Despite the ceasefire of last weekend the Karabakh war has continued much as it did over the previous fortnight. The Azerbaijani army has maintained its steady advance, but now out of the plain and into the settlements of Nagorno-Karabakh proper (i.e. the highlands). It has secured Hadrut, whose fall was a great moral blow to the Armenian occupation. Hadrut’s strategic location and its capture meant that Armenian forces defending the Fizuli and Jebrail regions risked being surrounded and were forced to leave their positions.
The battle for the city of Fuzuli, the citadel of the plains of Karabakh, was an important moment in the latest conflict, with the Azerbaijani Army crushing the resistance of the occupying army. Armenian soldiers raised white flags in increasing numbers. The road to the center of Nagorno-Karabakh – the cities of Shusha and Stetanakert/Khankendi – were now open for the Azerbaijani forces.
This next phase will presumably involve an increasingly difficult fight for Azerbaijani forces against the occupation. The Armenians have had a long period to build defensive positions and should be able to put up more robust resistance in such terrain. However, the precision technology available to the Azeri forces is making advance much more possible than observers ever anticipated and the defensive advantages possessed by the Armenians are being nullified by the UAVs. There is an air of disbelief among the Armenian supporters at the defeats being suffered and territory lost. Battles rage around the Aghdere-Aghdam districts and information suggests that Shusha, the old Azerbaijani cultural centre, could perhaps fall at any moment – a major symbolic blow to the Armenian occupation.
A week ago the Azerbaijanis, despite doing so well on the battlefield, seemed ready to accept a ceasefire and there was considerable disappointment that their army had been stopped in its tracks by the talks in Moscow. On the other hand, Armenia’s PM, Nikol Pashinyan, seemed to be begging for a ceasefire, to provide a much needed breathing-space within which its military forces could be re-organized for renewed defence of its retreating positions. It appears that Pashinyan may actually have approached the President of Azerbaijan through intermediaries to secure a halt to the Azeri advance.
And then Armenia shattered the ceasefire with a ballistic missile attack on Azerbaijan’s second city of Ganje that destroyed apartment blocks and claimed around a dozen lives. This made the ceasefire impossible for the Azeris and their army, after beating off some Armenian counter-attacks arranged under cover of the ceasefire. The Azeris promptly resumed the offensive, capturing more territory and clearing the borderline with Iran of occupation forces close to the Araxes River.
During the week there was an Armenian missile attack on Nakhchivan that thankfully resulted in no loss of life. Further Armenian missiles landed in Iran and Daghestan, showing the inaccuracy of their firing. On Saturday morning the Armenians repeated their missile attacks on Ganje with even greater devastation and loss of life to the Azerbaijani civilians. Whole blocks were demolished by 2 missiles and a number of small children, along with their families, killed. The tactic is always the same: missile launching in the early hours of the morning as civilians sleep soundly in their beds, to register maximum terror among the civil populace and high casualties.
Sixty Azerbaijani civilians have now been killed and 270 more have been injured since the outbreak of hostilities on September 27. Among the dead civilians are six children. As a result of the shelling of civilian areas by the occupying country’s armed forces, 1,700 houses and 90 multi-apartment buildings, have also been severely damaged. There have been no fatalities or any damage in Armenia, because the war is being fought entirely on the territory of Azerbaijan.
Matthew Bryza, the U.S. interlocutor in the Minsk talks, suggested that these reckless actions were evidence of increasing Armenian desperation, intended to draw Baku into attacking Armenia proper and provoking a possible Russian rescue of Armenia. The indiscriminate killing of women and small children far from the battlefield certainly raised levels of anger to unprecedented levels among the Azerbaijani populace. So far, however, the Azeris have mourned their dead and continued the war on the battlefield, refusing to be diverted from the main task in hand.
Bryza also speculated that Prime Minister Pashinyan had lost control over his military and seemed to be defying Putin – after initially welcoming the prospect of a ceasefire. Putin had forced Pashinyan to drop his novel demand that the independence of “Artsakh” be respected by Baku in talks – something the Azeris could never accept. Pashinyan had found himself in a bind with having to suffer further defeats on the battlefield or submit to Putin’s terms of reference.
So there was strange behaviour indeed in Erivan, suggesting that there were growing divisions within the Armenian command. Perhaps the ceasefire was seen as a defeat which could not be sold to the Armenian public, after all the forceful rhetoric, belligerence and intransigence that had characterised the policy of the Armenian government over the previous year. Undoubtedly, territory had been lost and the notion of the “invincibility” of the Armenian army, carefully cultivated since the 1990s, had been severely damaged in the picking of this latest fight with Baku.
One of the reasons for Armenia’s defeats has been its under-estimation of the substance of Azerbaijan. The Armenians are fond of portraying Azerbaijan as a mere appendage of Turkey, when they are not describing the Azeris as a “fake nation” created upon the whim of Joe Stalin. They may have had their notions confirmed by the chaos and faction fighting that reigned in Azerbaijan at the fall of the Soviet Union. That contrasted with the nationalist certainty that characterised Armenia and its instinctive reflexes that began exercising a renewed appetite for expansion into Karabakh and other areas.
The Armenians believed that as long as their back was protected against Turkey (who they could continue to provoke in safety through their Genocide lobbying) they were more than able to deal with the Azerbaijanis.
However the Armenian success in the new world of nationalism that the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in, that perfectly suited its proclivities, led to the building of castles built on sand. Soon, the forceful acquisition of Karabakh, with its attendant ethnic cleansing and poisoning of neighbourly relations sowed the seeds of future problems. Armenia, isolated by pariah status, totally dependent on Russia and Iran’s goodwill, saw its economy melt down and its population leave in increasing numbers. Even its paradise of “Artsakh” proved unattractive to all but the most hardy of its frontiersmen. And all the while Azerbaijan, released from the burden of defending it, built up a solid economy and a professional army designed to fight a new war to recover its occupied territory at the right moment. And Pashinyan provided it with that moment by his reckless and provocative actions through 2019-20.
Alexander Baunov, writing for the Moscow Carnegie Centre, has penned a thoughtful article about “Why Russia is Biding its Time on Nagorno-Karabakh”. It aims to explain why Putin, having seen his ceasefire plan fail, has decided against any intervention for now, to prop up the Armenians.
Baunov first makes an important point in relation to Moscow/Baku relations: Azerbaijan has been a model independent state, keeping fully in line with Russia’s World War II narrative and determined to establish friendly relations with its former rulers:
“Unlike other former Soviet republics with frozen conflicts (Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova), Azerbaijan has not been an enemy state for Russia. It has never had a government that turned anti-Russian rhetoric into a key foreign policy commodity, or proclaimed emancipation from Russia its main aim… Azerbaijan has cooperated with NATO and provided symbolic contingents of its troops to NATO operations, but it has never voiced any official ambition to join the alliance. Among the former Soviet states, Azerbaijan has always been an example of how to follow a foreign policy that is entirely independent from Russia, while maintaining a good relationship with Moscow and Putin. This example is also important for Russia itself, as it shows that good relations with Moscow don’t have to come at the cost of submission or signing up for Russia-led integration projects, and independence from Moscow doesn’t necessarily entail falling out with Russia or a demonstrative rapprochement with its enemies. “
“So Russia may have reasons to help Armenia, but it has no reason at all to punish Azerbaijan. Neither the Russian government nor the public have cause to blithely deploy the country’s military force against Azerbaijan.”
The author then turns his attention to Armenia, which while it may be an ally of Russia, is by no means a friend:
“Armenia is an important Russian ally. But the Kremlin has been apprehensive of the current Armenian government ever since it came to power, as it is the result of regime change brought about by street protests: a color revolution, which the Kremlin views as a deadly sin.”
“Pashinyan welcomes the activity of Western NGOs, including those funded by the U.S. philanthropist George Soros, who has been accused by ultraconservatives of financing color revolutions. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, allowing these NGOs to operate freely is nothing short of a security breach. The current Armenian government’s second deadly sin in the eyes of the Kremlin is the prosecution of former president Robert Kocharyan.“
“Russia’s reticence where Armenia is concerned is also linked to the fact that, regardless of Putin’s role, Russian diplomats—both in the 1990s and now—feel that Yerevan wasted time when it could have resolved its territorial dispute peacefully. Moscow understands that the military victory of Armenia, a small and poor country, over richer and more populous Azerbaijan was down to chance as much as anything else.”
Many Western accounts have tried to paint the Karabakh conflict as an incident in a supposed geopolitical struggle between Russia and Turkey, with Armenia and Azerbaijan being mere proxies. This is a hopeless delusion – perhaps wishful thinking on the part of the West. And this Western misapprehension has been echoed among the Russia worshipping analysts who are inclined to a flamboyant Russian nationalism. Mr. Putin, however, is first and foremost a practical statesman rather than an adventurous Russian nationalist.
The truth of the matter is that:
“Armenia may be Russia’s ally, but Azerbaijan is not its enemy, and nor is Turkey, which is backing Azerbaijan. If the attacker were Georgia, for example, which is backed by the United States, things would be a lot more simple. It would also be simpler if it were Ukraine or Moldova trying to restore its territorial integrity in such a manner.”
“Russia’s partnership with Turkey, despite its tensions and periodic clashes, allows Russia to remain in Syria and go about its business in Libya without sustaining major losses. But most importantly, it helps to create a situation in which regional conflicts can be solved without U.S. involvement—something Russia values highly. Squeezing the United States out of regional conflicts is more important for Russia than stopping other regional powers from gaining a bigger role in them.”
“Being free to act without Western interference is also important for Turkey, and for this reason, it is reconciled to Russia’s presence in conflicts that Ankara considers important. Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan are united by their joint resistance to the West and their shared ambition of a greater role in global affairs. This anti-Western platform is more important than the shared Christian platform on which Armenia is pinning its hopes.”
The author speculates that while Putin will be prepared to allow Armenia to lose in Karabakh, he will not allow it to lose Karabakh entirely – in order that Russia can save face. This is a moot point and remains to be seen. If that were the case a form of partition would need to be imposed by Russia, and the question arises about how the Russians will assist the Armenians in stopping the Azerbaijani army?
He also thinks such a settlement would enable Armenia to free itself of Russia. But I cannot see how that would be an aim of Mr. Putin. Surely he will either have to apply force to re-freeze the conflict with redrawn frontlines managed by Russia or allow Armenia to suffer defeat, short of collapse.
Before Pashinyan unbalanced Armenia Russia had managed to successfully play off Yerevan and Baku to maintain its hegemony in the region. There was a strong suspicion that it was not in Moscow’s interest to resolve the Karabakh conflict but rather to prolong it, so that both Armenia and Azerbaijan would continue to require Moscow’s goodwill, keeping them both firmly in the sphere of influence of Moscow. It was well known that Moscow sold weapons to Baku and offered them at cheaper prices to Yerevan, or even provided them free. But much of this weaponry has now shown itself to be inferior. When contrasted with the precision technology Azerbaijan has purchased from Turkey and Israel and used to good effect, it has been revealed to be the weaponry of the last war, rather than the present one.
An Armenian defeat short of collapse would undoubtedly see the end of Mr. Pashinyan. And that would enable the restoration of a pro-Moscow regime in Yerevan. The war defeat would also demonstrate the impotence of the toxic Armenian diaspora in California, despite all their aggression and bluster. That would also be very good for Russia. There has always been a tension between the diaspora who would prefer a western re-orientation on the part of Armenia and the leaders before Pashinyan who knew that Russia was Armenia’s effective maker and breaker. This conflict would be resolved and Yerevan, defeated in war and surrounded by hostility, would be entirely dependent on Moscow, particularly in relation to any continued Armenian presence in Karabakh. Some Armenian bloggers are now even suggesting that Yerevan becomes an official part of Russia, having bungled its independent existence.
That may be Mr. Putin’s ideal outcome – if he can manage the Armenian defeat in a controlled way that does not risk Yerevan plunging the region into a wider war for its aggressive territorial ambitions. That would be a disaster that would not be welcome in either Moscow or Tehran.
Finally, something needs to be said about the young men and women whose photos appear every day on social media and who have been lost by their grieving families and country. It is a tragedy that these young lives are lost and they will never have the chance to enjoy the pleasures of life and the love of their family and friends. Azerbaijan went into this war with great reluctance, and rightfully so. It may have been easier to have continued in the situation where the great injustice that had been done to the country was pointed out but few died in trying to rectify it. But it wasn’t to be. By its actions in the 1990s Armenian nationalism made this war almost inevitable one day. What was done to Azerbaijan – the occupation of nearly a fifth of its sovereign territory and the ethnic cleansing of 800,000 people, along with the massacres of innocents in places like Khojaly – was too much for a people’s self respect. And the bungling Mr Pashinyan just pushed them too far, one time too many.
There are difficult decisions for all concerned in the coming weeks. The management of the conflict toward a peaceful and functional settlement that reflects the new balance of power on the battlefield, which reduces the possibility of future war, is in the interests of everyone.