We are both Armenians born in Beirut who met some 50 years ago in kindergarten. We grew up in war-torn Lebanon, embedded in a bubble of Armenian language, school, and culture. We immigrated to the West (the United States and Switzerland), built careers as a scientist and a lecturer/columnist, and managed to stay in touch.
The last time we saw each other was last summer in Armenia. We fondly remember sitting together in a loud jazz club in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, entertained by the proprietor who presented us with a 15-year-old Armenian brandy from Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave to the east of Armenia mainly populated by Armenians. We were there because the government of Armenia was celebrating one of us winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine, a first for an Armenian. A few months later, on Dec. 12, 2022, Azerbaijan imposed a blockade on Nagorno-Karabakh. The painful disconnect between the Europe-like scenes in the capital, the celebration of scientific discovery, and the struggles of the persecuted population in Nagorno-Karabakh have become urgent anguishes we share today.
The blockade of the 120,000 ethnic Armenian residents has caused a humanitarian crisis. Azerbaijan has blocked access to essential commodities such as food, medicine, electricity, and gas, bringing daily life to a standstill. Azerbaijani military personnel regularly open fire on agricultural workers, effectively prohibiting them from cultivating their own food; the intent seems clear: to slowly starve them into submission. We, the diaspora Armenians, are anxiously watching the unfolding of this humanitarian crisis that seeks to force Armenians from their ancestral lands. Armenians experienced genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century, a horror that feels all too familiar to us now. The UN Security Council is scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss this crisis.
The Armenian presence in the Caucasus is challenged by Azerbaijan, a state with a population several times larger than Armenia. Caspian oil has permitted Azerbaijani rulers to invest heavily in military equipment. Moreover, Azerbaijan has the unconditional support of Turkey, which provides political and military aid to Azerbaijan.
During the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, it was Turkish aviation — including US-made F-16s and Bayraktar TB2 attack drones — that pulverized Armenian defenses, while Turkish generals overlooked Azerbaijani military operations. Armenia is left alone against this powerful alliance. Russia, which on paper has a security alliance with Armenia, has been preoccupied with its war in Ukraine or unwilling to intervene.
Armenia, a democratic nation with a thriving technology sector, finds itself in a region largely dominated by autocratic regimes. We have been heartened to see the international support for Ukraine, another democratic nation that has also endured a neighbor’s aggression. However, we also feel a sense of abandonment as our Western friends have given scant attention to the plight of our compatriots. Our concerns extend beyond Nagorno-Karabakh and its population; even the existence of the fragile state of Armenia seems to be threatened by its hostile neighbors.
Nevertheless, our states, particularly the United States, have the power to alleviate this suffering. In the early 1990s, during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, when Azerbaijan imposed a crippling blockade against Armenia, the United States adopted Section 907 of Freedom Support Act that banned any US government aid to Azerbaijan. A clear message is necessary to stop Azerbaijan and put Aliyev on notice that the country’s oil exports and bank accounts could be sanctioned if he persists in his crimes against humanity. We urge the US and European governments to respond effectively and efficiently. The United States should lead the democratic world by threatening severe sanctions against Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon exports, and by freezing its bank accounts if it continues its blockade. An emergency airlift like in the times of the Berlin Wall is another step to be considered. The UN Security Council is one arena where multilateralism and international law can be put into a new test.
At this stage of global geopolitical upheaval and reshuffling of alliances, the survival of a small democracy in the Caucasus very much depends on whether Western states decide to act instead of expressing their “concern” while watching this humanitarian crisis unfold in slow motion from afar.
Ardem Patapoutian is professor of neuroscience at Scripps Research and a 2021 Nobel Prize laureate in medicine. Vicken Cheterian, a lecturer in history and international relations at the University of Geneva, is author of “Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks and a Century of Genocide.”