On Friday night it was announced, after 12 hours of meetings in Moscow, that “a humanitarian ceasefire” has been agreed to between Armenia and Azerbaijani in Karabakh. After the Saturday 12.00 start of the ceasefire, as the Azerbaijani forces stood down, it appears there were further Armenian artillery barrages and attacks, perhaps aimed at recovering lost ground. These were successfully repulsed and the ceasefire appears to be fragile at the time of writing.
Up to the cessation of the hostilities the Azerbaijani army had made a steady advance in liberating parts of its country occupied by Armenia since 1994. The Armenians, who had been obstructing negotiations for 26 years, suddenly became very keen on a ceasefire and peace. They were losing substantial amounts of territory and being driven back on the battlefield by a superior army. Their attempts to goad the Azeris into retaliating against Armenia proper, by firing missiles at the cities and towns of Azerbaijan, failed.
The Armenians also found their efforts to expand the war for Karabakh into a regional conflict thwarted. Mr. Putin told them during the week that Azerbaijan was not attacking Armenia, so they had no right to expect Russian assistance. It was clear that Armenia’s Prime Minister, Pashinyan, had made a miscalculation and overplayed his hand. He had provoked a war and his occupation forces were paying a heavy price in both blood and territory for his actions. The news of the negative battlefield situation has been kept from Armenians.
Many Azerbaijanis will be disappointed with the news of the ceasefire. It is not that they are warmongers and wished for a prolongation of conflict. However, they do want a final resolution of the conflict that has blighted their lives for a generation. They do not want future generations to face the burden and sacrifice that future conflict will entail. The steady erosion of the occupation of Azerbaijani territory by the Azerbaijani army’s successful military operations promised the possibility of a final resolution of the problem, perhaps once and for all. They will be concerned that the pause will give the Armenians a breathing space in which to organise more substantial resistance than they have been so far able to mount. And they will be concerned that they could be cheated at the conference table of the fruits of the hard won victories of the Azerbaijani forces on the battlefield. Transitions from war to politics are very problematic.
The Azerbaijani army has performed well in the 10 or so days of fighting. However, conflict has taken place mostly on the plains and capturing the highlands (Nagorno) of Karabakh would prove difficult for any army. A 5:1 majority of forces would probably be necessary for a successful campaign and casualties would certainly be higher on the offensive side. The Armenians have had years to build strong defensive positions, unmolested by the native Moslems, who they drove out in the 1990s. Assaulting such positions would be costly, particularly with winter drawing in. Barring a total Armenian collapse it would be very time consuming too.
It is interesting that the war was stopped just as a very important battle, for Hadrut, was in prospect. As one observer noted:
“Hadrut is the first regional center with Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh, within the former autonomous region, which the Azerbaijani side announced occupied/liberated. Prior to this, Azerbaijani troops occupied two villages in Nagorno-Karabakh – Talish and Madagiz (Sogovushan). But the main battles unfolded in the Jebrail region – a practically uninhabited territory of the Azerbaijani regions occupied by the army of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 90s, from where the entire Azerbaijani population was expelled. In fact, in this area, the parties are fighting for the right to own the ruins… The second reason is the strategic location of the settlement – if it is controlled by the Azerbaijani army, the Armenian forces defending the Fizuli and Jebrail regions will risk being surrounded and will be forced to leave their positions. The road to the center of Nagorno-Karabakh – the cities of Shushi / Shusha and Stetanakert / Khankendi – will be open for the Azerbaijani forces.”
Perhaps the Azerbaijan army had lplanned to encircle the highland areas of Karabakh, cutting them off from Armenia, by thrusting to the south and then retaking the territory of Azerbaijan to the West of Nagorno-Karabakh, around the Lachin corridor. However, this too would have met with more substantial Armenian resistance, brought in from Yerevan.
The celebrated British military strategist Basil Liddell Hart once pointed out that “Victory in the true sense… surely implies that one is better off after the war than if one had not made war.” (The British Way in Warfare, p.41) The British know a thing or two about the waging of war, having fought more wars than any nation on earth, and more successful ones at that.
If the war in Karabakh ended now and the conflict moved to the conference table the Azerbaijanis could certainly claim a victory. They have captured a fair amount of territory from the separatists; destroyed much of their military forces and equipment; demonstrated that the Azerbaijani organisation and technical superiority over the Armenians can be decisive; witnessed no successful advances of Armenian forces in any area; revealed that Russia will not support or aid Armenia unconditionally; and shown that the occupation is not a permanent feature in Karabakh, but perhaps likely to collapse, given sustained pressure.
The staus quo has been ended and the situation transformed during the last fortnight.
The Armenian government, which was talking about “new war for new territories” only a year ago, holding elections in its occupied territory and announcing the transfer of its “capital” to Shusha, to signify a permanency of existence, is now facing an existential crisis. Half of the Armenians resident in the occupied territories took the road to Yerevan in an orderly retreat (unlike the poor Azeris who trekked the mountains in the 1990s) and Mrs Pashinyan was never sighted near the frontline in battle dress and assault rifle.
But the biggest change of all was seen in the Armenian Prime Minister himself. Pashinyan was transformed from a bellicose warrior into a beaten man, pleading for a referee to stop the fight. Tass reported Nikol Pashinyan’s sudden desire to trade territory with Azerbaijan on 6 October, prompting one notable Armenian blogger, who goes under the name The Rise of Russia, to comment:
“Ultimately, I believe this is Nikol’s war. In my opinion, this war is why Nikol is in power today… This war was the biggest opportunity we had in 26 years to take additional lands if only to off-set land losses we have had in this war. This was the greatest opportunity we had in 26 years to annex or recognize Artsakh. Nikol’s regime have thus far done none of it. No matter how one looks at it, Nikol’s choice of words is a form of capitulation in the middle of a war. If the fighting stopped tomorrow, Artsakh would technically be the loser...
“If Armenia was going to politically cave-in like this after only one week of warfare – and also begin begging for Russian help – then why didn’t we agree to deploy Russian peacekeepers in Artsakh and handover the “5 territories” to Baku BEFORE all this bloodshed and destruction? If Armenia is doing so well militarily, as we are constantly being told, then why is it barely over one week into this war and our nation’s leader is talking about “concessions” and not “new territories” as we were assured prior to the war? And if Armenian forces in Artsakh are NOT doing so well militarily, then why has Nikol not yet used the full potential of the Armenian military to turn-the-tide of the war and bring the war into Azerbaijani territory and force Baku to instead talk about concessions? Nikol and his George Soros financed kindergarten in Yerevan is not who we needed in power in a time of war. Nikol’s regime is a liability.” (theriseofrussia.blogspot.com ‘Second Battle for Artsakh, Autumn 2020’)
The Azerbaijanis have won a victory like they have not seen in a generation – although it is far from a complete victory. And total victory will be something that will be difficult to achieve militarily.
Armenian propaganda and the West
As its forces were retreating last week Armenian propaganda tried to muddy the waters in the West, and it is succeeding to a degree with the help of the simpletons of a dishonest and ignorant media. Whether this media is simply dishonest or ignorant is a moot point. However, it is not reporting the facts of the matter and its involved in obscuring the truth.
The Western media is telling us everything that this conflict is not about and not what it is really about. The media is saying it is Christians against Muslims, even though Azerbaijan is a secular and heterogeneous state; it is saying that this is a Turkish war when no Turks are involved and the Azerbaijani army is doing all the fighting; it is spreading rumours of the involvement of Syrian fighters being in the ranks of Azerbaijani forces when the only evidence points to Lebanese and Syrian activists fighting and dying for Armenia; it warns of ethnic cleansing and genocide when the only forces who have been involved in such activities are those who currently occupy Karabakh and prevent the return of 800,000 Azerbaijanis from their homes.
What this conflict is really about is a country fighting to regain its sovereign territory, universally recognised as such by the nations of the world, through its own hard effort, after decades of placing its trust in the international community to come good on the simple implementation of International Law. This International Law is declared in 4 UN Security Council Resolutions of 1993 (822, 853, 874, 884) that demand “an immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan”, and the re-incorporation of such territory within Azerbaijan, along with the return of the internally displaced persons ethnically cleansed by the forces of the occupation.
The International community has failed to follow through on its principles, and by reducing International Law to the status of a mere debating point it has brought it into disrepute. Prime Minister Pashinyan has stated that International Law does not matter because “Karabakh is Armenian” and has an Armenian majority. He does not say that it has not just got an Armenian majority, but that it is actually exclusively Armenian. That is because the large historic Muslim population of Karabakh and the 7 surrounding provinces of Azerbaijan were forced out between 1988 and 1994. Their settlements were destroyed, their places of worship turned into pig-sties, and thousands were murdered in their homes or died fleeing across the highlands.
The Armenians never say how they obtained their majority in Karabakh prior to the time they reduced the Moslem minority they had whittled away, to zero. Up to around a century ago there had been a Moslem majority in the area. A century previous it had been the territory of Muslim Khanates who signed peace treaties with Tsarist Russia. From the 1830s Tsarist Russia implemented a colonisation of Christian Armenians to bolster the frontiers of their expanding Empire. Armenians grew from being only 10 per cent of Karabakh (according to Russian figures) to a majority within a century. In 1911 a Russian observer, N.Shavrov, who had been involved in Tsarist colonial policy, noted that only 300,000 of the 1.3 million Armenian population of the Southern Caucasus was originally from the region. (A New Challenge to the Russian Issue in Transcaucasia, pp.59-60)
The principle of “self-determination”, already problematic, loses all validity when majorities are achieved by the processes of colonisation and ethnic cleansing.
There has indeed been an Armenian presence in Karabakh for centuries, and particularly in the highlands. No one denies that. But that has nothing to do with the rights or wrongs of the current situation and does not alter the fact that Karabakh was a territory of Azerbaijan during the period of the Azerbaijan Republic in 1918, the British occupation during the following year, the independent Azerbaijan Republic after that, and the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan from 1920 onwards. It was never a part of an Armenian state, before or after Tsarist Russia came down across the Caucasus.
During the period of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (1920-1991) Karabakh was governed under Azeri sovereignty as the autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh (highland Karabakh). In those 7 decades it was a shared territory with a mixed population, majority Armenian/minority Azerbaijani. Nagorno Karabakh had its critics, but it was a stable political entity in which both communities could live in peace.
Karabakh and its surrounding territories has been under Armenian control/occupation for the last 26 years. The Armenian solution to Karabakh’s diversity problem was to eradicate that diversity and to create an exclusive Armenian entity – no Moslems, Jews, Azerbaijanis or Kurds were welcome. That is the fact of the “ethnic-Armenian enclave” that the Western media describes as a “disputed territory” – an ethnically cleansed, illegal statelet, unrecognised by the world, except as an occupied territory of Azerbaijan. A dispute between an illegal occupation and a legitimate government.
One disappointing aspect of the ceasefire announcement has been the following: “While Turkey has aspired to join the Minsk Group talks as a co-chair, the statement issued by Armenia and Azerbaijan contained their pledge to maintain the current format of the peace talks.”
This means that the Minsk group, which has failed to secure Armenian co-operation in a settlement for 2 decades, will continue to be the forum for conflict resolution. The Minsk group has not only proved itself ineffectual in applying International Law to Karabakh, it is also severely weighted against the Azerbaijanis in the composition of its chairs. Russia, with its important strategic military bases in Armenia and historic support for Armenians is one of the co-chairs. France, with its substantial Armenian diaspora is another. President Macron has shown himself as hardly an objective influence in recent weeks with his statement that he favoured Armenian control and would not allow Karabakh to be governed by Azerbaijan along with his general anti-Turkish disposition. The U.S. also has a powerful Armenian diaspora and the best that can be said of it involves its seeming recent disinterest in the region.
The 3 chairs of the Minsk Group – Russia, France, US – are UN Security Council Permanent members. As such they are officially exempt from International Law under UN rules and each of them can confer exemption from it on any country they choose.
So in any negotiations the cards are stacked heavily against Azerbaijan and the process could really have done with a Turkish presence to balance up the situation.
One thing should be clear, however – this is the Minsk group’s last chance at a settlement. If it fails to satisfy the UN Resolutions in its operations it should be put out of its misery.
At present it seems that the Azerbaijani military victories have done something that 26 years of negotiations failed to achieve – they have apparantly forced a concentrating of minds and efforts to attempt a settlement at the conference table. However, there should be no half-measures in the search for a solution. The Armenian military solution to the problem – ethnic cleansing, occupation and resultant isolation – has clearly failed and has been shown to be unsustainable.
It should now be apparent to Yerevan that its victory in 1994 was a pyrrhic one. Karabakh has proved a poisoned chalice for the Armenian people themselves. While the land-grab at the collapse of the Soviet Union gave some self-satisfaction to expansionary Armenian nationalism it destroyed the chances of good relations with its neighbours and made Armenia a pariah state, isolated, with a shattered economy and rapidly declining population. It was dependent on Russia, which had rescued it from near defeat in 1992. And it could only look over enviously at the country it had “defeated” in Karabakh as Azerbaijan stabilised, and developed economically into a well-organised, strong and confident independent state, with a growing military capacity. All it had was “Artsakh” but “Artsakh” meant everything to it.
Now “the chickens have come home to roost” as they say.
As for Azerbaijan, it has every reason to settle this issue in a reasonable and accommodationist spirit. All the evidence suggests that President Aliev went to war reluctantly, after the utmost provocation from the occupation forces, and all prospects of a peaceful solution were evaporating, along with the aggressive actions of Prime Minister Pashinyan. There is no intention to prolong a conflict with Armenia a minute longer than an ending of the occupation of its territory entails. Any such prolongation of war would represent a terrible drain on Azerbaijan’s economy and be a millstone around Baku’s neck in terms of blood and treasure. That is why Baku has decided to give peace a chance, for now.
Russia can do without Pashinyan. A new Armenian leader would undoubtedly understand the importance of Russia to the continued existence of the Yerevan Republic. On the other hand, if President Aliev was to lose power in Baku, this would be much worse for Russia. Since Russia would take a great deal of the blame for the failure to resolve the conflict any new government in Baku would be likely to look westward in the future.
Despite those who present this as an Erdogan/Putin face-off both Russia and Turkey have every reason to co-operate and assist in resolving the conflict in the interests of peace and stability in the region. The Western media (and its Russian nationalist reflection) which imagines this to be a geopolitical struggle between Russia and Turkey, rather than an Armenian/Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh will be disappointed. Both states stand to gain from a full and peaceful resolution of the issue, working together to cement ties and friendly relations. Likewise Iran, which has a great chance of rebuilding bridges and good relations with Azerbaijan.
If Russia decides to prolong the conflict over Karabakh of course it can. This could be achieved by supplying Armenia with weapons and munitions in an informal manner to enable it to hold out and produce a long draining war of attrition. However, this risks upsetting the geopolitical balance in the region by turning both Azerbaijan and Turkey westward. The relations Putin has established with Erdogan over recent years would undoubtedly be endangered.
The nightmare scenario in the conflict is such an Azerbaijani success that leads to unbalanced Armenia going berserk and loosing off its Iskander missiles at large population centres, causing large scale casualties in Baku, for instance. Such an event would probably be the one thing that would bring Turkey into the conflict directly against Armenia. And then a whole new level of conflict would ensue.
The most important thing now is to reach a functional and enduring solution to the Karabakh conflict. The best scenario would involve an Armenian submission to the full implementation of the UN Resolutions. This would minimise the bitterness a further intensification of conflict and losses would develop among both peoples. An Armenian concession would enable the possibility of the existing Armenian populace remaining in Karabakh, and those who have fled the battlefield returning. The Azerbaijani population could finally return to their homes after nearly three decades. The process could be supervised by the UN or by Turkey and Russia, acting collaboratively.
After that, functional local government could be developed in Karabakh, with a cultural equality agenda and safeguards for both communities in terms of security and political decision making. Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan could develop on a more positive footing with a sharing of responsibility for the future good relations between the two communities in Karabakh.
Best of all, future generations of Armenians and Azerbaijanis would never need to fight and die over Karabakh, but could share in its peace, prosperity and stability. But there is much to do before a durable accommodation between Armenia and Azerbaijan can be realised. And it can only be achieved through an end to the occupation of all Azerbaijani territory.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, only a day after this article was written, and 2 days into the ceasefire the Armenians devastated apartment blocks in Ganje, Azerbaijan’s second city, using missiles. There are many civilian casualties, who were sleeping when the rockets hit. This confirms the article’s premise that the Armenian side seems to want to provoke the Azerbaijanis into making a retaliatory strike on Yerevan, to draw in Russia and Turkey into the conflict.