Today, 8 November 2020, Shusha was confirmed to have fallen to Azerbaijani forces. It is a historic day for Azerbaijan. The 26 year Armenian occupation of Karabakh was dealt a fatal blow with the return of the old capital to de facto Azerbaijani authority. At the same time pictures showed the Armenians abandoning the capital of Stepanakert (Khankendi) in droves and heading for Armenia. They leave peacefully in cars, unmolested by the Azerbaijani forces. The scene is so different from 3 decades ago when Azerbaijani civilians – women, children and old men – fled across snow covered mountains and were hunted down and killed in their thousands by Armenian forces.
The only problem the Armenian refugees have is Yerevan obstructing their entry to the motherland, as they are expected to die for Armenia in Karabakh, presumably forming suitable propaganda material for the last “genocide” card – the card Armenia always plays as it goes down to defeat.
The importance of Shusha for the Azerbaijanis is immense. It was always the ultimate focus of their advance. Shusha was the first capital of Karabakh and the major centre of the Azerbaijani population. It is a celebrated cultural centre for Azerbaijanis, where fine poetry, art and architecture flourished. Vagif, the creator of the literary Azerbaijani language resided there, as did great poets like Zakir and Natavan. It was also the home of the founder of Azerbaijani classical music and composer of the first opera in the eastern world, Hajibeyov. Accomplished singers like Bulbul and Khan Shushinsky worked there. In military affairs, Shusha was a famous impregnable fortress that notably preserved its independence by withstanding many great sieges of the Persians and Russians. It has immense symbolic significance for Azerbaijanis for those reasons.
Strategically it has always been of great importance, perched on a cliff, with its great fortress, and had to be taken in order for further progress to be made by armies. It sits on the road to the Lachin corridor, which is the main supply line to the highlands of Karabakh. It therefore holds the main route into Armenia and vital to the Armenian occupation as a source of military supplies and reinforcements. When Shusha fell to the Armenians in 1992 it was a devastating blow to Azerbaijan. Likewise the fall of Shusha on 8 November represents a fatal blow to the Armenian occupation, strategically and symbolically.
Azerbaijani forces had surged up the border with Iran in the south, brushing all resistance aside. At that point they could have brought tanks and armoured carriers up against the Lachin corridor that connected Armenia to the mountains of Karabakh. Such an attack may well have succeeded, but at high cost, since the Azerbaijanis would have been exposed to Armenian artillery from many sides. Instead, the Azeri forces decided to pivot to the north and directly into the mountains of Karabakh.
The Armenians may not have been expecting that, clinging to the legend of the impregnable fortress of Shusha, located high up, and guarded by cliff walls on its southern and south-eastern sides.
The battle for Shusha has been hard fought. The Armenians put up substantial resistance in the form of ambushes on advancing Azeri forces, who have had to carefully negotiate very difficult terrain – mountainous wooded ravines and gorges with narrow roads. Casualties have been high on both sides. However, over the last month, Armenian forces have suffered far too heavy losses in manpower and materials to make their defensive advantage pay. Due to the degrading of their forces through Azeri attacks they struggled to defend the entire length of the 40km road that connects Armenia to the population centres of the ‘Artsakh Republic’, including its capital Stepanakert (Khankendi). Azerbaijani special forces had reached the road on October 4, and having established a foothold the Armenian armed forces proved unable to drive them out, despite all their efforts.
The President of ‘Artsakh’ Arayik Harutyunyan stated the old Armenian dictum: “Who controls Shusha, controls Karabakh” and called on all Armenians to stand up and defend the “holy city” to the death. Volunteers from the diaspora were pictured flying in after answering the call. And on 6 November Artsrun Hovhannisyan, the official representative of Armenia’s Defense Ministry, stated: “Shushi is ours. Shushi will not fall”.
For over a week, battles raged across the mountain ranges and ravines south of Shusha as Azerbaijani forces painstakingly secured key strategic heights to make an assault on the city possible. The Armenian army used both artillery and sudden ambushes on the Azerbaijani units to prevent the advance on the city. But by 4 November, Azerbaijani forces had gained control over the key points on the mountains to the south of Shusha and the vital road from Shusha to Lachin, and on to Armenia. The next day Azerbaijani special forces proceeded towards the cliff that Shusha stands upon, beating back resistance from arriving Armenian reinforcements.
It was vital that the Armenians dislodged the Azerbaijani forces from the Shusha to Lachin road and from the surrounding heights. If their efforts failed they would lose a vital supply route that was crucial to holding on to remaining territory they had occupied since 1992-4. However the Armenian forces failed to launch a successful counter attack and all of their attempts resulted in heavy losses. Much of the fighting was apparently hand to hand and the knife was the weapon of choice for the mountaineering special units, who had evidently been training up just for such an operation against the Armenian defence.
The loss of Shusha means that it is much more difficult for the Armenians to use the terrain to their advantage in the future. It time for them to come to the negotiating table before more lives are wasted and their position deteriorates further.
Although Azerbaijani forces were handicapped by the difficulty of transporting heavy equipment through the mountains surrounding Shusha, the special forces reached the Shusha-Lachin road without this backup. Low lying clouds, fog and the intentional burning of the woodlands around Shusha appear to have obstructed the use of drones by the Azeri forces. The burning of the forests was blamed on Azeri use of phosphorous shells by the Armenians. This has been shown to be another piece of Armenian fake news – why would an advancing army obstruct its own progress by obscuring visibility to one of its most effective weapons? Also the Armenians have suddenly employed Orlan-10 drones from Russia. These are reconnaissance drones that operate at a low altitude, un-interfered with by cloud cover, and provide specific targets for Armenian artillery. Their use proves that the igniters of the forests were the Armenian side.
But it all came to no avail. Shusha is now under Azerbaijan’s control on 8 November 2020.
The “disputed territory”
Karabakh is often described as a “disputed territory” in the Western media. That is a false statement. There is no actual dispute about the legal status of Karabakh – it is recognised almost universally as part of the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. The Karabakh conflict is actually a conflict of two nationalities within a territory that is wholly a de jure part of one state.
It cannot be denied that there were historically two nations in Karabakh – before one of them were completely purged from its territory in 1990s. There was a willingness to live side by side, without substantial conflict, during the centuries when Karabakh was an independent khanate or part of Turkic, Persian or Russian Tsarist administered territories. However, after the rise of Armenian nationalism in the 19th Century, and then the emergence of an Azerbaijani national consciousness, in large part as a consequence of Armenian territorial ambitions, two nations confronted each other in Karabakh. There was almost a complete absence of common collective feeling between the two communities.
The Armenian claim to Karabakh is based on the notion of “self-determination”. “Self-determination” is a very problematic concept. It was trumpeted across the world during the Great War by Britain, the United States and Bolshevik Russia. The slogan of “the right of self-determination” was mainly used as a means of sowing dissensions in the territories of the enemy. When it was attempted in the territories of those who advocated it the same states who advocated it repressed it with vigour.
There has probably been an Armenian presence in Karabakh for centuries, and particularly in the highland areas. No one denies that.
Up to around a century ago there had been a Muslim majority in Karabakh, according to the Russian censuses. In the 18th Century it had been the territory of Muslim Khanates who had signed peace treaties with Russia, which led to their absorption by the Tsar’s Empire. 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 half the population, within 2 generations. 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 were originally from the region.
The principle of “self-determination”, already problematic, loses all validity when majorities are achieved by the processes of colonisation and the displacement of populations.
Armenians claim that Karabakh was Armenian since time immemorial. That is nonsense. But this is part of the Armenian nationalism which views the Armenian nation as a primeval entity that was there as a subject of history, when history began. Nations are not eternal phenomena, of course. They are historically evolved mixtures of race, religion, language, economic interest, dynastic influence and geography blended, in various proportions, through historical events, to produce a cultural affinity between large numbers of people, finally producing a nationality.
In May 1918 3 nation states emerged in the Southern Caucasus from the Tsarist collapse – Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Karabakh was a territory of Azerbaijan during the period of the first Azerbaijan Democratic 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.
The Azerbaijani case is based on sovereignty, something that usually trumps “self-determination”. If it did not the world would be chaos.
Nagorno-Karabakh was created by Stalin in the 1920s as part of a settlement to solve the nationalities problem in the region that had emerged from the emergence of nations out of the Tsarist collapse during the Great War and Bolshevik sloganising over the right to self-determination.
Stalin was the Bolsheviks expert on the national question and knew the area well, being a Georgian and having spent a number of years as an activist in the industrial city of Baku.
The settlement involved separating the mountainous (Nagorno) part of Karabakh (black garden) from the rest of Azerbaijan, and surrounding provinces, and forming an autonomous region. Stalin, after careful consideration, had decided, along with other prominent Bolsheviks from the region in the Kavburo, that Karabakh should remain a part of Azerbaijan, despite Armenian nationalist claims on it. To achieve a balance he had an arbitrary boundary drawn that included as much of the Armenian populace of the mountain region within the autonomous region and which excluded as many non-Armenians as possible. This reduced the Azerbaijani population in the autonomous area to less than 20 per cent. However, the major Muslim settlements of Shusha and Aghdam had to be included within it as the population was mixed from village to village and town to town. The Muslims in each of the 7 provinces surrounding the new entity of Nagorno Karabakh constituted at least 90 per cent of their populations.
This created an autonomous Armenian controlled enclave inside the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. There was a substantial piece of Azerbaijan territory between Nagorno Karabakh and the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. And Armenia signed up to this settlement, probably deciding that Stalin meant business and was not to be messed with.
For over 60 years this settlement worked. It was not perfect, of course. The Armenians produced occasional petitions, once Stalin was safely dead, to the Soviet leadership, urging Moscow to give them the land they coveted. The Soviet leadership remained unmoved in the face of this nationalist irredentism. There was some Azerbaijani annoyance at the settlement, which involved the giving of Zangezur to Armenia as part of a trade off. But the Moslem population of the autonomous region steadily grew from just over 10 per cent to around 25 per cent in the 1980s and there was a general acceptance of the settlement on the basis that autonomy was a price that had to be paid to ensure the continuance of the territory under the sovereignty of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.
The First War for Karabakh (1988-94)
The First Karabakh war came about as a result of the internal collapse of the Soviet Union around 1990. The Soviet leader Gorbachev disorganised the Communist Party of the Union to prevent a roll-back of his reforms, aimed at improving on the Leninist state. This loosened the cement that held the Union together and led on to disintegration. Disintegration of state authority ushered in a period of flux in which nationalist forces, long since curtailed, were let loose.
The collapse of the Soviet Union affected Armenia and Azerbaijan in different ways. The unfreezing of nationalisms and the sudden unleashing of nationalist passions gave the Armenians a great advantage in their dispute with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Armenians had a tradition of ethnic, racial and religious nationalism that predated the Union. This nationalism was extravagantly expansionary and greatly desired increases of territory that would encompass all Armenians, no matter how little they constituted of the population. At least a third of Ottoman Turkey, and large amounts of territory, including whole regions of Georgia, Iran and Azerbaijan were earmarked for ‘Magna Armenia’. The Armenians also had a notion of being a special (Christian) people in a sea of less civilised humanity that they used to their advantage in the West.
The collapse of the Soviet Union suited them greatly. They had really just buckled down under the Soviet system, working it to any advantage they could get from it, whilst retaining practically all of their previous character. The Armenians’ vigorous nationalist spirit was perfect for the catastrophic situation in 1990-1 when Gorbachev blundered to disaster and removed all restraint and his successor, Yeltsin, encouraged on the deluge.
The very certainty of the Armenian character and position made them purposeful actors in the situation. They called for the replacement of the Union treaty of 1922 and immediately established a national army of 140,000 men and armed and trained it, in conjunction with its diaspora from the US, and the terrorist elements that had honed their fighting skills in Lebanon. Arms and munitions were sent into Azerbaijan’s territories and paramilitary forces established in Nagorno Karabakh.
The Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, became a mass of uncertainty within this confusion. Their problem stemmed from the fact that the Union had had a much more profound effect on them. It had contributed greatly to the national development of the Azerbaijan and when it began to fracture they were greatly divided about what to do about it. The Azerbaijani Communist Party was one of the most loyal and dependable of the Union’s components and there was considerable support in the society for the existing system. However, the situation instigated by Gorbachev and followed through by Yeltsin required a nationalist response. It began to emerge in Azerbaijan in the shape of the Popular Front. This popular nationalism was greatly enhanced by the completely unnecessary massacre (Black January) of around 150 civilians in Baku during a single day by Gorbachev’s forces.
History has shown the Azerbaijanis to be a people who are loyal to lawful authority. In 1988 they really had only one requirement of the Soviet Union – that it defend the settlement it had imposed in the 1920s, with the army of the state, and put down the separatists. That was a very reasonable request to make of the Soviet leadership, who had shown every willingness to engage in such defence of state structures in the past. Azerbaijan had no army to defend its territories against the Armenian separatists and their supporters from Armenia and diaspora. It relied on the Union of which it formed part and trusted it to defend its people in Karabakh.
But when Gorbachev failed the Azerbaijanis, general confusion ensued and faction fighting, attempted coups and military mutinies disabled a unified defence of Karabakh. By the time a national army was organised of new young conscripts and the senior Politburo member, Heydar Aliyev, had returned to stabilise the situation in 1993 it was too late. Karabakh and 7 surrounding provinces had been lost to concerted nationalist action by the Armenians.
The Armenian land grab resulted in considerable violence and forced migrations of population from 1988 to 1993. Armenians left Azerbaijan and Azeris left Armenia in the hundreds of thousands. Whilst the attacks on Azerbaijanis in Karabakh were systematic and organised by well armed paramilitary forces, those against Armenians, like at Sumgait, where two dozen were killed, tended to be characterised by reactive mob violence. The most serious and notorious incident occurred at Khojaly in February 1992 when over 600 Azerbaijani villagers were massacred by Armenian forces.
Between the Wars
The Armenian victory and occupation of such a large area of Azerbaijan proved something of a poisoned chalice. The separatists wanted Karabakh but the Armenian appetite for territory, combined with the Azerbaijani collapse left them in control of a large amount of territory. Levon Ter-Petrosyan , the first Armenian Prime Minister after independence, realised the danger and attempted a settlement with Heydar Aliyev. However, Ter-Petrosyan was ousted by Armenian nationalists before he could come to an accommodation with Baku. From then onwards the Armenians demanded nothing short of independence for Karabakh, a demand they knew the Azerbaijan government could never concede, particularly after the bitterness that the occupation, massacres and ethnic cleansing had produced.
In the years following the First Karabakh War the pseudo-state of ‘The Republic of Artsakh’ was established by the Armenian separatists out of the nearly 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territory. But it remained unrecognised by virtually every government in the world (including even Armenia, for reasons of diplomatic repercussions). ‘The Republic of Artsakh’ was an illegal “rogue state” in every sense of the word.
In 2006 ‘Artsakh’ adopted a new constitution that formerly annexed the 7 occupied territories around Karabakh. Infrastructure was began that indicated this was a permanent occupation, rather than territory that was to be given up as part of a peace deal. Settlers were brought in from Armenia and abroad to colonise the lands on which Azerbaijanis lived and were displaced from – a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. It became increasingly unacceptable to advocate the trading of land for peace in both Armenia and Karabakh. Ambitions grew and the Karabakh clan dominated the politics of Yerevan.
The “frozen conflict” remained frozen for 26 years with the Armenian separatists continuing to occupy the large slice of Azerbaijan and aiming to hold it while those Azerbaijanis it had forced out died off. Armenia paid over half the amount needed to sustain the pseudo-state of ‘Artsakh’. It was turned into an armed camp and one of the most highly militarised areas of the world. In doing this Armenia needed large subsidies from Russia. And it could not pay for the weaponry required to arm its armed camp so that Moscow had to provide much of it free of charge. In return Russia got a large strategic base and Armenia began to feel that it could rely on its Moscow sponsor indefinitely.
But the land grab had had important economic implications for Armenia. It found its natural trading partners and routes gone. Both Azerbaijan and Turkey closed their borders and Georgia, which Armenia claimed territory from, was no useful substitute. Iran, to the south, became its only outlet and trading partner.
The economic isolation led to a large decline in the Armenian population, as well as any growth in ‘Artsakh’. Armenia lost a quarter of its population with 1 million of the 4 million leaving since the secession from the Soviet Union. In the same period Azerbaijan’s population increased from 7 to 10 million. The corruption of the Armenian political elite, which was pro-Moscow and known as the Karabakh clan, because of its origins in the conflict zone, led to a colour revolution led by a journalist, Nikol Pashinyan. And Armenia was unbalanced by this turn of events.
Pashinyan, after promising reform and a meaningful peace process, retreated in the face of nationalist opposition and, in order to protect himself from the opposition, reinvented himself as an expansionary nationalist supporting “new war for new territories” and engaging in provocative behaviour that shattered Azerbaijan’s hopes of a negotiated return of its territories.
The Failure of International Law
The current war in Karabakh – the Second Karabakh War – is understood to be about the implementation of international law on the Azerbaijan side. In 1993 the UN Security Council passed 4 Resolutions demanding that Armenia withdraw its military forces from the territory of Azerbaijan it had occupied as part of the First Karabakh War. The resolutions also demanded that Armenia permit the 750,000 or so people it had ethnically cleansed from the occupied territories to return to their homes.
The UN Resolutions further demanded that Nagorno-Karabakh be returned to Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, along with the 7 provinces that surrounded it, which were captured and depopulated of Azerbaijanis.
The Minsk Group was established soon after the 1994 ceasefire to solve the issue of Karabakh and presumably implement international law in relation to it. The Minsk Group has 3 of the Permanent Members of the UN as its Chairs – The United States, France and Russia. But for over 2 decades it allowed the Armenians to give the UN Security Council the runaround, while at a same time its permanent members and allies went around recklessly destroying legal and sovereign states with impunity.
At the end of September 2020, the Azerbaijan government, which had carefully built up its economy and armed forces over the course of a decade or so, and put together an effective battle plan, decided to implement international law itself, after a series of political and military provocations by Pashinyan and his forces. In just over a month the Azerbaijani army achieved more than the UN Security Council and international law had achieved in 26 years.
What the Armenians brought on, in September 2020, was something entirely different from the experience of the 1990s. They faced a professional, well organised Azerbaijani army with the latest technology in warfare. Pashinyan’s reckless provocations in which Armenia overplayed their hand has resulted in all the efforts made 30 years ago being wiped out with the occupation.
On October 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented a possible plan for ending the conflict. This was presented as the Azerbaijani army had made good progress in liberating territory but before the crucial battles had been won.
It involved Armenia immediately giving up the Azerbaijani territories that didn’t belong to Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh and the actual status of Nagorno-Karabakh to be determined later. However, this proposed solution has been overtaken by events on the battlefield. The only important territories remaining to the Armenian occupation are the Lachin District and the Kalbajar District in the North, along which runs the only remaining supply route which hasn’t as yet been severed by the Azerbaijani army. However, this is a very long road vulnerable to attack if used by military columns.
So most of the occupied territories are now no longer in the possession of the Armenians to trade. By breaking the ceasefires with bombardments of Azerbaijani civilian areas they continued the war to a more complete defeat.
2 nations occupy a common territory they contest ownership of there has to be some level of injustice done to one nationality to resolve the issue. The question is: what is the least injustice that can be done and within what context can any injustice be ameliorated for the community suffering the injustice of a functional settlement.
In the 1920s the Kavburo decided on maintaining the territorial status quo and Karabakh remaining part of Azerbaijan with an autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh being established to placate the Armenian population. When the Soviet Union collapsed the Armenians instituted by force a zero-sum approach of winner takes all (and more).
If the Armenians, during their 26 year occupation, had been prepared to make an accommodation with the Azerbaijanis, trading the territory they had won in the first Karabakh war for peace, there may have been a solution possible whereby the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh achieved a degree of operation from Azerbaijan and an institutionalised link to Armenia. However, Armenian nationalism was neither willing, or able, to accommodate such a settlement.
Having provoked a war, shed a large amount of blood, and lost most of the occupied territories to the Azerbaijan such a solution is neither possible or indeed desirable.
The Armenian solution to the Karabakh problem represented an injustice to 750,000 people who were not only deprived of national rights, but also had their rights of existence taken away by the occupation of Karabakh and its surrounding territory. So 750,000 people had their national rights denied by around 145,000. It also involved the denying of full national rights to the 7 million people of Azerbaijan at the time.
On top of that ‘Artsakh’ is a pseudo-state, with its illegality representing a permanent barrier to its inhabitants’ participation in the democratic life of a state.
So, the solution that involves least injustice at present is the placing of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh under the sovereignty of Azerbaijan. The 2015 population of ‘Artsakh’ according to Armenian figures was around 145,000 (probably less). That represents an injustice to just over 1 per cent of the population of the state. The population of Armenia is 3 million as against Azerbaijan’s 10 million. So at a secondary level there would also be a much less injustice done.
An important point in all of this is the impressive tolerance of Azerbaijan as a heterogeneous state. As well as Azeri Turks there are Lezgins, the largest minority group, Russians, Talysh, Tats, Avars, Georgians, Armenians and Jews making up the population. The Azeris are the most secular of Muslims who wear their religion lightly. Armenia, on the other hand, is a mono-ethnic, homogenous state, with a strong sense of ethnic purity as a basis for its nationality and seemingly incapable of tolerating, let alone absorbing, minorities.
Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan represents the minimal injustice possible in the situation, within a multi-ethnic state that has a real interest in incorporating all the inhabitants within the democratic system of the political life of the state. Perhaps there is an argument for some form of autonomy. But any other settlement, that leaves the issue unresolved only invites further conflict in the future.
Excellent article yet again Pat. Thank you.
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Thank you for your valuable work!
Excellent article as usual my brother! BTW, when do you think you might be coming out here to Reno, NV (don’t forget that you have a room here for as long as you wish)?
Umit, thanks for the invite. I hope to start travelling again next spring/summer when all this cover is managed.