Armenia Unable To Defend Karabakh, And Nobody To Defend Armenia
September 22, 2023
  • Arkady Dubnov
    Russian independent expert on Central Asia and the Caucasus
Arkady Dubnov writes about the latest act in the Armenian drama, with Azerbaijan taking Nagorno-Karabakh by force, the Russian government barely concealing its desire to get rid of Armenia’s leader and Russian peacekeepers acting essentially in Baku’s interests.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a territory that officially belonged to the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic in the Soviet era. In 1994, after the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was proclaimed on that territory. It failed to gain recognition by the world community and even Armenia while de facto being under the control of Yerevan. In 2020, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War took place, with Armenia being defeated in 44 days. Under the ceasefire agreement signed in November 2020 by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, Azerbaijan reestablished control over part of the territory, Russian peacekeepers were stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Armenian population was effectively besieged by Azerbaijan.
Airport in Stepanakert (Nagorno-Karabakh), September 20, 2023. Source: VK
New leader in Nagorno-Karabakh infuriates Baku

The trigger for the current military escalation by Azerbaijan, which started on September 19, was an unexpected political shakeup in Nagorno-Karabakh. The previous president of the unrecognized republic, Arayik Harutyunyan, resigned; he was succeeded by former Karabakh silovik Samvel Shahramanyan, who in his first statement demanded to revisit the issue of Karabakh’s status. This infuriated the leadership in Baku, which by this time had already reached a consensus with Yerevan on mutual recognition of the territorial integrity of both states, meaning recognition by Armenia that Karabakh is also part of Azerbaijan.

The current, dramatic escalation is retribution for the illusions of Nagorno-Karabakh’s leaders, who hoped to regain control over the territory even though Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev has an undeniable advantage both formally/legally and militarily. Aliyev has consistently voiced an uncompromising and tough stance toward Nagorno-Karabakh, and on September 20 declared that he would cease hostilities only after the complete surrender of the Armenian armed forces.
“The Armenian community’s main task today remains keeping ‘mainland’ Armenia, its state sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”
Nikol Pashinyan, prime minister of Armenia. Source: VK
This is what is guiding Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and why he refused to engage Azerbaijan militarily, which would certainly have led to a terrible defeat of Armenia.

No matter what Pashinyan’s personal responsibility is for the mistakes of his previous years in power, no other Armenian politician opposing him has been able to offer any coherent formula over the years for the peaceful resolution of the conflict with Azerbaijan, especially since the 44-day war lost by Armenia in 2020.

With the coming to power of the new leadership in Stepanakert, a police or some other armed action by Azerbaijan in the region was only a matter of time. Baku considers any Karabakh leadership and Karabakh army illegal, though it clearly still hoped to come to an agreement with the previous Stepanakert leadership.

This was supposed to ensure the rights of the Armenian population of Karabakh and guarantee that the Armenians living there would not be expelled from their homes. The new leadership in Stepanakert, however, decided to start playing with Baku as if the 44-day war had not happened. Azerbaijan decided to serve notice about its “right of force” defiantly, in plain sight of the whole world on September 19, the first day of the main week of the plenary session of the UN General Assembly.

Political contest in Armenia and Russia’s role

What did those who instigated the change of power in Karabakh and pushed its new leadership into a fresh round of confrontation with Baku expect?
“There is reason to believe that the political shakeup that elevated Shahramanyan was meant to provoke Pashinyan and drag him into a new war with Azerbaijan, which could cost him his office or simply force him to resign.”
People in Yerevan who know the situation from the inside are not hiding the fact that the main beneficiaries could be the same, still-powerful Armenian clans – called the Karabakh clans – that were represented in particular by ex-president Serzh Sargsyan.

It was these clans that were swept aside by the “revolution from below” that brought Pashinyan to power in 2018. In recent months, former Russian businessman Ruben Vardanyan joined them, proclaiming himself the main defender of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence and even taking a ministerial post in Stepanakert with “broad powers” for several months.
Protest rally in Yerevan, September 19, 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
After a truce was reached on September 20 and the Karabakh army ceased resistance, totally expected protests broke out in Yerevan. Protesters demanded the resignation of Pashinyan, accusing him of betrayal for his refusal to fight Azerbaijan. By all indications, this scenario, with the aim of removing Pashinyan from power “by the street,” was organized by his opponents – the same ones who instigated the change of power in Stepanakert.

However, recent history has shown that Pashinyan’s support in Armenia is much stronger than the capabilities of his opponents, and there is no force inside Armenia ready to remove him without foreign backing. In Armenia, it is the Russian leadership that the majority would most likely suspect of providing that foreign backing. And anti-Russian sentiment in today’s Armenia is extremely high.

Is Russia interested in a change of power in Yerevan? Dmitri Medvedev, the former Russian president and now deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, has been the most open about this, condemning Pashinyan for “flirting with NATO” and concluding his remarks with the phrase “guess what fate awaits him.” Russia’s interest is also visible in the calls that appeared on the internet from the main Russian propagandists Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia Today, and TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov, who called on Armenians to join the protests against Pashinyan.

Maria Zakharova, the official spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, called on all parties in Karabakh to ensure the safety of Russian peacekeepers. Previously, it seemed – probably mistakenly – that the situation was the other way around: the peacekeepers were there to ensure the safety of the residents of Karabakh.

On September 20, the deaths of Russian peacekeepers were reported. Aliyev apologized to Russia, though overall his position remains unchanged. Starting from September 20, Russian peacekeepers, declaring their goal to ensure the safety of Karabakh Armenians, have been taking them – mainly women with children and the elderly – from their places of residence to their base in the village of Khojaly near Stepanakert, housing them in tents. Azerbaijan considers those who remain on the territory of Karabakh with weapons in their hands to be “uncontrolled armed formations” that are to be killed.

It remains to be seen what will happen next to the people whom Russian peacekeepers are transporting from Karabakh. Whether they will be allowed to choose themselves to seek refuge in “mainland” Armenia or remain in Karabakh under the rule of Azerbaijan is unclear.
“The Russian peacekeepers seem to be acting in the interests of Baku, which is trying to prove that Azerbaijan is capable of reintegrating the Karabakh Armenians into Azerbaijani society.”
And also demonstrate that these Armenians have no other choice, as Yerevan is supposedly not ready to take them. On the evening of September 21, Pashinyan denied these rumors and said that Armenia is ready to accommodate up to 40,000 refugees from Karabakh.

Armenia without allies

The tragic fall of Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh means that the oldest conflict in the post-Soviet space is being unfrozen through force. It is too early to say whether this will trigger the “unfreezing” of other old conflicts, including the Abkhaz-Georgian and Transnistria conflicts. In any case, unfreezing is not in the interests of the current leadership in Moscow, which, thanks to its “management” of these conflicts, has retained its influence in these regions of the former USSR.

Azerbaijan’s victory strengthens the influence of Turkey, Baku’s longtime ally, in the South Caucasus. Note that, should the surrender of Karabakh, with all the tragedy of the situation, lead to a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, there could be the potential for Armenia and Turkey, which has kept the border with Armenia closed for almost 30 years, to establish normal relations.

Until recently, Armenia maintained access to the outside world thanks to friendly relations with Iran. Nevertheless, in the current conflict Tehran supported Azerbaijan’s claims to Karabakh, which is another indication that the fate of the second Armenian state was predetermined.

Azerbaijan could also count on support on the Karabakh issue from Central Asian countries, most of which belong to the Organization of Turkic States along with Baku, even though three Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – are technically Armenia’s allies in the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization).

The UN Security Council meeting, urgently convened on September 21 at the initiative of Armenia and France, has not resulted in any constructive initiatives, which further underlines the hopelessness of the situation for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and Armenia proper.
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