Armenia is a chess superpower. All schoolchildren from ages six to eight take compulsory chess lessons there, and the country, with a population of three million, has one of the highest numbers of grandmasters per capita (not even counting the great champion Garry Kasparov, who is half Armenian).
It is an irony then that Armenia, land of grandmasters, is so often a pawn in the geopolitical struggle for mastery in the Caucasus. The latest attack on its sovereign land – territory that cannot be described by the most tiptoeing of media outlets as “disputed” because it is historically, demographically and by identity Armenian – by its neighbour, Azerbaijan, is a grim example. A bloody advance in a region forever haunted by Russia’s place in the world.
Armenia was one of the first Soviet republics. It still has tower block formations that spell “USSR” from the sky, and the decapitated body of a Lenin statue lies in the courtyard of its national history museum like a beached whale (Cher, icon of the Armenian diaspora, sat on him for a particularly striking photo shoot in 1993). As a member of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation today, Armenia is supposed to count on its old master Russia as an ally.
But with Vladimir Putin distracted by setbacks in Ukraine, it appears Azerbaijan has taken its chance. Having won a war over ethnic Armenian territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh region two years ago, this month it began shelling Armenia proper. During two days of fighting in mid-September, 105 Armenian soldiers and 71 Azerbaijani soldiers died, according to the two governments. (An internationally brokered ceasefire appears to be holding, at the time of writing.)
This act of aggression won’t surprise Armenians in the region, nor those of us in the diaspora who have been helplessly watching and clicking “translate” on foreign news sites from afar for nearly two years. Since the war officially ended in 2020 with a ceasefire brokered by Russia, there have been numerous headlines I’ve felt reluctant to click on: stories of provocations and violations of that ceasefire. Azerbaijan has not withdrawn its troops from internationally recognised Armenian land, for example, despite calls last year from the US and France to do so. Human Rights Watch has accused it of war crimes against Armenian prisoners of war, deepening fears for the dozens still held captive.
In messages and memes lighting up my social media feeds and WhatsApp chats, I see frustration at the lack of international action against Azerbaijan. Bitter jokes that the Eiffel Tower won’t light up in the colours of the Armenian flag, as it did in blue and yellow when Ukraine was invaded. While Russia was heavily sanctioned for breaching Ukraine’s borders, there seems little impetus to do the same to Azerbaijan. Europe, after all, will be relying on the energy-rich country to more than double its gas imports to the continent by 2027.
As for Russia, supposedly Armenia’s protector, its response has disappointed those counting on its defence. It has refused to provide military aid and, last year during another flare-up, long before the Ukraine war, declined a similar request for intervention against Azerbaijan. Over the past two years, questions have also been raised by local Armenians about the effectiveness of their Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In contrast, the US speaker Nancy Pelosi, who visited Armenia on 18 September (in a trip arranged before the latest attack), condemned “illegal and deadly attacks by Azerbaijan” and emphasised “this was initiated by the Azeris”. While her vow of “strong and ongoing support of the United States” for Armenia stopped short of concrete promises, it resonated with many of the country’s citizens; protesters gathered in the capital Yerevan to demand Armenia leave the Moscow-led security alliance.
When I was growing up in the UK, I learned every Sunday morning at Armenian school about the ways my little ancestral homeland had been subjected to empire, genocide and war. I’ve written before of how our teachers would show us old maps, so we could see how far its borders had been chipped away over the centuries by hostile neighbours. I saw myself the closed border between Turkey and Armenia as I looked across no-man’s land to Mount Ararat, a snow-capped symbol of the land Armenia has lost over its history.
And now, zooming in on digital maps, I read updates online of Azeri incursions – yet again, the integrity of a sovereign nation abandoned to the whim of realpolitik. As my dad, who taught me most of what I know of Armenian history, used to say: “When Russia sneezes, Armenia catches cold.”