Back to Top

The Fall of Nagorno Karabakh

In August 2017, after an arduous summer studying the Armenian language in Yerevan, I made a visit to the nearby Republic of Nagorno Karabakh, home to a population of 100,000 Armenians, members of the first nation to convert to Christianity. Even though I was only there for a few days, I was enchanted by this ancient Christian land – its green mountains, the stone medieval churches dotting the landscape, and the exceptional kindness of the people who lived there. 

At the time, I had no idea that I was visiting a country that would soon disappear forever.

On September 19, 2023, the armed forces of Azerbaijan, one of the world’s most repressive states, launched a massive military operation to conquer the tiny republic. The bombing campaign killed hundreds of people, including children, and quicky overwhelmed the local military forces. Within 24 hours, the republic’s leaders surrendered.  

For four days after that, the Armenian population existed in a state of terror. The Azerbaijani attack had knocked out all the communications networks in Karabakh, and Azerbaijani troops controlled all the main roads. For the most part, the Armenians could not leave their villages, not even to rescue the wounded or bring food.

The Armenians knew they could expect no mercy from their conquerors. For over thirty years, the dictatorship of Azerbaijan had elevated anti-Armenian sentiment to something resembling a national ideology. Over the past three years, Azerbaijani forces had repeatedly kidnapped, tortured, and executed Armenian soldiers and civilians who fell into their hands.

What is normally a two-hour drive took most families two days or more to make.

On September 24, the local Russian “peacekeeping force” announced that anyone who wished to leave and go to the neighboring Republic of Armenia would be allowed to do so. The exodus began immediately. People crowded into any form of transportation available to escape – dumptrucks, buses, cars stuffed with ten people. So many vehicles flooded the road that what is normally a two-hour drive took most families two days or more to make. According to Armenian government figures, 70 people died on the road – from accidents, thirst, exposure, or other medical crises.

By October 1, there were virtually no Armenians left in Nagorno Karabakh. Rarely in modern history has an act of ethnic cleansing been so rapid, or so complete.

Nor, for anyone paying attention, was it a surprise. For nine months before the attack, Azerbaijan had been laying siege to Nagorno Karabakh. In December 2022, Azerbaijani troops had blocked the only road connecting Nagorno Karabakh to the outside world. In the months that followed, supplies of fuel, medicine, and food dwindled. People began dying because there was no gas for cars to take them to a hospital. The miscarriage rate tripled. When Azerbaijan’s attack finally came, hospitals were overwhelmed by wounded people for whom there was no medicine.

For any powers who wished to prevent the destruction of this ancient land – home one of the oldest Christian communities in the world – nine months should have been plenty of lead time. 

Unfortunately, this was not in the interest of the powers. Throughout this painful period, the United States government has been deeply involved in this part of the world – and not to the benefit of the Armenians.

Azerbaijan continues to attack along the Armenian border and demand that Armenia cede even more territory.

Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia are in the South Caucasus, a mountainous region sandwiched between Russia and the U.S.’s NATO ally Turkey – the nation primarily responsible for the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923. Until 1991, this region was controlled by Russia under the Soviet Union. And just as in Eastern Europe, the U.S.’s strategic goal in the Caucasus is to pull Russia’s former allies away from it, and bring them under its own tutelage.

For U.S. planners, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh was the biggest impediment to that goal. So they pushed Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve it – in favor of Azerbaijan, which was by far the bigger, wealthier, and stronger of the two, and therefore more important to U.S. goals. 

Under U.S. pressure, in 2022, Armenia’s leaders recognized Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, effectively abandoning the Armenians of Karabakh to their fate. In public, U.S. officials kept up the fantasy that Armenians could somehow live safely under the rule of the dictatorship that was currently starving them. Every honest observer knew that this was impossible.

When Azerbaijan’s attack finally came, the only response from the U.S. was a statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who claimed to be “deeply concerned.” As bombs were falling on Karabakh, President Biden held a photo-op with the Azerbaijani foreign minister at the UN in New York. 

What we must avoid, as Christians seeking after justice, is being co-opted by the empire.

In December, U.S. diplomats arranged for Azerbaijan – one of the world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels – to host this year’s UN climate change summit. The former American ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza, crowed that the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno Karabakh has “removed the last obstacle to the peace treaty” between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

On that score, American planners seem to have miscalculated. Six months later, the “peace process” between Armenia and Azerbaijan is stalled, and Azerbaijan continues to attack along the Armenian border and demand that Armenia cede even more territory. But it is true that Nagorno Karabakh will no longer pose an “obstacle” to U.S. plans. It is gone, likely forever.

The U.S. is a global empire. If that were not the case, its actions would not be so heartbreakingly relevant in faraway tragedies like this. We should not be surprised when empires, even ones staffed by well-meaning people, occasionally crush small nations under their wheels.

What we must avoid, as Christians seeking after justice, is being co-opted by the empire. This is particularly challenging for American Christians, who are citizens of both this earthly empire and the heavenly Kingdom of God. It is all too easy for us to conflate the two, to make the empire’s priorities our own. It is even easier, in this world of confusion and disinformation, to let the empire’s influence determine what we are concerned about.  

To that end, the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Corinth are more relevant than ever: “That there may be no division in the body [of Christ], but that the members may have the same care for one another.” The Body of Christ is God’s answer to the power of the world’s empires. Through the Holy Spirit, we are part of the same family, joined together by a power and a love that transcends borders, powers, and principalities.

What if the church in North America were to use this crisis as an opportunity to recover its links to our brothers and sisters in Armenia? What if we mobilized aid for the refugees from Karabakh, learned and told their stories, and organized exchanges with Armenian churches? What a witness that would be for a world that increasingly appears to be coming apart at the seams.

Azerbaijan will likely attack the Republic of Armenia itself this year. Whether or not the Armenian nation-state survives this attack – or the next, or the one after that – is an open question. If we hope to seize this opportunity to bear witness to the Body of Christ, there is little time to lose.


The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.