The flare up of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has resulted in a number of military and civilian deaths and fears of a new war in the region, is all about Armenia and its unbalancing since the coming to power of its present Prime Minister, Nicol Pashinyan.
There is a strong tendency in the West to ascribe responsibility for the latest conflagaration to both sides and the “historic and intractable” conflict between Armenians and Azeris. However, there are a number of reasons why we can be certain that this latest conflict has its origins in Armenia rather than in Azerbaijan.
Firstly, it is very significant that military engagements have occurred at Tovuz, along the actual border between the Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan, 300km from the front lines between Azerbaijan and Armenian-occupied Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijan has no interest in fighting in this location and it would only be to its disadvantage to do so. Azerbaijan has no territorial claims against Armenia proper and would have little to gain in any offensive operations here. It was the next stretch of territory that Baku was intent on demilitarizing as part of the de-escalation plan the Azeri military was following. It is is also an important strategic region for Azerbaijan with its gas and oil pipeline supply to Europe running adjacent in the hinterland, toward the border with Georgia, as the new link of the Southern Gas Corridor is completed.
A direct conflict with Armenia is also not in Azerbaijan’s interest. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and could probably rely on Russian assistance if directly attacked on its sovereign territory. If Azerbaijan ever initiates conflict it will be in pursuit of the reincorporation of its national territory of Karabakh and other areas of Azerbaijan currently under Armenian occupation, which is internationally recognised as a part of the Azerbaijan Republic. Only Armenia has an interest in fighting on the Armenia/Azerbaijan borderline proper, perhaps to divert Azerbaijani forces from the front line with Karabakh or to engineer a conflict where it would have outside backing against the Azeris.
Interestingly, in early 2020 Matthew Bryza, the U.S. Co-Chairman of the OSCE Minsk group, charged with helping to negotiate a settlement of the Nagorno Karabagh conflict (and afterwards President Obama’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan) was asked how he saw the prospects of the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict in the course of an interview. He replied:
“2019 began pretty well with Prime Minister of Armenia Pashinyan, showing that he wanted maybe to do things in a new way. He wanted to take a new approach to the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. He had a good meeting with President Aliyev, in fact, a couple of meetings. And you may recall that two presidents were talking about the need to prepare their population for peace. They also strengthened ceasefire arrangements along the line of contact, trying to build confidence between the sides. Then something happened. Then the old political system of Armenia based on the so-called Karabakh clan struck back. It started to attack Pashinyan politically. They threatened him. Later in the middle of the year, he started to change the attitude of Armenia toward the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. He started saying things that were very unhelpful. Such as Karabakh has always been part of Armenia, or Karabakh is independent. By the way, those two things are contradictory. It can’t be independent and part of Armenia at the same time. In my experience with Karabakh, those things were never said by the Armenian government. Armenian government was always very careful. Very careful in terms of international law that recognizes that Karabakh actually is part of Azerbaijan legally. So now, with more recent statements, I am pessimistic because it looks like Pashinyan has been forced to move in a new direction that makes political settlement not possible. So, I am pessimistic this year.”
In the Madrid document of November 2008 Presidents Aliev of Azerbaijan and Sargsyan of Armenia had come to a private agreement on the framework for a settlement of Karabakh and other territorial issues. When Pashinyan became Prime Minister he gave every indication that he was favourable to strengthening the ceasefire agreement and moving toward peace at the conference table. Pashinyan had seemingly broken the stranglehold of the Karabakh clan – those who had been credited with winning the war with Azerbaijan in 1993 and attained dominance in Yerevan on the back of their achievement – and promised a clean slate.
However, the new Prime Minster then unexpectedly declared that Madrid had been negotiated by “a previous regime” and he would have none of it. In March 2019 Pashinyan attempted to introduce the Nagorno Karabakh Armenians into the negotiation process, something that was contrary to the Minsk principles and which has been vigorously opposed by Azerbaijan since 1994. In the same month his Defence Minister, David Tonoyan talked of “new war for new territory” to a diaspora meeting in New York. A number of inflammatory statements were then made by Pashinyan himself, including “Nagorno Karabakh is Armenia” which suggested an intention of formal annexation by Yerevan. This was something that went against 4 UN Security Council Resolutions, and a statement that previous Armenian administrations had carefully avoided making in the interests of state.
Former Ambassador Bryza said that Pashinyan had effectively reversed course 180 degrees. The American put this change down to internal pressure and perhaps also pressure from some elements in Moscow (but not Putin, he stressed). He noted how the Deputy chairman of the committee of the State Duma for the CIS, Konstantin Zatulin, had made an extraordinary visit to Nagorno Karabakh in October last year where he declared, against official Russian policy, his support for the independence of the territory and his belief that Moscow would not be prepared to see its reincorporation into Azerbaijan. That was another novel event which suggested something strange was afoot between elements in Moscow and Yerevan. All these actions seemed designed to shoot down any prospect of proceeding toward a settlement.
Armenia is balanced between two forces – Russia, its protector, and its American diaspora, which provides it with important patronage and finance from the United States. Both elements are essential to the Armenian Republic’s continued existence and functioning, but the alliance with Russia is the more important prop, guaranteeing ultimate survival. The election of Pashinyan seems to have upset that balance, threatening to take Armenia away from its main source of protection, in a colour revolution.
Pashinyan, a former journalist, shot to power in May 2018 on an anti-corruption drive. Although Moscow initially welcomed his ascension to the Premiership and his promises to clean up the Yerevan stables he soon worried the Russians by targeting two former Presidents, who had been Moscow confidantes, and the incumbent Secretary General of CSTO. Ex-President Sargsyan, a military figure, was subsequently brought to trial on corruption charges by the new Prime Minister.
Worse still, Pashinyan also began to make overtures to NATO, inviting it at its July 2018 summit in Brussels, to get involved in keeping the peace in the Caucasus – which is very much seen as Russia’s sphere of influence.
Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Lavrov publicly signalled his displeasure at the threat to Armenia’s stability – indicating that this stability depended very much on Armenia’s relationship with Russia.
The pro-Russian Armenians point to the fact that Russia is indispensable to Armenia just as Armenia is geopolitically more than useful to Russia. Armenia probably only exists because of Russia, which built up and concentrated Armenian numbers in the area during the 19th Century in a process of colonisation designed to assist Russian expansion in the Southern Caucasus. In 1920 Moscow saved the Yerevan Republic from a disaster of its own making, ensuring its survival as a part of the Soviet Union. Russia protects Armenia’s Western frontier with Turkey so that Yerevan can concentrate its limited resources on the Karabakh/Azerbaijan front. Russia owns the Armenian energy system and infrastructure. Armenia’s border security is under Russian command. Its airspace is integrated into that of the CIS. In short, Armenia is in Russia’s pocket.
Whilst the Armenian diaspora in the U.S. is a useful source of finance and influence it would be of little help to Yerevan in a major war involving Turkey and Azerbaijan. Whilst there were high profile volunteers and assistance from the U.S. diaspora during the Karabakh war it was the Russian military provision after 1992, when Yeltsin stabilised things, that routed the Azeri army when it threatened to gain the upper hand in the war. When Gorbachev lost Azerbaijan through an incompetent handling of the settlement made by Stalin in the 1920s, Armenia became indispensable to it. It is a Russian base that acts as a fortress guarding the Southern Caucasus, with hostile Georgia, independent Azerbaijan, and its important Iranian ally around it. Azerbaijan, of course, separates Russia from Iran.
Russia’s policy since the 1994 ceasefire has always been to stir the Karabakh pot, keeping it simmering but prevent it from boiling over.
Moscow now sells armaments to Baku but it gives the same to Yerevan at little or no cost, to balance up the business it does with Azerbaijan. Clearly Moscow is also interested in maintaining leverage over Baku in order to curtail any drift it might make toward the West. It also has to act with care, mindful of its own large and growing Muslim population. Without Armenia and Karabakh Russian leverage would be much decreased, and be based almost entirely on the threat of military force.
It might be wondered why Armenia needs protection. The simple answer to that is that while it holds Karabakh and remains an irritant in the area, through its aggressive nationalism, Armenia is always likely to endanger not only the general stability of the region, but its very own existence. It therefore is very dependent on Russia.
Historically, Armenia has always set the agenda of conflict in the region. It is a discontented and unstable society which seems only to be able to hold itself effectively together by a continual striving for the territory of ‘historic Armenia’ and through a campaign of relentless hatred of Turks, now focused on the ‘Armenian Genocide’ campaign. It has certainly always been the agitator/aggressor in its conflict with the Azerbaijanis, whose state they recognise the existence of only with the utmost reluctance. Armenian aggression was the major feature in the 1918-21 period as well as more recently between 1988 and 1994, when the Armenians availed of the collapse of the Soviet Union to seize nearly 20 per cent of Azerbaijan, including Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding territories.
Azerbaijan has never initiated conflict with Armenia, but has always had to react to the aggressive activity of its more pro-active neighbour. It has often been taken by surprise, and been at a disadvantage as a result. Azerbaijan has tended to be a more conservative society, existing in greater contentment within any state authority that has existed – be it Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union. The Armenians organised major terrorist activity against the Tsarist authorities in the decade before the Great War of 1914 and had a significant part in bringing down the Soviet Union. Their attempt at insurrection against the Ottoman Empire, of course, was a reckless gamble that ended in disaster.
Azerbaijan has been trusting of international law and institutions since the establishment of the nation in 1918 and its de facto recognition by the League of Nations in early 1920. Baku produced democratic, constitutional government whilst military dictatorship was the norm in Yerevan. The Armenians are ultra-nationalists who have strived for racial purity and a homogeneous state whilst the Azeris established their nation largely in self-defence from the Armenians and their attempts at ethnic cleansing of mixed population areas. When the Azeris have been agitated to violence and killing it has always been the Armenians who have provoked them into a response.
It is not difficult to see who the aggressor is in the latest hostilities – all the evidence points to Yerevan, which alone has the incentive and motivation to provoke a conflict at this time and at the place it occurred.