Originally Published in the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 28, 2022

While we’re focused on Ukraine, a brutal dictatorship in the South Caucasus is testing the world’s resolve: Since Dec. 12, Azerbaijani operatives have blocked the only road, known as the Lachin Corridor, connecting the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous enclave to the outside world. It is a test. Failing it will invite a slaughter that will shame humanity.

At the moment, 120,000 besieged Armenians in the enclave, also known as Artsakh, have been cut off from food and medicine. Schools, kindergartens and hospitals went without heating gas for days at the height of winter. One patient has already died due to complications from the blockade, and an Armenian child in critical condition is unable to get to the Armenian capital of Yerevan for lifesaving treatment. The blockade — which drew an unusual statement of concern from Pope Francis and was condemned by the United Nations, European Union, U.S., France and Canada — aims to compel mass flight from an ancient center of Christian civilization.

Indeed, since seizing parts of Nagorno-Karabakh in a 2020 war, Azerbaijan has repeatedly tested the world’s willingness to look the other way as it batters Armenians in Artsakh and strikes at Armenia proper, a scrappy young democracy just up the road.

Repeatedly, Azerbaijani forces have committed acts of stunning brutality — and remarkably, they have made little effort to hide it. Quite the contrary, the hatred of Armenians is so ingrained in Azerbaijan that in many cases brutal acts are boasted of on social media.

One video shows a horribly brutalized and disfigured Armenian woman in Azerbaijani captivity. In another, the decapitation of an elderly Artsakh man is shown. Others show the execution of Azerbaijan’s current phase of the campaign dates to the late 1980s when it massacred Armenians in Sumgait, Kirovabad and other towns in response to peaceful democratic demonstrations in Artsakh calling for unification with Armenia. Since then, Azerbaijani authorities have been fomenting a hatred of Armenians so severe that the International Court of Justice has indicated urgent measures directing Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to “take all necessary measures to prevent the incitement and promotion of racial hatred and discrimination, including by its officials and public institutions, targeted at persons of Armenian national or ethnic origin.”

Azerbaijan’s impunity is as absurd as it is grotesque. It issued a stamp showing an exterminator in a hazmat suit “exterminating” Artsakh; it built a military trophy park in its capital showcasing the helmets of fallen Armenian soldiers and gruesome mannequins for children to degrade; and its president even refers to Armenians as “dogs.” And now, the blockade and isolation of 120,000 human beings.

Among the transparently fake “environmentalists” enforcing the blockade are Azerbaijani military personnel, such as Telman Gasimov, who proudly flaunts a photo he took with Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani military officer who hacked an Armenian student to death in Budapest. Convicted of murder, Safarov was extradited to Baku, where, instead of serving his sentence, he was given a hero’s welcome by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

That’s why Genocide Watch has raised the genocide threat level facing Artsakh Armenians to a top level of 10, while the International Association of Genocide Scholars finds significant “genocide risk factors exist in (Nagorno-Karabakh) concerning the Armenian population.” In fact, more than a dozen human rights organizations and activists issued a joint genocide warning after a week of Baku’s siege of Artsakh.

It is also why, to Armenians, the idea of placing the autonomous enclave under any Azerbaijani control is a patent nonstarter. It is why Armenians do not believe Azerbaijan’s publicly curated promises of “coexistence” — and frankly, neither should the West. Azerbaijani control over Nagorno-Karabakh will mean only one thing: violence toward the Armenian population.

Part of the world’s silence to Azerbaijan’s acts against the Armenians relates to some Europeans’ hopes to evade Russian sanctions by buying Russian natural gas now being conveniently rerouted through Azerbaijan. That’s a dirty bargain that should disgrace anyone involved. T The blockade, which is entering its 17th day, may seem like a faraway squabble about some distant mountain road. But it is a far more critical matter: It is a pivotal inflection point and a test for the West.

Disaster is looming in Artsakh — and Armenia. If Aliyev is allowed to get away with the blockade, grave human suffering will follow and the floodgates to abject authoritarianism will open wide.

The world’s democracies should make their voices heard — on behalf of one of their own, now in desperately dire straits.