Georgia L Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.
In a post-Soviet state many miles from our shores, a civilian population is suffering as a neighbouring country intermittently bombards it with weaponry and its supporters blockade vital supply routes.
No, this is not the tragic Ukraine conflict we regularly encounter on the 6 o’clock news, but the Nagorno-Karabakh region (or Artsakh to Armenians), disputed by both Azerbaijan and Armenia. While the area is officially within the borders of Azerbaijan, it is home to some 120,000 Armenians.
In 2020, war erupted following an Azerbaijani offensive that resulted in it successfully conquering further parts of the disputed region.
While Moscow brokered a ceasefire after six weeks, the conflict left around 6,000 soldiers dead and Armenia has experienced bombardment close to its Azeri border as recently as September.
The critical main road has been compromised since pro-Baku demonstrators (claiming to be environmental activists) began a blockade of the Lachin Corridor that links Armenia and the enclave on 12 December, in violation of a November agreement.
While the International Committee of the Red Cross has been providing “critical aid”, the situation is entirely unsustainable and has already compromised supplies of energy, food, and medicine so that a humanitarian emergency has been declared.
Armenia has not recently been an ally of the UK, and remains a member of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Meanwhile, the West has grown increasingly chummy with Azerbaijan since US companies began to exploit its vast oil resources following its independence from the USSR in 1991.
Yet whilst the Armenian republic continues to experience the hangovers of many post-communist states, it has much in common with the UK compared to its rival. It is a sovereign, democratic state with pluralist politics and rule of law.
Azerbaijan’s semi-presidential system, by contrast does not hold free and fair elections, and is accused of vast human rights abuses. Corruption of officials, including President Ilham Aliyev and his extended family, is rampant, despite Aliyev’s wife and Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva’s laughable role as UN Goodwill Ambassador.
Moscow has a bilateral defence pact with Yerevan that it has failed to honour. September’s renewed fire simply saw a statement from Putin that complained that “any conflict between states close to us causes us serious concern”.
Is it any surprise that Armenia has just this week pulled out of CSTO exercises?
Of course, a tilt toward the West is easier said than done, despite Armenia’s history of collaborations with Russia’s NATO rivals. Moscow and its oligarchs have enormous shares in Armenia’s economy and infrastructure, including in the country’s growing mining industry. However, the appetite for a reset will surely grow as Russia remains distracted by Ukraine.
Normalisation with Turkey would be one step toward aiding Yerevan’s flexibility in the future, though this will be a chequered path given the prickly relationships between the two states rooted in the Ottoman genocide of Armenian Christians from 1915-17, not to mention Ankara’s continued support for Azerbaijan.
A 2016 US Global Leadership Report found that 42 per cent of Armenians approve of America’s leadership, with 31 per cent disapproving and 27 per cent remaining uncertain. These figures show that there is an opportunity for Western powers to accelerate ties with the country – and its beleaguered Artsakh-based minority – while Russia continues to abandon its former satellite state to Azeri aggression.
James Kariuki, the UK’s ambassador to the UN, has urged “the immediate reopening of the corridor” given that it is “the only means by which daily necessities can be delivered to the region. The closure of the corridor for over a week raises the potential for severe humanitarian consequences – especially in the winter”.
Yet Paris-led plans for a UNSC statement denouncing the blockade were soon scrapped after claims Russia inserted a slew of last-minute demands.
John Gallagher, the UK’s ambassador to Armenia, rejected claims the UK helped block the December statement: “I want to emphasise that the UK did not coordinate with Russia, Albania and the UAE on this, and can confirm that Britain did not block the UNSC press statement,” he told Armenian media.
He also poured cold water on claims that concerns over the non-governmental Anglo-Asian Mining company’s profits from the region were behind the failure to issue a rebuke of Azerbaijan. However it remains apparent that the UK is in no rush to implement any strategy apart from strongly worded statements, nor is any long-term approach to the volatile region obvious.
Of course, foreign policy is oftentimes the most brutal kind. It necessitates interactions with external actors that are less likely to play by one’s own rules. It is also highly constrained by geography and resources. It is not the responsibility of Britain to solve an ethnic crisis that has been brewing for centuries, nor heal the inheritance of the Soviets’ divide and rule approach to the area.
But even putting aside the mishaps of recent months, Britain’s approach is wanting. Neither “Armenia” nor “Caucasus” were mentioned once in the 2021 Integrated Review.
The UK needs to take seriously abuses such as those ongoing in Nagorno-Karabakh, and ensure the Government has an informed and cohesive long-term strategy in regions such as the Caucasus where there is room for enhancing Western influence and brokering vital peace agreements.
Off-the-cuff pledges to create alliances of democracies to counter security threats from the likes of Russia, China, and Iran will fall flat if we not only selectively moralise about which expansionist dictatorships we eschew, but ignore opportunities to build long-term rapprochement with states such as Armenia who could be open to cooperation with the West as it continues to be failed by Moscow.