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The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in Artsakh: A Comprehensive Critical Appreciation

Pratik Dutta,

Junior Research Analyst,

Internationalism.



When Azerbaijani troops announced the capture of the strategic city of Shusha[1] (culturally known as Shushi to Armenians) which was earlier controlled by ethnic Armenian forces of the Republic of Artsakh on the 3rd of November, 2020 a deathblow was struck to the Armenian war effort. The war which started in late September turned to go drastically in favour of Azerbaijan by early November especially in the South and South-Eastern regions that adjoin Karabakh where the ethnically Armenian controlled cities of Varanda, Jabrayil, Hadrut, Kashunik, and Kovsakan were overrun by the Azerbaijani (‘liberated’ as claimed by the Azeris) army after fierce fighting. The annexation of such cities clearly shows the military preparedness and prowess of the Azerbaijani military which it seems has been preparing for such a war for the past two decades ever since their setback during the war of separation waged by the Republic of Artsakh (officially supported by Armenia) which ended in 1994 resulting in the Artsakh and its neighbouring districts becoming independent of Azerbaijani control.

The population of Nagorno-Karabakh has majorly been populated by ethnic Armenians who were not elated with the continued inclusion of their home region under Azerbaijani sovereignty leading up to the disintegration of the USSR. The Soviet invasion of the Caucasus in 1921 led to a very interesting problem that needed to be solved i.e. the way in which Caucasian nationalism could be quelled; the answer to such an issue was given by Stalin (born and raised in Georgia) who was then the People’s Commissar for Nationalities and who was also the supervisor of the Soviet Caucasian Bureau, he propounded the tactic of making the different Caucasian ethnic nationalities fight amongst themselves lest they choose to form a united front against the Soviets. To do this psychological pressure and purposeful resentment was exerted on the Armenians who were very emotionally connected to their brethren in the Artsakh against the Azerbaijanis, as the Caucasian Bureau during a meeting had voted that the ethnically Armenian region of Nagorno Karabakh would be joined with the newly created Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia but later reversed this decision and placed the region under the Azerbaijan SSR. The Soviets, later on, fuelled this resentment by creating the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within Azerbaijan which was already inhabited by 94% ethnic Armenians who would constantly clash with their Azerbaijani neighbours.

The Secessionists in the Artsakh were further aware of the futility of Soviet intervention to right the wrongs made by the Caucasian Bureau especially when Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear that the borders between the republics would not change, in accordance with Article 78 of the Soviet constitution; his fear was that many regions in the USSR were vying for territorial change and redrawing the maps of Karabakh would set a dangerous precedent leading to the permanent dissolution of the USSR. Ever since the beginning of the conflict in the region, Armenia has always been at a military disadvantage compared to the Azeri’s. Soviet battle plans that contemplated a NATO invasion from Turkey into the Caucasus would turn Armenia into a battle zone hence there were only three divisions stationed in the Armenian SSR and no airfields, while Azerbaijan had a total of five divisions and five military airfields. When the parliament of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast voted to leave Azerbaijan all-out war was already on-going but no international recognition of the region as a part of Armenia came, instead the international community recognizes Karabakh to be under Azeri jurisdiction including the districts of Kalbajar, Lachin and Agdam that were annexed by the Artsakh republic during the first war. The intervention of International Law in this conflict also posed to be quite problematic due to the ambiguous resolutions passed by the Security Council that didn’t exactly diffuse the situation and were also ignored by Armenia despite its binding nature on sovereign nations as mentioned in Article 25 of the UN charter. First of all, it was a known fact that the Republic of Armenia was providing the secessionists with food, fuel, weapons and logistical support including the support of infantry and armoured divisions but this was denied officially, resolution 822 passed by the Security Council mentioned the invasion of the Kalbajar district of Azerbaijan by ‘local Armenian forces’, it in no way mentioned the regular army of Armenia and even failed to properly chastise the Republic of Armenia for their continued efforts in bolstering the secessionist efforts. The resolution also demanded the withdrawal of all occupying forces’ from the other territories of Azerbaijan but to no avail, as local Armenian forces had already successfully protected the capital of the region Stepanakert and occupied the strategic and culturally important city Shusha from Azeri control including securing the sensitive and vital Lachin corridor which connected Armenia proper to Nagorno-Karabakh.Not only this the Armenian forces were fast approaching areas and cities that were not considered the territory of the ethnic Armenian people of Karabakh and which wasn’t claimed by them[2]; the logic behind such a move may have been to occupy as much as Azeri land around Karabakh so as to widen the barrier that would keep towns and villages and their positions out of the range of Azerbaijani artillery in the near future. But surely such an act relates to an act of aggression as per UN Security Council regulations by local Armenian forces against Azeri land as a war for one right to self-determination cannot mean the trampling over the rights of the other ethnic population by entering their land under the justification of setting a strategic defence line? Justification in occupying land which has never been historically claimed seems very vague and the fact that such annexation of territory clearly belonging to another ethnic group shows the disdain for the rights of people who have been displaced in the region due to such an armed incursion. The issue has always been the right to self-determination of the ethnic Armenian population of Artsakh and their wish to join Armenia but what about the 700,000 Azeri refugees forced to flee Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions? However, an argument can be brought forward that due to past atrocities committed against Armenian minorities in Turkey (the Armenian Genocide) and in Baku, the Armenian leadership felt a buffer zone was needed so as to safeguard the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh from future Azeri vengeance. Ultimately, a ceasefire was brokered between the warring parties in 1994 and Armenian forces retained the annexed Azeri provinces. Coming to the present scenario the political landscape has changed dramatically as there are vested foreign interests in the Caucasus the most apparent being those of Turkey and the Russian Federation. The Caucasus is very significant due to its strategic and economic resources most notably natural gas and the major oil reserves[3] that can be found in Azerbaijan; after the war ended in 1994 the political leadership of Azerbaijan chose to invest heavily in its military by tapping its oil reserves that not only led to the construction of the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline in 2006 which connects Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey (notably bypassing Armenia) but which transformed Azerbaijan into an oil-based economy which led to an increase in foreign direct investment into the country amounting to $20 Billion Dollars (2010 estimates).

One issue that has perplexed scholars pertaining to the recent fighting in the Artsakh is the reason behind Russian reluctance in supporting Armenia against Azeri incursions into land controlled by ethnically Armenian forces of the Republic of Artsakh. Armenia and Russia are significant members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) where Article 4 of the charter states that ‘If one of the Member States undergoes aggression (armed attack menacing to safety, stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty), it will be considered by the Member States as aggression (armed attack menacing to safety, stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty) to all the Member States of this Treaty. In case of aggression commission (armed attack menacing to safety, stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty) to any of the Member States, all the other Member States at the request of this Member State shall immediately provide the latter with the necessary help, including military one, as well as provide support by the means at their disposal in accordance with the right to the collective defence pursuant to article 51 of the UN Charter.’ So why didn’t Russia aid Armenia as they are bound by the CSTO (Russia also maintains a garrison in Armenia) guidelines? An answer to such a question is manifold. Firstly Russia is Azerbaijan’s highest import partner when it comes to machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, metals, chemicals; such an economic relationship is not something Moscow would hope of retaining if it sent troops to aid Armenia against the Azeris; it would be very surprising to know that another reason behind Russian reluctance would be the legal aspect, that lies with the Armenian decision of not recognising the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (officially) as a part of their republic even though the military assets, budget and economy of the republic is shared with the province, this has led to the some serious questions being asked (contemplated by Russian officials) as to whether Russia is obliged or bound i.e. legally speaking to help Armenia over the conflict in Karabakh as ‘officially’ Karabakh is not a sovereign part of Armenia (Internationally recognised as a sovereign part of Azerbaijan) and Russia is bound to intervene on Armenia’s side only if Armenia proper is under invasion from Azeri troops but that is not the present case as the conflict rages around the Karabakh, therefore considering the previous notion to be true Russia is not bound by CSTO guidelines to help Armenia militarily. Moscow would also be worried about having another hostile nation to deal with in the Caucasus as Georgian-Russian relations have worsened at an alarming rate over the issue of the war of independence of the pro-Russian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia; if Baku joins Tbilisi in popularising anti-Russian sentiment then Moscow would be in a conundrum in the Caucasus which have always been historically zones of the Russian sphere of influences. Turkey under President Erdogan also happens to be a major player in the Caucasus, Ankara and Yerevan have never failed to show their disdain for each other; ever since the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians in 1915 and Turkey’s official policy of refusing to acknowledge such genocide has been the main cause. Over the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey has always supported the Azeri claim in the region and has shown their support for Azerbaijan diplomatically, going to the extent where Turkey has closed their border with Armenia since 1993. The relationship has gone to the point where the former Azeri president Heyder Aliyev has described the two countries as "one nation with two states". During the war, it was common knowledge that Turkey smuggled Syrian mercenaries and armed rebel groups into the Karabakh to support the Azerbaijani war effort, but this is something that Ankara has repeatedly denied. These Syrian mercenaries[4] were essentially used as expendable assault troops to go in the first wave of a frontal assault. The issue became tense when Moscow being irritated by Turkey’s repeated efforts to aggravate the tense military situation and increase their sphere of influence in the region launched airstrikes targeting a training camp for Failaq Al-Sham, one of the largest Turkish-backed Sunni Islamist rebel groups in Syria's Idlib province, killing 78 militants; such a strike could be a direct message to Ankara showing Moscow’s displeasure over the recent turn of events.

But the deciding factor that turned the tide in Azerbaijan’s favour was not the use of mercenaries or armed soldiery but the use of aerial drones supplied to them mainly by Israel and Turkey; these drones were used by the Azeri forces for reconnaissance missions and most importantly for the detection of hidden Armenian troops near the frontlines, these drones reverted this information back to the Azeri artillery and special forces that promptly took out the Armenian forces in the vanguard with minimal casualties. Due to such a tactic Armenian position were quickly overrun by Azerbaijan during the course of the war. With the capture of the strategic town of Shushi by Azerbaijan, a doorway was opened for an Azeri march to the capital of the region Stepanakert which was located only 15 km from the now occupied city of Shushi. Knowing the catastrophe that was about to befall this ethnic Armenian region under the relentless and militarily superior Azerbaijani onslaught, the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan agreed to a ceasefire treaty with Azerbaijan which was mediated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, this treaty heavily favoured Azerbaijan which annexed the areas overrun by them along with the handover of the Armenian controlled districts of Agdam, Kalbajar and Lachin to Azerbaijan without a shot being fired, this agreement too was accepted by the government of the Artsakh; such a treaty saw Azerbaijan regain their territories that were lost by them during the war in the early 1990’s, the only difference being that the ethnic region of Nagorno-Karabakh was to remain autonomous as Azerbaijan promised to end hostilities and halt their invasion of the region, on top of that the vital Lachin corridor which connects Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh was to be monitored by 2000 soldiers of the Russian Ground Forces labelled as “peacekeepers” for a period of five years. Additionally, Armenia undertook to guarantee the safety of passage between Azerbaijan's Nakhchivan exclave and mainland Azerbaijan in both directions. When news of the treaty broke out there were celebrations in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku while protestors stormed the Armenian Parliament[5] in anger over the signing of the treaty in the Armenian capital of Yerevan which was basically a humiliation according to the protestors.

In the end, many Armenians have termed Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government being traitors due to their acceptance of the one-sided peace treaty and the feeling is rampant in Armenia that Russia had backstabbed them in the back by not intervening on their behalf against Azerbaijan and Turkey. But the truth is that the Armenian administration in the mainland and the Karabakh including their military were grossly unprepared for a war with oil-rich Azerbaijan that had invested heavily in their armed forces and which made proper use of the military advancements especially in the form of armaments and aerial drones. Russia was never bound to intervene due to the legal implications (any military intervention for Armenia could harm Russo-Azeri economic relation) as explained in the aforementioned paragraphs but in fact saved Armenia from gross political and military humiliation when they mediated a ceasefire treaty at the right time, without such a treaty the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh could have fallen under the Azerbaijani war machine especially after the fall of Shusha. Russia in this conflict has emerged as a big winner as it seems to have rectified the wrongs done by its predecessor State the USSR pertaining to wrong ethnic and geographic borders drawn by them; it has not only brought forward a peace that has returned Agdam, Lachin and Kalbajar district to Azerbaijan but has maintained the autonomy of the ethnic Armenian majority region of Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast saving it from falling under Azerbaijani control, the Lachin corridor that connects Armenia to the region is to be protected and monitored by Russian troops which will maintain the political and cultural connection between the autonomous region and Armenia. It would actually be harmful to Russia if the Karabakh fell to Azerbaijan as a total Azeri victory over Armenia would augur the spread of Azeri-Turkish influence in the Caucasus something which is not at all acceptable by Moscow; Armenia is seen by Moscow as a firm ally in the effort to stop the spread of Turkish influence in the Caucasus and needs Yerevan’s support in countering Ankara. The Karabakh issue is bound to flare up again in the form of insurgency and the rise of Armenian nationalism against Azeri occupation, this issue cannot be downplayed due to the fact that Azerbaijan has not forsaken their claim to Nagorno-Karabakh but if a new war erupts over the region it will be met by much fiercer and hardliner Armenian population than before that cannot accept the existence of an Artsakh surrounded by Azerbaijan and will fight not for areas or districts but for their way of life and existence.


References

[1] Andrew E. Kramer, “Azerbaijan Claims Capture of Key Town in Nagorno-Karabakh”, The New York Times, 13.02.2021, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/08/world/europe/nagorno-karabakh-azerbaijan-shusha.html?auth=linked-google1tap (Last visited on February 13, 2021) [2] “Armenia-Azerbaijan: Why did Nagorno-Karabakh spark a conflict?”, BBC News, 13.02.2021, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54324772 (Last visited on February, 2021) [3] Natalia Bekiarova, “SOUTH CAUCASUS AS A REGION OF STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE”, 5 International E-Journal of Advances in Social Sciences 1019 (2019) [4] Fatma Ben Hamad, “Videos shared on social media show Syrians sent to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh”, France 24 The Observers, 13.02.2021, available at https://observers.france24.com/en/20201026-videos-shared-social-media-show-syrians-sent-fight-nagorno-karabakh (Last visited on February 13, 2021) [5] Yuri Vendik, “Defeat sparks crisis in Armenia”, BBC Russia, 13.02.2021, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54882564 (Last visited on February 13, 2021)





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