This week I gave an Interview with CBC Azerbaijan on the present Karabakh conflict. I stated my position clearly:
“I believe the current outbreak of hostilities to be entirely the responsibility of the Armenian Government of Mr Pashinyan. It has resulted from a series of provocations that have given Azerbaijan little option but to remove the threat to the peace and security of its citizens coming from the occupation forces in Karabakh. These have included the deliberate targeting of the Azerbaijani populace in artillery barrages, sabotage of the negotiation process and other activities in contravention of International Law in the occupied area. The Azerbaijan Government has entered into hostilities with the utmost reluctance but has been forced into the military option as the only solution available for eradicating the threats mounting against its citizens by the aggressive activities of Mr Pashinyan.” (Dr. Patrick Walsh, author of ‘Great Britain and Russia in the Caucasus: Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis caught up in Geopolitics, War and Revolution.’)
I need to explain why I have come to that conclusion in more detail. So this article is a follow up to the previous pieces I have published on this website, including ‘Armenia Unbalanced’ written a couple of months ago, which predicted where things were heading.
Basically, it is indisputable that the Pashinyan government in Erivan sabotaged the long-standing peace negotiations over Karabakh, that whilst going largely nowhere, still held out hope of a peaceful settlement of the conflict for Azerbaijan. The government in Baku, despite the occupation of its territory, was loath to plunge itself into another costly war without exhausting all possibilities of a peaceful resolution of the conflict on the principles of International Law, that were firmly on its side. The government in Baku knew that the Azerbaijani army had been developed into something that was unrecognisable from the forces that lost Karabakh in the 1990s. But it wished to give peace a chance, even though it was a very slim chance indeed in the hands of the Minsk group.
One of the first manifestations of a new belligerent attitude under the Pashinyan government occurred in 2019. Last year, David Tonoyan, Armenia’s Defence Minister, dropped a bomb shell when he announced the intention of “new war for new territories”. This was meant as a threat to Azerbaijan that if it attempted to regain Karabakh by force it would face an Armenian advance into the country that would expand the Armenian occupied zone further into Azerbaijan’s territory. Such a thing would be catastrophic for any government in Baku. It must have concentrated minds in Baku on the fact that 26 years after the ceasefire the state was still vulnerable to Armenian expansionism. Tonoyan stated that an expansionist policy would be advantageous to Yerevan because it “would rid Armenia of this trench condition, the constant defensive state, and will… shift the military action to the territory of the enemy.”
If this was a bluff it was a very dangerous and provocative bluff indeed. The proclivity of Armenian nationalism toward expansion of territory toward the Magna Armenia dream of the Great War period was well known and had endured despite the catastrophe of a century ago. Combined with the constant Armenian military probing of the border it would have woken Baku out of any lethargy that might have set in from a false sense of security it had in the increasing capacity of the Azerbaijani military forces in relation to Armenia’s declining population and economy.
In March 2020 the occupation forces in Karabakh held illegal elections within an emergency situation brought about by the spread of the Covid virus. These elections were not recognised as legitimate by most of the world and were an affront to International Law. Many countries stated their opposition to this affront. Two months later in May it was announced that the capital of the secessionists was to be moved from Stepanakert to the historic Azerbaijani centre of Karabakh, Shusha. Shusha holds deep symbolic value for Azerbaijanis and represented a further calculated provocation to their sensitivities.
In July 2020 Armenian forces instituted a serious escalation of hostilities at Tovuz on the Armenian/Azerbaijan border. It was significant that military engagements occurred along the actual border between the Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan, 300km from the front lines between Azerbaijan and Armenian-occupied Karabakh. Azerbaijan had no interest in fighting in this location and it would only have been to its disadvantage to have engaged in hostilities there. Azerbaijan, with no territorial claims against Armenia proper and having little to gain in any offensive operations was taken aback by the Armenian offensive action. 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 as part of peace negotiations. It 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. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, later confirmed that it was Armenia’s decision to attempt to push up to a position within 15km of the Azerbaijani export pipeline that ignited the conflict at Tovuz.
The lack of a robust response from Azerbaijan to the Armenian probing at Tovuz in July seems to have given Pashinyan and the Armenians the belief that they could go further. Large demonstrations in Baku accused the Aliev government of inaction and called for a response. The pressure was from the Azerbaijani populace on the government, to respond with greater military resolution, rather than the government in Baku manipulating nationalist passions to disperse opposition. A further Armenian provocation was going to be very problematic for the government in Baku.
However, further provocations followed. During September there were reports of Lebanese Armenians (who were affected by the explosion in Beirut and the meltdown of the economy) being brought to Karabakh as colonists to bolster its declining population. This is illegal under International Law governing occupied territories and again caused consternation in Azerbaijan with its large number of IDPs, demanding the right to return and now seeing their homes occupied by foreign settlers. Illegal settlements of Lebanese and Syrian Armenians are taking place in the occupied territory of Azerbaijan in Zangilan, in Qubadli, in Lachin, in Kelbajar, in five villages in Agdam and in one village in Fizuli. These illegal settlements are replacing the displaced Azerbaijanis who were ethnically cleansed by Armenian terror squads.
At around the same time the wife of President Pashinyan paid a high profile visit to the occupied territories of Karabakh. She was pictured in full military dress, in various battle poses, firing an assault rifle in the direction of Azerbaijani lines. This extraordinary media event was presumably meant to signal a personal devotion to a military solution on the part of the Armenian Premier and a final rejection of the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
There were also reports and pictures of squads of PKK operatives journeying to Karabakh to engage in training and perhaps offensive operations on Azerbaijan territory. Perhaps this was fake news – meant to draw Turkey into the conflict and encourage Mr Putin to become saviour of Armenia. But it also raised the temperature in Azerbaijan. Furthermore, the capture of an Armenian sabotage unit on the Azerbaijan side of the line of contact amplified such fears of offensive operations threatening Muslim villages across the line of contact.
The Armenian Government also put its diplomatic effort into raising the stakes. Yerevan obstructed a special session of the UN General Assembly arranged to discuss a collaborative response to the Covid pandemic. The Armenians did this purely because this important event had been proposed by the Chair of the Non-aligned movement and Azerbaijan President, Ilham Aliev. The proposal was backed by 130 countries and Armenia was the only country to oppose the session. Armenian nationalist interests was felt to be important enough to trump the interests of humanity in general. And that, of course, is a very Armenian attitude.
Pashinyan also began insisting publicly that Nagorno Karabakh be given official existence and recognition in the negotiating process between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This radical proposal was obviously unacceptable to Azerbaijan, and indeed contrary to International Law, which does not recognise such an entity in the first place, let alone giving it legitimacy by admission to formal talks. If this unprecedented move on the part of the Armenian Prime Minister was designed to subvert the peace process Pashinyan was undoubtedly successful. When President Aliev heard this his confidence in progress at the negotiating table would have been shattered.
This led to Svante E. Cornell, Director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, and one of its co-founders, state that the OSCE Minsk Group was hopelessly outdated as a mechanism for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He said:
“Our Institute has for years pointed to the absurd situation where competent but mid-level diplomats in three countries that do not agree on much are tasked with the resolution of a conflict that has gone on for thirty years and which involves interests of major powers. The fact that the main power that intervenes in the conflict for it own purposes, Russia, is also the most active co-chair of the Minsk Group is patently absurd and ensures there can be no progress. In effect, both France and the US have mostly allowed Russia, and particularly Foreign Minister Lavrov, to take the lead on the conflict while everyone knows that Russia is not interested in a solution. The Minsk Group has become at best an excuse for inaction, by showing that there is a ‘process’ in place. But in reality there is no such process.”
“This has undermined Azerbaijan’s approach to seek to resolve the conflict through the process of international diplomacy. If diplomacy proves incapable, it leaves Azerbaijan with two options: simply accept the loss of territory, or to seek other ways to restore its territorial integrity. Second, the escalated involvement of great powers, particularly Turkey and Russia, on opposing sides of several conflicts including Syria and Libya, has directly affected the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan because the regional powers now see the conflict in the perspective of their broader rivalry. This provides both advantages and disadvantages for Azerbaijan – greater Turkish support, but also greater risk of confrontation with Russia. Finally, it is also clear that the transition of power in Armenia did not, as Azerbaijan hoped, lead to a more compromise-oriented government intended on resolving the conflict, but to a more assertive Armenia that seeks not only to stall negotiations, as was the case before, but to fundamentally change the negotiation process by rejecting Madrid principles, demanding changes to the composition of negotiations, resettling Middle East Armenians into the occupied territories, and so on, while also threatening “new wars and new territories”. We can debate the reasons behind all these changes but they all have led to a very unstable situation that could no longer be contained,” (https://www.azernews.az/karabakh/169871.html?fbclid=IwAR1C2XfxQ0oU1r_NuAS_7AchIW1FlvyA4QWnUyBQOvR3XyuoR5KnImFMgKI)
All the provocations from Erivan and occupied Karabakh, plus deliberate statements by PM Pashinyan that “Karabakh is Armenia” and inaction by the Minsk group, closed off any hope there had been in the decades long and stalled peace process. So what then?
All the while the Azerbaijanis were receiving little sympathy in the West – despite International Law being firmly on their side. Biased and ignorant reporting from the BBC and the British press in general seemed to show the old favouritism toward Armenia of the Christian West – despite the Armenians being very much in the wrong. President Macron’s statements in favour of the Karabakh separatists were particularly despicable.
As Thomas Goltz, who has long experience in the Caucasus, has recently said, the Armenians have dominated the narrative in the West. Karabakh is often termed “an enclave” of “ethnic Armenians” giving it an emotional value (of poor Christians) being surrounded by hostile (Muslim) forces. In fact, Karabakh is populated entirely of Armenians because the substantial non-Armenian populace was ethnically cleansed from it in the late 1980s/early 1990s. There are approaching 1 million displaced people from Karabakh, adjacent Azerbaijani provinces and Erivan, and Karabakh is actually a sovereign part of Azerbaijan.
Karabagh is also routinely described as “disputed territory” in the Western media as if the claims of both parties are equal under International Law, when they are not. International Law and practically every country in the world recognises Karabakh as being part of Azerbaijan and being under the sovereignty of the government in Baku.
As such the Armenians, aided by the Western media, have successfully taken the debate away from its fundamentals of International Law where 4 UN Resolutions of 1993 clearly and unambiguously describe Karabakh as being an integral part of Azerbaijan and subject to the sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Armenia is militarily occupying internationally recognised Azerbaijani territory in violation of UNSC Resolutions 822, 853, 874, and 884, which were even supported by Russia.
The following extract is from an article in ‘The Oriental Review’, ‘Russian Strategic Calculations In The Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis, written by Andrew Korybko, the geopolitics writer:
“Russia is very well aware that Armenia is the aggressor, just like it’s always been. That’s why it isn’t considering activating the CSTO’s mutual defense clause. Russia, like the rest of its UNSC counterparts, regards Nagorno-Karabakh as Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territory according to international law. It doesn’t want to get dragged into a war in support of its ally’s expansionist policy. Russia would have nothing to gain from doing so and everything to lose, including its strategic relations with Azerbaijan and possibly even Turkey too.The best possible strategy at this time is for Russia to put immense pressure on Armenia behind the ceases to agree to another ceasefire as soon as possible, provided of course that the Azerbaijani side is willing to go along with this as well for whatever its reasons may be. Regrettably, however, Russian influence over Armenia has shrunk since Pashinyan’s rise to power as a result of the so-called “Velvet Revolution”, which was really a Color Revolution against the country’s legitimate government.”
Pablo Escobar, the veteran political analyst, has a piece written for the ‘Unz Review’ entitled ‘What’s at Stake in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Chessboard (https://www.unz.com/pescobar/whats-at-stake-in-the-armenia-azerbaijan-chessboard/)
The most interesting sections of this article are the comments supplied to the writer by another (anonymous) political analyst, an expert on the geopolitics of the Caucasus. Escobar calls him “Mr. C.” I have included the comments about the Karabakh conflict made by Mr. C below. I believe them to be basically accurate:
“For decades, the equation remained the same and the variables in the equation remained the same, more or less. This was the case notwithstanding the fact that Armenia is an unstable democracy in transition and Azerbaijan had much more continuity at the top… Azerbaijan lost territory right at the beginning of the restoration of its statehood, when it was basically a failed state run by armchair nationalist amateurs [before Heydar Aliyev, Ilham’s father, came to power]. And Armenia was a mess, too but less so when you take into consideration that it had strong Russian support and Azerbaijan had no one. Back in the day, Turkey was still a secular state with a military that looked West and took its NATO membership seriously. Since then, Azerbaijan has built up its economy and increased its population. So it kept getting stronger. But its military was still underperforming.”
“Basically, in the past few months you’ve seen incremental increases in the intensity of near daily ceasefire violations (the near-daily violations are nothing new: they’ve been going on for years). So this blew up in July and there was a shooting war for a few days. Then everyone calmed down again.”
“The Azerbaijani side thought (the coming to power of Pashinyan) indicated Armenia was ready for compromise (this all started when Armenia had a sort of revolution, with the new PM coming in with a popular mandate to clean house domestically). For whatever reason, it ended up not happening.”
“(During the July hostilities at Tovuz) Armenia asked for CSTO protection and got bitch slapped, hard and in public; second, Armenia threatened to bomb the oil and gas pipelines in Azerbaijan (there are several, they all run parallel, and they supply not just Georgia and Turkey but now the Balkans and Italy). With regards to the latter, Azerbaijan basically said: if you do that, we’ll bomb your nuclear reactor.”
“Armenia’s sabre rattling got more aggressive… and throughout the summer, the quality of the Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises increased (both prior to July events and subsequently). The Azerbaijani military got a lot better. Also, since the fourth quarter of 2019 the President of Azerbaijan has been getting rid of the (perceived) pro-Russian elements in positions of power.”
“(President Erdogan may have informed President Putin) ‘We’ll go into Armenia directly if a) Azerbaijan starts to lose, b) Russia goes in or accepts CSTO to be invoked or something along those lines, or c) Armenia goes after the pipelines. All are reasonable red lines for the Turks, especially when you factor in the fact that they don’t like the Armenians very much and that they consider the Azerbaijanis brothers’.”
“The peace talks are going nowhere because Armenia is refusing to budge (to withdraw from occupying Nagorno-Karabakh plus 7 surrounding regions in phases or all at once, with the usual guarantees for civilians, even settlers – note that when they went in in the early 1990s they cleansed those lands of literally all Azerbaijanis, something like between 700,000 and 1 million people). Aliyev was under the impression that Pashinyan was willing to compromise and began preparing his people and then looked like someone with egg on his face when it didn’t happen. Turkey has made it crystal clear it will support Azerbaijan unconditionally, and has matched those words with deeds.”
“In such circumstances, Russia got outplayed – in the sense that they had been able to play off Armenia against Azerbaijan and vice versa, quite successfully, helping to mediate talks that went nowhere, preserving the status quo that effectively favored Armenia.”
“(The point of the war from the Azerbaijani side is) either to conquer as much as possible before the “international community” [in this case, the UNSC] calls for / demands a ceasefire or to do so as an impetus for re-starting talks that actually lead to progress. In either scenario, Azerbaijan will end up with gains and Armenia with losses. How much and under what circumstances (the status and question of Nagorno-Karabakh is distinct from the status and question of the Armenian occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh) is unknown: i.e. on the field of battle or the negotiating table or a combo of both. However this turns out, at a minimum Azerbaijan will get to keep what it liberated in battle. This will be the new starting point. And I suspect that Azerbaijan will do no harm to the Armenian civilians that stay. They’ll be model liberators. And they’ll take time to bring back Azerbaijani civilians (refugees/IDPs) to their homes, especially in areas that would become mixed as a result of return.”
“(Moscow cannot do not much under these circumstances) except to go into Azerbaijan proper, which they won’t do (there’s no land border between Russia and Armenia; so although Russia has a military base in Armenia with one or more thousand troops, they can’t just supply Armenia with guns and troops at will, given the geography)… The EU and Russia may find common cause to limit Azerbaijani gains (in large part because Erdogan is no one’s favourite guy, not just because of this but because of the Eastern Med, Syria, Libya).”
Now, it is all to play for in Karabakh. It seems that the Armenian Prime Minister has over-played his hand. Pashinyan has successfully unfrozen “the frozen conflict”.