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A Stunningly Sudden End to a Long, Bloody Conflict in the Caucasus

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Tens of thousands died fighting for and against it, destroying the careers of two presidents — one Armenian, one Azerbaijani — and tormenting a generation of American, Russian and European diplomats pushing stillborn peace plans. It outlasted six U.S. presidents.

But the self-declared state in the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh — recognized by no other country — vanished so quickly last week that its ethnic Armenian population had only minutes to pack before abandoning their homes and joining an exodus driven by fears of ethnic cleansing by a triumphant Azerbaijan.

After surviving more than three decades of on-off war and pressure from big outside powers to give up, or at least narrow, its ambitions as a separate country with its own president, army, flag and government, the Republic of Artsakh inside the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan collapsed almost overnight.

Slava Grigoryan, one of the thousands this week who fled Nagorno-Karabakh, said he had only 15 minutes to pack before heading to Armenia along a narrow mountain road controlled by Azerbaijani troops. On the way, he said, he saw the soldiers grab four Armenian men from his convoy and take them away.

Mr. Grigoryan took with him only a few shirts and the negatives of family photographs, leaving behind his apartment and a country house with beehives and a garden.

One of his last acts, he said, was to destroy a personal video record of his homeland’s journey from triumph to destruction. His videos started in 1988, when both Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of the Soviet Union and Nagorno-Karabakh first erupted in violence as ethnic Armenians demanded and then secured self-determination.

“With tears in my eyes,” he said, “I burned 100 cassettes.”

Sergey Danilyan, a former Artsakh soldier, fled to Armenia on Saturday, after the village headman told everyone to leave because “the Turks” — a common slur for Azerbaijanis — were gathering nearby. “They will slaughter children, cut off their heads,” he said.

He said he had fled his village, Nerkin Horatagh, three times before because of eruptions of fighting. “Always war, war — 30 years of war.”

Life had been unbearable for months under an Azerbaijani blockade, said his brother, Vova. “There was hunger. No cigarettes, no bread, nothing,” he said.

Until last week, the tiny self-declared republic, with fewer than 150,000 people, had been an enduring feature of the political and diplomatic landscape of the former Soviet Union. Russia, Armenia’s traditional protector and ally since 1992 in a Moscow-led collective security organization, sent peacekeepers to the area in 2020 and promised to keep open the only road linking the enclave to Armenia, a vital lifeline for Artsakh.

But Moscow, distracted by its war in Ukraine and eager for closer economic and political ties with Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey, did not intervene this year when Azerbaijan closed that route, cutting off supplies of food, fuel and medicine. The Kremlin ordered its peacekeepers to stand aside during last week’s lightning assault on Artsakh’s thin defenses.

Hardly anybody, including the U.S. government, foresaw the rapid collapse.

“We are all in shock. Everyone understands that this is the end — the complete destruction of Artsakh,” said Benyamin Poghosyan, the former head of the Armenian defense ministry’s research unit. “The only thing that really matters now is getting people out safely.”

Nagorno-Karabakh, which declared independence in 1991, has for more than three decades been a byword for diplomatic failure — an interminable problem akin to the Israel-Palestine dispute or Northern Cyprus.

Almost in the blink of an eye, however, Nagorno-Karabakh has now been “solved” — by force of arms, leaving terrified ethnic Armenians at the mercy of President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, a leader who has for years stoked hatred of Armenians.

In 2012, Mr. Aliyev pardoned, promoted and hailed as a hero an Azerbaijani military officer who had been convicted in Hungary of murdering an Armenian classmate in a NATO course with an ax. After serving six years of a life sentence in Hungary, the murderer was sent home to Azerbaijan, which had promised to keep him in jail. He was met at the airport with flowers and set free.

“Anyone who thinks that Armenians can live under that regime is a fantasist,” said Eric Hacopian, the host of a weekly show on CivilNet, a popular Armenian internet television channel.

Unverified reports of mass killings and rape have flooded social media and been exchanged by people now in flight, stirring fears of a repeat of the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire.

Artsakh has been erased, but the idea still has many supporters.

Edik Aloyan, a former sales manager in Nagorno-Karabakh, jumped off a truck carrying him to safety as soon as it reached the Armenian village of Kornidzor and declared that his lost homeland “is purely Armenian land.” This, he insisted, would never change, but “the Russians didn’t help us. They helped the Azeris.”

In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, thousands of protesters have gathered each night since last week in a central square to shout curses at Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for not sending troops to defend their ethnic kin and chant “Long live Artsakh.”

But supporters of the prime minister dismiss the protests as the work of two discredited former leaders who came to power by cheering on the cause of Artsakh.

The battle between the Muslim and Turkic Azerbaijanis and the Christian Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh began under Soviet rule and escalated into full-scale war after Azerbaijan and Armenia gained independence. Ethnic cleansing on both sides forced more than a million people, by some estimates, to flee their homes. It ended in 1994 with an independent Artsakh, the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia in control of a wide swath of Azerbaijan — changes the world refused to recognize as legitimate.

Armenia was gripped by the euphoria of victory, and by contempt for an enemy whose army was ill-equipped, badly led and no match for Armenia’s more motivated forces. Armenia’s first post-Soviet president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, was forced to step down in 1998 after supporting a compromise deal over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijanis blamed their poor military performance on their president at the time, Abulfaz Elchibey. He was ousted and replaced by Heydar Aliyev, a Soviet-era leader of Azerbaijan and its former K.G.B. chief, the father of the current president.

For Mr. Hacopian, Armenia’s sense of superiority after 1994 was a fatal mistake that left the country and the Republic of Artsakh blind to how much, in the years that followed, the balance of power had changed. Azerbaijan’s military became a fearsome force, with new weapons bought with oil and gas revenue.

“Hubris is the biggest mistake you can make,” Mr. Hacopian said.

Azerbaijan went to war again in 2020 and won handily, retaking much of the territory it had lost decades earlier.

When Nagorno-Karabakh first went from being a local Soviet quarrel to an international issue, it was so remote and obscure that “we had to look in old books to find out where and what this place was,” recalled Richard Giragosian, an Armenian-American academic who lives in Yerevan and advises the Armenian government.

Over the years, peace plans came and went. All failed, torpedoed by the intransigence of one side or the other.

Failed talks held in Key West, Fla., in 2001, with the United States among the mediators, left such a bitter taste that President George W. Bush said he never wanted to hear about the issue again, according to Thomas de Waal, the author of Dark Garden, a book recounting 35 years of deadlock over the region.

This week, Mr. Giragosian, who was in Washington to meet with officials blindsided by the rout of Artsakh, said he had expected more of a fight. “From a military point of view, I thought they would take to the hills,” he said of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

But the Republic of Artsakh was, by the end, bereft of supporters willing to join its fight. Many younger residents had left, leaving a predominantly older population to defend their unrecognized republic. Months of deprivation had sapped people’s wills to fight on.

Small, militant nationalist groups in Armenia, like the so-called Crusader detachment, made noisy statements about helping but provided no significant support. The Armenian government of Mr. Pashinyan stayed out of the fight.

Less than two weeks before their state collapsed on Sept. 20, elites in Stepanakert, the capital of the breakaway republic, were caught up in a local power struggle, forcing out their elected president after he responded to the gathering storm by erecting a tent outside the government offices and using it to stage a sit-in protest.

On Sept. 9, the local parliament selected Samvel Shahramanyan, a longtime security official, to be president.

“I am not revealing a secret when I say that the partial and then complete blockade of the Republic of Artsakh by Azerbaijan has created a number of problems for the republic,” Mr. Shahramanyan told legislators.

While sneering at Armenia for pursuing a “so-called peace agenda,” he acknowledged that his beleaguered republic’s “ideas and expectations regarding international law” had been “unrealistic and divorced from reality,” an apparent reference to its longstanding opposition to any peace deal that did not grant Nagorno-Karabakh statehood entirely separate from Azerbaijan.

As Azerbaijani forces overwhelmed the crumbling republic’s defenses last Wednesday, the new president held what was called an “extended session of the Security Council” and announced that “Artsakh will be forced to take appropriate steps.”

Mr. Shahramanyan has not been seen or heard from since and, like scores of other former officials, is feared to have been seized by Azerbaijani troops to face prosecution for “treason.”

“It’s a real tragedy how years of international efforts to find an equitable solution to the conflict were chopped down in 24 hours,” said Mr. de Waal, the author.

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