The Squeeze on Armenia

When the Azerbaijan army defeated and surrounded Armenian military forces in Karabakh in early November 2020 it engaged with the enemy diplomatically to end the conflict and, in conjunction with the Kremlin, brought about a managed conclusion of the war. Encircled Armenian forces were allowed to withdraw and retire from the battlefield without being destroyed in their thousands. The Armenian civilians were spared the fate of the Azerbaijanis who were hunted down and killed by Armenian paramilitaries or who perished with their children fleeing across snow covered mountains in 1992-4. The main centres of Armenian population were not militarily assaulted and they were provided, through agreement, with the protection of Russian peacekeepers for a period not less than 5 years in which a peace process could bridge the gap between war and conflict resolution.

But unfortunately, the Armenians, instead of engaging in a meaningful transition to peace and stability, have been in obstructionist mode for 2 and a half years and have lately reverted to their “Cry Genocide” mode against “the Turks”/Azerbaijanis as the squeeze has begun to be put on them to shift them out of their intransigence.

The Trilateral Declaration, signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia on 10 November  2020, contained Article 6 stipulating that “The Lachin Corridor (5 km wide)… will provide a connection between Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia while not passing through the territory of Shusha” and “shall remain under the control of the Russian Federation peace making forces… The Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee the security of persons, vehicles and cargo moving along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.”

Azerbaijan by this provision agreed to grant special entry and exit to Armenian citizens, vehicles, and cargo along an 80 km road on the territory of Azerbaijan to its Karabakh region, at present populated exclusively by ethnic Armenians. This region had been depopulated of its entire Azerbaijani population 30 years ago in the course of the Armenian conquest. The depopulation was encouraged by the Khojaly massacre of February 1992 in which over 600 villagers were annihilated by Armenian forces in a day. Around 750,000 Azerbaijanis were ethnically cleansed by Armenians from the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and surrounding areas, amounting to 18 per cent of Azerbaijan’s territory, which was occupied for nearly 3 decades.

As the road temporarily remains under the control of a Russian peacekeeping force, Azerbaijan’s security apparatus, including customs, do not check persons and cargo. The Russian peacekeeping force exercise this function on behalf of Azerbaijan.

For about a year now tensions have been building up with Azerbaijan accusing Armenia of abusing the corridor’s “civilian and humanitarian” purpose for military use, in transporting weapons, including landmines, and the products of illegal mining activities in Karabakh, in contradiction to provisions of the Trilateral Declaration.

It should be understood that the Lachin road is not an extraterritorial corridor because neither Armenia nor Russia have any rights over the route across Azerbaijan’s territory. The temporary visa-free conditions of travel do not grant Armenia the right to transport military personnel or supplies to remaining army units in Karabakh. 

Article 4 of the Trilateral Declaration also stipulated that the “withdrawal of Armenian troops” must take place from the territory of Azerbaijan. However, this has not been implemented by Yerevan. The pretence of an “Artsakh” pseudo-state and “Artsakh Defense Army” has been maintained. The International Crisis Group has estimated that there are still 12,000 Armenian soldiers in Karabakh, on Azerbaijan’s territory.

This situation prompted Azerbaijani environmentalists into starting protests close to the Russia-controlled checkpoint on the road to Stepanakert/Khankendi from 12 December, 2022, against illegal mining operations in Karabakh. In response the Russian peacekeeping forces stopped the corridor’s use except by Russian vehicles for supplies and for other humanitarian purposes.

The environmental protesters concluded an agreement with the Russian peacekeepers’ command in early December 2022 including a provision to inspect the environmental conditions at the two mineral deposit sites, monitor various areas, records, along with assessing potential risks and threats to the environment, including water sources. However, the planned initial inspection and monitoring did not take place after it was prevented by Karabakh Armenians who blocked the way to the mineral deposits. There has been no reference in the West to this significant event.

The protest camp has been successful in deterring the import of weapons and export of Azerbaijan’s natural resources in the absence of formal customs barriers and checking. In response to the protests on the Lachin road and the demand to inspect them, the authorities in Stepanakert decided to shut down the mines, depriving itself of the tax revenues they had received from the illegal mining. Hundreds of miners were laid off without income and the “Artsakh government” were forced into announcing that it would allow international inspectors to come and inspect the mines. It is calculated by Armenian economists that around 20 per cent of the region’s GDP has disappeared to the tune of 1.9 million US Dollars/day.

The Lachin road protest has been termed a “blockade” or “siege” and even an attempted “Genocide” by Armenians. They have received some support both in the European Parliament and from a group of US Congressmen in their campaign.

It would be unreasonable to expect Azerbaijan, or any country in the world, to tolerate the use of its territory by a foreign state for illicit mineral exploitations and cross-border weapons trafficking.

The Armenians say that this is not a normal environmental protest as these kinds of things do not take place in Azerbaijan. They are, of course, right in this. The environmental protest is one aspect of a wider state directed campaign which is now taking place to put the squeeze on Armenia, to induce it to accept the reality of defeat and recognise that Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, de jure and de facto. This process is aimed at emphasising the de facto element of Azerbaijan’s control to Yerevan.

One example of this, in the past few weeks, is that Azerbaijan has begun to exercise its right as a sovereign state to regulate movement and refuse entry to individual Armenians to Karabakh. Movement out of Karabakh is unrestricted.

This new policy is not in violation of the 2020 Trilateral Declaration. Azerbaijan has only signed up to “guarantee the security of persons, vehicles and cargo moving along the Lachin Corridor in both directions”. It permits movement of its own citizens across and within its internationally recognised borders at its own discretion. That is known as state sovereignty – a universal and basic concept of the nation. The Karabakh Armenians are now learning that they are citizens of the state of Azerbaijan, whether they like it or not. And perhaps if they do not recognise that reality, and would prefer to be purely Armenian, the road is open to them to leave for Armenia.

In February this year the Armenian Government revealed, in a case against the Azerbaijan Government at the International Court of Justice, that it had lost 215 sq. km of its territory to Azerbaijan since the conclusion of the 2020 war. It showed a map detailing the losses from May 2021 to February 2023.

These losses have come from sudden limited thrusts by the Azerbaijani army into areas of strategic value within Armenia – not the Armenian inhabited area of Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has been very clever in this. The border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not properly delineated at present. Soviet maps, the agreed basis for settlement between the 3 parties to the Trilateral Declaration, are inconsistent in some areas and there are “grey zones” that are now being targeted by Baku. There was an agreement to officially demarcate the border as part of the Trilateral Declaration but because Armenia has not played ball in other aspects of the agreement Azerbaijan is now exploiting the ambiguity to pressurise Yerevan in an area very dear to Armenian hearts – territory.

On 11 April at least 7 soldiers were killed on both sides in the latest fracas over territory along the border near the Lachin corridor’s new road linking Armenia to Karabakh.

Armenia is concerned at the lack of sympathy, let alone action, it is getting from its CSTO ally, Russia. The Kremlin is maintaining a resolute neutrality between Armenia and Azerbaijan in these disputes and conflicts. The suspicion in Armenia is that Russia is content to see Armenia feel the pressure in order for it to be more malleable. That is not an unreasonable proposition.

It is the Armenians who are attempting to draw in the West to the South Caucasus, a region which Russia sees as its geopolitical backyard, to disrupt an agreement and peace process which the Kremlin is guarantor of. Moscow is particularly concerned with the role of European Union monitors invited by Armenia onto its territory (refused by Baku) who are described as their “eyes on the ground”. Armenia’s plans to recognise the International Criminal Court, which has issued warrants for the arrest of the Russian President, along with participation in US military operations this year, have raised hackles in the Kremlin.

It should be noted that it is normal politics for victors to put the squeeze on the vanquished in the aftermath of war to order to secure favourable treaties and settlements.

Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Georgians should be familiar with the fascinating Claude Stokes, officer in the British Indian Army, with General Dunsterville to Baku, British representative in the city and finally High Commissioner for Transcaucasia. Claude Stokes had a younger sister, Gwendolyn, who married Sir Eric Geddes, in November 1900. Geddes lived a colourful life and was one of Lloyd George’s “men of push and go” who the British Prime Minister drafted into his wartime administration after 1916 to make the war effort more efficient. Geddes helped reorganise the British Expeditionary Force in France, using his business expertise, and installed the Atlantic convey system that saved Britain from the U-Boat threat. Sir Eric was also famous for his promise to “squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak” which is often attributed to Lloyd George.

It was the Royal Navy which was to “squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak”.

The Karabakh War in 2020 concluded with an armistice rather than a total victory over Armenia. Azerbaijan’s tanks did not reach Khankendi/Stepanakert to dictate terms to a defeated nation, as in 1945 in Berlin. The situation in 2020 was more similar to November 1918 when Germany decided to give up resistance without suffering complete defeat to the Allies.

In the 8 months after the Germans signed the armistice they were subjected to a naval blockade by the Royal Navy to produce an acquiescence to defeat and the terms of the Versailles Treaty. A.C. Bell in his official history of the blockade for the British Admiralty estimated that the blockade resulted in the deaths of 250,000 German civilians during this period, after the war had officially concluded.

Armenia has a long way to go before it can talk of “blockade” and “Genocide”. It has got off very lightly so far, considering what it did to Karabakh and surrounding territories from 1992 to 2020.

On 23 April Azerbaijan established an official customs post monitoring the Lackin/Khankendi (Stepanakert) Road. At the time of writing it is not clear whether customs duties will be imposed on goods moving into Karabakh. However, illicit goods will be prevented from crossing the border into Azerbaijan by the legitimate state authorities.

Elsewhere in the World the West provides massive support for a state to bomb its separatist population into submission, whilst casually issuing criticism against Azerbaijan for applying the normal methods that a state does to enforce its authority on its national territory. The installation of the border post is the strongest indication yet that Azerbaijan is imposing its sovereignty upon the Armenian separatists, despite what the EU or Washington might want to say about it.

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