Azerbaijan War on Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh Forcibly Displaced Tens of Thousands

Control over Nagorno-Karabakh sits at the center of a shifting geopolitical landscape and an emerging Cold War 2.0.

This photograph taken on October 1, 2023 during an Azeri government organized media trip shows weapons, vehicles and other military equipment captured by Azerbaijani army from Armenian separatists displayed for the press in the village of Signag in the territories of Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijan retook from Armenia after its one-day offensive last week. (Photo by Emmanuel Dunand / AFP) (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)
Weapons, vehicles, and other military equipment captured by the Azerbaijani army from Armenian separatists displayed for the press in Nagorno-Karabakh on Oct. 1, 2023. Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photo:Getty Images

Nearly the entire population of 120,000 ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh has been forced to flee their homes after the latest Azerbaijani military assault, according to Armenian authorities and the U.N. This week on Intercepted, Maria Titizian, editor-in-chief of EVN Report, joins Jeremy Scahill and Murtaza Hussain to discuss the history leading up to the recent Azerbaijani offensive and mass exodus of civilians, the collapse of the Republic of Artsakh, and the emerging geopolitical alliances exploiting the protracted humanitarian crisis.

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.

Murtaza Hussain: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.

BBC: The Armenian authorities say that almost the entire population of 120,000 ethnic Armenians are now gone from Nagorno-Karabakh.

CNN: Days after Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive and said it had taken back full control of the breakaway region, sparking a mass exodus of the region’s 120,000 ethnic Armenians.

ABC: This is what an exodus looks like. Tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians are fleeing. They’re leaving the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. A forgotten corner of the world, but home to one of its most bitter ethnic conflicts. 

MH: As global media focus continues to center on the ongoing war in Ukraine, another longstanding conflict has entered a new horrifying chapter.

Following a 9-month blockade, preventing the flow of basic necessities like food and medical supplies, the Azerbaijani military attacked the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19th. The military assault has sparked a mass exodus of the region’s 120,000 ethnic Armenians and the collapse of the Republic of Artsakh. 

JS: While this crisis has a long history, its geography and the politics of the crisis are situated in the center of the emerging global realignment of alliances and the Cold War 2.0 reality. Many of the major players in the Ukraine war have their hands in this conflict — Russia, the United States, Turkey and the European Union.

Our guest today is Maria Titizian, a writer and journalist with over 15 years of experience reporting the news from Armenia. She was Associate Editor of the Armenian Reporter, Managing Editor at CivilNet, she lectures at the American University of Armenia, and is the Editor-in-Chief of EVN Report.

She’s joining us from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Maria, welcome to Intercepted. 

Maria Titizian: Thank you for the invitation.

JS: I just want to start off with a really basic question of geography. I think a lot of people — particularly in the United States right now — are inundated with war news, things start to blend together. More likely, though, people haven’t been following anything about what’s happening to the Armenian people, the war with Azerbaijan, the Cold War politics at play.

Just set the stage for us. Where is this conflict happening in the world, what is at the heart of it? Basically, just give people an overview. But first, start by just explaining, geographically, where are we talking about?

MT: Well, Armenia is located just east of Turkey, north of Iran, south of the Republic of Georgia, south of Russia, and west of Azerbaijan. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia comprise the South Caucasus. We are post-Soviet states, although we’re quite tired of that qualification, because we have been independent since 1991.

So, in the Soviet era, as was the policy, there were a lot of artificial borders drawn up, and minorities being placed in other Soviet socialist republics. The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, as it was known — or the Republic of Artsakh, as we called it — was an autonomous region placed within Soviet Azerbaijan and, in 1988, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, there was a large movement for reunification with Armenia, because Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh had always historically, for millennia, been part of historic Armenia. And those calls for unification were met with pogroms, and attacks, and an all-out war that Azerbaijan launched that lasted until 1994. That war resulted in the Armenian side taking control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven reasons around the Oblast.

Since 1994, we’ve been living in a state of no war, no peace, where there have been countless skirmishes along the line of contact. Azerbaijan has always promised or threatened to take back the territory. And so, of course, there was this contradiction, if you will … Not a contradiction, but part of the international order where, on the one hand, you had the right to self-determination of the people, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and, on the other hand, the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

And then, in 2020, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale war against Nagorno-Karabakh. It lasted for 44 days and ended in the catastrophic defeat of the Armenian side.

So, as you see, it’s a very complicated history that goes back to a century ago. And people, as you said, in the United States and the West, are dealing with so many other conflicts, and this gets lost in the news.

With the defeat in 2020, Azerbaijan has been trying to enforce a victor’s peace and trying to get more and more concessions out of Armenia, and this led to the latest massive assault, that led to the total and complete ethnic cleansing of the 120,000 people of Nagorno-Karabakh. They have now been forcibly displaced and are in Armenia.

MH: Maria, can you tell us a bit about the respective leaders involved in this conflict? I know, in Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan is a leader and, in Azerbaijan, it’s Ilham Aliyev.

What are the character and the backgrounds of these leaders, and how have they approached this conflict as it’s playing out at the moment?

MT: Again, in the post-Soviet space, most of the countries that became independent after 1991 have all sort of followed the same trajectory, in terms of lack of democracy, corruption. But, in 2018, there was a large grassroots uprising in Armenia, led by Nikol Pashinyan, who is the prime minister today, and it was called the Velvet Revolution, and Armenia today is the most democratic country in all of Eurasia.

We have a generation of young people who believe in those values of human rights, and freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. We have a very vibrant civil society, a very varied and free press. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has been led by the Aliyev family for over 25 years. Ilham Aliyev took over from his father, Haidar Aliyev. His wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, is the vice president of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is considered to be one of the most despotic and authoritarian countries in the world. It ranks the lowest on all indicators for human rights, political prisoners, freedom of speech, etc. And, unfortunately for the region, unfortunately for Armenia, they don’t have a free press, nor do they have a free and independent civil society.

And one of the reasons that Aliyev has been waging this war is for his own domestic stability because, as a dictator, he needs to have an external enemy, and there has been a state sponsored policy of hatred towards the Armenian; it’s called Armenophobia, it’s in their school textbooks, it’s in all of their literature. And, you know, Armenians are called cancerous tumors, they say that we’re going to be driven out of these lands like dogs. And all of these things have led to a very poisonous and toxic environment in the region.

So, that’s basically the difference between the two countries. One is a democracy that has been struggling to remain a democracy in a sea of dictators. And Azerbaijan is an authoritarian state whose ally is Turkey — another authoritarian state — and who, today, is Moscow’s strategic partner. Armenia is not Moscow’s strategic partner, run by another authoritarian leader.

So, Armenia and Georgia — which is the country to the north of us — are the two struggling democracies in a sea of dictatorships and authoritarianism in Eurasia. This is the reality we live in.

JS: I wanted to also ask you about the relationship between the president of Armenia and this region that we’re talking about, that is nestled within Azerbaijan itself, the Nagorno-Karabakh region. There’s tension there, there were large protests that took place in Yerevan, where you sit right now, with many Armenians calling on the president to do more to stop the slaughter, to stop the mass expulsions.

What is the relationship between Armenia itself, the current government, and the authorities or the population in Nagorno-Karabakh?

MT: OK, I just need to go back a little bit. After the defeat in 2020, there were calls for the resignation of the Prime Minister, of Nikol Pashinyan, and I was one of those people who said that, yes, a leader that leads a country into a disastrous defeat should resign. He chose not to resign, he chose to stay on to power. And this, of course precipitated a lot of protests in the country; this is starting in 2020.

This was a natural expression of protest, and people were absolutely in their right to protest the sitting government. But these protests did lead to him resigning, to trigger a special parliamentary election, which took place in June, 2021, and he was elected again.

So, the prime minister who led the country into its most catastrophic defeat in a century was reelected by the population, only because the opposition were representatives of the former regimes, and they were obviously not trusted by society. But what has happened since then, there is a huge asymmetry in power in the region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan has been using a lot of hybrid warfare tactics to destabilize Armenia in order for it to gain more concessions. And Moscow has been very handily helping Baku in that endeavor.

And what happened after 2020, Armenia was no longer the security guarantor of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, because Armenia’s army itself had been devastated and decimated. And, after the November 9, 2020, trilateral agreement statement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, Russian peacekeepers were deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh to ensure the safety and security of the people of the Armenian population.

Well, unfortunately, the Russian peacekeepers were not able to fulfill those duties. And, in December of 2022, so-called Azerbaijani eco-activists — which were basically state-sponsored individuals — blockaded the Lachin Corridor, which was the only lifeline between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, effectively placing 120,000 people in a siege for nine months, basically starving them, cutting their electricity, access to natural gas, to hygiene products, to medical services.

And this culminated on September 19 when Azerbaijan launched a massive attack, and we’ll get to that. But, just to give you the context, the leadership in Artsakh had always been dependent upon the Armenian leadership for decades as their security guarantors. But, after November 9, Armenian armed forces were pulled out of Nagorno-Karabakh, and all that remained was the Artsakh Defense Army, which was a defense force to protect the population. That, along with the Russian peacekeepers, we believed were there to protect the people and, in fact, they greenlighted everything that Baku did, unfortunately, and now we have an entire region, an entire society that is completely cleansed from its indigenous homelands.

MH: Maria, you spoke a bit about the role of Turkey and Russia, briefly, in the conflict, and their respective stance. Can you tell us a bit more about the stances of regional countries, and how and why they’ve taken the sides they have in the conflict? I’m thinking of Iran as well, too, which seems to be more on the side of Armenia.

What are the roles of each of these countries in the conflict, and why have they taken the positions they have?

MT: Sure. Well, Turkey has always been Azerbaijan’s closest strategic ally. They’re both Turkic speaking nations, and Erdogan and Aliyev have, on many occasions, said they are “two countries, one nation.” So, Turkey has always been a very, very active supporter of Azerbaijan and, in fact, during the first Karabakh war, as Armenian forces were gaining more territory, Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1992, and it remains closed until today in solidarity with Azerbaijan. Turkey has always tried to force more concessions out of Armenia because of its relationship with Baku.

Now, Russia was always considered to be Armenia’s strategic ally, its military ally. In fact, there’s a 1997 bilateral agreement on friendship and cooperation, and Armenia is also a member of the collective security treaty organization CSTO, which is, for your listeners, the equivalent of the post-Soviet NATO. That includes countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, obviously, and Armenia.

So, Armenia, because it was surrounded by hostile neighbors to the east and the west — two of its four borders have been blockaded since the early nineties — Russia was always seen as the security guarantor, the strategic military ally of Armenia. There’s a Russian base in Armenia’s second largest capital, Russian FSB servicemen guard the border with Turkey, and Armenia was a member of the CSTO. And, also, Armenia joined the Eurasian Economic Union, although, for years leading up to that decision, it was negotiating with the E.U. to sign an association agreement with the European Union. But this was changed in 2013, after President Putin called then-President Sargsyan Serzh to Moscow, and Armenia took a complete U-turn in its foreign policy.

So, Armenia was all-in with Russia being its sort of protector, but what we saw with the 2020 war, Russia allowed the war to continue for 44 days, leading to thousands and thousands and thousands of young men and women losing their lives. The day after that ceasefire statement was signed, Russian peacekeepers were already in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the deal was that Russia was to protect the Armenians.

But what we saw was, two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ilham Aliyev — President of Azerbaijan — was in Moscow, and they signed a landmark deal with Russia. And, since then, their relations have grown and deepened and — you know, this is just my very own very personal take on it — Russia knew that, by invading Ukraine, they would possibly be faced with sanctions, and he needed Azerbaijan to use the pipelines to get its gas and oil to Europe.

So, basically, Europe is using Russian gas and oil via Azerbaijan, and everything that has been happening since 2020 clearly shows that Moscow is not Armenia’s strategic ally at the moment. It has been playing by Baku’s playbook for geopolitical reasons. And then, of course, we have Iran to the south, and Iran has always said that it is not in favor of any territorial changes in the sense of communication routes. They recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, but they have good relations with Armenia. And we need to have good relations with Iran, as it is only two of our routes to the outside world.

I spoke way too much about the background, but there’s a lot of story here to tell, and to unpack, at the moment.

JS: No, it’s very valuable. And, in fact, I personally think that in the societies that we’re living in now with social media, we have such a short attention span that is being culturally drilled into us. And so, it’s refreshing to hear someone actually walk through, with that level of detail, the political context.

And, on that note, I wanted to ask you about the role of the United States. You mentioned 2020, and I just want to remind people who may not have paid attention to it, that Azerbaijan waged this war in 2020 and, in part, used Syrian mercenaries, Israeli drones, and captured roughly 75% of the territory. And there were as many, or almost as many, victims in that 44-Day War as in the four years of the first war.

President Trump was in power during that period, and Joe Biden, when he was running against Trump, actually criticized him for essentially allowing a slaughter to take place. But many Armenians have been very, very critical of the Biden administrations [with] what they perceive as inaction or allowing this to happen.

Talk a bit about that, Maria, about Trump’s position during this scorched-earth war of 2020, where you had Syrian mercenaries, Israeli drones, and Trump, essentially, by default, allowing it to happen by not criticizing it. And then, what is the policy right now of the Biden administration?

MT: You know, I’m from North America — originally, I’m from Canada — so I see both ends of the world; I’ve been living in Armenia now for 22 years. And, when Trump was in power, much of American foreign policy was nonexistent in this region, we didn’t see America being active in any way, shape or form, even though Americans had intelligence of what was going to happen and unfold. And, of course, it was right before the elections, and Azerbaijan used the opportunity with Trump’s administration to launch this massive attack; this was back in 2020.

With Biden coming to power, there were some hopes that the shift in focus would change with America because, today, whether the rest of the world acknowledges or wants to acknowledge it or not, the United States still remains — in terms of hard power — the leader in the world, and when America says or does something, other countries will fall into place. But, unfortunately, what we have seen, and what we are going to continue to see — and this is not only about Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh — is a total failure of international diplomacy and the rules-based international order.

When dictators are winning against democracies, fledgling democracies who need support because they are surrounded, and we see countries like Turkey, who is a NATO member, funneling Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan, bringing terrorism to our region. When we’re seeing Israel — a country that also suffered holocaust the way the Armenians suffered genocide — is supplying Azerbaijan with Harop drones and every other kind of military hardware that you can imagine…

And then we have a lot of lip service coming out of Washington and Brussels … I don’t want to leave Brussels out of the equation, because I kept telling people, as long as Europe is warm — this was last year — that’s all that matters at this point, because all they want is Azerbaijani oil to stay warm. But it’s OK that they sacrifice us on the altar of this bullshit called “diplomacy” or “democracy.”

State Secretary Blinken has seen himself as a facilitator in the conflict, not as a mediator, and that was, I think, his biggest mistake. And there have been a lot of statements. Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim, during a congressional hearing — this was in the beginning of September, before the large-scale attack last week — who said that they will not allow ethnic cleansing to happen in Nagorno-Karabakh. And Yuri Kim and Samantha Power came to Armenia when the mass exile of my people was taking place, when it was too late. They came for their photo ops, they got their photos, and one day they might write books about it and say, “I was there, I witnessed, I saw,” when they had everything in their arsenal to stop it, and yet they naively believed in the promise of a dictator. They believed in this peace process.

They believed in a peace process when they were dealing with a dictator who holds, by the way, countless Armenian prisoners of war, who has committed documented war crimes. When a female soldier in September of 2022 was raped, her fingers cut off, stuffed in her mouth, and obscenities carved out on her body. This is what we’re dealing with. Where they cut off ears of soldiers, where they cut off fingers of soldiers, like the trigger finger. This is what we’re dealing with.

And, you know, somebody who believes — I’m talking about myself — in democracy, I really believe in those values. I’m devastated in my own naivete, and believing that the West, when they said we’re going to support democracies, they didn’t. And Nancy Pelosi was here about a year ago, and I was one of the few people invited to meet with her. And I said, listen, if Armenia falls as a democracy, and Georgia falls … Georgia will fall. That means you have an entire Eurasian continent full of authoritarian dictators on the footsteps of Europe, and you have to do everything to support us, because this is what … We’ve shown it over and over again.

But, you know, of course, it’s all about energy and geopolitics. It’s also about the West wanting to push Russia out of the region. It’s Russia not wanting to lose its southern security belt. So, we are at the mercy of two powers, and we are not Ukraine. We are not blonde enough, or blue-eyed enough, or strategically important enough. And, of course, nobody in the United States knows about us.

JS: You mentioned Samantha Power and, of course, she became famous writing books about genocide and ethnic cleansing. And I’ve actually debated Samantha Power before on television about the hypocrisy, where she applies these labels selectively, and that’s been true of her for a very long time, and it remains true now. When she was in the region recently, and she was standing, surrounded by people who had fled their homes, she was actually confronted, and people were yelling at her to stop the lies and to go home herself.

And what Samantha Power said was, there are still tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians who are there, living in very vulnerable conditions. And already you’re seeing, as well, the gathering of testimonies from people who have fled violence, deprivation, and with the fear of living under the government of Azerbaijan.

Well, what the people — and correct me if I’m wrong here — my interpretation from watching this footage was that people were standing there, some of them I think were familiar with her record as someone who is running around the world condemning ethnic cleansing and genocide. And they were basically saying, where is that label here? And if you’re not going to speak straight about this, then you need to go home.

Your response to that? Or, maybe you can describe that interaction further with Samantha Power, as she stood among people who were forcibly displaced from their homes and is not applying a label that she really promoted as an academic and an author.

MT: She was asked straight out, “Is this ethnic cleansing?” She could not say the words. She could not say the words. Now, was it because she believed that there was still some space for negotiation with the Aliyev regime? I can’t speak on her behalf, but it was blatantly hypocritical and really insulting. Really, really insulting. And when she said there were tens of thousands left, Jeremy, today there are no Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh. The exodus started on September 24 and, within four days, 90% of the population had left.

And the thing that’s so infuriating right now is that Azerbaijan is trying to position … They had the choice to stay, they just didn’t want to stay. And you have to ask yourself, why would an entire nation get up in a matter of hours, some of the people in the villages were still in their slippers, they didn’t have time, they didn’t have time. They maybe grabbed their documents when they came under attack. How can an entire nation, an entire people get up and say, oh, I don’t want to live here anymore. When you have been bombed, and attacked, and psychologically terrorized, when you’ve been kept in a total blockade for nine months where even the air you breathe is not your air anymore.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the images out of Stepanakert, the capital. I’ve been to Artsakh many, many times, and I have many friends there, and, you know, the full brunt of what I have witnessed has still not sunk in, but it’s absolutely devastating, and it’s an absolute scar on the face of what we consider to be the international community.

For me, it’s dead. It’s dead.

MH: Maria, you mentioned earlier the rules-based order, and Armenia as being a bulwark of that in the region, and it seems that that whole contention has been laid to waste now, with these recent events. Can you talk a bit about why there’s been this deafening silence, or what the reasons you think are behind it?

You mentioned energy interests, at least in Europe, but what are the other factors that have led the U.S. and other powers to take a relatively muted response to the scenes which are now playing out?

MT: Well, I think we have to be honest with ourselves as Armenians, because the West always saw Armenia as an outpost, a colony of Russia, if you will. And I remember in 2013, when Armenia did that U-turn in its foreign policy, where it was sort of moving toward Europe and then, under pressure from Putin, it decided to join the Customs Union, which then morphed into the Eurasian Economic Union.

And I remember there was a journalist here in Yerevan — I think he was from The Irish Times — and he said, “Europe is in shock that Armenia decided not to sign the association agreement.” And, if you remember, that’s what led to the problems in Ukraine back then. And I said, “Well, I’m shocked that you’re shocked.” As a very small country, a very vulnerable country with no access to the sea, with two of our four borders basically blockaded. You know, our neighbor to the south is Iran, who’s considered to be part of the axis of evil, and then we only have Georgia to the north. Armenia has very limited choices when it comes to its security, and because Russia had promised to be our security guarantor.

And I think that was one of the reasons why Washington and Brussels also sort of had a hands-off thing: “Well, it’s Russia’s problem, let Russia deal with it.” This shifted after Russia invaded Ukraine. That’s where things began to shift, when Russia was seen as the aggressor, which it was, with its invasion of Ukraine, and how all of Europe obviously went in support of Ukraine, as did The United States and NATO. And then they saw that Russia was a growing problem and power. It was a hegemon, but today it’s a failed hegemon in our region. And now America wants to step in and help but, of course, there aren’t going to be any American tanks being brought in, and Europe doesn’t have a standing army.

So, right now, I think Armenia is basically left to its own devices, but that has sort of been the historical reason why the U.S. has not been more actively engaged in Armenia and in the region. But, with Russia’s weakening position, I think they saw this as an opportunity to come in and sort of give Russia a soft exit. Russia’s not going to softly exit any time soon, unfortunately, or, fortunately. It depends on how you see the world.

MH: I wanted to ask you a bit more about the actual exodus, which is taking place at the moment, of Armenians.

MT: It’s finished, babe. It’s over.

MH: It’s finished. Yeah.

What are some of the reasons? Because the Azeri government has said, oh, we’ll help people become citizens of this new area, and you can stay, and so forth. But, obviously, people have fled in terror and huge, huge numbers from this region. Can you tell us why Armenians made that choice to leave this territory which, as you said, has been inhabited by Armenians for millennia?

MT: Every family in Nagorno-Karabakh has had somebody die. They have gone through three, four wars in their lifetime. I remember, in 2016, there was a short four-day war, and I was there right after, and I was talking to a lot of families, and people were just very exhausted of not knowing what the future held. After all, people just want to live in safety, and have a dignified life, and raise their families, and have children, and, you know, prosper, or whatever.

After the 2020 war, we lost 5,000 men, which is the equivalent of how many men the United States lost in Vietnam, if you look at our numbers compared to the U.S. numbers. And, just as America suffered for decades getting out of the Vietnam syndrome, we’re still hot and heavy into that, into that devastating loss. And then, you have to remember, these people were kept in a blockade.

So, a year and a half after the war, they’re placed in a blockade, they can’t get out, the families were separated. They had no access to proper medication. They were terrorized. The constant ceasefire violations … And we see how Azerbaijan’s authorities, Baku, treats its own population.

There is no freedom of speech in Azerbaijan. Human rights defenders are in prison, journalists have fled Azerbaijan. They work from abroad, because there is no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly. Every generation has lost somebody in their family, and they are human. And, after 24 hours the Artsakh defense forces were forced to disband. They were basically left defenseless against a very strong army, with Armenia not coming to their aid because Armenia could no longer come to their aid. Russian peacekeepers, who were not peacekeepers at all, who basically aided and abetted in collusion with the Azerbaijani forces…

So, of course, these people are going to flee. You know, the people in Artsakh have large families, and when the road was opened, they left. And it wasn’t because they chose to leave; they were forcibly displaced. I think this is very critical. Words matter. They were forcibly displaced. Who leaves their home?

People’s homes… I’ve been seeing images. Their doors are open. There was this one old lady who was from this village, she was talking to a journalist in Southern Armenia. She said, I left a note, you know? She goes, “I washed my dishes. I put everything away. I tidied up my house, and I left a note to the Azeris. And I said, in this house, there lived a dignified family. Please take care of it. And also, I beg you to water my flowers.”

You don’t just walk away like that. There’s real fear of annihilation, real fear of massacres, real fear of atrocities. And people are going to save their children. You would. I would.

JS: President Aliyev of Azerbaijan said that he had restored sovereignty, quote, “with an iron fist.” That’s his own words.

And, you know, of course, part of his justification for all of this, like many times, like often happens in these kinds of conflicts, goes back many decades and references to the slaughter of Azeri people. And you have these kinds of epic narratives.

But, on a sort of realpolitiks level, what is his play here? Like, why does he want this territory? Is it about settling of scores, teaching a lesson? We’re going to mass exterminate them or expel them from the territory. We’re sending a message to others who may dare to take up arms against the Azerbaijani state, or to start making rumblings about independence, or being a part of another country.

Or are there other economical or geopolitical motives at play for wiping the Armenian population away from this territory and seizing it once and for all. He said he’s going to turn it into a paradise. I mean, he sometimes says the quiet parts out loud, that’s one thing for people who followed his elevation and rise in his career.

But I’m asking you to dismantle the kind of mythical narratives and talk about the real politics here. Why is this happening, from Azerbaijan’s perspective?

MT: Yeah, well Stepanakert, Artsakh, was a paradise, actually. There’s no need to make a new one.

We have to understand that after 1994, when the Bishkek protocol was signed and there was a ceasefire, there was, first of all, no solution to the conflict. There was no resolution to the conflict that took place. There was the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs that was made up of the United States, France and Russia. And I used to call them “diplomatic tourism.”

They would come every couple of months, they’d come to Yerevan, they’d go to Baku, they’d stay in their nice expensive hotels, and there was really no effort to come to a final solution. And it was a very complex historical/geopolitical conflict, I understand that.

But we also have to understand that, since 1994, the psyche of the people of Azerbaijan as the defeated side was used very robustly by the leadership of Azerbaijan. It was always about, we’re going to get revenge, we’re going to get our lands back, we’re going to make the Armenians suffer, look what they did to our people. And there was displacement in the first war, both Armenian and Azeri. War is a sick, horrific, human action, and everybody suffered. I’m not demeaning or diminishing the suffering of anybody during that war.

But the entire narrative, the mythical narrative that was devised in Azerbaijan was about getting revenge, and that’s how he’s been able to maintain his leadership — or his hold, if you will — on the people. And, with his victory in 2020, and he was walking around with his fist, his iron fist, making a mockery, and continues to make a mockery of the Armenian people, and keeps wanting to get one concession after another, after another, from the Armenian side.

Now, having said that, there are obviously bigger geopolitical considerations here. There’s the issue of Turkey. What they want to do now is to create what they’re calling the Zangezur Corridor, which is in the southern part of Armenia, have an extraterritorial corridor that would link Azerbaijan, because it has an exclave, Nakhichevan, which borders Armenia on the one side and Turkey on the other side. And so, they want these historic pan-Turkic dreams to come true, and the only country that’s sort of standing in their way is Christian Armenia. I’m not making this about religion, at all. But, I mean, these are just the facts as we see them.

So, there is Turkey, who wants its connections all the way to Central Asia. There’s Azerbaijan that wants connections with Turkey and beyond. Armenia is in the way. Armenia has been devastated, decimated [with] armed forces. It is in a very, very weak and vulnerable position, so it’s, strike while the iron is hot and get as many concessions from the Armenian side as possible.

But what happened on September 19, when they launched this attack and, within 24 hours, Nagorno-Karabakh basically capitulated, and we saw this mass exodus … It did not have to come to this. But, unfortunately, decades and decades of these narratives, of these myths, which we also created in Armenia too …

We fell into these patterns, into this paradigm of believing that the status quo was going to keep holding, that Russia wouldn’t allow this to happen. We were their strategic partner, the West wouldn’t allow ethnic cleansing. And I think it was a very horrific wake up call, for us to understand that we are very much alone in the world, and that we have to build up our armed forces, we have to build up our own security, we have to diversify our foreign relations with different countries, whether it’s multilateral or bilateral relations. That dependence on one hegemon has led us down this path to hell that we’re living at the moment, and we have to be able to learn diplomacy, we have to learn how to build our army again.

There’s so much to say in this whole conflict, and we’re trying to say it in a few minutes, and sorry if I’m all over the place. I’m just trying to give an overall picture of the situation at the moment.

MH: No, that’s excellent.

Maria, leading to the next question as well. You’ve outlined the scenario where Armenia is quite isolated today, it’s currently at the receiving end of this military assault, absorbing refugees from this territory. And it remains the case that none of its neighbors or the international community has weighed in forcefully on its side to say that further such incursions would be out of the table.

What is next for Armenia, or what’s next for the region most likely in the future right now? And what has the Azeri government said about future territorial concessions or demands that they might make on Armenia, given its relatively disadvantaged military position today?

MT: Well, as I said, the 44-Day War ended on November 9, 2020. In May of 2021 and November of 2021, there were incursions into the sovereign territory of the Republic of Armenia; this was at Black Lake and at several other locations. And then, in September of 2022, there was another mass invasion into the Republic of Armenia.

Today, currently, Azerbaijani soldiers have taken over about 150 square kilometers of Armenian territory. They have taken strategic heights in the Republic of Armenia. There are Azerbaijani soldiers right now on the Republic of Armenia’s territory.

The West and Russia have always said that Armenia’s territorial integrity were their red lines, that they would not allow anything to happen to the Republic of Armenia, whereas Nagorno-Karabakh was an unrecognized state. It was always a thorn in the side of the world that, you know, it’s fine that it’s over with now, you know, never mind that there 100,000 people are now homeless.

But my real fear — and this is not fear out of the ether, this is based on what we’ve seen — since 2020, is that Azerbaijan will launch another attack on the sovereign territory of Armenia to force a corridor to its exclave, and then on to Turkey. I have very little doubt that this is coming, whether it happens tomorrow or six months from now, this is a real, very critical reality that we have to be prepared for.

Now, they have said, red lines, red lines. But there has not been proper delimitation and demarcation of the borders. Azerbaijan is using this as an excuse to say, well, it’s not clear if these territories are Azerbaijani or Armenian. Although Armenia has publicly recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, Azerbaijan has not recognized Armenia’s territorial integrity, and there is military buildup along Armenia’s borders, with Russia now aligning itself with Baku. With the West not coming in to support, Iran will… — I cannot see a scenario in which Iran would deploy forces, it would only do that to protect its own borders with Armenia — Armenia will be left at the mercy of a much stronger army that is supported by Turkey and Russia.

JS: What you’re describing, it’s quite relevant to view this also in the geopolitical context of the war in Ukraine where, also, you have Turkey in a very interesting position because of its relationship with Russia, in particular. But, in a way, Armenia now, a very small country, is finding itself in the middle of one of the premier geopolitical chess boards in the world. And I know it’s been that way through history, but we’re in a particularly acute moment in history, where you have Russia having invaded Ukraine, I think underestimated the amount of weaponry that NATO was going to pour in.

I mean, Russia often says it — and I’ve repeated it before, they’re actually right about this — Russia is not just fighting Ukraine. Russia is fighting Ukraine, and NATO’s military infrastructure, and intelligence infrastructure. But in the context of what we’re talking about right now, you have Turkey, a NATO member, essentially now fully backing or entering kind of an alliance with Russia. You have Iran looming on the outskirts of it, and having its own complicated history with both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

How do you see the dynamics playing out with the war in Ukraine impacting the scenario that you’re talking about? And I want people to understand this: you’re essentially predicting that Azerbaijan is going to use military force to create a corridor that would connect Azerbaijan to Turkey. And, by necessity, the most direct route would be to go straight through Southern Armenia in order to open that.

Talk about, though, when you think about the conclusions that one can draw from what you just said, how did the geopolitical moves that we’re seeing in Ukraine impact a scenario you’re talking about, given that we’re involving Russia and a NATO member, Turkey?

MT: Yeah. I briefly touched upon it earlier, that after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the dynamics changed tremendously in our region as well. Russia was preoccupied with its war there. America or the West saw this as an opportunity to try to push Russia out. Russia and Turkey aligned themselves. Every time in our history that Russia and Turkey’s interests have aligned, it has always meant disaster or tragedy for us. That’s always been the case.

I think the biggest problem that the U.S. has with Turkey, although we’ve heard sort of behind-the-scenes — not behind-the-scenes, but off-the-record kinds of conversations — that, yes, they are very concerned with what’s happening in Turkey. Obviously, you know very well what’s happening in Turkey but, because it is a NATO member, and because of its strategic location, Turkey becomes problematic. How do they deal with a NATO member who’s supposed to help them in their war against whatever it is that is happening? So, this has created a lot of insecurity, obviously, in our region.

And one thing that I did want to point out that I didn’t: one of Moscow’s intentions is because they want to topple, at least from what we’re seeing, Armenia’s government, because they see it as a color revolution. And, before Pashinyan, all of the leaders before him were quite well aligned with Moscow, with the Kremlin.

Then you have this journalist-turned-politician who rallies thousands and thousands of people, topples a sitting president in Armenia, takes over, and talks about democracy and human rights and freedoms. And so, obviously, the Kremlin is also trying to destabilize Armenia to put in their own puppet — probably — regime in Armenia, or get Armenia to be part of the union state along with Belarus.

So there are a lot of considerations going on. And it’s all, like you said, it’s a chess game, and you’re trying to figure out, OK, what should be our next move, or who’s going to be doing what?

So, at the moment, it’s a very complex and convoluted [situation]. And, you know, for the first time, people will always ask me, as a journalist, as an editor, they know that I’m well informed compared to others … And what is the endgame? Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? At the moment, I don’t see it, to be quite frank. When you have major powers or regional powers around you that are aligned — Turkey and Russia, with Iran always questionable, you never know which way Iran is going to swing — we are at the mercy of those geopolitical shifts. And whether Putin wins or loses in Ukraine, or it’s a draw, either way it’s going to have huge impacts on our region as well.

JS: Maria, we only have a couple minutes left, but I did want to ask you one of those very big-picture history questions. And that is: the Turkish government for many, many years has relentlessly pursued any prominent individuals or publications that have mentioned the phrase “Armenian genocide” to describe what I think, clearly, historians agree was a genocide committed by Turkish forces against the Armenian people.

Give a brief overview of that history — we could go back hundreds of years — but, using that as a reference point, and Turkey’s militant objection to depictions of what happened to the Armenian people in the early 1900s specifically as a genocide. And talk about the suffering that has occurred among the Armenian people, and the way the world has perceived it.

MT: I’ve often said that the modern Turkish Republic was founded on the ashes of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire.

My grandparents were Ottoman Armenians. So, four of my grandparents were orphaned during the genocide, and they grew up in orphanages, so I was raised by children of survivors of the genocide. My father’s roots go to Musa Dagh, and my other side of the family go to Marash, which is now in present day Turkey.

So, the genocide started in 1915 in the middle of the First World War, and it was a clearly well-orchestrated executed annihilation of an entire people. One-and-a-half million Armenians perished. Many more were sent to the deserts of Syria, and many ended up in orphanages like my grandparents, both paternal and maternal. And the Armenians were dispersed throughout the world. Primarily, first in the Middle East, and then onto the Americas and different parts of the world.

In the diaspora where I’m from, it was very much an integral part of who we were, how we identified. As an Armenian, that was the first thing we would tell people, that we were victims of genocide. And we know that Turkey for many, many decades spent millions and millions of dollars in genocide denial, but it was clearly refuted by historical accounts, documentations, and one country after another has recognized the Armenian genocide. And, unfortunately, Turkey continues to deny that.

You know, I’ve been to Turkey, to what we call Western Armenia, which is now Eastern Turkey, and I’ve seen the 3,000-year-old remains, and the churches, and the monasteries, and everything that were built by the Armenians, that no longer exists, that don’t have any Armenians there anymore.

And so, this has been a very defining moment in our history. And when we see Azerbaijan, who is the ally of Turkey, when they consider themselves one nation, two states, the trauma creeps back up our spines, and it does for me, as well. They’re back to finish the job that they couldn’t finish, and now I feel like I’m living my grandparents’ lives again. It seems to be on repeat. And this hatred that they have of the Armenian, it’s very unnerving.

And I think another thing that was very, um, disturbing for us was the role of Israel. As a country, as a nation who suffered holocaust, we thought that there would be a mutual understanding of what that meant, to be surrounded by enemies, what that meant to be hated by those enemies, what that meant when we were both victims of horrific crimes against humanity. And yet, you know, Israel was selling military hardware that then was used to kill thousands of young men, including some of my friends.

JS: Yeah. And, well, we certainly could ask the Palestinian people about that hypocrisy as well.

Maria, we’re going to leave it there, and thank you so much for sharing not only your political analysis and historical analysis, but also some of your personal and your family story. Thanks so much for being with us here on Intercepted.

MT: Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you.

MH: That’s Maria Titizian, Editor-in-Chief of EVN Report.

And that does it for this episode of Intercepted.

Intercepted is a production of The Intercept. José Olivares is the lead producer. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is Editor-in-Chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. Legal Review by David Bralow. And this episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

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Thanks so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.

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