CNN Editor’s Note: Lara Setrakian is a journalist and the president of the Applied Policy Research Institute based in Yerevan, Armenia. Follow her on Twitter at @Lara. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
In the wake of a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, Russia was left to broker a ceasefire and keep the two sides in check. The United States and the European Union, which had once played a balancing role in the South Caucasus, effectively pulled back from active diplomacy and let Russia act as the sole mediator. Moscow deployed peacekeepers on the ground to calm and monitor the situation.
But outsourcing peacebuilding to Russia was a bad idea. Now, in the shadow of the Ukraine war, that policy is enabling another humanitarian catastrophe and compromising Western interests in the region.
With Russia weakened in Ukraine, there is no effective arbiter between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, using its significant oil and gas wealth, has been pushing for maximum advantage on the ground. At the moment, protesters with the support of the Azeri government, experts say, are blocking the Lachin Corridor, the main road linking about 120,000 ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to the outside world. Azeri political analysts say that protests are illegal in Azerbaijan unless they have government approval.
Incoming supplies have been severely limited since December 12, 2022, when the blockade began. Grocery stores are rationing food, with little by way of fresh fruits or vegetables, and there is a dire shortage of medical supplies, residents said in late December. Azerbaijan has said the blockade is in response to mining activities in Armenian-held areas. But rather than taking the issue to international mediation it has decided to block incoming transit until its conditions are met – a violation of international and humanitarian law.
The Armenians I’ve met from Nagorno-Karabakh are hearty people with a profound cultural identity and deep Christian faith. Even in their grim days of crisis, some tried to give their families a semblance of a Christmas holiday. But the most vulnerable are manifesting the strain of the blockade: Dr. Biayna Sukhudyan, who is stuck in Nagorno-Karabakh, told us in late December that children are showing signs of chronic stress, including nervous breakdowns. UNICEF has warned that children are lacking basic food items and essential services, some of them separated from their parents or legal guardians on the other side of the blocked road.
“People’s big concern is keeping their children warm and fed,” Sukhudyan said in a phone interview. She described how people are surviving by helping each other out. “If there are two mothers and only one has baby formula, she will share the formula with the other woman and breastfeed a little more.”
The US, the EU, the UN Secretary-General and more than a dozen countries – including Canada and Mexico – have called for Azerbaijan to unblock the road to Nagorno-Karabakh, but those calls have gone unheeded. Armenians see it as a strategy by Azerbaijan of starving or squeezing them out of the disputed enclave.
Russia has been unable to make any significant move to defuse the problem. But it has also been reluctant to let Western countries step in to solve the standoff. It prefers to be the main power on the ground, using the resulting leverage to advance its regional interests.
A web of economic and strategic factors have tied Moscow to Turkey and its ally, Azerbaijan. With Russia sanctioned by the West and strained in its relations with many economic partners, Moscow has grown increasingly dependent on Turkey for trade and sanctions evasion. Turkey has become a major facilitator for the export of Russian oil and gas and the import of strategic technologies, many of which are banned from the West.
As Russian-Turkish ties have grown closer, Russia has been more reluctant to push back on Azerbaijan’s behavior. That has left the situation in freefall, moving toward more serious and potentially deadly outcomes. Like in the early days of the Srebrenica massacre, international peacekeepers are failing to act before thousands of people could lose their lives. It also sets a dangerous precedent for future conflicts, with one side choking off a rival community by cutting off its supplies, either forcing an evacuation or the acceptance of its negotiating terms.
Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, who watches the region closely, told me he worries about the risk of ethnic cleansing if the situation is left unchecked and unattended to by world powers.
“Question number one is how do we get diplomatic or military observers into Nagorno-Karabakh,” Rubin said. “Genocide happens in the dark. If we are able to shine a light in the region then oftentimes we can proactively prevent the worst outcomes.”
The US is not powerless in this situation. It can push for a humanitarian airlift to deliver supplies to the communities of Nagorno-Karabakh or seek further action from the UN Security Council, which met on December 20 to discuss the situation. America also has direct leverage over Turkey and Azerbaijan that can stabilize the situation, using a trove of diplomatic and economic tools.
“When the Trump administration imposed just a few steel sanctions on Turkey for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, it created tremendous pressure on [Turkish President] Erdogan,” said Rubin. “Why should we oppose doing that over Nagorno-Karabakh?”
Russia and Turkey have aimed to dominate the South Caucasus at the expense of their smaller neighbors. But that model has proven unsuitable to protect human life and a peaceful rules-based order. At a time when the West is competing with Russia over Ukraine – cast as a fight for democracy against autocracy – this is a vital arena to make the same point and prove that the West has real influence in the post-Soviet region.
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The longer Russia and Turkey dominate the situation the harder it will be for Western powers to bring things back into balance. In other words, stabilizing the South Caucasus will become more costly with time. The US and EU unwisely left it to Russia to keep the peace in the South Caucasus. Western powers now must step in with full diplomatic weight to correct the error.