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Karabakh: Some afterthoughts in the aftermath of war (Updated)

The city of Aghdam after 27 years of Armenian occupation

Now that the war is over and most of the Armenian occupation is being dismantled in favour of an Azeri reconstruction of the region some afterthoughts are in order in the aftermath.

One thing that has dominated reports from Karabakh over the last week has been the revelations of the Armenian vandalism inflicted on the formerly occupied territories.  The Azeri cities, settlements and villages of Fuzuli, Jabrayil, Zangilan and Aghdam are now seen for the first time by the outside world, in their state of ruin, destroyed by the occupiers and left to decay for a generation. They are ghost towns resembling the abandoned Chernobyl – although parts of Aghdam look more like Hiroshima. Homes, monuments, cultural and religious buildings, and even cemeteries in these areas, and in the great Azeri cultural centre of Shusha, were razed to the ground (Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan even admitted in a speech: “Shushi was an unfortunate, colourless city. Did we need Shushi? If we needed it, why was it left in that condition?”)

The retreating Armenian settlers/colonists were also seen conducting a “scorched earth” policy in the areas they were leaving. Settlers/colonists are often noted for destroying their occupation infrastructure when they are overcome by local majorities which they can no longer keep down. The settler mentality is a racist one of superiority in which the most humble colonist believes himself a higher form of civilization than those he understands he is destined to replace on a territory. When his world is shattered by a resurgence of those he dispossesses he takes all that he sees as his work, no matter how mundane – even toilet bowls! Of course, the destruction of settlements, houses, schools and livestock is environmental crime. Most of the settlers “achievements” are, in fact, the result of theft from the precious resources of the local environment, which has been illegally taken from the original inhabitants. So this is also a war crime and reparations should be justly demanded from the former occupiers. By signing the armistice the Armenian government has formally accepted its responsibilities as prime participant in this criminality, removing the pretence of a free-standing separatist pseudo-state being the culprits.

According to the prescribed schedule of the armistice, Armenia withdrew its occupation forces from the Aghdam district on November 20. Two major stages therefore remain: withdrawal of Armenian forces from the Kelbajar and Lachin districts. President Aliyev at a meeting with Russian ministers on a ‘shuttle visit’ to Baku, expressed his satisfaction with the mechanisms for implementing the agreement and the role of Vladimir Putin in helping to localise the conflict, stabilise the situation and beginning the peace process.

The Victory

It was certainly possible that a total defeat of Armenia could have been inflicted by Azerbaijani army. This was, of course, possible in purely military terms. By the sixth week of the war the Armenian forces had lost nearly all their military equipment (150 tanks, 60 armoured vehicles, 80 artillery pieces, 50 rocket launchers and 30 air defence units) and 20,000 men were in the process of being surrounded by Azeri forces. The Former Deputy Chief of Staff Levon Stepanyan told Sputnik Armenia that over 10,000 of their soldiers had deserted. Being wiped out from the air by the pinpoint accuracy of the drones was sapping the will of even the most fanatic to fight. All the limited counter-attacks had failed with high cost and the only means of striking back were random missile attacks on Azerbaijani civilian centres. Mikayel Minasyan, former Armenian Ambassador put the dead and missing at around 4750 soldiers.

However, although the war was going well for Azerbaijan, if it had continued on until the total military defeat of the Armenians, the victory at Shusha would probably have been seen, afterwards, as the high point. Undoubtedly, casualties would have been much higher for the Azeris if the war had continued. If Stepanakert had resisted there would have been a Sarajevo type siege situation that would have damaged Azerbaijan internationally, more and more as long as the resistance held out. This might have even provoked Russian intervention on “humanitarian” grounds. As such, the result would have been the same as the war ended with the same positions. If the war had stopped before the fall of Stepanakert the Armenians would have scored a moral victory within an overall defeat, despite any casualties they would have suffered and inflicted on Azeri forces.

If there had been no Russian intervention and Stepanakert had fallen to Azerbaijan after a fight, the scene would have been portrayed as a massacre in the West, despite any evidence to the contrary about the city being the military hub of the occupation. Streams of Armenian refugees struggling across high ground in winter conditions would have invited comparisons with the experiences of Azerbaijani civilians during 1992-3. And the Armenian lobby would have ruthlessly exploited them in a much more successful manner than the forgotten people of 1992-4.

Furthermore, Azerbaijani forces would then have had to fight to liberate the occupied territories closer to the border with Armenia. This presented all sorts of risk including Armenian hit and run guerrilla resistance within the occupied territories themselves and increased use of artillery bombardments, from positions within Armenian territory. These Azerbaijan could not counter without direct attacks on Armenia, which would almost certainly have invited Moscow’s intervention on CSTO treaty grounds.

There were also other dangers that were developing in the war. Azerbaijan shot down a Russian helicopter along the border with Armenia, mistaking it for an Armenian flight. Armenia began using Iskender missiles just before the armistice. These had the potential of causing great numbers of civilian casualties in Azerbaijani cities. In short, what should have been a limited conflict, and which Azerbaijan attempted to keep as such, had the potential to get out of hand and spiral out of control. Russia would not allow this in what it saw as its backyard for reasons of hegemony and prestige.

It seems to have been the case that around mid-October President Putin, using telephone conversations with Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev, put forward the proposal that the war be ended with an agreement for the return of the Azeribaijani IDPs to Shusha. According to the Russian President the Armenians rejected this agreement as being too damaging to the security of the occupation. The inference is that this was acceptable to Azerbaijan, although the actual status of Shusha is unclear. Now Shusha is a liberated part of Azerbaijan, with no question over its status.

The rapid Russian peace deal, when it came, had the advantage of taking the Armenian opposition to Pashinyan by surprise and making it incapable of organising further resistance in Karabakh. There were certainly elements in Yerevan who would have taken the Armenian state down in resisting to the bitter end. It has always been a trait of Armenian nationalism to recklessly sacrifice its people for the sake of territory and there were undoubtedly those who would have taken this road. The Armenian Prime Minister had deceived his people into believing the war to be going well. When they suddenly found out the real truth Pashinyan had already signed the armistice/surrender and the Russians were in. And the Armenians could not afford to defy Moscow, which had them in its pocket militarily and financially, by then continuing the war.

The present writer has little doubt that the war was halted at the right time. Any sooner, during the three ceasefires that failed to hold, would have produced a too limited victory that would have produced a third war. Any later, in pursuit of complete victory could well have produced serious problems that would have threatened the actual victory itself, or tarnished it in various ways that threatened it. Enduring victories are better than total victories that prove temporary.

A lengthy and more costly war that dragged on, by producing further Armenian resistance, in whatever limited form, would have made the most important task facing Azerbaijan – the reconstruction of the occupied territories – very difficult. For a start, greater resources would have had to have been devoted to further military operations and future defence. Even with the armistice defence will still be a priority with new de facto borders having to be strengthened and monitored for infiltration of armed gangs from Armenia aiming to terrorise returned Azerbaijanis into leaving again. Shusha will have to be built up as a fortress guarding the territories from its strategic vantage point.

Russia’s Role

The reconstruction of liberated Karabakh and the surrounding provinces is the most important project that faces Azerbaijan now. This difficult and costly process will have to be conducted under stable conditions to be successful.

The presence of Russian forces, however small, on sovereign Azerbaijan territory is obviously an affront. Some have suggested that it has limited the victory too much. However, the placing of the Nagorno Karabakh rump in quarantine, fenced in by Russian forces is probably an advantage in reality – in the short-time, anyway. If the effort of the first 5 years of reconstruction is successful and Karabakh is rejuvenated, with the return of substantial numbers of Azerbaijanis, reconstructing their settlements and infrastructure, then the rump of Nagorno Karabakh can be tackled in 5, 10, 15 or 20 years, when Azerbaijan is ready to deal with it. Six months notice is required to be given to the Russian peacekeepers according to the armistice. If Azeris are not persuaded to return in substantial numbers to Karabakh and surrounding provinces, because they have put down too many roots in exile in Baku or other places over three decades, for instance, then the country will not be ready to absorb the remaining territory.

In an ideal world the war would have been confined to Azerbaijan recovering its territories from Armenian occupation and this would have been achieved completely. But the world is not an ideal place and many people who act as if it were are sadly disappointed when it proves to be a brutal and arbitrary place. Many who oppose Russian interference would prefer Western interference. But what has the West actually done for Azerbaijan and what can we expect of it now? Certainly in many Western countries the Armenian narrative predominates and democracies are very attuned to elections with political representatives responsive to well organised and long established Armenian lobbies. The Azeri diaspora which has been mobilised for the first time, in response to the Armenian provocations that caused the war, is in an early stage of development, but it has made its mark and will not allow the Armenians to have their own way in the future, as they have been accustomed to.

Russia, although a historic ally of Armenia and having a sizeable Armenian lobby, looks after its affairs without reference to the influence of interest groups. This can be seen in the course of the war when Putin came under pressure to aid the expectant Armenians. Only 7 years ago the Chief of the Russian Federation’s large military base in Armenia stated that: “If the leadership of Azerbaijan decides to use force to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh, the base can enter armed conflict per Russia’s CSTO obligations.”

President Putin would have judged the relative merits and problems of taking such a decision. He would have looked at the relative records of Armenia and Azerbaijan as neighbours of Russia and the qualities and dependability of their leaderships. Armenia’s leadership had changed in the intervening period to Russia’s detriment. Putin had put up with Pashinyan but once the new Armenian Prime Minister played fast and loose with Moscow relations and then provoked a war that upset the Russian strategy of balancing of forces in the Southern Caucasus, he was not going to be saved, despite his expectations. Putin would have weighed up the geopolitical factors in assisting Russia’s ally Armenia. He decided not to, until he judged he was merely saving them from disaster. International Law was used to justify the lack of intervention. A new balance of power had emerged with the victories of the Azerbaijanis and it was within this that Putin decided to work.

To judge it correct to intervene Putin would have had to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital interests that could not be eliminated by any means short of force, or that one of Moscow’s post-Soviet neighbours might escape to join a hostile alliance. Putin would also have had to hold a reasonable hope that military intervention would have yielded a reduction in the threat to Russia’s vital interests. None of these conditions applied to Pashinyan’s war with Azerbaijan and Baku’s military response. What then was the point of rolling back Azerbaijan and losing Baku, perhaps to the West?

Unlike the Western characterising of Moscow, Russia’s primary strategic interest is not to acquire more territories, but to prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or regional hegemonies on Russian borders and to ensure that Russia is surrounded by friendly states. 

One U.S. political commentator shrewdly put it like this with regard to Russia’s relations with Azerbaijan:

“Azerbaijan is the type of country with which Putin seems to feel comfortable—a stable autocracy whose cautious ruler pursues consistent and predictable policies. Azerbaijan causes few headaches for Russia and demands only that its transactional approach be reciprocated. President Ilham Aliyev began his rule only three years after Putin took over Russia; his father Heydar Aliyev had ruled Azerbaijan for a decade before that, not counting the Soviet period, when he also ruled the country as his own fiefdom. Heydar Aliyev’s time in the senior-most ranks of the Soviet state, Communist Party, and security services nomenklatura made his attitude very different from other post-Soviet rulers, some of whom had been minor provincial apparatchiki in Soviet times and saw Moscow as the source of all power. Heydar Aliyev treated Russia’s post-Soviet rulers without the fealty or fear that some of his contemporaries showed. 

Ilham Aliyev does not have the experience or ability of his father, but he has inherited that legacy of autonomous sovereignty… Azerbaijan and Russia have enjoyed a functional, transactional relationship that is cordial, neighborly, and devoid of emotion. To some extent, Azerbaijan grew ideologically closer to Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, as both countries saw themselves as attacked and undermined by a fifth column of Western-supported civil society and nongovernmental organizations. In 2014, the chief of Azerbaijan’s presidential apparatus—usually considered closest to Russia in the Azerbaijani leadership—published a long, scathing article outlining that worldview.” 

What this shows is that Azerbaijan was extremely fortunate it had a leader of the background and character of Ilham Aliyev, and it was doubly lucky that Armenia had got a leader of the character of Nikol Pashinyan. In such things are wars won and history made.

The simple rule of thumb is that Russia rewards good neighbours and it punishes bad neighbours. It really is that simple.

Putin has stated that Azerbaijan has recovered its legally recognised sovereign territories. He has described Karabakh as an integral part of Azerbaijan in a TV interview this week. He has also defended the right of Turkish military involvement within Azerbaijan and in the ceasefire headquarters in Karabakh.

Putin made the comment that any attempt by Armenians to overturn the agreement signed with Russia would be “suicidal”. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov warned Armenia that “any attempts to question this agreement both domestically and internationally are unacceptable.” This was followed by a visit of the heavyweights of the Russian government, including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, to Yerevan to impress on the Armenians what they would be up against if they attempted to slide out of the agreement. The Russians know the Armenian form very well.

Putin has put Armenia firmly in its place, as the Moscow Times reported on 21 November:

“Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called on Saturday for greater military cooperation with Russia, a day after Azerbaijani troops began moving into disputed territory previously held by Armenian separatist forces.”

The thorough defeat it suffered in the war, it appears, has chastened Armenia and its wayward leader. The opposition has also buckled under Moscow’s pressure, which had the effect of making them see sense. Yerevan is firmly back in the Moscow orbit, waiting for any scraps Putin may throw it from his table. The future of Pashinyan is in doubt but what is not in doubt is Armenia’s dependence on Russia. And it is completely Yerevan’s fault. What must the Armenian diaspora in California be thinking now?

Settlement

Russia conquered Transcaucasia in the 1820s. From then until the Tsarist collapse in 1917 it ruled the region. After a brief Turkish foray into the area, which helped establish Azerbaijan in Baku the British occupied the whole region after it won the Great War. It appeared that Britain had won not only the Great War but also the Great Game with Russia, but appearances were deceptive. Britain had no longer the will to pursue its Imperial work in the way it had before the Great War and it began to blunder, underestimating the Bolshevik ability to revive the Russian state. The British could have prevented a Russian return to the Southern Caucasus if it had made an early functional settlement with Ottoman Turkey. But Lloyd George pursued a punitive policy against the Turks, in conjunction with the Greeks and Armenians. This policy allowed the Russians back into the Caucasus. Turkey recognized Russia as the hegemon in the Southern Caucasus in 1920. That was when Russia was Bolshevik. It did so when it was under great pressure from the West. Britain had abandoned the region in the previous year.

In 1920 Turkey and Russia arranged things in the Southern Caucasus to keep the Western Imperialists out. In 2020 the same relationship has arranged things with a similar concern about meddling from the West – France and the U.S. in particular. The Russian/Turkish supervisory role is vital for stability. If it persists Armenian aggression will be severely curtailed and the conflict over Karabakh has the potential to be managed toward a functional settlement. No other eventuality presents that possibility.

Peaceful co-existence in Karabakh is, for the foreseeable future, only possible through separation and confinement of the Armenians behind Russian bayonets, quarantining the rump of Nagorno-Karabakh which the Armenians seized, homogenised and expanded to destruction. Under present conditions Armenian nationalism, with its narrow, self-seeking and indeed, self-destructive, orientation will persist (perhaps until it manages to wipe out the Armenian people completely).

What we have in Karabakh, is a conflict between two nationalities. Finding an accommodation between what are effectively two nations sharing the same territory involves discovering a way these historic peoples can share this land in peaceful co-existence. The previous Armenian regime attempted to solve the nationalities issue by removing one of them entirely. It failed.

For the next 5 years, at least, the Armenian population of two-thirds of the former Nagorno Karabakh will be isolated from their Azerbaijani neighbours. It would be very unfortunate if they would remain a ringed off homogeneous enclave within the Azerbaijani state, permanently guarded by Russian forces. That would maintain a “siege mentality” which would certainly not be conducive to the building of future good relations between the two peoples of Karabakh, or between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There needs to be development of mutual trust and interest within Karabakh itself, as well as between Armenia and Azerbaijan to address the totality of relations in the conflict. An historic and comprehensive agreement with functional governmental arrangements for reconciliation, within an all-embracing settlement, is imperative for an enduring peace.

One final thing worth saying: This has proved to be one of the best wars in history. International Law and justice has been served by the ending of an illegal and malignant occupation that has poisoned relations in the region for a generation. The good guys have won and their victory has been clean and magnanimous to the defeated enemy. Bloodshed and destruction was minimised and confined to the military forces of the enemy by the way in which the victorious Azerbaijanis fought. No wars are good but this was one which deserves to secure an enduring peace for all.

President Aliyev’s statement of 22 November

“A promising new situation has emerged in the region. I am confident that positive trends will continue to grow. In any case, Azerbaijan is ready for this and today we will discuss in detail our vision of how we think the region will develop. Of course, the trilateral statement is an important step towards establishing a strong and lasting peace in our region. I would like to emphasize the personal role of the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who very actively and effectively participated in the development of the text of the agreement, and the fact that the agreement is being successfully implemented is largely due to the fact that this text also contains the signature of the President of the Russian Federation.

I would also like to note the important role played by the President of Turkey Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan in strengthening security measures in the region. In general, I think that the format of cooperation both in terms of the peacekeeping mission and in terms of the long-term cooperation in the region is acquiring new outlines today. I think that this meets the fundamental interests of the countries of the region because countries of our region should certainly play a leading role, including the matters of strengthening security. What was agreed in the trilateral statement suggests that, with goodwill and a constructive approach, it is possible to resolve issues that previously seemed insoluble.

We are well aware of all the vicissitudes of the settlement process. But I am glad that we have managed to reach the decisions that will allow both the people of Azerbaijan and the people of Armenia the opportunity to live in peace, to try to heal the wounds of war, to try to think about the future, about a common future, a safe future for us, for our neighbors, and thus contribute to the strengthening of security in our region.

We are also glad that other members of the Minsk Group who did not directly participate in the elaboration of provisions of the statement have also expressed their attitude, a positive attitude towards the text of the statement, albeit with a slight delay.

Of course, we had the right to expect a more prompt reaction from them, but apparently there were certain factors that did not allow them to develop a position. But as they say, it is better late than never. I know that a meeting of representatives of the OSCE Minsk Group was held in Moscow. I think that their positive approach to the statement will also play an important role in strengthening security measures and long-term peace.

I would also like to note that I fully share the position of the President of the Russian Federation who expressed hope not to hear the phrase “Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” again. I also hope I will never hear it again. And when we talk about Nagorno-Karabakh, we will only hear news related to the development, elimination of the consequences of the war and reconciliation of the countries that were once at war with each other.”

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev at the meeting with Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov.

One reply on “Karabakh: Some afterthoughts in the aftermath of war (Updated)”

I have followed the writings of Dr. Pat. Walsh with great interest especially as I have familial links in the region. I took the time to research the history away from MSM which I found has a somewhat twisted slant on many subjects which often draws incorrect conclusions. Reading Pat Walsh’s narrative and insights have brought to light so many topics i can only say well done for keeping an open view and statements. Excellent work.

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