, with winter coming, its dire energy needs may well clash with its principles.

Baku says it is simply enforcing the 2020 ceasefire agreement, in which Armenia agreed to withdraw its armed forces from Azerbaijani soil. Stepanakert, however, argues its own units aren’t included in that, and that if they abandon their positions, the Azerbaijanis will move in and evict the ethnic Armenians living there — or worse. Facing off against a vastly superior foe, it seems there is little the separatists can do now to avoid that uncertain fate. Azerbaijan has repeatedly rejected claims it will ethnically cleanse Nagorno-Karabakh if it takes control of the region, but few Armenians are prepared to trust Aliyev’s words after decades of bitter confrontation.

And yet, this burgeoning humanitarian crisis seems to have gone largely unnoticed further afield. For Azerbaijanis, buoyed by the success in the war of 2020, the idea of asserting control over the entirety of what they see as their ancestral lands and reversing the humiliation of the 1990s is a euphoric prospect. Their victories, though, are the Armenians’ losses. For the time being, they are suffering in silence.

Gabriel Gavin is a Moscow-based journalist who has covered Eastern Europe for many publications.