“We have not had any fruits or vegetables for over a month now. Whatever food I find I make sure my children get fed first, I simply do with what is left over.”
"It's been disastrous because we don't have gas.”
“Every day we lose many people, many patients.”
“They want us to die in the streets.”
Words spill from the parched lips and empty stomachs of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh as they relay their ordeal in a final bid for aid. Stuck within the barbed wires of war, they have nowhere else left to turn without losing what little they have left. What will persist as their fate in the future is unclear. Over the past few weeks, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has flared up and repeatedly cursed the news headlines. The tragic human rights crisis is now under heavy discussion around the globe.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but governed by the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh. Since December of last year, the area has been facing an acute humanitarian crisis caused by the Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting the region to its neighbouring country and historical ally, Armenia. This blockade has effectively cut off the region’s only lifeline, leaving its people without access to essential goods and services, including food, fuel, or medicine that come in the form of aid from Armenia.
After nine long months of besieging the region, Azerbaijan has recently intensified its aggression by launching a military strike to dissolve the pro-Armenian government on September 19th. Garbing the attack as an “anti-terror” operation, troops backed by drones were sent into Karabakh, resulting in twenty five deaths. The capital city, Stepanakert, was blitzed for twenty-four hours forcing people to take refuge in basements and bomb shelters. According to human rights ombudsman Geghan Stepanyan, the attack wounded 200 people, of whom eleven were children.
By the next day, regional leaders surrendered to Azerbaijan’s forces. On September 28, the de facto President of Karabakh, Samvel Shahramanyan signed a decree announcing the dissolution of Karabakh by January 1, 2024. Around half of Karabakh’s population has fled their home following Azerbaijan’s attack, and it is expected that many more will follow suit after Shahramanyan’s announcement. As the death toll and refugee count of Karabakh’s population soars, it seems as though President Aliyev’s dream of an Azerbaijan free of ethnic Armenians may soon be realised.
This attack is the latest in a long history of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region, a conflict that originated in the early 20th century during the Soviet period. In 1923, Joseph Stalin created the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. The Armenian majority area was placed within Soviet Azerbaijan but its ethnic Armenian population was granted special rights and a greater degree of autonomy. The strategy was designed to foster discord as it pitted Armenians and Azerbaijanis against each other, therefore allowing Moscow to interfere in the region as a mediator and exert influence.
Beginning in the 1960s, Karabakh Armenians repeatedly petitioned Soviet authorities to join Armenia. This culminated in a referendum in 1991, where 99% of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh voted for independence from Azerbaijan. However, the referendum was declared illegal, resulting in an ethnic conflict that escalated to war. In the following two years, Armenia gained a decisive victory, seizing control of not only Nagorno-Karabakh but seven adjoining districts. The war resulted in the mass displacement of both the Azerbaijani population from the newly occupied areas and ethnic Armenians from the rest of Azerbaijan. Although both sides committed war crimes, Azerbaijani state propaganda used the war to further feed the hatred of Armenians, creating an external enemy that ensured Azerbaijanis remain loyal to the government that protects them from the looming Armenian ‘threat’.
Azerbaijani state officials at the highest state level have aroused public alarm against supposed Armenian conspiracies, with President Aliyev stating “Armenian fascism has brought great misfortunes. Innocent people are still suffering from the Armenian policy.”
Azerbaijani media has consistently portrayed Armenians as historic enemies, with textbooks describing them to be “bandits, aggressors, treacherous and hypocritical,” as per historian Arif Yunus. Activism against this state-sponsored hate is dealt with harshly, and Yunus himself was imprisoned in 2014 along with his wife on charges of espionage. Armenian cultural heritage has been systematically denied and Armenian monuments destroyed in order to further the narrative that Armenians are newcomers to the region despite having settled there in the sixth century BC.
Violence against Armenians has also been condoned by the state, as evidenced by the pardoning of army officer Ramil Safarov after he beheaded an Armenian soldier out of ethnic hatred. The state’s use of Armenophobia as a political tool ensured the failure of diplomacy and negotiated solutions to reduce tensions. For nearly three decades, the countries maintained hostile relations with periodic deadly incidents, while Nagorno-Karabakh existed as a de facto independent state governed by the Republic of Artsakh.
Meanwhile, the 1999 discovery of a gas field in Azerbaijan led to an economic boom, allowing the country to invest heavily in its military. Emboldened by an alliance with Turkey, Azerbaijan launched an attack to reclaim its lost land in September 2020. This time it was Azerbaijan that won significant territorial gains, reoccupying the seven districts and a substantial part of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. After forty-four days, the war came to an end with the intervention of Moscow.
Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed the trilateral agreement on November 9 2020, under which Armenia would withdraw from three areas in Karabakh and seven adjoining territories by December. A new transport route along the Lachin corridor was created to connect it to Karabakh on which free movement was guaranteed. A Russian peacekeeping contingent of 1960 personnel, 90 armoured vehicles and 380 motor vehicles was deployed along key transport arteries to ensure both countries fulfil the conditions of the peace treaty.
While the agreement was met with great triumph in Azerbaijan, the people of Armenia were shocked to hear of their country’s capitulation to terms that essentially reversed the balance of power in the region to Azerbaijan’s favour. Hundreds of Armenians in its capital city, Yerevan, stormed government buildings, calling Prime Minister Pashinyan a traitor, chanting “Nikol has betrayed us.” Others marched into Parliament and assaulted its speaker, Ararat Mirzoyan. The 2020 peace deal tightened Azerbaijan’s control over the region and radically increased Russia’s territorial influence. Armenia on the other hand was dealt a heavy blow, having lost both territory and significance in further discussions over the fate of Karabakh.
On December 12 last year, protestors claiming to fight against illegal mining in Nagorno-Karabakh blockaded the Lachin corridor. They set up camp, only granting Russian peacekeepers and the Red Cross passage, ostensibly demanding that Azerbaijani specialists be allowed to monitor mining operations in the area. However, these “protestors” were largely comprised of military personnel, civil servants and members of pro-government organisations from Azerbaijan rather than known environmental activists. Suspicions of the protest’s legitimacy were confirmed when in April, the movement ended mere days after Azerbaijan opened a checkpoint under the excuse of intercepting military shipments from Armenia. As the blockade continued, it became increasingly evident that the “environmental movement” was a facade by the Azerbaijani government to put Nagorno-Karabakh under siege and starve its population to submission.
This tactic is one that Azerbaijan has used many times before and has been termed a “sharp power” by academics — a phrase used to describe a state’s strategy of manipulating media and culture to influence the world’s perception of its actions. Similar instances of greenwashing can be observed in numerous right-wing parties that have recently shifted from denying climate change to using it as a weapon of propaganda and bigotry.
In Arizona, United States, the attorney general sued the Biden administration for not considering the environmental impacts of loosening immigration laws, claiming Latin American immigrants would increase pressure on resources and pollute the environment. In France, Marine Le Pen used climate change to further her nationalistic agenda, blaming “nomadic people” who “do not care about the environment” as “they have no homeland.” In Germany, far-right parties have urged leaders to drop climate denialism and embrace ecological narratives as a recruitment tool.
This trend of appropriating nature to further xenophobia has been dubbed “eco-fascism” and perfectly describes Azerbaijan’s use of environmental narratives to systematically oppress and raise public opinion against Armenia. Azerbaijan has previously claimed “ecocide” in territories occupied by Armenia in 1994 and even declared its intention to take legal action under the Bern Convention over deforestation in those areas. This narrative used by Azerbaijan to perpetuate genocide and violence lies in blatant contradiction to data that shows the region actually gained more tree cover than it lost, as well as Azerbaijan’s ongoing environmental destruction through activities such as the use of white phosphorous against Armenian forces in 2020.
With the Lachin blockade, Azerbaijan has three goals to achieve. First, it wishes to discredit the Russian peacekeeping forces thereby eliminating their influence from the region. This is important for Azerbaijan since Armenia is a part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Russia’s equivalent of NATO under which Russia has promised to aid Armenia when it is attacked. Aliyev also wishes to install checkpoints on the Armenian side of the corridor, which is not possible under the current terms of the agreement enforced by Moscow’s forces. Azerbaijani media has thus launched a smear campaign against Russian forces, accusing them of corruption, pro-Armenian sentiment and even alleging they are Armenians in disguise. By constantly criticising Russian peacekeeping forces and putting Moscow’s inability to fulfil its mandate in the limelight, it hopes to destabilise Russian influence and remove its strategic presence from the region.
Secondly, it hopes to force Armenia to remove checkpoints on the Zanzegur corridor, a transit route connecting the mainland of Azerbaijan with its enclave of Nakhchivan through Armenian territory. Azerbaijan draws upon the 2020 ceasefire agreement as the basis for the corridor, citing its ninth point under which Armenia would guarantee unobstructed movement of people and cargo to Nakhchivan. The dispute lies in the word “unobstructed’; while Armenia argues the establishment of controls along its border is legitimate under the agreement, Azerbaijan takes it to be a violation. It thus hopes to pressure Armenia into either removing all checkpoints along the route or establishing its own checkpoints on the Lachin corridor. Finally, it aims to fully subsume Nagorno-Karabakh and its people into Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani President Aliyev has made his intentions for Karabakh’s population clear- in a speech on May 28, he told the Karabakh Armenians that they must “bend their necks” and accept full integration, without any special rights or civilian protection.
For Karabakh Armenians, who have historically suffered extreme discrimination, ethnic violence and pogroms in Azerbaijan, being forced into this hostile country without any protection is nothing short of a death sentence. The vitriol against Armenians is so prevalent in Azerbaijan that the Council of Europe’s Commission against Racial Intolerance found that an entire generation of Azerbaijanis have grown up hearing nothing but hate speech towards Armenia. Decades of indoctrination have created a situation where 91% of Azerbaijanis consider Armenians to be their greatest enemy as per the findings of the 2012 study by the Caucasus Research Resource Centre.
These anti-Armenian sentiments were put on display when thousands took to the streets chanting “death to Armenians” after the first day of fighting. As supplies in Karabakh continue to dwindle, the grim choice Karabakh Armenians face is to either starve under Aliyev’s brutal ethnic cleansing, or to submit and face rampant Armenophobia in Azerbaijan.
Numerous international organisations have condemned the blockade, with the European Parliament being the first to do so on 19 January. In February, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Azerbaijan to “take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin corridor.” The ICJ’s decision under Article 41 of its statute is legally binding. However, Azerbaijan not only failed to comply but opened a new checkpoint the very next month. On 11 August, Armenia invoked Article 35 of the UN Charter to bring the dispute to the attention of the Security Council, urging it to adopt a more proactive approach.
The UNSC convened on August 16, with the Red Cross and the European Union stressing the urgent need for humanitarian aid. While speakers from the US and Russia did highlight the need for normalising Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and lifting the blockade, no relevant resolution or decision was adopted by the Council. Many have also highlighted the importance of utilising hard power by imposing economic sanctions to weaken Azerbaijan’s position. Cutting off trade links will cripple Azerbaijan’s resources and will also add weight behind the West’s condemnation of its actions. Although several countries have offered harsh criticism, no sanctions have been imposed so far. The passivity of international actors can partly be attributed to Azerbaijan’s strategic timing of the blockade and its tactical international relations policy.
Azerbaijan has carefully considered its relations with all major stakeholders in this conflict to craft a two pronged foreign policy. This strategy involves a keen focus towards the political climate of its opponents to strike the moment they are incapacitated. Aliyev is aware that the country with the most influence and ability to end its campaign of reclamation is Russia, and has taken steps to neutralise this threat.
In February 2022, Aliyev and Putin signed a political-military agreement, followed by an intelligence sharing deal and a deal to increase gas imports. Moscow is also dependent on Azerbaijan to forge links with Turkey and develop a North-South Railway connecting Russia to the Persian Gulf. Aliyev took advantage of Russia’s war with Ukraine and set up the blockade at a time when Russia was distracted and weakened by its own war, ensuring Moscow was both unwilling and unable to offer protection to Karabakh. Armenia, Karabakh’s historic patron has also been signalling a shift in priorities ever since its resounding defeat in 2020.
Although the Armenian people feel a strong bond with Karabakh’s people, their leader Nikol Pashinyan indicated his willingness to make concessions after a meeting with President Aliyev in April last year. Following the Brussels meeting, Pashinyan announced he was not primarily concerned with Karabakah’s sovereignty or status but the “security and rights guarantee” for its population. This key shift can be attributed to Armenia’s weakened position after the war and Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine which essentially deprived Armenia of its biggest ally. Though Pashinyan may have withdrawn Armenia from the Karabakh conflict to protect his country’s interests, for the people of Armenia this move was nothing short of betrayal.
Thousands of protestors gathered on the streets of Yerevan to demand Pashinyan’s resignation, holding rallies outside parliament and blocking major roads. On April 22, Vice President of the National Assembly and member of the opposition party Armenia Alliance Ishkan Saghteylan announced the launch of daily nationwide protests. Saghteylan called upon opposition groups in a video address, stating “We are facing not only new concessions from the homeland, but also the real danger of losing statehood. These are not just words. This is the bitter reality.” This movement was termed “Zartnir Lao” referring to an Armenian revolutionary folk song.
Despite mass protests and a walkout by the opposition parties, Pashinyan did not change his stance and cracked down on demonstrators, arresting a hundred eighty people in April. In May, Pashinyan announced his plans to normalise relations with Azerbaijan with its ambassador-at-large Edmon Marukyan stating “Armenia has never had and does not have any territorial claims against Azerbaijan”. Protestors doubled their efforts, blocking employee’s entries into government offices and disrupting metro services. Pashinyan however paid no heed to this, merely increasing arrests to silence any dissent. In September, he stated he was ready to sign a peace deal with Azerbaijan to ensure “long-term peace and security for Armenia”.
Pashinyan’s statements make it clear that while Armenia is still concerned with the wellbeing of the people of Karabakh, it is no longer in a position to engage with yet another military tussle with Azerbaijan. Armenia’s indications that it has largely relinquished its territorial claims over Karabakh further emboldened Aliyev, providing him with the assurance that with Nagorno-Karabakh now having lost its largest ally, was his for the taking.
The second tactic employed entails looking for new avenues to build ties, allowing Azerbaijan to find partners that will support its territorial ambitions. Azerbaijan has found a staunch ally in Turkey, which has offered it military technology and a close economic partnership. Turkey and Armenia’s fraught history has deepened its ties to Azerbaijan. Turkish President Erdogan has boldly praised Azerbaijan’s “great operation to both defend its own territories and to liberate the occupied Karabakh”. According to Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, Turkey’s visible show of rhetoric and moral support is a key factor in Azerbaijan’s recent assertiveness.
Finally, Azerbaijan has utilised its vast energy reserves to ensure it is indispensable for Western energy security, rendering the West largely reluctant to levy harsh sanctions or take concrete action. The European Union has invested heavily in Azerbaijan’s gas pipelines, and considers it a reliable partner in substituting Russian energy supplies. Azerbaijan’s ties with the US are even stronger. Situated between Europe and Afghanistan, it is a crucial strategic hub for the American military which routes more than a third of non-lethal equipment bound for Afghanistan through Azerbaijan.
This military significance has immense political significance, as both Republican and Democratic governments through the years have consistently waived Section 907 sanctions created to curb Azerbaijani aggression. Although the US did adopt a resolution to cut military aid during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, President Biden soon rescinded the decision. Given this context, Aliyev’s impunity in diplomatic attempts to resolve the dispute gains a new light, as does the West’s bizarre indifference to the crisis. President Aliyev is aware that though the West may condemn him, there is no one who will offer true support to Armenia or Karabakh. This attitude was best exemplified in a statement he made in a December meeting: “No one can influence us. There may be some phone calls and some statements, but we do not need to pay attention. We take those phone calls simply out of political courtesy,” he states, “but this will not change our position.”
As the Lachin blockade reaches its ninth month, deaths from starvation and disease are rising at an alarming rate. Food rations, first introduced in January have become increasingly more harsh to the point where a family is entitled to merely one loaf of bread a day. In August, authorities reported the death of forty year old K Hovhannisyan due to an acute deficiency of energy and protein, making him the first official death from malnutrition.
Waste disposal and water treatment has stopped; pharmacies have run out of life-saving medicine, and all non-essential surgeries have been postponed. Hospitals are under-equipped to treat patients in critical condition, with a cardiologist in Khankendi stating, “We are doing 10% of the procedures now. We simply do not have enough stents […] We will have a very big [number of] heart attacks at home. Every day we lose many people, many patients.” Despite this, the transfer of patients to Yerevan, Armenia remains impossible.
These deaths have been deliberately engineered by Azerbaijan to ethnically cleanse the population, as it has been attempting to do since the first pogroms in 1988. The same pattern of atrocities by the Azerbaijani state against Karabakh’s population was seen during the 2020 war, during which Azerbaijani soldiers brutally abused, humiliated, tortured and beheaded Armenian prisoners of war as per a report by the Human Rights Watch. Keeping in mind this long history of crimes against Armenians, the former international criminal court chief prosecutor Louis Moreno Ocampo warned the Lachin blockade must be considered a genocide. Citing Article II of the Genocide Convention, Ocampo argued Aliyev had knowingly and willingly inflicted conditions of life intended to bring about the physical destruction of Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians.
Azerbaijan has attempted to shield itself from charges of genocide by offering to open an alternate route to Karabakh through the Azeri region of Aghdam. However, this supposed solution has numerous flaws. European Commission Vice President Josep Barell has criticised Azerbaijan, pointing out that opening a new road does not exonerate Aliyev from his legal responsibility of opening the Lachin corridor. Many also worry the offer is simply another scheme to make Karabakh dependent on Azerbaijan for survival. Even though conditions in Karabakh grow worse with each new day, its people are largely reluctant to accept Azerbaijani aid. According to Armenian journalist Lilit Shahverdyan, “The local people built barricades across the road. They don’t want to take food from Azerbaijan. They fear it will be poisoned.”
The Azerbaijani President’s Assistant in a recent statement welcomed any attempts to help broker peace talks, resparking hope that the countries may reconcile and end the blockade through negotiated settlement. Yet analysts like Laurence Broers from Chatham House are sceptical of such a resolution, stating that diplomacy is not the solution to the Karabakh crisis. According to Broers, any attempt at negotiation will only legitimise the use of blockading as an acceptable tactic. Any outcome borne will irrevocably be tainted by its coercive circumstances and thus risks being discredited. For diplomacy to succeed, the blockade must first end.
Former Pentagon official Michael Rubin has thus strongly advocated for the use of airlifts, citing historical examples such as the Truman administration’s contributions to the 1948 Berlin airlift and Operation Provide Comfort which staved off the genocide of Iraqi Kurds. Another way for Washington to take action is through various economic sanctions. Rubin argues for the use of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act which allows the United States to freeze the assets of foreigners involved in human rights abuse along with blocking their visas and business transactions.
The US must also cut aid to Azerbaijan by enforcing the Humanitarian Corridors Act. This law, enshrined in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, was introduced to ensure valuable taxpayer money would not reach countries that impeded the delivery of US humanitarian assistance to other countries. The act was passed to guarantee the timely and effective transport of US humanitarian aid, allowing the US to immediately stop furnishing assistance to any country that came in the way of this mission. Azerbaijan is the recipient of big security support from America, receiving $164 million in security aid from 2002 to 2020 as per a report by the US Government Accountability office. Cutting off this aid will pressure Aliyev to fall in line with international conventions of law as it will put significant strain on its resources and military. Moreover, enforcing this act will also send a clear message that the US stands wholeheartedly in support with the people of Karabakh, thereby encouraging other countries to follow suit.
The energy trade between the West and Azerbaijan must not act as a reason for the West to abscond responsibility but must instead be used as a tool for human rights diplomacy. The European Union and UK as huge investors in Azerbaijani energy must leverage their diplomatic weight and impose targeted sanctions. This way, trade policy could be aligned with human rights thereby showing the West’s condemnation of the blockade is not merely a hollow statement.
President Aliyev’s ambitions of reclaiming what he considers to be rightfully Azerbaijani land has put the lives of thousands of Karabakh Armenians at risk. Faced with the prospect of a life under Azerbaijani occupation, nearly 7,000 people have made the difficult choice to leave behind their homes and material possessions to flee for Armenia. Azerbaijan’s genocide in Karabakh is a black mark on the record of international actors that preach of human rights while turning a blind eye to atrocities simply because it is politically and economically convenient.
The world has a responsibility to protect Karabakh’s people, and must act urgently to design a solution before it is too late for Karabakh Armenians.
Devi Sankhla (she/her) is a student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at University College London, and a writer at Political Pandora.
Edited by Thenthamizh SS and Eshal Zahur
Cover photo: Davit Ghahramanyan/ AFP via Getty Images
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