Armenian–Azerbaijani Reignition: Where the Blame Lies
Dr Pat Walsh, Historian and Political Analyst. Author of ‘Great Britain against Russia in the Caucasus: Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis caught up in Geopolitics, War and Revolution’.
The purpose of the following article is to explain why the current outbreak of hostilities in the Armenian–Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is largely the responsibility of the present Armenian Government of Mr Nikol Pashinyan. The reignited war has resulted from a series of Armenian provocations that gave Azerbaijan little option but to remove the continued threat to the peace and security of its citizens emanating from the Armenian occupying forces in Karabakh. In effect, the Azerbaijani army is implementing the four UN Security Council Resolutions passed in 1993 (822, 853, 874 and 884) which called for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied lands, an end to the occupation of Azerbaijani territory and the return of the estimated one million Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees to their rightful homes.
Of course, the roots of the Armenian–Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict date back over a century. They began with the colonisation project of Tsarist Russia during the 1830s, which concentrated an Armenian population in the predominantly Muslim area of independent khanates and which disturbed the population balance in Erivan/Yerevan, Nakhchivan and Karabakh. Russia did this to secure the frontier of its expanding empire, but it transformed the demography of the area, making for future conflict. The years 1905–06 saw the first serious outbreak of intercommunal violence. When the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian nation states emerged after the Tsarist collapse in the aftermath of the Great War, a conflict over territory ensued. The expansionary character of Armenian nationalism and its desire for a ‘Great Armenia’ was the main driver of this conflict. Throughout this period, during the periods of the independent Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918 and 1919–20), the British administration (1918–19) and finally the Soviet occupation (1920–91), Karabakh remained part of Azerbaijan. However, the Armenians always coveted this as “an ancient part of the Armenian kingdom” and they availed themselves of the chaos that emanated during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991–93, occupying it and expelling the non-Armenian population from Nagorno-Karabagh and the surrounding seven regions. Since the ceasefire was signed in 1994, Armenia has propped up the pseudo-state of ‘Artsakh’ under the pretence that it is a free-standing political entity, formed by local Armenian separatists.
Despite this pretence, since the 1990s, Armenian politics in Yerevan have been dominated by the Karabakh connection. Nikol Pashinyan was the first Armenian leader in two decades who did not hail from Karabakh and had no political base there. He came to power in a Velvet Revolution in May 2018, as an outsider from Yerevan’s political class, through widespread discontent with the administration of President Serzh Sargsyan. He was elected to end corruption in the political elite and there were huge expectations.
Pashinyan faced opposition from Yerevan’s vested interests – the oligarchs, bureaucrats and military elite. The Republican Party of Armenia still had a majority in parliament when Pashinyan took power. However, in December 2018, Pashinyan’s My Step Alliance won a landslide victory, with over 70 per cent of the vote.
The opposition to Pashinyan was heavily defeated, but it did not go away. They took it that they were the true substance of Armenia and Pashinyan was a temporary aberration. They bided their time. They understood that the first President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, had been ousted when he had attempted a resolution of the Karabakh issue, and they calculated that this would be the ground on which Pashinyan would become vulnerable. It was his Achilles Heel and could be used to bring him down.
However, 2019 began well for Pashinyan, with his newly-acquired extensive mandate for change. The Armenian Prime Minister signalled that he wanted to take a new approach to the resolution of the Armenian–Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and he undertook a couple of meetings with President Aliyev. The two leaders discussed the need to prepare their populations for peace. They also strengthened the ceasefire arrangements along the ‘contact line’, as part of the attempt to build confidence between both countries.
Then a turn-about happened. The political substance of Armenia, based on the so-called Karabakh clan, began to politically attack Pashinyan. The Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) accused Pashinyan of wanting to sell out Karabakh and the seven occupied territories cheaply.
These attacks unsettled Pashinyan, but he did not prove to be a substantial peacemaker, and certainly was no Ter-Petrosyan, with little intention of going the same way. Pashinyan was essentially an insubstantial opportunist who, to preserve his position, decided to turn tables on his opponents by becoming an ultra-nationalist who would, in order to survive, out-Karabakh the Karabakh clan.
By the middle of 2019, Pashinyan was attempting to out-flank his opponents by suddenly metamorphosing into a belligerent nationalist. He started saying things that were very unhelpful to peace. Examples were that Karabakh had always been part of Armenia, or Karabakh was an independent state. These two things were contradictory, but Pashinyan began saying anything that proved his nationalist credentials. He lacked the credibility that came from a background in Karabakh, so he tried to make up for this in rhetoric. Previous Armenian governments were always been very careful to avoid making statements like these as they knew that international law recognised Karabakh as forming part of Azerbaijan.
It is indisputable that the Pashinyan government in Yerevan sabotaged the longstanding peace negotiations over Karabakh, mainly undertaken via the OSCE Minsk Group that, whilst going largely nowhere, still held out hope for a peaceful settlement of the conflict for Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijanis, despite the Armenian occupation of their territory, were loath to plunge their country into another costly war without exhausting all possibilities for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, based on the principles of international law. The government in Baku knew that the Azerbaijani army had been developed into something that was unrecognisable from the forces that lost Karabakh in the 1990s. However, it wished to give peace a chance, even though this was a very slim chance indeed in the hands of the OSCE Minsk Group.
One of the first manifestations of the new belligerent attitude by the Pashinyan government occurred when David Tonoyan, Armenian Defence Minister, announced the stated intention of a “new war for new territories”. This was presumably meant as a threat to Azerbaijan, stating that if it attempted to regain its territory, it would face an Armenian advance that would expand the Armenian-occupied zone further. Such a thing would be catastrophic for any government in Baku. It must have concentrated minds in Baku on the fact that, 26 years after the ceasefire, the state was still vulnerable to the threat of Armenian expansionism. Tonoyan stated that an expansionist policy would be advantageous to Yerevan because it “would rid Armenia of this trench condition, the constant defensive state, and will… shift the military action to the territory of the enemy.” Offence was to be the new defence, apparently.
If this was meant to be a bluff, it was a very dangerous and provocative bluff. The proclivity of Armenian nationalism towards the expansion of territory has a long tradition and was well known to Armenia’s neighbours. Combined with the constant Armenian military probing of the ‘contact line’, it would have awoken Baku from any lethargy that might have set in from the false sense of security it could have gained due to the increasing capacity of the Azerbaijani economy and military forces in relation to the declining population and position of Armenia.
In March 2020, the occupying forces in Karabakh held illegal ‘elections’ within an emergency situation brought about by the rapid spread of Coronavirus. These ‘elections’ were deemed illegitimate by the world, and were an affront to international law. Two months later, in May, it was announced that the capital of the secessionists was to be moved from Stepanakert to Shusha, the historic Azerbaijani centre of Karabakh. Shusha holds a deep symbolic value for Azerbaijanis and this represented a further calculated provocation to their sensitivities.
In July 2020, Armenian forces mounted a serious escalation of hostilities at Tovuz on the Armenian–Azerbaijani border. A number of Azerbaijani servicemen and civilians were killed. It was significant that military engagements occurred along the actual border between the Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, 300km from the ‘contact line’ between Azerbaijan and Armenian-occupied Karabakh. Azerbaijan had no interest in fighting in this location and it would only have been to its disadvantage to engage in hostilities there.
Azerbaijan, with no territorial claims against Armenia, and having little to gain in any military operations in such a location, was taken aback by the Armenian aggression. It had been the next stretch of territory that Baku was intent on demilitarising as part of the 2019 de-escalation plan the Azerbaijani military was following as part of peace negotiations. It is also an important strategic region for Azerbaijan, with the gas and oil pipeline supply to Europe running behind, in the hinterland, as the new link of the Southern Gas Corridor. Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, confirmed later that it was his belief that Armenia’s decision to attempt to push up to a position within 15km of the Azerbaijani export pipeline started the conflict at Tovuz.
Azerbaijan responded to the Armenian aggression with resolute defence, but its decision not to go on the offensive at Tovuz seems to have given Pashinyan and the Armenians the belief that they could go further. Large demonstrations in Baku accused President Aliyev’s government of inaction and called for a greater response. The pressure was from the Azerbaijani populace on the government, to respond with greater force, rather than the government in Baku manipulating nationalist passions to disperse opposition. The Azerbaijani government was correct in not responding with offensive military action in this area. But Pashinyan should have noted that a further Armenian provocation was going to be very problematic for the government in Baku.
However, further provocations followed. During September, there were reports of Lebanese Armenians (who were affected by the explosion in Beirut and the meltdown of the economy) being brought to Karabakh as colonists to bolster its declining population. This is illegal under international law governing occupied territories, and again caused understandable consternation in Azerbaijan, with its large number of IDPs and refugees demanding the right to return, and now seeing their homes occupied by more foreign settlers. Illegal settlements of Lebanese and Syrian Armenians began to be reported in the occupied territories in Zangilan, Qubadli, Lachin, Kelbajar, Agdam and part of Fizuli. These illegal settlements were replacing the 800,000 displaced Azerbaijanis who had been ethnically-cleansed by Armenian terror squads in the early 1990s and now who looked on helplessly.
At around the same time, the wife of Prime Minister Pashinyan paid a high-profile visit to the occupied territories. She was pictured in full military dress, in various battle poses, firing an assault rifle in the direction of Azerbaijani lines. This extraordinary media event was presumably meant to signal a personal devotion to a military solution on the part of the Pashinyans, and the final rejection of the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
There were also reports of squads of PKK operatives journeying to Karabakh to engage in training, and perhaps undertake offensive operations on Azerbaijani territory. Furthermore, the capture of an Armenian sabotage unit on the Azerbaijani side of the ‘contact line’ continued to raise fears of offensive operations threatening villages across the ‘contact line’.
The Armenian Government also put diplomatic effort into raising the stakes. Yerevan deliberately obstructed a special session of the UN General Assembly arranged to discuss a collaborative response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Armenians, who were suffering heavily themselves from the Coronavirus spread, undertook this disruption purely because this important event had been proposed by Ilham Aliyev, Chair of the Non-aligned Movement and Azerbaijani President. The proposal was backed by 130 countries and Armenia was the only country to oppose the session. Anti-Azerbaijani interests were judged to be sufficiently important to trump the interests of humanity in general. That, of course, is a very Armenian attitude.
Pashinyan also began insisting publicly that the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh be given official existence and recognition in the negotiating process between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This proposal was obviously unacceptable to Azerbaijan, and indeed contrary to international law, which does not recognise such an entity in the first place, let alone giving it legitimacy by admission to formal talks. If this unprecedented move on the part of the Armenian Prime Minister was designed to further subvert the failing peace process, Pashinyan was undoubtedly successful. When President Aliyev heard these statements, his confidence in progression at the negotiating table would have been shattered.
Azerbaijan was left with only two options – to accept the loss of territory along with the escalating provocations, or to seek methods of restoring its territorial integrity. The ascension to power by Nikol Pashinyan did not, as Azerbaijan hoped, lead to a more compromise-oriented government intent on resolving the conflict. Instead, it resulted in a more belligerent Armenia that sought not only to stall negotiations, as was the case previously, but to fundamentally change the negotiation process by rejecting the Madrid Principles aimed at achieving a negotiated end to the conflict, along with demanding unacceptable changes to the composition of these talks that would have given legitimacy to the illegal occupation and the pseudo-state of ‘Artsakh’.
The conflict finally began on 27 September 2020, after further Armenian artillery bombardments targeting civilian areas which killed a number of people, including a family of five with two children. That was enough to exhaust Azerbaijani patience and the war for the liberation of national territory was on.
Nikol Pashinyan had proved the worst of all reformers: Someone who raises hopes and expectations of peace but who, for his own political survival, suddenly reverses policy and dashes them, plunging the situation into conflict. By so doing, Pashinyan unbalanced Armenia and unfroze the so-called ‘frozen conflict’. It was a dangerous game he played and it was to end in catastrophe.