The West has a moral responsibility to help build peace in Nagorno-Karabakh

International inaction has allowed for a tragic cycle of violence and displacement in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is high time to change course.

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh region
Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh region sit in a bus upon their arrival at a checkpoint in the village of Kornidzor, Armenia, September 24, 2023. [Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

For the third time in 30 years – and the second in three – the international community has failed to prevent conflict between Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenians of its breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The most recent conflict, which began on September 19 as Azeri forces embarked on a new major offensive to recapture the enclave, concluded relatively swiftly.

Within the first 24 hours of the “anti-terror” operation, the leaders of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) agreed to lay down their arms and Azerbaijan claimed victory. Three days later, as Azeri forces moved to take control of many villages, mines and strategic heights across Nagorno-Karabakh, positioning themselves right outside ethnic Armenian population centres, the NKR agreed to disband its army.

It may have lasted just a few days, but the conflict still claimed many lives, enabled mass displacement and triggered turmoil across the wider region. And another major humanitarian crisis is looming on the horizon.

There are some 120,000 ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. After successfully reclaiming the region, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said he would be willing to integrate them into Azeri society. Yet decades of conflict and atrocities mean there is no trust and significant animosity between the two sides. The ethnic Armenians already started to move towards Armenia in large numbers. The NKR leaders say they expect almost all Armenian residents of the restive region to eventually make their way to their ethnic homeland. This mass exodus is predicted to trigger more instability and conflict in the region.

International inaction paved the way for this grave state of affairs.

Russia is Armenia’s official “security guarantor” under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) that was cobbled together after the Soviet Union’s collapse, so it should be doing much more to protect Armenian interests in Nagorno-Karabakh than mediating flimsy ceasefires after each conflict. But the Kremlin, which does not want to make an enemy of Baku, has never been too keen to intervene in the tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  It consistently ignored Yerevan’s requests for help in dealing with Azeri attacks on its territory over the years and refused to act even when five of its peacekeepers were killed in the latest round of fighting.

Russia is not alone in turning its back on the region either. The European Union and the United States, despite their stated commitment to deepening democracy in the ex-Soviet landscape, have also shown little interest in preventing further bloodshed and building sustainable peace in Nagorno-Karabakh over the past three decades.

After Armenian forces won the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994, taking control of Azeri-majority regions surrounding the enclave and displacing thousands of ethnic Azeris in the process, for example, the international community did nothing to pressure the Armenians to hold talks with the Azeris and work towards a sustainable peace deal that would be acceptable to both sides. Rather than offering a helping hand, both the EU and the US turned a blind eye to simmering tensions, and they even profited from Azerbaijan’s preparations for the next war by selling it weapons. Israel and Turkey also benefited from Azerbaijan’s increased military spending, while Russia sold arms to both sides.

When Azerbaijan won in 2020 (in no small part due to the technological advantage it gained from all those foreign arms purchases) once again no major power showed any interest in providing a push for sustainable peace. Sure, there were negotiations, talks and statements, but very little was done to prevent more violence.

The ineffectiveness of international mediation efforts became especially clear when in 2022 Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin Corridor that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The blockade lasted for more than 250 days without any meaningful pushback from the international community and saw even the International Committee for the Red Cross denied access to the enclave.

It did not have to be this way. Both sides of this conflict have long been and still are highly susceptible to pressure from the international community, and especially from the West.

The Armenian side is clearly seeking new allies as the hollowness of Russia’s supposed protection became increasingly clear. Azerbaijan also has every reason to keep the West happy as its hydrocarbon wealth is largely derived from Western investment. Western nations also make up the leading market for its gas sales, which it is keen to expand to replace revenue lost from its declining oil production.

The inaction of the West appears to be the result of a fundamentally flawed understanding of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Many in the West still seem to perceive Armenia as a loyal Russian ally that would not provide meaningful returns for any diplomatic, political or indeed military investment. However, “Russian ally” is clearly not an accurate label for a country that earlier this month launched joint military exercises with the US and moved to join the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, subjecting Russian President Vladimir Putin to its arrest warrants if he were to visit.

The perception that Azerbaijan plays a key role in Europe’s energy security has been another excuse put forward by Western powers to not intervene, though in 2022 it made up just three percent of European natural gas demand, less than 10 percent of what Russia supplied before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February and under half of what Russia still supplies.

The potential displacement of the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh’s 120,000-strong ethnic Armenian population threatens a repeat of the humanitarian emergency the region suffered in the 1990s, but in reverse.

The crisis could also have major ramifications for Armenian democracy. Azerbaijan’s definitive victory in Nagorno-Karabakh brought public support for Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power on the back of a pro-democracy revolution in 2018, to an all-time low. The elite that Pashinyan ousted was formed out of the military leadership that was successful in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war and could easily use the current situation to make a move to upend democracy.

Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev has spoken of recognising Armenia’s territorial integrity, but his forces continue to occupy strategic heights in the country. Azerbaijan also continues to seek a “land corridor” to its Nakhchivan exclave to the west of Armenia, which could complicate the two countries’ path to building sustainable peace further. Although talks between the NKR and Azerbaijan supposedly continue, the former has no leverage with its army defeated.

Azerbaijan has been victorious on the battlefield, but the seemingly perpetual conflict between Baku and Yerevan is far from over. Mass displacement is imminent, and guerrilla conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, civil strife and democratic backsliding within Armenia as well as additional interstate conflict are all very real risks.

The international community should be ashamed of its track record on this conflict. Its failure to take timely and meaningful action has led to three wars and paved the way for more conflict and bloodshed. It should urgently stop hiding behind myths about energy security and Russian influence and belatedly make a commitment to do whatever is necessary to prevent further conflict and displacement in the region.

If the West is to convince the world of its commitment to the international liberal order and to the prevention of displacement and ethnic oppression – so central to sustain continued support for Ukraine – it must act now to ensure this war is the last.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.