Momentous Events in the South Caucasus

Momentous Events in the South Caucasus

The last few days have seen momentous events in the South Caucasus that few in the West, outside those in power who know, can understand.

The last vestiges of the 30-year Armenian occupation of Azerbaijan has collapsed after a day of intense military effort, described as an anti-terrorist operation, was applied to it by Baku’s forces. International Law and the UN Resolutions of 1993 have been implemented and the illegal, unrecognised by the World, “Artsakh” pseudo-state has collapsed. A great victory for the “international rules based order” so loudly proclaimed in the West has been achieved. But who is celebrating outside of Baku and Ankara, one might ask?

Azerbaijan’s anti-terrorist operation could be described more accurately as a demilitarisation operation against the holdout Armenian militias in mountainous Karabakh. Under the 2020 Trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, it was agreed that all Armenian military forces were to leave Azerbaijan’s territory. A force of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers were flown into Karabakh to provide security for the Armenian inhabitants. There was no need for armed forces in Karabakh and they would only be a provocation to Azerbaijani forces, producing punitive operations if they engaged in provocative action. And so it has proved.

Under the guise of “defence forces” armed Armenians remained on Azerbaijan’s territory. Periodic exchanges of fire occurred across the line of contact. There was also persistent arms smuggling from Armenia and the continuation of mine laying within Azerbaijani territory after the armistice. Over 300 people have died from mine explosions since the end of the war in the areas around mountainous Karabakh, liberated in 2020, and being rebuilt and resettled with some of the surviving 750,000 Azerbaijanis ethically cleansed between 1991 and 1994 by Armenian forces.

The fatalities which were to be the spark for the anti-terrorist operation had signs of a planned ambush by Armenian separatist sabotage squads, infiltrating the line of contact. As a result of the explosion of a landmine recently planted by Armenian forces on the Fuzuli-Shusha highway, two civilian employees of the Road Construction Authority of Azerbaijan were killed. When police reached the scene a furter 7 policeman were killed by another freshly-laid mine. The probable objective of the saboteurs was to spread fear, indiscriminately kill Azerbaijani civilians and hinder reconstruction works in liberated areas, proving that newly constructed roads were not safe for travel. This would deter Azerbaijani IDPs from returning to their former homes.

This was the context of the military operation. It was ridiculous that it received criticism from the West since Western Powers have themselves conducted extensive operations like this in many areas of the world without any invitation. In 2014 the West supported a large operation described by Kyiv as an anti-terrorist operation against separatists in the Donbas and provided material and training for it. But when Azerbaijan decided to demilitarise its own territory, which is not only the right of any state, but a duty it has to its citizens, the Western nations issued the usual condemnations reserved for Muslims. The EU was particularly guilty of this, with a harsh condemnation of Baku being blocked by the only state in Europe which understands the reality of things, Viktor Orban’s Hungary.

More importantly, how can the behaviour of the Armenian Prime Minister be understood, which some have seen as bizarre and incomprehensible?

After the 2020 War the present writer suggested that the Armenian Premier, Nikol Pashinyan was attempting to offload the Karabakh Armenians onto the Russians, making them Moscow’s problem and not Yerevan’s. This would have the advantage for him of removing the Karabakh Clan, who had dominated Armenian politics for 25 years, from the Yerevan body politic, and free up Armenia for reform, with the removal of the Armenian/Russian Oligarchs who had plundered the country, from the scene. This was Pashinyan’s original program in the Colour Revolution, and on which he was elected and secured majorities in the Armenian Parliament, before he attempted to outflank the Karabakh Clan with flamboyant ultranationalist rhetoric and provocative action which caused the 2020 war.

Pashinyan was given the confidence to return to his original programme by being in the unusual position of easily winning an election in 2021 when he had just lost a war. Having shed Karabakh in the war and having got a new mandate, despite the defeat, he reconcetrated his mind on his original ambitions.

It looks very like that Pashinyan is indeed intent on removing Karabakh from the Armenian polity once and for all. His objective seems to be to pivot to the West, to the EU and NATO, which can protect him and what exists of the Armenian democracy from the opposition of the Armenian/Russian oligarchs. In this way he can assert Armenia’s independence from Moscow after 3 decades of dependence brought about by the expansionist nationalism that occupied nearly 18 per cent of its neighbour’s territory and drained the state’s resources.

Pashinyan has been blaming the Russians for letting down the Karabakh Armenians, to fend off charges of treason from the opposition. Diaspora Armenians were encouraged to believe there was a campaign to “internationalise” the Karabakh issue to frustrate the assertion of full Azerbaijani sovereignty over its territory. It was the West who would save “Artsakh” rather than Russia, its traditional protector. The Armenian Foreign Minister has called for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers and their replacement by French and US forces. But short of extraordinary circumstances this will not happen.

Pashinyan’s strategy plays well in the West, who have been portraying the Kremlin as incompetent, useless and weakened by the war in Ukraine. It is very noticeable that while Washington has declared an interest in defending Armenia it has also signalled that it has no interest in the Karabakh Armenians, short of a humanitarian disaster. The Armenian propaganda campaign to create the impression in the West that a “blockade” of mountainous Karabakh and a “second genocide” was underway were aimed at conjuring up the notion of a humanitarian crisis to which the West would ride to the rescue. The desire among the diaspora Armenian activists for a “second genocide”and another Bosnia is, however, not happening. Azerbaijan’s progress across its territory has been meticulous and surgical and the Russian peacekeepers now have an interest in peacekeeping to keep the West out. It has been reported that Azerbaijani troops are being escorted by the Russians into Khojaly, the site of a notorious massacre by Armenians of more than 600 people in 1992.

It seems that there has developed a strong confluence of interests between Washington and the Pashinyan Government. The West is interested in removing Russia from the South Caucasus entirely. It has reasoned that the Azerbaijanis have the ability to lever the peace keepers out of Azerbaijani territory, with the Russian priorities being in Ukraine. So, the great prize is to get the Russians out of Armenia and particularly the military base in Gyumri. The only force which can achieve this in Armenia is Pashinyan and it seems that he has been spoken to by Washington on the lines of, “we have your back, son.”  Washington and Yerevan are now singing from the same hymn sheet.

But the hardliners in Karabakh were not letting Pashinyan get away with this. It was they, and not Yerevan, who organised the provocations that ensured an Azerbaijani armed intervention, to escalate the conflict. However, the hardliners seriously miscalculated. Pashinyan was not going to assist them this time, the West would only provide platitudes, and Azerbaijan had neutralised the Armenian army to such a state that only complete destruction awaited it if it gave battle in Karabakh.

The other element, and potential saviour, was Russia. But the Kremlin was certainly informed of what was going to happen by Baku, to enable the Russian peacekeepers to get offside. Some Armenians accused the Russians of providing geolocations of Armenian forces to Baku and then stepping aside. This is unlikely perhaps but Yerevan’s verbal attacks on Moscow, the recent public aid to Kyiv, presented by Mrs Pashinyan, and the joint exercises with the US Army would all have deterred the Kremlin from helping its longstanding ally in the South Caucasus out. Perhaps that was Pashinyan’s and Washington’s aim all along.

The Armenian militias put up a fight, but after 24 hours of the Azerbaijan military operation the “Artsakh” regime at Stepanakert/Khankandi capitulated. The securing of Azerbaijan’s border over the past year had left only a remnant of Armenian forces in mountainous Karabakh, without air defences or much heavy weaponry. Resistance from the militias was futile and Azerbaijani attacks were carefully and precisely targeted on military posts and personnel. According to Armenians a couple of hundred of their forces were killed with 400 wounded, while civilian casualties appear to have been minimal and less than 5 per cent of total fatalities. Civilians were warned of operations by Baku through text messages and humanitarian corridors were organised both by the Azerbaijanis and Russians.

During the Azerbaijani military operation the Russian peacekeepers stuck to their original mandate from the Trilateral Agreement of 2020. It was not in their remit to subdue military conflict by force, and certainly not to resist Azerbaijani forces on their own territory. They were meant as a deterrent but deterrence failed when provocation was too much and Moscow was informed that was the case. The peacekeepers assisted in the evacuation of Armenian villagers from places that came within the conflict zone, and 8 were unfortunately killed, including the Deputy Commander, in the line of humanitarian duty. The Russian peacekeepers then brokered the ceasefire to arrange the surrender of the separatist regime. The Armenian diaspora are saying this was all carefully arranged between Baku and Moscow. They have a point because such collaboration was essential to minimise bloodshed and prevent calls from the West for “humanitarian intervention”.

After 3 decades the “Artsakh” pseudo-state was no more and its leaders effectively surrendered to full de facto Azerbaijani sovereignty. For all these years the pretence of an independent state had been maintained by the separatists after the failed “Miatsum” (Union with Armenia). This was despite the fact of the continual presence of the Armenian Army manning the defences and conducting manoeuvres, the substantial subsidising of the economy, the attempted colonial projects and the domination of Yerevan politics by politicians who seamlessly transitioned from Karabakh to hold the reins of state in the Armenian Republic.

However, when Armenian forces had been defeated in 2020 and the link between the pseudo-state and Yerevan was broken “Artsakh” collapsed like a pack of cards in little over a day. As Thomas deWaal noted on the BBC the much proclaimed 120,000 Armenians of mountainous Karabakh, were really only around 60,000 in fact. And some of their leaders (David Babayan etc.) initially called for a “Biblical Exodus” of the Armenian populace rather than them live under the indignity of the Azerbaijanis, who they proclaimed an inferior form of civilisation. The BBC, which is these days rampant with liberal humanitarian racism, provided airtime for this view, but it seems to be out of step with its Government on this matter.

Back in November 2020 some in Azerbaijan had doubted the wisdom of President Aliyev’s decision to halt the war prior to a final, complete victory. The present writer described the calculations behind this and maintained it was the correct decision. And so it has proved. It was a marvellous piece of wise statesmanship, little experienced in our time, that ensured final victory for Azerbaijan with a minimum of lives, both Armenian and Azerbaijani, and it has enhanced the prospects of a secure peace in the future for all.

The Armenians suffered trauma, no doubt, but the policy of stopping the war in early December 2020 before the main Armenian population centres were reached, and using political and security means to hold their feet to the fire, over the last couple of years, achieved the final victory through temporary hardship, no doubt, but with a minimum of bloodshed. The Azerbaijani victories of 2020 and 2023 were so different from the chaos, massacres and vast ethnic cleansing inflicted by the Armenians on their Azerbaijani neighbours during 1991-94.

There are no reasons why the Armenian community of mountainous Karabakh cannot become full and functional citizens of the united Azerbaijan. Their historic distinctive culture, freed from the malignant influence of intransigent leaders, should enrich the region, within a large state of 10 million comprising a diversity of people. Karabakh will no longer be what is has been for a generation of occupation – a homogeneous, isolated backwater where only one part of humanity is welcome.

Negotiations have now begun at Yevlakh, in Azerbaijan, on the mechanisms by which the Armenians of Karabakh become full and equal citizens of Azerbaijan. Karabakh Armenians are represented not by Yerevan, but by representatives of local Armenians (Arthur Arutyunyan, Sergey Martirosyan, David Melkumian) and have agreed to meet in Azerbaijan, outside the occupied area, after resisting this for years. A member of the Azerbaijan Parliament, Ramin Mamedov, has been given responsibility for negotiating the process of the integration of Armenians of Karabakh into Azerbaijan. The process will involve agreeing a process by which the Armenian militias will be disarmed and arms decommissioned, before the opening of corridor for those wishing to leave to depart. It is probable that former leaders of the ilegal regime, particularly those accused of war crimes in 1991-4 will have to be handed over to Baku.

A few days before these events Gerard Libaridian, that most thoughtful of Armenians, who was there at the start in 1988, in the Miatsum campaign, gave a very interesting talk.

He said it had all started with the Armenian Patriarch at San Stefano in 1878, who asked the Russians, with their forces at the gates of Istanbul, to protect the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. This is when the Armenians became victims, said Libaridian.

Armenians live in their own world, according to Libaridian, talking to themselves, believing that the terrible image they project to the outside World about Turks and Azerbaijani Turks is the reality. So they are doomed to disappointment when the World does not conform to their view of it. The World told them it did not recognise “Artsakh” from the very beginning, but they did not believe the World. They were Armenians after all, who could defy the reality.

Libaridian told his Armenian diaspora audience that the construction of their identity had been reduced to a simple formula: Tigran the Great’s Greater Armenia, the first Christians doomed to suffer, and Genocide. The simplification of Armenian history has put the Armenians into a permanent and inevitable role as victims who need protectors from Russia or the West, or both. And the Russians and West will compete to be the protectors of the Armenians against the barbarian Turk in the geopolitical interest, with the clever Armenians playing them off against each other. Or so it is thought.

But did nobody notice, said Libaridian, that it all ends in disaster and today will be no different.

The problem, said Libaridian was that this victim role deprives the Armenian people of agency. Only in 1994, when they achieved the ceasefire with Heydar Aliyev, did they have agency and then they quickly reverted to type, unable to achieve anything positive from this position. A 30 year intransigent occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory resulted, that was ultimately doomed when Baku stabilised and got its act together.

When asked whether he thought Pashinyan would survive, Libaridian said that Russia desperately wanted to oust the Armenian Government. Russia is generous in victory but very dangerous when it is threatened, as Ukraine has found to its cost. Russia wished to delay a peace settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan in its own interest, until after the war in Ukraine. But it failed to subdue Kyiv quickly. Pashinyan, under US influence, is pursuing an active diplomacy that is a real problem for Moscow. Pashinyan is aiming to solve problems with Turkiye and Azerbaijan and the Kremlin really doesn’t like this, according to Libaridian. The Kremlin’s prospects of manipulating forces in the South Caucasus, which it has carefully cultivated, is being neutralised.

Ruban Vardanyan, who tried to topple Pashinyan in Yerevan after the defeat of 2020, and who went to Karabakh afterwards, before being turned out, is now attempting to influence policy in Yerevan. He has identified Armenian interests wholly with Russia. However, according to Libaridian, the Armenian people do not want Serzh Sargsyan or Robert Kocharyan, or indeed Vardanyan, back and have shown this in elections. There only hope is in the stress and trauma of defeat, and Russia knows it.

Pashinyan had illusions over democracy, in that he thought the West would ride to Armenia’s rescue, but he has realised the facts of power politics in the world. The South Caucasus and Ukraine have nothing whatever to do with democracy, argues Libaridian. The world is a multi-polar place now and American power is in serious decline: Russia does what it wants, Israel does what it wants, Turkiye does what it wants, Azerbaijan does what it wants. The Americans are not what they were 20 or 30 years ago and there is much greater freedom of action for states to act in their national interests.

Armenia has been turned by Washington and that will have massive implications in the South Caucasus, according to Libaridian, who is rightfully careful not to make predictions.