Note: Because of the urgency of the current situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan and the importance of providing reliable background information, the following essay is an exception to our typical length and op-ed format and includes an extensive excerpt from an academic journal article.
Since Sunday, September 27, Azerbaijan, with support from its Turkic big brother Turkey—two autocratic totalitarian states—has launched attacks on its neighboring countries, the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh—two fledgling democracies in the Caucasus. Neither Azerbaijan nor Turkey has shown regard for human life, let alone such niceties as historical truth, or, for that matter, international law. Artsakh (called Nagorno Karabakh in Soviet times) is part of the remaining territory of the Armenian highlands, after the Armenian people’s vast territorial losses following the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The current conflict is not only a fight for the survival of the Armenian people—75% of whom Ottoman Turkey eliminated in the 1915 Genocide—but an information war. It should not be that way.
In 2016, I received a call from our local FBI office. The agent notified me that my name and my home address were circulating on jihadi websites, along with those of certain U.S. military personnel, calling upon homegrown terrorists and ISIS supporters to harm us. It was unclear to the FBI agent why my name was circulating on these websites, as they appeared to be related to the crisis in Syria. I have not served in the U.S. military. I had zero involvement in the Syrian crisis, other than calling my U.S. representatives years earlier to warn them that Turkey was funding Syrian “rebels” who were aligned with al-Qaeda. What I was “guilty” of—I surmise—was writing articles about Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide and the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage by Turkey and later Azerbaijan, fundraising for humanitarian efforts in Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh), and my most recent trip to Artsakh as part of a fact-finding mission regarding several medieval Armenian monasteries that Azerbaijan (a majority Muslim population) was claiming as their own cultural heritage.
This was not the first time I had been bullied by Turkey, Azerbaijan, and their supporters. From an incident in the United Nations headquarters in New York when Turkish diplomats entered a private gathering and screamed at me and the then Armenian ambassador to the UN for “defaming” Turkey (ironically, the meeting was about healing and forgiveness for the Armenian Genocide) to the very reason for my presence in the United States, as a refugee from the Azerbaijani assaults on the Armenian civilian populace living in Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I have been the target of Turkish and Azerbaijani aggression.
In the grand scheme of things, I do not matter. I am not a politician, an influential academic, or even a lobbyist. But precisely because I do not matter—and yet have been targeted nonetheless—it shows how seriously Turkey and Azerbaijan take their propaganda and misinformation campaign.
For this reason, I am disappointed but not surprised that the mainstream media in the United States has had trouble covering Azerbaijan’s recent attacks on Nagorno Karabakh (what Armenians call “Artsakh”). There is no question that Azerbaijan’s goal is the elimination of the Armenian people from Karabakh and beyond. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, has said as much. And yet the U.S. media characterizes the current conflict as a mere border dispute between two former Soviet Socialist Republics—if they choose to cover it at all. Here are three major sources of confusion that I see in the current reporting:
- the inability to pinpoint who started the recent war (we know that Azerbaijan did and that it was pre-planned; in fact, Turkish state media was on hand to record Azerbaijan’s initial assault; apart from the substantiation there is also common sense: why would Karabakh’s Armenian civilian population of 150,000 people unnecessarily provoke the 10 million person strong oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan, which has also benefited from approximately $1.5 billion U.S. tax dollars since the Nagorno Karabakh War of the 1990’s?);
- mischaracterizing Nagorno Karabakh as a breakaway enclave of Azerbaijan controlled by Armenian separatists, when Armenians are not the “occupiers” and in fact have been the ethnic and cultural majority of Karabakh (and more specifically, Artsakh) since 189 B.C., continuously; and
- mischaracterizing Armenian self-governance in Nagorno Karabakh as “illegal” under international law, which ignores the right of people to self-determination given that they voted overwhelming in favor of a referendum for independence from Azerbaijan on December 10, 1991 (the referendum was approved by 99.98% of voters and was unsuccessfully boycotted by the region’s Azerbaijani population, which then constituted 20% of the population).
You may ask, “Why do any of these mischaracterizations matter?”
First, the more that Azerbaijan and Turkey succeed in muddying the information waters, the more the international community will become fatigued and consequently the less it will care. This leaves Azerbaijan and Turkey—the latter which is now fighting directly or by proxy on six separate fronts in Africa, the Middle East, and Mediterranean, and whose president, Recep Erdogan, recently declared Jerusalem as also belonging to Turkey—free to continue flouting international law and human rights, without repercussion.
Make no mistake: the situation on the ground is grave. Azerbaijan continues to use several banned weapons, including drones, to target not only the Artsakh military but the civilian population. Into the second week of Azerbaijan’s assault, Azerbaijan is shelling civilian infrastructure and residential buildings in Artsakh’s capital of Stepanakert, using Smerch, Polonez, and Turkish Kasirga long-range missiles. (As it turns out, some of these weapons were supplied by Canada, which on October 5, 2020 suspended the sale of any further drone technology to Turkey.)
Azerbaijan also uses the current conflict to eliminate two other ethnic peoples—their Talysh and the Lezgin minorities—whose soldiers Azerbaijan positions in high-risk frontline positions. Azerbaijan does so while blocking the internet in its country and banning foreign media (apart from Turkish state-sponsored media outlets), carefully curating the information it disseminates to its citizens.
Second, Armenia’s neighbor, Turkey, has been assisting Azerbaijan in its efforts to eliminate the Armenian people, and it is able to do so precisely because the international community has allowed Turkey to get away with its widespread human rights abuses of the past. When the Armenian diaspora pushed so hard for Armenian Genocide recognition, many asked why we were concerned with a century-old issue. We explained that denial is the last stage of genocide, and if Turkey is not held accountable, it will continue its genocidal policies against the Armenians and others. Unfortunately, we were right.
It should come as no surprise that Azerbaijan and Turkey both deny that Turkey is assisting in the current onslaught against the Armenian people. The U.S. media reports their denials giving equal weight to them as it does to the evidence substantiating Turkish involvement, thus falling into the trap of wanting to present “both sides” in an effort to somehow be fair and balanced—despite that one side is complete autocratic misinformation.
Indeed, several international media outlets have confirmed that Turkey has flown in jihadist mercenaries from Syria, paying them approximately $1,200 a month for three months to fight alongside Azerbaijan. (There is also a video uploaded by one jihadist who was angry and dismayed that he was fighting for Azerbaijan, which is a Shi’a Muslim country, having been told he would be assisting Sunni Turkey when he was recruited.) While Azerbaijan calls it “propaganda” (the post-Soviet version of “fake news”) that Armenians claim a Turkish F-16 shot down an Armenian SU-25 in Armenian airspace, there is flight data and audio recordings of the pilot speaking Turkish. Azerbaijan’s president—an active user of Twitter—also posted video stills on social media that showed uniformed Turkish military personnel alongside Azerbaijani soldiers (I assume this was an accident, because he then promptly deleted his tweets and then claimed to have never uploaded them).
Finally, the media has a responsibility to the U.S. public to get this right. After all, Azerbaijan’s war is being partially funded with their taxpayer dollars. The U.S. Department of Defense gave $101 million in military aid to Azerbaijan in 2018 and 2019, which, instead of being used to ensure regional stability, Azerbaijan has misappropriated to cause a refugee crisis and attack its neighboring fledgling democracies. Moreover, as much as many criticize the U.S. for nation-building (sometimes accurately), we have seen what happens when the U.S. fails to intervene; another superpower, with even worse intentions, will fill that void.
On that note, the Russian media appears to get its coverage right on the historical facts but views negatively Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s current prime minister. Russia sees Pashinyan—a a former political prisoner who was elected following Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution—as Western-leaning. Pashinyan has ushered in a new period of democracy for Armenia, one that rejects corruption and cronyism. Perhaps for that reason, most Russian discussions of Karabakh also spare time to criticize Pashinyan, and I get the feeling that if Russia intervenes in this crisis, it partly will be to remove Pashinyan and to replace him with a Russian-leaning leader.
Since the last Karabakh War, after the Armenians voted for independence from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan before the fall of the Soviet Union (Karabakh had been given to Azerbaijan by Stalin in 1921), geopolitical experts have called Karabakh’s unresolved status a “ticking time bomb” that could “trigger World War III.” Indeed, Turkey, a NATO member, is already involved, and Iran and Russia also have interests in the region. This is too important for us to be sloppy with the facts. Nor can we afford false equivalencies.
To that end, I include below excerpts from a paper I wrote on Karabakh’s history, which was peer-reviewed but, for reasons I won’t get into, I never ended up publishing. I hope that the information below can be used to educate Public Orthodoxy’s readership on the roots of the Karabakh conflict and why Armenians are not just fighting to defend their territory but for their very survival and existence. Please do what you can to help us, either by raising awareness and/or by donating to the Armenia Fund for humanitarian relief in Artsakh.
The History of Karabakh (“Artsakh” in Armenian) and the Competing Claims to This Territory
Situated at the crossroads of the eastern and western halves of the world lies Nagorno-Karabakh (“Karabakh”), a mountainous, landlocked bridge between Europe and Asia. Because countless foreign powers have crossed this bridge—including the Persians, the Arabs, the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, and the Russians—Karabakh’s cultural history is difficult to unravel. Although Karabakh is located within the present-day borders of Azerbaijan, it has operated as an autonomous republic since 1991 when its majority-Armenian population declared independence from the Soviet Union. Today, Armenia to the west and Azerbaijan to the east continue to wrestle for control of the region.
The competing claims to Karabakh are the product of a complex and overlapping history. I find that the easiest way to understand Karabakh’s history is by imagining four major waves of migration—each of which left behind an indelible influence. Those four waves are (1) Indo-European, leaving ethnicity and later Christianity; (2) Arab, leaving Islam; (3) Turkic, leaving language; and (4) Russian/Soviet, leaving a new political hegemony. Because of these four influences, one cannot fully understand the current dispute over Karabakh through a traditional, reductionist paradigm (e.g., ethnic conflict, religious conflict, etc.).
FIRST WAVE: INDO-EUROPEAN, 1ST MILLENIUM B.C TO 7TH CENTURY A.D. Karabakh’s first inhabitants were of Indo-European ethnicity, likely Hittites, who entered Transcaucasia in the 1st millennium B.C. In 189 B.C., King Artashes of the Armenians, another Indo-European people, conquered Karabakh, then called “Artsakh” in Armenian. Karabakh/Artsakh then became one of the fifteen provinces of the Kingdom of Armenia.
Two of the twelve apostles (Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew) were the first evangelizers of the Armenians and were martyred, in the 1st century A.D. Christianity, however, continued to spread throughout the region, from the efforts of St. Gregory the Illuminator—an Armenian-Parthian noble, raised in Cappadocia (present-day Turkey). By 301 A.D., the Armenian King Trdat III made Christianity the official religion of the Kingdom of Armenia, which included Artsakh.
In 387 A.D., the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires partitioned the Kingdom of Armenia between themselves, resulting in Artsakh becoming part of the Persian province of New Albania. This province combined the former Armenian regions of Artsakh, Utik, and Siunik to Albania—which was largely inhabited by various Indo-European tribes known collectively as the Caucasian Albanians. Despite an unsuccessful campaign of forced assimilation by the Sassanids in 461 A.D., New Albania’s local Armenian princes (or “meliks”) largely maintained their autonomy.
During this period of autonomy, St. Mesrop Mastots invented the Armenian alphabet and opened the first Armenian language school in New Albania, at the Amaras Monastery.
SECOND WAVE: ARAB, 7TH CENTURY A.D. The second major wave of migration through Karabakh came in the 7th century A.D., when the Arabs usurped the Sassanid presence in the region and ruled there until the 10th century. Although the Arabs converted many of the inhabitants of Transcaucasia to Islam, they were unsuccessful in changing the religious character of the Armenians. In The History of the Albanians, Movsēs Dasxuranci, writing in the 10th century, explains how the Armenian and Caucasian Albanian noble families allied with one another, often through intermarriage, to fight the Arabs. By the end of the 10th century, there was no longer a distinction between the Armenian and Caucasian Albanian inhabitants of New Albania. Indeed, by the end of Dasxuranci’s chronicles, the Prince of Albania was referred to as “Abu Ali, the native Armenian,” the brother of the Armenian King Smbat.
THIRD WAVE: TURKIC, 11TH CENTURY A.D. The third major wave of migration came from the Turkic tribes, who invaded from central Asia and created the Seljuk Empire in 1071 A.D. Many historians argue that the Seljuk Turks’ most important legacy was linguistic in nature, because the Turkish language led to multiple semi-nomadic tribes in Transcaucasia identifying as Turks, despite their lack of Turkish ethnicity. By the end of the century, however, the Christians regained their independence, and the Armenian princes took control of the region. The 12th century ushered in a period of feudal states, which resulted in the construction of many monastic foundations. At that time, Karabakh was inhabited both by Armenian-speaking Christians and by Seljuk Turks.
When the Mongols invaded in 1235 A.D., they destroyed much of Karabakh and settled semi-nomadic Turkish and Kurdish mercenaries in the area, resulting in the disappearance of many Armenian princely families who were either killed or exiled. The Turkish linguistic influences deepened with the arrival of the Oghuz Turks who founded the Ottoman Empire in 1299, and, after two successful wars with Iran, consolidated their occupation of the region in the early 16th century. These gains, however, lasted little more than a century. Russia soon entered the sphere, resulting in a three-way struggle over the region between Ottoman Turkey, Imperial Russia, and Iran.
FOURTH WAVE: RUSSIAN, 19TH CENTURY A.D. The fourth major wave of migration that affected Karabakh came from the Russians and later the Soviets. Russia annexed Karabakh in 1805, after the Russo-Iranian War, dissolving the Iranian administrative units and reorganizing them into provinces. The annexation resulted in the dissolution of the five Armenian principalities of the Karabakh Highlands, which had maintained their semi-autonomous status for the past two centuries.
Significantly, in 1868, the Russians created the Elisabethpol Governate, by carving out Karabakh and annexing it to the plains to the east, which were inhabited by various semi-nomadic herding populations (such as the Caucasian Tatars and Lezgins). This reorganization put into motion competing territorial claims between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the 20th century. Russian influence also affected the character of the relations between the region’s diverse ethnic and religious groups, intensifying the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims and pitting various ethnic groups against each other.
By 1920, Armenia and Azerbaijan were incorporated into the Soviet Union. In June 1921, the Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party declared that the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh (“AONK”) would become part of the Socialist Soviet Republic (“SSR”) of Armenia, and, on July 4th, the Caucasian Bureau decided by majority vote to officially transfer the region to Armenia. Stalin, however, interceded, and the next day the Bureau released a revised decision, declaring that the mostly Armenian-populated Karabakh would be within the borders of the Azerbaijan SSR. Throughout the history of the Soviet Union, Stalin’s successors refused to revisit the issue of AONK’s incorporation within Azerbaijan. But, for the Armenians, the Karabakh question was far from settled.
Karabakh and its Competing Identities in the Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries
Further complicating the competing claims to Karabakh is the fact that the region is central to both Armenian and Azerbaijani self-identities.
Armenian self-identity appears to be based on a common ethnicity, language, religion, and historical experience. Because of Armenia’s vacillating status as a power, buffer state, and subjugated and persecuted people, the Armenian identity developed under constant external pressure and thus looks inward. Nora Dudwick described Armenian identity as “grounded in Armenian self-representation as an ancient, unusually talented and industrious people who have survived while other peoples vanished, and who can claim a number of ‘firsts’ and ‘mosts’ (first Christian nation, first genocide of the 20th century, and so forth.)”
The adoption of Christianity as Armenia’s official religion in the 4th century, as well as the split from Byzantium following its rejection of the Council of Chalcedon in the 5th century, plays strongly into the Armenian conception of its inherent uniqueness. Before adopting Christianity, the Armenians practiced variations of Zoroastrianism, as did the Persians. As Nina Garsoian writes, “The conversion of Armenia to Christianity was probably the most crucial step in its history. It turned Armenia sharply away from its Iranian past and stamped it for centuries with an intrinsic character as clear to the native population as to those outside its borders, who identified Armenia almost at once as the first state to adopt Christianity.” Moreover, the creation of the Armenian alphabet in the early 5th century helped to homogenize the Armenian culture, as it finally allowed churches to conduct their Liturgies in Armenian, rather than in Greek or Syriac.
The persecution and massacres during the decline of the Ottoman Empire, when the Ottomans perceived the Armenians as a pro-Western fifth column, only pushed the Armenian identity further inward. The vast Armenian territorial losses that accompanied the Armenian Genocide left the surviving Armenian population clinging to the Armenian highlands, including the territory of Karabakh.
In contrast to the largely homogenous Armenian self-identity, Azerbaijani identity developed fairly recently and is external. The first references to “Azerbaijani” and “Azeri” appeared in the early 20th century, upon the formation of the short-lived Republic of Azerbaijan in 1918. Prior to that, the ethnic population was referred to as the “Caucasian Tatars” or simply “Tatars.” Unlike the Armenians who had a distinct language and religion, the Azerbaijanis looked outward—identifying both with the Turks, linguistically and ethnically, and with the Iranians, religiously, due to their shared Shi’a Muslim faith. This split between the Turkic and Persian worlds made it difficult to develop a distinct Azerbaijani national or ethnic consciousness.
In the early 20th century, Azerbaijani self-identity was greatly influenced by the concept of Pan-Turkism, which emerged during the declining Ottoman Empire and espoused the union of all Turkic peoples from the Balkans to western China—with Armenia being the only geographic obstacle dividing a unified Turkish world. Moreover, after the Ottomans invaded Armenia during World War I to support Azerbaijani claims to Karabakh, the Armenians began to equate the Azerbaijani Turks with the Ottoman and Young Turk perpetrators of the Armenian pogroms of 1895-1896 and the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
On the heels of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (openness) in the late 1980s, the Armenians living in Karabakh began to peacefully rally for AONK’s transfer to the Armenian SSR. At the time, a 1989 census of AONK revealed that about 84% of AONK’s 188,000 inhabitants were ethnically Armenian. During the breakup of the Soviet Union, the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan grew increasingly violent. By May 1992, newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan entered into a full-scale war, with the apparent catalyst being Karabakh’s self-proclamation of independence. By the end of that war, Armenians controlled Artsakh and many surrounding areas (such as the Lachin Corridor, that links Karabakh with mainland Armenia). Although Russia brokered a ceasefire in May 1994, peace talks between the Republics of Armenia, Artsakh, and Azerbaijan have failed to result in a peace treaty—leaving Karabakh in a state of limbo.
Without question, Karabakh has a culturally diverse past, and various ethnic groups have lived there over the last one thousand years. The fact that Karabakh is central to both Armenian and Azerbaijani self-identity and nationalism further increases the tensions. For the Armenians, Karabakh represents “the final stronghold” where Armenian national autonomy was preserved for centuries, without interruption. For Azerbaijanis, their economic ties to Karabakh in the late 19th century by the creation of the Elisabethpol Governate, which ushered in a semi-feudal landed aristocracy and cultural elite, has led Azerbaijani nationalists to covet the area as their birthright. Indeed, Azerbaijan’s national identity is now inseparable from the concepts of Pan-Turkism—despite their ethnic and cultural diversity extending beyond their Turkish links—and thus relies on perpetuating the myth that the remaining Armenian territories including Karabakh, which stand between Turkey and Azerbaijan, belong to them.
 Although the Turkish name “Kara-bakh,” meaning “black garden,” did not appear before the 14th century, we use it to designate the geographic area between the Kura and Arax Rivers east of Lake Sevan throughout the historical periods discussed. See Patrick Donabedian, “The History of Karabakh From Antiquity to the Twentieth Century,” in The Caucasian Knot, Chorbajian et al., London 1994, pp. 51, 86.
 We use “Transcaucasia” to refer to the geographic region encompassing present-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
 Michael P. Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: Causes and Implications, Westport, Connecticut 1998, pp. 1-2.
 Victor A. Shnirelman, The Value of the Past: Myths, Identity and Politics in Transcaucasia, Suita, Japan 2001, pp. 26-27.
 Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan (n. 3), p. 3; Shireen T. Hunter, The Transcaucasus in Transition: Nation-building and Conflict, Washington, D.C. 1994, pp. 7-8.
 Michael B. Papazian, Light from Light: An Introduction to the History and Theology of the Armenian Church, Canada 2006, pp. 36-48.
 Shnirelman (n. 4), The Value of the Past, pp. 27, 150.
 Shnirelman (n. 4), The Value of the Past, p. 27.
 Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan (n. 3)., p. 2.
 C.J.F. Dowsett, The History of the Caucasian Albanians by Movsēs Dasxuranci, London 1961, pp. 186-231.
 Dowsett, The History (n.13), p. 222.
 Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan (n. 3), p. 2; see also Shireen T. Hunter, The Transcaucasus in Transition (n.5), p. 5.
 Jean-Michel Theirry, Eglises et Couvents du Karabagh, Antelias 1991, p. 10.
 Theirry, Eglises (n.16), p. 17.
 Donabedian, “The History of Karabakh” (n. 1), pp. 66-69.
 Crossaint, The Armenia-Azerbaijan (n. 3), p. 13.
 Hunter, The Transcaucasus (n. 5), p. 12.
 Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan (n. 3), pp. 18-20.
 Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan (n. 3), p. 25.
 Croissaint, The Armenia-Azerbaijan (n. 3), p. 3.
 Nora C. Dudwick, Memory, Identity and Politics in Armenia, Ann Arbor, Michigan 1994, p. 59.
 Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan (n. 3), p. 4; For a discussion of the theological and political implications of the Armenian Apostolic Church’s rejection of the Chalcedonean Creed, see Michael B. Papazian, Light (n. 6), pp. 96-100.
 Theo Maarten van Lint, “The Formation of Armenian Identity” (n. 97), pp. 251–78.
 Nina Garsoian, “The Arsakuni Dynasty”, in Richard G. Hovannisian, The Armenian People From Ancient to Modern Times I, New York 1997, p. 81.
 Papazian, Light (n. 6), pp. 65-70.
 Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, p. 5.
 Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, pp. 14-18.
 Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan (n. 3), pp. 7-8.
 De Waal, Black Garden (n. 240),pp. 10-11.
 Donabedian, “The History of Karabakh” (n. 1), p. 52.
 Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan (n. 3), pp. 77-78.
 Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, p 13.
Yelena Ambartsumian is a graduate of the Fordham College at Lincoln Center Honors Program (2010) and Fordham Law School (2013). She is a member of the advisory council of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.