The 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict: A View from Ukraine

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The 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict: A View from Ukraine

(Map courtesy of Thomas de Waal)

Today’s Armenian-Azerbaijani war has lasted much longer than the previous four-day conflict in 2016.  This is no longer simply the “Karabakh Conflict.” The military actions are increasingly displaying signs of a full interstate armed conflict similar to the bloody events of 1992-1994 that led to Azerbaijan’s defeat and its loss of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave as well as seven adjacent regions – 20% of its total territory.  As a result, the occupied territories were effectively cleansed of ethnic Azerbaijanis.  A further 600-800,000 fled (a figure closer to one million if those fleeing from Armenia are included) and somehow had to be accommodated on the remaining territory of Azerbaijan.  The 1994 peace agreement created a semi-frozen conflict.  But the fragile peace was continually violated by armed clashes of varying intensity along the line separating the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (which renamed itself the “Republic of Artsakh” in February 2017) and the rest of Azerbaijan.

The renewal of large-scale military conflict on September 27 – a ‘counterattack’ by a well-prepared and well-equipped Azerbaijan – did not lead to a swift victory.  A ‘blitzkrieg’ along the lines of the Croatian “Operation Storm” in 1995 clearly failed.  But the fighting continued and the advances of the Azerbaijani army in the south and the north brought daily reports of newly liberated settlements on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and the destruction by artillery and air strikes of enemy equipment, supplies, and strong points.  The leadership of the Armenian armed forces admitted to withdrawing along the full length of the contact line.  Almost every military expert attributed the success of the Azerbaijani military primarily to its incorporation of NATO standards for conducting warfare and its use of modern weapons, especially Israeli and Turkish manufactured drones. (https://texty.org.ua/fragments/102003/turecki-drony-u-nahirnomu-karabasi-spalyuyut-radyansku-rosijsku-tehniku-z-vrazhayuchoyu-efektyvnistyu/).

This aspect is significant because Ukraine has the Bayraktar TB2 drone, which has proven its military effectiveness not only on the territory of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic but also in Syria and Libya. The Defense Ministry plans to buy and assemble its next consignment jointly with Turkey. (https://www.ukrinform.ua/rubric-economy/3113192-ukraina-planue-zakupiti-u-tureccini-48-bezpilotnikiv-bayraktar.html).

Territory beyond Nagorno-Karabakh has also been bombarded throughout the conflict.  In reply to the shelling of the “capital” of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, there were strikes against Azerbaijani territory under the control of the central authorities that led to a growing number of civilian casualties and the destruction of housing and infrastructure.  (https://eurasianet.org/armenia-azerbaijan-fighting-expands-far-beyond-the-front-lines).  Apart from frightening and provoking panic among the population this could have been a provocation by Armenia to draw Azerbaijan into attacking its opponent not only on occupied territory but in Armenia itself – something that would serve as a formal pretext for intervention by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the military alliance created by Russia on the territory of the former Soviet Union as a counter to NATO.  The situation was made worse by efforts on October 6 and 7 to launch rocket attacks on Azerbaijan’s most strategic assets, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline which is of key importance to Europe’s energy security. (https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2nd-armenian-missile-attack-prevented-in-azerbaijans-yevlakh/news).

As soon as the conflict escalated seriously on September 27, the heads of leading international organizations and individual countries appealed to the two sides to immediately cease fighting and to return to the negotiating table.  Negotiations for finding a peaceful resolution to the Karabakh crisis are the responsibility of the OSCE Minsk Group that was formed in 1992.  It consists of nine countries, although since 1998 the leading role has been played by Russia, France and the United States.  Yet, after twenty-eight years the Karabakh ‘Minsk Process’ has failed to make any noticeable progress.  And even the Armenian “Velvet Revolution” of 2018 that deposed the hawks of the so-called “Karabakh Clan” and renewed hopes for a peaceful end to the conflict through understanding between the leaders of the two countries and a joint effort “preparing the population for peace” failed to live up to expectations. (https://eurasianet.org/armenia-and-azerbaijan-agree-to-prepare-populations-for-peace).

It seems that this failure led Baku to conclude that any attempt to resolve the problem of Karabakh through political and legal means was hopeless thereby prompting the radical step of trying to reach a solution by military means.  Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev declared that he had no intention of waiting another thirty years and that this time the Karabakh problem had to be solved once and for all.  The second reason was undoubtedly the Turkish decision to support a “fraternal nation” not just morally and politically but also by all other necessary means – including the provision of modern weapons, joint military exercises, and military instructors and advisers.

Such a change of position – previously, Turkey had tried to play the role of intermediary in managing the peace process – came after the sudden escalation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation in July which threatened to jeopardize energy security in the region and, therefore, Turkey’s own national interests.   On that occasion, the military confrontation did not take place on the line of separation with Nagorno-Karabakh but on the actual border between Armenia and Azerbaijan (something that did not lead to intervention by the CSTO as envisaged in that organization’s statute).  The death during that conflict of military personnel, including Azerbaijan’s charismatic General Polad Hashimov, produced an angry reaction within Azerbaijani society demanding immediate mobilization and an aggressive military response.  In Baku, the police used water cannon to disperse gatherings of thousands of protestors.  The causes of that escalation have still to be convincingly established.  However, it seems to have been a spontaneous occurrence in contrast with September’s carefully planned moves.

The situation during the early days of the September conflict was further exacerbated by some rash statements from Armenian Prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan that, for example, “Karabakh is Armenia” and about an “Azerbaijani-Turkish terrorist attack” that was “a continuation of the policy of genocide against the Armenian nation.”  He also demanded the end of any form of Turkish participation in the conflict, directing this appeal to influential “stakeholders” and petitioned the European Court of Human Rights to mandate temporary measures for this purpose. Yet, on the contrary, on October 5, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg asked Turkish President Recep Erdoğan to exercise his influence and reduce tensions in the region.  At the same time, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov that there would be no ceasefire until Armenia withdrew from the occupied territories.  Militant declarations about “a final struggle which we will win…” emerged from Nagorno-Karabakh itself.  However, with further advances by the Azerbaijani armed forces the rhetoric on both sides softened raising hopes that a possible compromise might be found. (For further details see https://turan.az/ext/news/2020/10/free/analytics/ru/128420.htm).

On October 6, the Strasbourg Court on Human Rights issued its ruling on intermediate measures that called on all sides either directly or indirectly involved in the armed conflict (including Turkey) to refrain from actions that could harm the civilian population.  This was the Court’s second ruling.  The first, issued on September 29 – the day after an analogous complaint “Armenia vs Turkey” had been submitted – related only to Armenia and Azerbaijan and demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities.  Although according to Rule 39 of the Court every country that is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights must immediately abide by any verdict this did not happen. Recall also the four (!) resolutions of the UN Security Council from 1993, the 2008 Resolution of the UN General Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from 2005 that demanded an immediate withdrawal of Armenian armed forces from the occupied territories.  They too were ignored.  These and other examples reveal a dangerous tendency for disregard for the fundamental instruments of international law to go unpunished.

The inability of the OSCE Minsk Group to at least outline and bring closer any prospects for the return of Azerbaijan’s occupied territories created a great deal of disillusionment regarding this entity’s effectiveness and that of other international organizations.  There was heavy criticism from the presidents and other high level Turkish and Azerbaijani officials. Furthermore, in contrast to Russia which has remained neutral, French President Macron came out openly in support of Armenia while the US, preoccupied with domestic political issues, the COVID-19 pandemic, and racial unrest, has had little time or interest in Nagorno-Karabakh or other post-Soviet conflicts. (See https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/news-analysis/russia-silent-us-absent-as-france-fuels-clashes-between-azerbaijan-armenia).

Ukraine’s position regarding the current Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict began with a foreign ministry expression of “deep concern” that added to the chorus calling for an immediate halt to hostilities.  It did not mention any occupation.  But on September 30, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that: “One of the cornerstones of Ukrainian foreign policy is support for the territorial integrity of countries.  And we consistently supported the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan just as Azerbaijan supported our territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders.”  (https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/news-ukrainekarabakh-statement/30865918.html).

A similar statement was made by Yevhen Tsymbaliuk, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the international organizations in Vienna, during a special session of the Permanent Council of the OSCE regarding the escalation along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh (https://tyzhden.ua/News/248250). On October 2, President Zelenskiy observed that “in recent years Ukraine and Azerbaijan have developed close ties both in the economic and geopolitical spheres.  That’s why Ukraine stood and will stand in support of this country.” (https://www.president.gov.ua/news/zagostrennya-v-nagirnomu-karabasi-svidchit-sho-bud-yakij-zam-64237).  This Ukrainian position correlates logically with the dynamic development of bilateral relations with Turkey as witnessed by President Zelenskiy’s official visit to Ankara on October 16 and the signing of important documents on military-technical cooperation. This, in turn, has caused much consternation in Moscow. (https://www.ng.ru/armies/2020-10-18/2_7992_visit.html).

Nevertheless, the decisive factor of the second Armenian-Azerbaijani war remains Russia’s non-intervention.  Moscow remains a neutral intermediary, refraining from openly supporting either side in the conflict.  Despite hysterical calls by a number of Russian politicians and activists it is becoming increasingly clear that this time – in contrast to Georgia in 2008 – Moscow is avoiding direct military intervention.  During the current conflict Armenian prime minister Pashinyan has called Putin several times but has clearly received no signals about possible assistance.  Instead, he has had to resort to mobilizing Armenian veterans on a voluntary basis because their forced conscription is forbidden by law.

Several reasons have been offered for Russia’s restraint.  The most widespread one is that despite Pashinyan’s steadfast loyalty to Putin, the Russian president is no admirer of a democratic and ‘pro-western’ leader who came to power as a result of peaceful mass protests. Pashinyan’s removal in the event of a military defeat would make room for one of Putin’s loyal friends.  Secondly, Putin is trying to maintain much needed friendly ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Thirdly, Russia’s current economic and geopolitical situation simply doesn’t allow it to get involved in a fourth (after Ukraine, Syria and Libya) war; it is more convenient to adopt the role of impartial mediator thus maintaining equal leverage over both parties to the conflict.  Finally, co-chairing the Minsk Group is perhaps the only opportunity Putin has to find himself on the same level as the leaders of Europe and the US.  To that point, a short joint statement issued on October 1 declared that: “We, the Presidents of the Russian Federation, the President of the United States of America and the President of the French Republic, representing the countries that co-chair the OSCE Minsk Group strongly condemn the escalation of force along the line of contact in the zone of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.”  The presidents called for the sides in the armed conflict to immediately halt the fighting and for the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to unconditionally renew negotiations under the guidance of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group. (https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2020/10/01/statement-of-the-presidents-of-the-russian-federation-the-united-states-of-america-and-the-french-republic-on-nagorno-karabakh.en).

The temporary “humanitarian truce” agreed to in Moscow on the morning of October 10 and which should have come into effect at 12:00 of the same day can be viewed as a diplomatic success for Moscow.  Consultations between the foreign ministers of the two warring sides and mediated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lasted more than ten hours and ended with the signing of a short four-point document. The principal purpose of the truce, to be coordinated by the Red Cross, was to allow for an exchange of prisoners and the bodies of those killed.  The specific terms of the ceasefire were to have been agreed separately. The warring parties were to commence “substantive negotiations” under the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group on the basis of the basic regulatory principles (i. e, the 2007 Madrid Basic Principles) and both sides recognized the unalterable format of the negotiating process itself.

The final point is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Azerbaijan sees it as a diplomatic victory because it leaves unrealized the insistent Armenian demand that representatives of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic be included as fully authorized participants in the peace negotiations.  The Armenians are happy because maintaining the same format means that Turkey will not become a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, something Azerbaijan would like to see.  However, this truce lasted only for a few hours - as did a second one concluded on October 17.  As usual, each side blamed the other for the violations. But on the evening of October 18, in the second such incident during the “humanitarian truce,” a rocket attack was launched against Azerbaijan’s second largest city, Ganja, killing thirteen civilians and wounding 52.  Twenty civilian buildings were also destroyed. Baku characterized this as a terrorist act. The EU, the Secretary General of the UN and a number of world leaders condemned this unjustified attack on a peaceful community, especially outside of the conflict zone.

There is a growing impression that no Russian or Armenian politician doubts that in the event of a Turkish-supported Baku victory the Armenian population of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic will be subjected to displacement or even destruction along the lines of the 1915 genocide.  Surprisingly, even some well-known, nominally opposition Russian journalists, like Yulia Latynina, have taken to spreading these kinds of views, being convinced that what’s taking place is a “war of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam and that Azerbaijan and Turkey have commenced a jihad against Christian Armenia. (HTTPS://ECHO.MSK.RU/PROGRAMS/CODE/2718925-ECHO/).

However, the defenders of “Christian Armenia” ignore the extremely important point that somehow ridding the liberated occupied territories of ethnic Armenians is nowhere being considered as a possible scenario for re-integration.  On the contrary, the thinking is to create an autonomy with a demilitarized region together with a transition period and international guarantees against the use of force on the de-occupied lands to which internally displaced Azerbaijanis would return.  This kind of plan was proposed by Azerbaijani civil society activists back in the 1990s during and after the first Armenian-Azerbaijani war. (https://d9mc3ts4czbpr.cloudfront.net/ru/article/vybor-po-zhelaniyu-klienta/?ref=list-opinion).

Assurances on guaranteeing the security of Armenian citizens in Azerbaijan after the de-occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent regions have also been issued by official Baku, especially through the foreign ministry. (https://turan.az/ext/news/2020/10/free/politics%20news/ru/128318.htm). It is worth mentioning here that an approximately 100,000 strong Armenian minority exists quite peacefully in Turkey.  As a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has said: “We categorically condemn the Armenian attack against Azerbaijan.  But we will never allow certain groups to intimidate or persecute Armenian citizens of the Turkish Republic… [and] will never allow discrimination against any of its citizens.”  (https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/09/30/87309-turetskie-voyska-ne-budut-na-peredovoy). Despite these assurances, as of October 7 approximately half of the population, 70-75,000 people, had left the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, including 90% of women and children. (https://turan.az/ext/news/2020/10/free/politics%20news/ru/128401.htm).

In terms of lessons for Ukraine, the informational component of a conventional conflict that nonetheless contains elements of hybrid warfare is useful and instructive. Particularly unclear is the degree of fake news surrounding the alleged use by Turkey of mercenaries from the Middle East.  The Armenian version referencing Syrian Islamists was eagerly accepted by not only the Russian but also western media regardless of categorical denials by Turkey and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, in turn, alleges the presence of groups of Kurdish fighters from the terrorist Kurdish Workers’ Party on the Armenian side as well as ex-pat Armenians from different countries. This information is being spread by Turkish and pro-Turkish media. (See https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/azerbaijani-intel-intercepts-dialogue-of-pkk-terrorists-fighting-for-armenia/news).)  And, of course, the picture would not be complete without reference to “the actual participation of Ukraine in the Karabakh conflict,” including a detailed list of weapons that Ukraine delivered to Azerbaijan around 2010. (https://news.rambler.ru/army/44935564-v-voyne-v-karabahe-zametili-uchastie-ukrainy/?utm_source=head&utm_campaign=self_promo&utm_medium=news&utm_content=news&utm_term=clid_m).

The lessons of the Karabakh war reveal the deep crisis within the international relations system regarding the resolution of modern armed conflicts - especially when dealing with aggression aimed at the occupation of another independent country’s territory.  The twenty-eight years’ unsuccessful experience of trying to regulate the Karabakh conflict through the OSCE Minsk Group should be fully taken into consideration in any attempt to develop a strategy for the de-occupation and subsequent reintegration of Crimea and Donbas. This experience demonstrates how lengthy such processes can be without offering any clear prospects of a solution, i.e. the liberation of the temporarily occupied territories in question.  In addition, it highlights the illusory nature of the hopes for a breakthrough if some change to the format can be agreed to by, for example, enlarging the circle of powerful players.  Perhaps Azerbaijan’s probable victory in this war will simply provide sad evidence in support of the view that in the modern world resorting to power is respected not just in Russia…

As regards Ukraine’s overall position, it should be remembered that whenever there were votes on resolutions regarding Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Turkey always supported Ukraine while Armenia (together with Russia and Belarus) voted against.  This tendency is reflected in the new Ukrainian National Security Strategy (https://www.president.gov.ua/documents/3922020-35037/), where Azerbaijan and Turkey are both mentioned in a short list of strategic partners, something that clearly places certain responsibilities and obligations on Ukraine in its multi- and bilateral dealings.

Natalya Belitser

Natalya Belitser is Senior Expert at The Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy, Kyiv, a partner organization of the US-Ukraine Foundation