A screen displays patriotic videos in Yerevan during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, on Oct. 5, 2020

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It’s Bad to Be a Sheep

What Israel can learn from Armenia’s misplaced reliance on a superpower patron

Armin Rosen
August 01, 2023
A screen displays patriotic videos in Yerevan during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, on Oct. 5, 2020

AFP via Getty Images

While looking into the accusing eyes of a sheep in a remote Armenian village in 1961, the Russian novelist Vasily Grossman, literature’s most eloquent witness to the horrors of the Battle of Stalingrad, glimpsed the power and futility of the moral claims that the downtrodden make upon their victimizers. “There was something human about her, something Jewish, Armenian, mysterious,” he wrote in An Armenian Sketchbook, his final work. To Grossman, the sheep represented the cruelty hard-wired into a civilization that lies to itself about the actual contours of existence. “What meek and proud contempt that gaze contains,” he wrote of the sheep. “What godlike superiority—the superiority of an innocent herbivore before a murderer who writes books and creates computing machines! The translator”—that is to say, Grossman himself—“repented before the ewe, knowing he would be eating her meat the following day.”

Grossman’s lamb is something of a cliche. A celebrated mural in Yerevan’s Cascades art complex depicts a victorious battle for national survival against the Persians in the fourth century, around the time Armenia became the first country in the world to officially adopt Christianity. In the ninth century Armenians gained independence after 200 years of Arab rule. The Seljuk Turks first invaded in the 11th century, a humbling reminder of the arrogance of believing yours is the generation that will finally be the one brilliant and moral enough to end a conflict many times older than itself. Armenians repelled a Turkish invasion in 1918 in the midst of a genocide, a victory that allowed for the brief independence of the newly formed Republic of Armenia.

The lamb is a cliche in the Jews’ case as well: By 1961, Israel, another state founded in the wake of a genocide, had triumphed in its own war for survival, built close relations with several of the world’s leading powers, launched a clandestine nuclear weapons program, and briefly occupied the Suez Canal. In both Israel and Armenia, the question of how the atmosphere in a small country on the edge of disaster can remain so fundamentally upbeat is connected to the larger mystery of its peoples’ survival.

In contrast to Ireland and Iran, Armenia has legitimate reasons to be an anti-Israel country, however similar their histories might be. Azerbaijan’s defeat of Armenia in their 2020 war might not have been possible without Baku’s use of high-end, Israeli-supplied weapons, including offensive drones. The war resulted in Azerbaijan laying siege to the 120,000 ethnic Armenians remaining in the disputed and now mostly Azeri-held region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenian forces had controlled since the conclusion of a previous war over the territory in 1994. Azerbaijan’s victory also made it possible for Baku to seize uninhabited high ground inside the Republic of Armenia itself in a series of attacks in September 2022.

I visited Armenia this past June, as part of a delegation organized by the Philos Project, a U.S.-based group that promotes American engagement with endangered Christian communities across the greater Middle East. Every Armenian I met, including senior officials in the government, looked to Israel with regret instead of anger—they wish that the Israelis were on their side instead of their enemy’s, and they realize they need to think more creatively about how to change Jerusalem’s calculus. Armenians, wedged between the imperial spheres of Russia, Turkey, and Persia for the past 1,000 years, have a keen enough understanding of power dynamics to realize that oil-rich Azerbaijan has more to offer Israel than tiny, resource-poor Armenia currently does. In the interest of making up lost ground, Armenia opened an embassy in Tel Aviv in September of 2020, while Yerevan’s longstanding and close relationship with Iran is a “special item” in an ongoing strategic dialogue with the United States. Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, a former foreign minister of Armenia and the country’s top diplomat during the 2020 war, contrasted the achievement of Israel’s first three decades to the 30 years of stagnation that followed modern Armenia’s independence.

In contrast to Ireland and Iran, Armenia has legitimate reasons to be an anti-Israel country.

The kinship between the Armenian and Jewish experiences, and the lessons it still holds for both of these ancient Near Eastern peoples, can be seen in especially stark form in Jermuk, a resort town built around a sweet mountain hot spring in Armenia’s southeast. Until November 2020, Jermuk and the twin concrete monoliths of its Soviet-era sanitarium were close to the border with Nagorno-Karabakh but far from the line of contact with Azerbaijan. The 2020 war advanced the front to within 15 kilometers of the town, and Azeri incursions in September 2022 brought enemy forces even closer. Jermuk is one of the towns that Azerbaijan would have to seize if it ever wanted to carve a path to the Nakhchivan exclave, on the other side of the 30 kilometer-wide thumb of southern Armenia.

Opposing trenches face each other on the snow-fringed mountains 3 kilometers above Jermuk. Our group looked out over parallel curves of earthworks sketched into alpine terrain, a bald, treeless wilderness without villages or paved roads, a place people cannot inhabit, and a fearsome reverse image of the serene vale of deserted resort hotels below. There was apparently an entire Azeri brigade behind a rhomboid mountain peak across the valley. From our own hilltop vantage we were 7,000 feet above sea level, enough to feel a gasping pinch in the lungs. Hundreds of Azeris, and the Armenian forces opposing them, were up even higher than us. I had a feeling I was looking through binoculars at no one, as if the front line—with its scattered clapboard buildings and improvised dirt paths made from fresh tire treads—were in fact a massive art project, a performance of war and its outlandish architecture.

But the war was real—the trenches and shacks marooned in the rocky wastes weren’t empty, and there were people hunkered in the thin air and lifeless ground just one mountain over, pointing guns at each other.

It is a commonplace of enlightened modernity that war is the worst kind of insanity and a curable defect in human nature. These are the conceits of people with the luxury of living in peace, as is abundantly clear from an afternoon in Jermuk, or along the Israeli-Lebanese border, where one can glimpse an even more absurdist rehearsal for destruction. War cannot be wished away—it can be the alternative to oblivion, sometimes the only one, and it can express a collective self-respect. The Armenians, like the Jews, could have chosen peaceful nonexistence and been absorbed into the religion and society of their would-be conquerors any number of times over the past 2,000 years. Instead they found transcendent value in their own survival and answered the question of why it mattered to live as themselves. This history made Armenia’s current predicament, and the scene over Jermuk, even harder to comprehend: A people with an acute understanding of what disaster means had blundered their way into one.

A skate park in front of a Yerevan cathedral
A skate park in front of a Yerevan cathedral

Courtesy the author

After we viewed the front line, our group trundled down a muddy road in a fleet of jeeps and arrived under the round tower of a stone church that mimicked the steep mountain slopes. In an Armenian church the glories and defilements of the physical world vanish behind stark walls that are virtually windowless—the light is focused through narrow shafts that stay intensely bright until dusk. The churches loom from deceptively small footprints, and a visitor cranes toward the gray upper vault of an unexpected and impossible inner height. There is no aesthetic bombardment, no dulling of the senses inflicted by the light, shadow, and stone. The churches aim to be a rarefied higher level of nature rather than a fully artificial space. But they are fortresslike, wary of what lies outside them.

In the Jermuk church, cassocked deacons and black-robed priests chanted in a language that sounded like a regional Indian dialect and which is spoken almost nowhere else on earth. For a flickering moment, the solemn intensity of the service reduced the nearby front line to a minor episode in a history that dwarfs modern notions of law, custom, and what nations should or shouldn’t do to survive. If Armenia now typifies the narrow margin for error that small and embattled groups always face, it also points toward what these groups must do to endure. They must see the purpose in their own survival and find the means and motivation to continue existing on their own terms. And they must exist for themselves above all, drawing on the discipline, creativity, and sense of possibility needed to thrive in a world that in fact feels no obligation toward them, one in which they are inevitably alone.

There is no sense of looming disaster in Yerevan, and after a while this calm becomes its own source of anxiety. There are skirmishes along the border nearly every week, and despite ongoing U.S.-led peace talks, it is anyone’s guess where Azeri President Ilhan Aliyev’s temptations to total victory might lead. Would Baku stop at Nakhchivan? Would the Azeris, and the Turkish special forces and military advisers widely believed to be helping them, go all the way to Yerevan, reversing the Ottoman Empire’s defeat to a ragtag militia of Armenian genocide survivors on the rocky planes west of the city in 1918? If there were no Azeri blockade, the major towns in Artsakh, the Armenian-ruled unrecognized republic still clinging to control in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, would be only a five-hour drive from Yerevan.

Dire escalation scenarios—and the likelier outcome of a collapse of forces inside Artsakh, which would probably lead to the departure of most or even all of the region’s Armenian community—feel far away in Yerevan, a miraculously bright and unoppressive city considering it’s the capital of a post-communist country at war. Yerevan avoided becoming a dour Stalinist showcase during its most recent spell as an imperial outpost. The Armenian Soviet Repubic’s deft maneuvering within the communist system, along with the durable idea that Russia is Armenia’s protector against the Turkic and Persian hordes, meant that Armenian planners and architects had the freedom to build an alluringly sun-shaped capital of volcanic pink and gray. Yerevan, now home to over a third of Armenia’s population of 3 million, is an urban tribute to the stony countryside, with castlelike towers, networks of hidden courtyards, mountain ranges of high archways, and cafe-packed avenues angled toward the awesome white domes of greater and lesser Ararat. The city combines highland thrift and industry with a Mediterranean dedication to living well—one of the grandest public buildings in Yerevan is a collonaded cognac factory lording over the downtown, even though public drunkenness is rare.

Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Yerevan has been an unusually welcoming landing spot for both rich Putin loyalists and 20-year-olds who prefer not to die in a cruel strategic folly. (Armenians complained to me that wait staff at some of the city’s fancier restaurants now default to Russian and sometimes don’t even speak the local language.) Ethnic Armenians fleeing the past decade of chaos in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran have turned Yerevan into a culinary adventure and a regional information technology hub. Like Dubai and Tel Aviv, global instability has made Yerevan younger, more cosmopolitan, more vibrant, and wealthier. And like Dubai and Tel Aviv, the city’s uniqueness comes from how well it conceals the tragedies that continue to build it.

Shouldn’t the crisis with Azerbaijan seem closer? The flag of Artsakh hung from the occasional balcony or overpass, but one did not often get the feeling that a critical part of the national patrimony was being strangled. Rows of tricolor flags whipped over the freshly dead in Yerevan’s military cemetery, which faces Ararat, but it was rare to see anyone in military uniform. One afternoon a Russian-made fighter jet did flips and barrel rolls against the backdrop of the mountains in a wasteful spectacle of unseriousness. There is barely any war party left in Yerevan—the crushing 2020 battlefield defeat, along with decades of poor strategic decision-making, mean that Artsakh is now a problem that Armenian leaders think they can only solve through diplomacy. None of the officials we met raised the possibility of a current or future military solution to Azerbaijan’s total closure of the Lachin Corridor, the sole road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to the rest of the world.

During our group’s meetings, senior officials laid down their side’s demands in poignantly minimal terms, discussing the peace process with great solemnity and making almost no mention of restoring the country’s shattered military deterrence. They often spoke of the “the human rights and security of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh,” a phrase that subtly acknowledges that Artsakh will eventually be under Baku’s control. Armenian officials are currently negotiating the final terms of the 2020 defeat: Their aim is to get Azerbaijan to gently lift its foot from Armenia’s neck by withdrawing its forces from inside Armenia, and to stop policies, like the blockade of incoming goods and people that began in early 2023, meant to chase the remaining Armenians out of Artsakh. When the meetings ended and we were back in Yerevan’s rambunctious boulevards, the conflict was so abstracted as to seem like it was happening to some other country.

Barring a military or diplomatic breakthrough, Nagorno-Karabakh is on pace to be the latest round in over a century of dispossession, reminders of which are unavoidable in Yerevan. Mount Ararat is inside the borders of Turkey. Though the mountain and vast sections of eastern Anatolia, which had been majority-Armenian before the Ottoman genocide, were awarded to the newly formed Republic of Armenia in the summits after World War I, Turkey rejected what it saw as an imposed peace and invaded. Armenia’s most popular brandy is named after the ancient monastery island of Akdamar, which the Turkish government now operates as a museum. An underground market linking Republic Square with the Metro is named after Aleppo, a diasporic stronghold before Syria’s civil war destroyed the place. Shushi, home to the Apostolic Church’s cathedral for the Artsakh region and site of a massacre of Armenians in 1920—as well as fighting that resulted in the flight of the entire Azeri civilian population during the first war over Nagorno-Karabakh, in the early ’90s—fell under Azerbaijani control in 2020 and is now depopulated of Armenians. I noticed more than one hotel in Yerevan named after the place.

More than one person suggested to me that Armenia’s post-independence experience had been so tumultuous that the country’s people now crave an ending, really any ending, to the Nagorno-Karabakh saga, a notion supported by the counterintuitive fact that the pro-reform, anti-corruption prime minister who presided over the 2020 disaster was reelected in a landslide seven months later. “Our government is going out of its way to show loyalty to the peace process,” explained Mnatsakanyan, the former foreign minister. Who’s to say it’s wrong to find comfort, however subconscious or guilt-ridden, over the conclusion of an issue that has exacted such deep costs over so many years, even at the price of 120,000 people leaving their homes? Maybe it is enough to live normally, regardless of whatever traumas lie between the present day and a more stable horizon. Maybe it is enough just to survive.

But if there is any message that modern-day Armenia should send to the world’s small or endangered ethnic groups it is that suing for peace invests a dangerous amount of confidence in foreign brokers and interlocutors in a world that isn’t so kind to losers.

The postwar world, organized into something oxymoronically referred to as the “international community,” is premised on the idea that a legalistic global order, sustained largely through the military might and wise leadership of the United States, will smooth out the disparities between weak and strong nations. Countries wouldn’t seek to dominate one another anymore—in fact it would be illegal for them to even try. Law and diplomacy would stand in the way of aggressors and abusers; vulnerable peoples wouldn’t have to depend on their own limited resources now that a universal code of interstate behavior protected them. Peace wouldn’t be the victory of the strongest, but the result of compromises between enemies who had reached the rational, enlightened conclusion that wars and hatred are bad for everyone. Human nature would at last be tamed, with any remaining chauvinistic impulses finding a safe, nonviolent expression, perhaps through U.N. General Assembly resolutions or the World Cup. History’s victims would even get to serve on the U.N. Security Council once every few decades if they really behaved themselves. Centuries-old grudges would cease mattering. Peace and prosperity would efface the barbarism of the prior world.

A significant portion of Jews, or at least the ones who live in the Middle East, have always suspected this is poisonous nonsense, the Jewish state having more or less immediately chosen the certainty of a nuclear deterrent in lieu of the sunny text of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ever since the defeat of November 2020, Armenians have gotten their latest harsh reminder of the still-primal realities of life on earth, which are far older and far more credible than any multilateral organization or newly dreamed-up utopian promises to be administered by the strong. Victories can be squandered over the course of years and decades, a history of oppression doesn’t earn a ton of sympathy, and moral claims often don’t really count for much. Friends can’t be trusted to save you and might not even be your friends; just because your land and people are important to you doesn’t mean that anyone else cares. Force can plow through diplomacy far more easily than diplomacy can reverse an act of force. The world pretends to hate injustice, but it is weakness that it truly scorns.

Before November 2020 it was not obvious that Armenia was on the brink of a major defeat. The Armenians themselves didn’t see it coming. By 1994, after six years of fighting, Armenian forces were in charge of the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as an extensive buffer region—until November 2020 some one-seventh of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory was under the control of the Armenian-backed breakaway republic. Armenia began its modern existence as an independent state with a military victory over a richer, more powerful, and more populous opponent.

Nagorno-Karabakh had been made part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921 in an early flourish of Soviet ethnic engineering. The Soviet of People’s Deputies for the then-75% Armenian region requested to join the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic in early 1988, while an independence referendum boycotted by the region’s Azeris passed in late 1991. Under the principles of self-determination, a key pillar of international order after the imperial collapse that brought on World War I, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh should have been empowered to choose their own political arrangement. But Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent states in 1991. Using the integrity of incumbent borders as a guide—the new lodestone of international justice after the nightmare of aggression and occupation that characterized World War II—the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and their allies in Yerevan were invaders, occupiers, and insurrectionists who had dismembered another country’s territory. Atrocities on both sides of the conflict, including ethnic cleansing, darkened all subsequent attempts to negotiate a solution.

Opposition supporters warm themselves near a bonfire during a rally in Yerevan's Republic Square to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan over a controversial peace deal with Azerbaijan that ended six weeks of war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, on Dec. 22, 2020
Opposition supporters warm themselves near a bonfire during a rally in Yerevan’s Republic Square to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan over a controversial peace deal with Azerbaijan that ended six weeks of war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, on Dec. 22, 2020

Karen Minasyan/AFP via Getty Images

Other obstacles to peace reached even further into the past. The Azeris are a Muslim Turkic people who have their own complex and often tragic history with their Christian Armenian neighbors, including rounds of killings and counter-killings in the late 1910s. The Azeris, who the Soviets marginalized over their historic closeness with the anti-communist and NATO-allied Turks, see Nagorno-Karabakh as part of their own ethnic patrimony. Still, it was never unreasonable for the Armenian majority of Nagorno-Karabakh to have wanted to live under a government other than Azerbaijan’s without having to uproot themselves. Expecting Armenians to submit to the rule of a nationalistic and undemocratic Azeri government “is the equivalent of asking 100,000 Israelis to live under Hamas,” claimed Yerevan political analyst Eric Hacopian.

After the mid-90s, compromise could not be found without promises of independence or broad autonomy for the area’s Armenians, a demand the Azeris were never willing to accept. Baku’s intransigence makes a certain hard-nosed sense, especially in light of the military victory of 2020, which now ensures that Azerbaijan won’t need to concede on much of anything. Nagorno-Karabakh is a de jure part of Azerbaijan, something that, according to the post-World War II rules, can only change with Baku’s consent.

Armenia had its own rigid theory of the conflict, a product of lazy, wishful thinking and overconfidence. Armenia believed it could hold Nagorno-Karabakh and dictate terms once Azerbaijan inevitably deemed it impossible to take the territory by force. It is unsurprising that this strategy failed. Keeping Nagorno-Karabakh would have required dramatic rearmament and military modernization, the creation of new alliances beyond supposedly ironclad security guarantees from Russia, and the economic and social development of the territories themselves.

None of these things happened. The Armenian army remained a poorly equipped force led by a corrupt and incompetent officer corps, wielding aging Soviet weaponry and an outdated, Russian-inspired emphasis on armor and stationary artillery. Armenia remained diplomatically isolated because of its alliances with Iran and Russia, who became two of the world’s leading anti-Western revisionist powers over the course of the 21st century. Efforts to restore relations with Turkey, a close Azeri ally which had closed its border with Armenia in protest of its policies in Nagorno-Karabakh, made little progress. Because Yerevan expected Armenian forces to hold Nagorno-Karabakh indefinitely, and because it thought its closeness with Russia would deter any large Azeri attack, it showed little urgency in figuring out how and whether some of the disputed territory could be traded away.

At every possible opportunity I asked Armenian experts, officials, business figures, and intellectuals how the victory of 1994 had been squandered by 2020, when Azerbaijan seized two-thirds of the region, killing nearly 4,000 Armenian soldiers, depopulating the captured areas of Armenians, and encircling the remaining population centers. The answers were almost identical: Graft, arrogance, and mindless reverence for a military in decline had blinded the country to how weak it was becoming. “One thing we learned on November 9, 2020 is that corruption kills,” Hacopian explained, naming the date of the ceasefire that ended the last war. A reform government, elected after anti-corruption protests in 2018, had neither the time nor the competence to bolster Armenian defenses before Azerbaijan mounted its attack.

Senior officials recalled, often with barely concealed bitterness, the widely-shared and badly mistaken belief that the Artsakh status quo could be maintained for a century. “The goal was lost because we were absolutely overwhelmed with our overconfidence,” said Mnatsakanyan. Armenia wrongly believed that its alliance with Russia and the presence of 3,500 Russian soldiers on its territory would be enough to stave off disaster. Meanwhile Baku transformed its military and armed itself with newer, cheaper and smarter Israeli systems. Armenian military planners believed that a future war over Nagorno-Karabakh would be won and lost on the ground, meaning the country never invested in any serious aerial capability. Israeli drones were one of the decisive factors in the Azeri victory in 2020.

The world pretends to hate injustice, but it is weakness that it truly scorns.

An even more decisive factor was the military expertise, manpower, and political cover that Azerbaijan’s NATO-member allies in Ankara gave them. Azerbaijan’s attack stalled for the first four days of the war; after that, extensive evidence indicates that Turkish special forces, and perhaps even Turkish command-and-control, aided the rapid Azeri advance through a difficult and thickly forested alpine warzone. Armenian leaders are correct when they say that their country is freer, more dynamic, more democratic, and richer per-capita than the oil dictatorship to their east. But the despots in Baku still played their hand exceptionally well in the three decades since their initial defeat. The Azeris found a committed security guarantor in Turkey, and a close alliance with Baku became part of a larger Turkish strategy of countering Russian influence in the Caucuses. Reccip Tayyip Erdogan’s pan-Turkism dovetailed with Azeri strategic objectives—there is widespread perception in Yerevan that the 2020 war would not have happened without the Turkish strongman’s permission. “Russia says they are our brothers,” one veteran political figure in Yerevan told me. “Fuck off: Brotherhood is Turkey and Azerbaijan. That’s brotherhood.”

But Azerbaijan didn’t depend on a single regional power as its patron. The country became a crucial transhipment zone for Russian oil and gas, splitting Moscow’s loyalties in the region and in the conflict itself. Baku used its proximity to both Russia and Iran, and its resource wealth, to integrate itself into the broader western security architecture, becoming a purchaser of U.S. weapons and Israel’s chief oil supplier.

Baku’s soft power moves, and its efforts to advertise itself as an emerging global player, were no less impressive. The country hosted the 2012 edition of Eurovision along with an annual Formula 1 Grand Prix and late-stage matches of the 2021 European soccer championship. Mehriban Aliyeva, wife of Ilham Aliyev, served as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in the mid-2000s, at the exact time the Azerbaijani military destroyed thousands of ancient cross-stones in the Nakhchivan exclave, an area which had been over 10% Armenian in 1940.

A view of Jermuk, looking toward the front line
A view of Jermuk, looking toward the front line

Courtesy the author

The Armenian political class was appalled when the alliance with Russia, Moscow’s supposed enforcement of the 2020 ceasefire, and even the presence of Russian troops on Armenian territory wasn’t enough to stop Azerbaijan from advancing into Armenia in a series of attacks in September of 2022. The Russian nonresponse to the incursions, along with the suspension of Russian arms assistance to Armenia in 2022, was frequently described to our group as a “game-changer” in Yerevan’s strategic outlook. In fact the game had changed many years earlier—small countries, including Israel, Azerbaijan, and the UAE (and, somewhat less successfully, Hungary) have deftly balanced and to an extent compartmentalized their relationships with Moscow and Washington, and thereby avoided becoming pocket change in other people’s deals.

Armenian officials now speak openly about the need to downgrade relations with Russia and improve ties with the United States, but such a pivot is years or even decades overdue, and also harder to execute after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. and its allies have exhibited a distinct lack of sympathy for states—Israel being the leading example—that have no choice but to triangulate between Washington and the Russia-China nexus. Defeating Putin now means putting aside the national interest, however reckless or impractical it would be to antagonize Moscow. To the Americans, says Mnatsakanyan, “It appears we’re not sufficiently democratic because we’re not sufficiently anti-Russian.”

Russia is one of the three countries in the Minsk Group, a multilateral platform for the negotiated resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict established in 1992. France and the U.S. are the other two members. Even in the disillusioning 21st century it is hard to find an international initiative that has failed so badly in achieving its purported goals. After decades of talks the conflict has largely been resolved on the battlefield, in Azerbaijan’s favor. What remains to be negotiated—namely the strikingly premodern question of whether an ancient community will be allowed to survive on its ancestral land—is made harder by the group’s composition. The U.S. thinks a pro-Azeri outcome in Nagorno-Karabakh will remove a potential Russian pressure point along NATO’s eastern border. The Russians, meanwhile, are outraged that their strategic rivals in the European Union, of which France is a leading member, has sent a border observation team to Armenia.

But the observers are necessary in part because of Russia’s growing indifference toward the conflict. Russian peacekeepers deployed to secure the post-2020 ceasefire have done nothing to stop the Azerbaijani military from closing the Lachin Corridor. For over six months, food shipments and humanitarian aid have languished in the border city of Goris, where hotels are filled with Artsakh Armenians who can’t return home. The heat is off in Nagorno-Karabakh because of cuts to the area’s gas pipeline and a blockade on energy shipments. Food supplies are reportedly dwindling. But the internet is still on, supposedly because the Russian peacekeepers need it.

The unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh has a diplomatic office in a modest neoclassical villa on the outer fringes of Yerevan’s downtown. Visiting the eerily quiet mission, where our group met with Artsakh National Assembly member and senior foreign policy official Sergey Ghazaryan, offered a rare chance to glimpse the tomblike languor of a government in active danger of nonexistence. The ongoing talks have paid only obscure attention to the Armenians of Artsakh, who are now bit players in their own tragedy—in Yerevan their officials seemed like anxious visitors, or people awaiting an eviction notice. The walls of the conference room where we met Ghazaryan had a watercolor painting of the Shushi cathedral, which Azerbaijan has allegedly damaged. Ghazaryan, a thin and serious man on the younger end of middle age, is not allowed to return home.

The meeting was an education in the indignities of defeat. “There are instances of people who have passed away in Armenia and their bodies cannot be buried in Artsakh, their homeland,” Ghazaryan explained of the Azeri blockade. Ghazaryan was “deeply disturbed” that the United States had seemed to applaud an Azeri offer of “amnesty” for the alleged rebels in Nagorno-Karabakh once the region was under Baku’s control. He spoke in grave near-whispers, and his face never brightened. “The Azerbaijan government is taking this as a green light,” he said, referring to alleged Azeri violations of the November 2020 ceasefire. “We’re talking about taking every measure to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity, rather than sending us a condolence note later.”

Believing in a peace process, in foreign alliances, and maybe even in the military and diplomatic assistance of the Republic of Armenia might have been a fatal error, Ghazaryan acknowledged. “Our home was destroyed the moment we switched from self-defense to putting our hopes in others.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.