Let me start with two major qualifiers. I usually attempt to limit the emotion in my commentary, but as an Armenian, my frustration is peaking. We must also take a moment to extend our prayers for all the victims of this senseless carnage we are witnessing in Ukraine like a reality TV show. I try to advocate a pragmatic and rational approach to our problems in the diaspora and the homeland, but the core of my human frailties has been wounded. We need to rise above our self-imposed victim culture, but the isolation imposed on us by a disinterested world is devastating. I had an entirely different topic to offer this week, but I decided to postpone that submission based on the emotions of many Armenians toward this conflict. I resisted the temptation to weigh in, but the hypocrisy that impacts Armenians needs to be addressed.
It is natural and important to have empathy for the Ukrainian people as they see their nation invaded. Their resilience is admirable, and we should all pray for their security. We all have our opinions about how various governments operate on the world stage given the dynamics of geo-political alliances. Most of us know little about the leaders and their decisions other than what the media chooses to feed us. Aside from a repetitive and constant barrage with the advent of a 24-hour breaking news cycle, most of the coverage is from an endless litany of “contributors,” “consultants” and “commentators” who offer a wide range of perspectives. Like a restaurant buffet, we can choose our favorites and ignore the rest. I am happy that the Ukrainian people are receiving substantial coverage of the conflict and its causes, but my emotions are tempered by the hypocrisy of essentially ignoring the atrocities committed against the peaceful Armenians by the marauding Azerbaijanis and Turks. My emotions are not about Ukraine, but rather the hypocrisy of those third parties standing in support for democracy and freedom. When political considerations taint the consistency of human rights values, hypocrisy thrives. I don’t think I am alone in feeling like the person who applied for a job, had a superb list of qualifications and received overwhelming feedback only to be denied support in the final analysis. The purity of the process is tainted by other considerations.
The media (unusually united on this) and western nations have rallied around Ukraine based on the concepts of self-determination, freedom, democracy and human rights. These are all noble ideals that are tied to human rights and civility. Armenia and Artsakh have valiantly promoted these same values not just during the 44-day war, but for the previous 30 years as they struggled against a genocidal racist nation. At face value, it seems that the Armenians are worthy of the support of freedom loving nations. Self-determination—that’s what our entire struggle has been about. Freedom—a small nation attacked by a racist oppressor. Democracy— Armenia and Artsakh have been a bastion of democratic progression in a dangerous region. Human rights—Artsakh has been subjected to atrocities and been the victim of illegal weapons and war crimes. We can check the boxes for the perceived litmus test. Just as the job applicant was deceived, it is obvious there is more to support than morality.
The 44-day war was a humiliating period in our recent history. There were many contributors to this debacle with the internal capabilities of our leaders generating much attention in our communities. Perhaps equally frustrating was the inaction of the world community to live the values they advocate by coming to the side of Artsakh. Armenia and Artsakh became the recipients of empty words of support. The Armenians of Artsakh legally and peacefully applied for their reunification with Armenia or sovereignty. They defended their lives when unilaterally attacked by Azerbaijan. The artificial nation of Azerbaijan sued for peace yet violated every agreement over the next years in a terror campaign intended to break the resolve of the people of Artsakh. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were expelled from Azerbaijan in a campaign of premeditated murder, pogroms and deportations. The Azeris have committed cultural genocide in Armenian occupied territories. Despite this horrific human rights record and a lack of good faith negotiations, Azerbaijan has been rewarded by not being held accountable for their endless crimes. For an oppressor nation, this is a green light. Despite the more than ample evidence of their nefarious intentions, no deterrence was offered to protect the peaceful and civil party. Aliyev was thus enabled to attack Artsakh again in September of 2020 beginning the 44-day assault. The nations of the world remained spectators, and the media focused elsewhere.
Today, we watch with mixed feelings as European nations and the US unleash significant sanctions and secure arms shipments to Ukraine. While Turkey and Azerbaijan attacked the Armenians with illegal weapons, violated international law and imported jihadist mercenaries, the world stood by and offered consoling rhetoric. No one offered weapons, humanitarian aid or intervention with the exception of Russia. In fact, Putin was able to outflank the OSCE Minsk Group, chartered with mediation for Artsakh, and keep the western co-chairs on the sidelines. With Russia as the sole broker, the war was extended long enough for Russia to reach a deal with Turkey over Syria and teach Pashinyan a lesson not to stray again (the loss of Shushi). No help. Isolated and left to consume the rhetoric of western values, this is a role we have become far too accustomed to accept.
The one role that both small unsupported nations like Armenia and emerging players like Ukraine have in common is they are usually victims of proxy wars. The Artsakh conflict for Armenians is about long sought self-determination and survival, but the strategic issue that motivates the self-interest of the larger nations is the Turkic expansion in the Caucasus and Russian hegemony in their traditional backyard. Armenia and Artsakh become their political sandbox. Likewise, despite the talk about democracy and sovereignty for Ukraine, the real storyline is about drawing the line between the Russia expansion and the buffer of Europe. As a non-NATO country, Ukraine has been moving toward the west and has served as an effective buffer for Europe. Overtures of NATO membership for Ukraine have been a red line for Russia. The latter’s intention is to neutralize the western movement with a friendly government in Ukraine. Russia’s playbook has been predictable with the annexing of Crimea in 2014 and the de facto control of the eastern sections of Ukraine. Just as Armenia has a tradition of balancing acts in policy to maintain its survival, it is clear that an overt pro-western position in Ukraine has provoked Russia. It is noble of all of the western nations to encourage Ukraine, but they have no troops on the ground and will avoid direct military involvement. It is quite possible that this ends up with Ukraine having a pro-Russian government and the economies in Russia (and the west) are compromised. Our world today is very economically interdependent. It is improbable that sanctions will only affect Russia. Just as Armenia lives in a geopolitical reality with hostile neighbors, so does Ukraine as it is geographically positioned on the border of the east and west divide. This is a precarious reality that requires skillful positioning as each side will seek to influence the proxy’s direction. Extreme moves in either direction will draw a response. The lesser powers are not exempt from the self-interest of others. The fact that sanctions were not viewed as deterrents to the invasion speaks to the broader implications beyond Ukraine. The experience with South Ossetia, Crimea and Donbas should have been ample evidence of how Putin would respond to a perceived threat. It does not exonerate the aggression, but it was predictable.
For Armenians, the conflict in Ukraine is yet another reminder that the response of the world is contingent on self-interests. We are rightfully upset at the silence of the west for similar aggressions against the Armenians. Our indignation, however, is based on human morality and the rhetoric of empathy. Unfortunately, in our world of power and greed, they have little or no value. Despite the sanctions and supplies, Ukraine will also suffer because their value was not enough for Europe and the west to engage in direct conflict or prevention. The opportunity for deterrence has passed. Now the focus is on Russia to suffer through sanctions, but the onslaught will continue because power and egos are the governing elements. The empathy of the world will be forgotten, leaving Ukraine in a geopolitical dilemma. It will still border Russia and Europe, thereby continuing its role as a proxy conflict. We have a right to feel the emotion of isolation, but we must always maintain our empathy and opposition to human suffering. The frustration we feel must not prevent our prayers for the common citizens of Ukraine: the children, women, elderly and military who are impacted through no fault of their own. In late 2020, it was the innocent of Artsakh who were victimized by the inhumanity of an aggressor. Today, it is the innocent people of Ukraine. It is natural for us to feel frustration, but we must not let it cloud our values. We are dignified and civilized people. We must do better in understanding the dynamics of power particularly as it impacts us, but human empathy is part of our identity. As victims of genocide, we have this responsibility to speak against human suffering. The day will come for Armenia and Artsakh. We must be a vanguard for human rights.