YEREVAN, Armenia—Grisha Stepanyan sat, looking lost. His crutches leaned against his chair, his left pant leg neatly folded up above his knee. He clutched a square of cardboard cut from a package of Choco Pie snack cakes on the back of which were written, in precise Armenian script, the phone numbers of several family members.
The day before, he said, a group of “Turks” had raided his village in Nagorno-Karabakh and had killed six residents. (Armenians use “Turks” as a slur for Azerbaijanis, but in this war, Azerbaijan was getting heavy backing from Turkey, so it’s not clear exactly to whom he was referring.) His daughter came to pick him up immediately, wrote out the phone numbers for him, and put him on a minibus to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, six hours’ drive away.
That’s where I met him, in a refugee reception center with dozens of his compatriots. They were among the tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians who had fled Karabakh since the Azerbaijani offensive started in late September.
Many of them, like Stepanyan, were elderly, and many were children. One girl was in a wheelchair. A volunteer at the center showed me, on her phone, several drawings that some of the children had done while there. One, by a 9-year-old boy, depicted his house with a tree in front that had been destroyed by an incoming shell.
Many of the children appear to have been traumatized by the fighting, said Varuzhan Mazmanyan, a doctor who was volunteering at the center and who was showing me around. One boy of 5 or 6 heard a crane start up at a construction site next to the refugee center; he thought the sound was a drone and ran inside.
It’s not easy on the elderly, either. Stepanyan was worried about how he was going to collect his monthly pension now that he wasn’t in Karabakh, and as he struggled to explain his predicament to Mazmanyan, he broke into tears. The doctor gently explained that a system was being set up to distribute Karabakh pensions here in Armenia, but it didn’t do much to change the old man’s miserable expression. Tears continued to well in his eyes.
COVID-19, unsurprisingly, is rampant in Karabakh and new arrivals at the center get their temperature checked and a face mask if they don’t have one. Many of these people had spent days or weeks in crowded underground bomb shelters in Karabakh before fleeing to Armenia. I couldn’t help but notice that the mask-wearing rate was maybe 60 percent, but who can worry about an invisible threat like the coronavirus when a very tangible one is landing and exploding around you? Besides, it’s pretty much impossible to socially distance when you’re a refugee.
I had come to Armenia at one of the most difficult times in the nation’s history, and it was about to get worse. On Sept. 27, Azerbaijan had launched a full-scale offensive in order to recapture Karabakh, an enclave within its territory that it lost to Armenians nearly three decades earlier.
By the time I got there, about a month into the war, Armenia was losing. The individual human cost was visible here at the refugee center, in the stories of people who had had to flee their homes ahead of the advancing Azerbaijani forces. If Azerbaijanis managed to take all of Karabakh, the territory’s entire population of 150,000 residents—virtually all ethnic Armenians —would likely become refugees.
But the loss was also being experienced at a different level among Armenians, at a national and existential scale. For Armenians, Karabakh is an integral part of their national identity. One common formulation has it that the nation is a “trinity,” consisting of the country of Armenia, Karabakh, and the large global Armenian diaspora.
Armenia had won control of Karabakh in a previous war with Azerbaijan, in the 1990s, as the Soviet Union was collapsing. That war had ended in a cease-fire but not a peace treaty, and Karabakh is still internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory. Armenians didn’t see it that way, though. “There is no Armenia without Karabakh,” Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in one wartime address to the nation.
Winning Karabakh in the 1990s was seen by many Armenians as a sort of comeback after the 1915 genocide of ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. As Thomas de Waal’s definitive account of that war, Black Garden, put it: “Victory over Azerbaijan had altered the previous fixed self-image of Armenians as ‘the noble victim.’ This time, after all, they had won, and others had lost.”
Mazmanyan’s ancestors were from Kars, in today’s Turkey, and were survivors of the genocide. “Why is this happening again, 100 years later?” he asked. “Here [at the refugee center] you see women, children, elderly. The men are all there, so they can return all our lands again. That is the goal of everything we’re doing here.”
Losing Karabakh would be not only a national defeat but also a blow, possibly fatal, to the hopes engendered by Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution, in which the man-of-the-people ex-journalist Pashinyan improbably toppled the corrupt, strongman regime that had ruled the country for two decades. For Pashinyan to be the one to lose to Azerbaijan would threaten the country’s prospects for democracy.
At that point in October, though, the scale of the oncoming catastrophe was perhaps too great to comprehend, and there was a pervasive denial about how the war was going.
The Armenian Ministry of Defense was issuing regular, rosy dispatches from the front denying any Azerbaijani advance and proudly enumerating the numbers of tanks and drones it had destroyed and enemy soldiers it had killed. Independent analysts, though, were painting a different picture: Azerbaijan was making dramatic advances on the ground and Armenian forces were suffering serious attrition.
The Armenian media had, however, uncritically picked up the official line. This was partly due to a censorship regime: Shortly after fighting started, the government instituted martial law, one of the provisions of which was that it was illegal “to call into question the military capabilities” of the armed forces. But it also seemed to be partly a self-censorship in response to popular demand: There was no appetite for news about how Armenia was losing.
In my day job I am Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, a website covering the former Soviet Union, and any story we published that suggested things could be going badly for Armenia was met with a flurry of social media anger, claiming that we had fallen victim to Azerbaijani government propaganda.
There were widespread rumors that—secretly—the situation was better than it appeared. Many Armenians told me that they had heard from authoritative sources that things were in fact going well on the battlefield, or that Russia was secretly supplying arms. (Russia is nominally a treaty ally of Armenia, but its conspicuously laissez-faire attitude while Armenians in Karabakh were under attack was the subject of much speculation.)
I met one young woman, Irina Safaryan, who worked for the de facto government in Karabakh and had fled to Yerevan when her hometown, Hadrut, was taken by Azerbaijan. She chalked up bad news about the war to “panic” spread by irresponsible social media users: “Imagine if they had Twitter in 1993. Panicking is not going to help anyone.” Still, she allowed that some of the bad news may have been true. “I know a lot of things, but I keep them to myself,” she said.
I asked Armenian American political analyst Richard Giragosian, who has lived in Yerevan for 16 years and now heads a think tank here, what he made of this kind of denial. He called it the “myth of invincibility” borne out of the experience of the first war, which Armenians at one point were badly losing until they came back to rout the Azerbaijanis.
That mythology has bred a sense of complacency, an almost spiritual belief in Armenians’ toughness and superiority over Azerbaijanis that would negate whatever material advantage the Azerbaijani state might have. Giragosian characterized this thinking as “bullshit exceptionalism.”
But there also were plenty of cracks in the outward displays of confidence. I took a tour of VOMA, a volunteer paramilitary organization in Yerevan that trains nonsoldiers in combat skills and maintains a battalion of troops fighting in Karabakh. It was almost a tragically shambolic scene, with a wide variety of unprepared-looking people training to go a war that even the professional soldiers of the Armenian armed forces were losing badly.
There I met 59-year-old Hrayr Koroghlian, a gray-bearded Frenchman of Armenian descent who had left his job at a car dealership in France to train at VOMA. Other than the wooden model of an AK-47 he cradled, he bore a remarkable resemblance to Bill Murray as Steve Zissou. “I’m mentally ready” to go to the front, he told me. “The commanders will decide when I’m physically ready.”
But when I asked the two young volunteers who were showing me around how they thought the war was going, they both lowered their eyes and paused a bit. “I don’t know,” one told me.
This war had been coming for a long time. In the late 1980s, Armenians demanded that Karabakh—which was inside the borders of Soviet Azerbaijan—be transferred to Soviet Armenia. Interethnic violence broke out and then, when the Soviet Union collapsed, all-out war. By the time a cease-fire was signed in 1994, Armenia controlled a substantial part of Azerbaijani territory. That included Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as large swaths of other territory surrounding it, which Armenian forces captured during the fighting. Those territories had been almost entirely populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis, who all fled. In total, more than 600,000 Azerbaijanis were displaced from this area, according to United Nations figures.
The remaining population—almost entirely ethnic Armenian—formed a Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, unrecognized by any other state, including Armenia itself. Armenia nevertheless heavily backed the de facto state, both financially and militarily.
The loss burned among Azerbaijanis, who saw the war as an unjust land grab by Armenians. Over the years since the war, peace talks were held to come up with a formal resolution to the conflict, which would have included something like a return to Azerbaijan of the territories surrounding Karabakh, some kind of status for Karabakh that would reflect the will of its population, the right of the displaced people to return, and an international security guarantee to police it all.
In the early days of the negotiations, the two sides talked seriously and were at times agonizingly close to making a deal. But the talks increasingly turned into empty formalities and the positions on both sides hardened against making any compromises. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, poured the wealth it gained from extracting its substantial natural gas and oil reserves into its military and vowed that it would take back its territories by force, if necessary.
The signs of war were especially evident over the last year. Azerbaijan was initially cheered by Pashinyan’s coming to power. The former ruling regime had been led by senior officers from the first Karabakh war, a group of hard-liners known as “the Karabakh clan” in Baku. Pashinyan, who had no connection to Karabakh, initially appeared to Azerbaijanis to be a fresh voice and someone with whom they could talk. There were some initially positive moves on the diplomatic front. But the populist prime minister began to adopt even more hard-line public positions than even the “Karabakh clan” had. These were reciprocated by even more urgent threats of war from Baku.
And yet, most Armenians never seemed to believe that a war was actually possible. Over my years of reporting on this conflict, I had been struck by the disconnect from what I heard in Azerbaijan—that war would be inevitable if negotiations didn’t work—and among Armenians, who tended to think that Baku was all talk and no action.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Armenians and Azerbaijanis really hate one another. The rivalry may be the most vicious in the world. The few voices of those on either side who are trying to break the cycle of aggression and victimization have been even further marginalized as the result of the war. But they still exist.
Early on in the war, I read a Facebook post by a young Armenian journalist, Arpi Bekaryan, that had affected me strongly. It described her journey from being an Azerbaijani-hating nationalist to someone who saw the conflict in terms of humans, not sides.
After the war started, wading into Caucasus social media every day was a suffocating exercise, seeing people who were once liberal and open-minded turning nationalist and flag-waving. The mutual hatred was crushing, and reading Bekaryan’s post was cathartic. So when I went to Yerevan, I looked her up.
She told me that on the day war broke out, her father happened to be in Karabakh for the funeral of an in-law. She didn’t get any news from him all day and began to worry. Meanwhile, her Azerbaijani friends on Facebook were cheering the outbreak of war and celebrating what they thought would be their imminent return to Karabakh. “I have lost many friends from Azerbaijan,” she told me.
That she has friends from Azerbaijan at all is a rarity; the large majority of young Armenians and Azerbaijanis have no contact with one another. But Bekaryan had just finished a master’s program in journalism in Georgia that brings together Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis. There she got to know people from the other side of the conflict and their perspective, and realized that what she had learned growing up about the conflict was incomplete at best. “We think Azerbaijanis are all brainwashed and under the influence of state propaganda, and that we aren’t at all, that we’re balanced,” she said with a laugh.
While she’s been dismayed by many of her Azerbaijani friends’ turn toward militarism, she saves most of her criticism for her own side, for Armenians’ unwillingness to acknowledge Azerbaijanis’ trauma and legitimate grievances from the first war.
That is an exceedingly rare quality in this conflict, and people on either side who criticize their own side’s nationalism and militarism are routinely branded as “traitors.” I asked her how she dealt with that accusation.
She responded by telling me a story about a funeral she had gone to a week before, of a good friend’s brother who died fighting. She described it as impersonal, almost mechanistic, with the soldiers’ funerals taking place three at a time and martial hymns being played.
As she left, another friend described how impressed he was with the scene. “He was trying to romanticize this, seeing this as something patriotic, and I got so angry I started to shout at him on the street. ‘There is nothing to be proud of,’ ” she told him. “ ‘It’s because of people like you that we are in this situation.’
“If it wasn’t for this nationalistic ideology we wouldn’t be here at all, and we wouldn’t have had the war in the ’90s as well,” she continued. She is soft-spoken, but her voice tightened. “I don’t see myself as a traitor. They are the traitors. These people are not ending the war with this hate speech, with this nationalism, even by going to the front and fighting again and again. How many times is it going to take, how many lives? People are saying here, ‘We will fight to the last Armenian.’ We talk about the genocide but then we say we will fight to the last Armenian. And they call me the traitor?”
In this atmosphere, saturated with bravado and desperation, defeat was unfathomable. And for Armenians, who tend to see themselves as cardinally superior to Azerbaijanis—more civilized, smarter, tougher, and better fighters—the thought that they could one day lose never crossed their minds.
And then they lost.
A bit past midnight on Nov. 10, Pashinyan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a deal to end the war.
Two days before, Azerbaijan had announced that it had captured Shusha, the hilltop city that is both a strategically key site and a symbolically rich one; it had been the center of Azerbaijani culture in Karabakh for centuries.
Armenian officials denied that the city (they spell it Shushi) had been taken. “Wait for the official news, and wait for the end of the battle of Shushi which I’m sure our army will end with glory and we will win, I am sure. Trust our army and wait,” the Ministry of Defense spokesman, Artsrun Hovhannisyan, said. Armenian social media and rumor mills were full of reports that, in fact, the city was not under Azerbaijani control. It turned out that the Azerbaijanis were right, and with Shusha under their control, the Armenians faced a rout and Pashinyan had no choice but to sign the capitulation.
The terms were a complete catastrophe for Armenia. Azerbaijan would retain control of everything they took during the war and gain control of the occupied territories surrounding Karabakh. Among the territories signed away was Grisha Stepanyan’s village of Chanakhchi. The little territory that Armenians were left with would be protected by Russian peacekeepers, and the future of that bit of land, even in the medium term, is precarious.
The response among Armenians was shock, sadness, and anger. “I’m empty,” Safaryan, the government worker in exile, tweeted that morning. “I don’t exist any more.” Her hometown of Hadrut also had been signed away.
Almost immediately after the capitulation was announced, mysterious groups of men, some likely connected to the former regime, stormed Parliament, badly beat the speaker, and even broke into Pashinyan’s residence (he wasn’t there). Pashinyan’s political opponents, who had been lying somewhat low during the war, immediately struck and demanded his resignation.
Even many of the prime minister’s supporters were dismayed. Pashinyan regularly claimed to rule by mandate of “the people,” and one of his promises shortly after coming to power was that he would not sign any “secret” deal on Karabakh but would instead bring it to the people to discuss.
The morning after the deal was signed, I headed over to Parliament to see if anything was still happening and found a few hundred people uneasily milling about, hoping that Pashinyan or members of parliament would come out and explain what had happened.
One of them was Tigran Khachaturyan, who was a Pashinyan supporter. “You can imagine the frustration of the nation now. That the person who had the most trust just screwed us in one night, with one signature,” he said. He acknowledged that Pashinyan may have had no choice but resented that the deal was done in precisely the fashion the prime minister had vowed it wouldn’t. “OK, there was no choice—then do it according to your promise. Come to the square and tell it to the people.”
Many others, though, didn’t believe Pashinyan had no choice and accused him of “selling out” Karabakh. The details of the conspiracy theory were fuzzy and often contradictory, but they were all based on a belief that Armenia could have won the war. “He is a traitor,” Ruzana Martirosyan told me. “He stopped the soldiers from fighting.” Another, Emma Begiyan, told me: “They were telling us every day that everything was going great [in the war] and now in one night we’re selling our land.”
In the wake of the defeat, there has been a lot of second-guessing of Pashinyan’s decision-making. The chief of staff of the armed forces came out to say that military leaders recommended surrendering just days after the start of the war, when it was clear that Armenia was hopelessly outmatched against Azerbaijan and Turkey, and the country could have negotiated less painful terms. Putin piled on, saying that Pashinyan had rejected an earlier deal, to which Aliyev agreed, that also would have left Armenia in a far better position than it ended up.
It appeared that Pashinyan was politically hamstrung by Armenians’ belief that they couldn’t lose. After the war ended, Giragosian told me that Pashinyan was getting conflicting information on the military situation, and pessimistic assessments like that of the armed forces’ chief of staff were in the minority. Still, he summed up Pashinyan’s strategic thinking in one word: “hubris.” As I write this, Pashinyan’s fate is unclear, but it’s hard to believe he’s going to hold on for much longer.
Pashinyan is far from irreplaceable and the values of his revolution—a dedication to stamping out corruption and putting more power in the hands of the people—may be in better hands with someone else. The bigger risk, though, is that the entire project of democratization that he spearheaded will be discredited and jeopardized.
For decades, liberal critics of the former ruling regime were patronized by the claim that democracy was a luxury unaffordable for a country like Armenia, under a serious military threat that demanded strong internal unity. That isn’t why Armenia lost, but it will be an easy explanation for many to seize on to. Pashinyan was far from perfect, but he was better than what came before and very likely better than what will come next.
Meanwhile, the war only accelerated the cycle of hatred between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, which is now worse than I have ever seen it. Armenians are now in the humiliating position that Azerbaijanis were 26 years ago, and while one would hope that would engender some empathy for the suffering of the other side, the opposite has happened.
Azerbaijanis, with very few exceptions, have been far from gracious in victory. The tone was set by Aliyev, who in his address to the nation following Armenia’s capitulation mocked Pashinyan as a “coward” and crowed over the concessions Armenians were forced to make.
Videos emerged on social media showing Azerbaijani soldiers committing horrific atrocities against captured Armenians and defacing Armenian churches. Armenians grieving over their loss on Twitter have invariably been swarmed by replies from gloating Azerbaijanis. Even Bekaryan, among the most pacifist of Armenians, has been badgered by Azerbaijani trolls for any post she dares write that is sympathetic to the Armenians now suffering.
The way forward for Armenians now is murky.
In the wake of defeat, one man who has been having a moment in Armenia is Jirair Libaridian, a historian and former senior diplomat who had been the Armenians’ chief negotiator in the 1990s. He had been the rare voice calling for Armenians to negotiate seriously with Azerbaijanis; his warnings now appear prescient, and he has been giving several interviews with scathing assessments of what he has described as decades of wishful thinking on the conflict.
“We have cultivated an unwillingness to accept reality, to reject reality and replace it with our dreams. We have raised this to an art form,” he said in an interview with the BBC Russian service. “We chased after dreams and the impossible, and we lost what was possible, what we could get.”
Many other Armenians, meanwhile, are digging in, vowing to regroup and retake the territories that they lost, even if it takes decades—like it did for the Azerbaijanis.
“Learn from their [Azerbaijanis’] successes and their failures such that someday we may be able to liberate [Karabakh] from tyrants and despots again,” one recent Armenian American Harvard graduate wrote in a diaspora newspaper. “They spent 25 years planning this invasion. Who says that we cannot do the same?”
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.