The dangers of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war

The name and population of the region of Nagorno-Karabagh (not -bakh, but -bagh, by the way) reflect the complexity and danger of this issue. Nagorno- is Russian for “mountainous”: the Transcaucasian republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are former Soviet republics and before that, were colonies of the Russian Empire. They are at present, for better or worse, in Russia’s sphere of vital influence. Kara- is Turkish, and means “black”. The Azeris, who are mainly Shi’a Muslims, are ethnically Turks, and Nagorno-Karabagh is recognized by most of the world as their territory. But most of the people in Nagorno-Karabagh are Armenians (who call it by its ancient name, Artsakh). Bagh- is Persian and means “garden”. Azerbaijan borders on Iran. The present Iranian regime denies the Holocaust, calls for the annihilation of Israel, supports Hamas and Hezbollah, and even reprints and distributes copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for free. I have a copy. That is why Israel sells arms to the Azeris: Azerbaijan is friendly to Israel, and rents it a much-needed listening post and parking space close to the Iranian border.

Armenia and Iran enjoy excellent relations. Armenia votes regularly against Israel in the UN. Armenians, with a large Middle Eastern diaspora, tend to favor the Arabs rather than Israel. Anti-Semitism is endemic, and often virulent, in most Armenian communities I have encountered over a lifetime in the field. There was even a small Armenian contingent that fought for Hitler in World War II. We should not make much of that unit, however. Captured Soviet soldiers joined it to avoid the concentration camps. Since some used it to try to escape back to their home lines, the Germans assigned the Armenians to guard vineyards in France.

At present, even a cold relationship with Armenia is agreeable to Israel; but the relationship with Azerbaijan is vital. The former can be sacrificed, not the latter.

Yet Armenians and Jews have an uneasy historical proximity to each other. The Armenian Genocide of World War I served as one of several templates for the Holocaust. During the Genocide, America’s ambassador to Ottoman Turkey, a Jew named Morgenthau, resigned his post in protest. The novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel, a Czech Jew, is about the resistance of Armenian villagers to the Genocide. Turkey blocked MGM from making a movie version of the book in 1935 but it was an international bestseller anyhow. It inspired the Warsaw Ghetto fighters and the Yishuv preparing for a possible last stand on Carmel. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, invented the term “genocide” itself in 1942, to provide a legal definition for what had happened to the Armenians and what was happening to the Jews. Israel has needed good relations with Turkey. These existed till recently and the price for Israel, the same as for the Americans, was not according recognition to the Armenian Genocide. The Americans pay the same price but Israel seems to get the heat.

Azeris massacred Armenians after World War I and again when the dispute over Nagorno-Karabagh flared in the late 1980s. Armenians were victorious in the first Karabagh war and conquered substantial territory around it to provide strategic depth and access to the Republic of Armenia proper. The conflict created about a million Azeri and Kurdish Muslim refugees. Azerbaijan sees the issue one way; Armenia, irreconcilably differently.

The war resumed about a fortnight ago, and Azerbaijan, with an army that is better armed and trained than it was three decades ago, has made slow but significant progress. Turkey’s Islamist president, Erdogan, threw in his full support behind Azerbaijan, and has made genocidal threats that the Armenians cannot afford to take lightly. (If the Armenians were to be confronted in fact by the likelihood of annihilation, then it would be the duty of every decent human being to help them.) I predicted to friends that Russia would let its former colonial subjects fight just enough to cause each other real damage, and then step in. Right on schedule, Putin summoned the two foreign ministers to Moscow a couple of days ago and imposed a ceasefire. It has already been violated; and both sides are making warlike noises.

If the war resumes and spills into Armenia proper, Russia may have to intervene directly, as it is bound by treaty obligations. If Turkey intervenes forcefully on the Azeri side and Russia, rather than Armenia, attacks it, Turkey could invoke the NATO charter and try to drag in the United States. The Turks are quite anti-American, though; and Erdogan, an open anti-Semite, recently declared that Jerusalem, if you please, is his neo-Ottoman property.

Iran does not want a wider regional war. When I was in that country to read a paper at a conference in the fall of 2000, the rector of Tehran University, under the mistaken impression that I was the Armenian ambassador, confided to me that Armenia was Iran’s only sane and peaceable neighbor. The real danger is of a conflict between Turkey and Russia that could drag in NATO forces. A rapid Russian ground advance into Turkey resulting in the endangering of the US base at Incirlik, and Turkey’s closing the Bosphorus straits to Russian warships, are factors in possible scenarios. Wars are by their nature uncontrollable and unpredictable; and escalation to a conflict involving nuclear weapons is a real possibility.

America is preoccupied with the coronavirus, campaigning for a general election, and the bitterest and most violent political and social chaos I have experienced in a long lifetime. Nagorno-Karabagh is not a priority of the government in Washington, at least not in public; but America and Russia do need to confer and to take charge visibly before things get out of hand. They must do this together as partners, not as adversaries, lest a nightmare scenario come about of the sort outlined above. America would commit itself to rein in Turkey; Russia would be given carte blanche to use any means necessary force the Armenians and Azeris to stand down.

I have spent my entire life as a scholar of Armenian language and culture, and have advocated for Armenian causes. That has not prevented complete strangers from attacking me as a Jew, over many years but especially of late, because of Israel’s policy. People I thought to be friends have also climbed on the anti-Israel bandwagon, seemingly deaf to one’s explanations of the Jewish state’s own needs. The accepted definition of anti-Semitism applies here: the Jews and Israel are together held to an impossibly high moral standard not required of any other people or state, a standard that renders us vulnerable. If we refuse such an unfair demand we are uniquely vilified. Some Israeli liberals of my acquaintance have bent over backwards with mea culpas. One finds such behavior repellent and would prefer to let some acquaintances lapse rather than demean one’s dignity and subscribe to the lie that Israel is a villain. It is not. As a people we need to get over the habit of fawning on those who despise us, in the hope this will occasion a change of heart. But that is old news. Read Jabotinsky’s words of a century ago. Read Ruth Wisse’s more recent long essay on Jews and power.

But all that is to some degree a matter of individual taste, for academics and the like. When it comes to matters of state policy, Israeli leaders know their Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion just fine and will not be guided by what gentiles want or will say but by what the Jews need and can do. Relations with Turkey are so bad that it does not matter much what Jerusalem says or does. Genocide recognition can be undertaken. But I think a necessary first step would be to make the Armenian Genocide part of the permanent exhibition at Yad Vashem, where the background of the Holocaust is explained. Recognition of the Armenian Genocide is certainly morality, but it is above all history.

As to arms sales to Azerbaijan, it would be reasonable for Israel to limit these during the conflict, in consultation with the Americans and the Russians, as part of an international embargo to bring the fighting to a halt. This is not a time when one can feel particularly hopeful, but it is possible that President Trump, if re-elected, might be able to broker a comprehensive deal with Iran that would bring it into the party with Israel, the Gulf Arabs, and the Saudis and offer it incomparably more influence in the region as a peaceful partner than it has possessed as a determined adversary. I am not sure a Biden-Harris administration would craft a good deal or be successful if it did.

But the bottom line on Armenia-Azerbaijan is that this is not Israel’s or the Jews’ war and we should not take sides. It’s a war for the big boys to bring under control. Let’s hope, for everybody’s sake, that they will.




About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University (semi-retired), Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; and he taught Ancient Iranian languages and religions at Columbia University from 1982-1992.