[On 19 September 2023 Azerbaijan’s military launched a military offensive against the Armenian-ruled enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and rapidly overwhelmed its defenses, bringing decades of self-rule to a sudden end. Mouin Rabbani, Editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Hrair Balian, former Director of the Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program, to learn more about the background, context, and implications of these developments.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): The latest crisis regarding Nagorno-Karabakh erupted almost a year ago. What were its main features?
Hrair Balian (HB): Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), also known as Artsakh to Armenians, is an Armenian-majority enclave within Azerbaijan with an estimated population of 120,000. On 12 December 2022 it was placed under siege when the five-kilometer-long Lachin Corridor, the only road connecting Armenia to NK, was blocked by Azerbaijani forces.
Over the course of the past nine months the siege resulted in severe shortages in NK of essential goods like food, medicine, electricity, and fuel. The Russian peacekeeping forces, deployed in the enclave since the conclusion of the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh War with a mandate to ensure, among other tasks, the free movement of goods and people through the Lachin Corridor, were unable and unwilling to end the blockade. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued two interim decisions, in February and July 2023, ordering Azerbaijan to reopen the corridor. The international community, including the United States (US), the European Union (EU) and member states, as well as many others, repeatedly urged Azerbaijan to lift the blockade. Yet, Azerbaijan simply ignored the ICJ rulings and international appeals. Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), characterized the siege as genocide by starvation.
The siege was the prelude to an all-out Azerbaijani assault against NK on 19 September, comprising massive attacks from all sides and the heavy bombardment of cities and villages, including civilian targets. During the preceding weeks Azerbaijan had received large-scale military assistance from Turkey and Israel, repeating the pattern during the weeks preceding Azerbaijan’s launching of the 2020 war. The meager NK self-defense forces were quickly overwhelmed and capitulated within 24 hours.
Since 21 September, “negotiations” have been underway in Yevlakh, an Azerbaijani town north of NK, between Armenian representatives of NK and Azerbaijan officials, without a third-party presence or mediation. The talks, convened to discuss the disarming and terms of surrender of NK’s Armenian forces, cannot possibly yield anything resembling a peace agreement given the asymmetrical relationship between the forces involved. The majority of the Armenian population of NK are already preparing to leave the enclave and take refuge in Armenia if and when the Lachin Corridor is reopened. In addition to their desperate conditions and fear of reprisals and mass atrocities, NK’s Armenians have little faith in either Azerbaijani protestations that they will be integrated as equal citizens, or in the Russian peacekeepers.
Against the ferocity of the Azerbaijani onslaught, the international community’s repeated expressions of concern come across as totally hollow. Its responsibility to protect a threatened population remains merely aspirational. Moreover, Azerbaijan’s nine-month siege of NK and the war unleashed on 19 September completely undermine and in fact make a mockery of the United Nations Charter’s prohibition of the use or threat of force in the resolution of disputes.
MR: In recent months the European Union, Russia, and more recently the United States conducted diplomatic initiatives to prevent a new war in the South Caucasus. What were the main elements of these proposals?
HB: In the past year, the US and EU in a coordinated effort, and Russia separately, have been mediating peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. More than a dozen summits and foreign minister-level talks have taken place. The next Armenian-Azerbaijani summit is scheduled for 5 October in Granada, Spain. Significantly, the NK local leadership has been excluded from these talks.
At one such summit in October 2022, the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, acknowledged the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and conceded that NK is part of Azerbaijan so long as the NK Armenians’ “rights and security” can be assured under Azerbaijani sovereignty. While the recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is a positive step provided the border between the two countries is delineated, Pashinyan’s recognition that NK is part of Azerbaijan was a gratuitous concession offered without the consent of or consultation with the NK authorities. Prior to this turn of events, the resolution of NK’s status, for example as an autonomous or self-governing territory within Azerbaijan, had been left open for negotiation.
Following Pashinyan’s above statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that, “if Armenia accepts that NK belongs to Azerbaijan, why should Russia advocate that NK is independent?” Putin then urged NK’s integration within Azerbaijan. The EU and US mediators were already seeking a compromise outcome for NK, urging its reintegration within Azerbaijan, but with guaranties for the rights and security of its Armenian population.
With the status of NK thus resolved and removed from the negotiation agenda, the Western and Russian mediators could turn to the issues of border delineation between Armenia and Azerbaijan; the latter’s occupation of some 150 square kilometers of territory within the Republic of Armenia during further Azerbaijani advances in 2021-2022; and communication linkages, including the Lachin Corridor and a passage through Armenian territory between Azerbaijan and its Nakhichevan exclave.
While optimists among the US and EU mediators expected a peace agreement to be concluded between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the end of this year, the latest Azerbaijani assault on NK and the likely ethnic cleansing of NK Armenians has scuppered any such rosy forecasts.
MR: How do you assess Russia’s role with respect to Azerbaijan’s decision to launch its attack on Nagorno-Karabakh and the role of the Russian military contingent there? Was Moscow too distracted by the war in Ukraine to prevent the Azerbaijani offensive, or did it tacitly endorse Baku’s offensive in the context of Russia’s efforts to cultivate relations with Turkey and growing tensions between Moscow and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan? Did Azerbaijan additionally calculate that neither the EU nor US would oppose its actions with more than verbal statements because of its growing role as an alternative source of oil and gas?
HB: Since February 2022, Russia has indeed been preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, and the bandwidth available for its geopolitical interests in the South Caucasus has narrowed considerably. Sensing this, Azerbaijan has been testing Russia’s possible response to violations of the 9 November 2020 ceasefire agreement that ended the 44-day Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. The blockade of the Lachin Corridor was one such test. Repeated attacks on positions around NK as well as incursions into the Republic of Armenia testing their defenses came next. Eventually, the absence of a response from the Russian peacekeeping forces encouraged Azerbaijan to pursue the large-scale assault against NK that started on 19 September.
The developing Azerbaijani-Russian and Turkish-Russian transactional relationships undoubtedly also influenced the permissive Russian reaction to the Lachin Corridor blockade, to the repeated border violations against NK and Armenia, and to the current comprehensive assault on NK.
Since Pashinyan’s 2018 election as PM following a “color revolution” in Armenia, Putin has been distrustful of Pashinyan and the government he heads. Pashinyan’s subsequent actions have been interpreted in Moscow as anti-Russian. These include unprecedented NATO joint military exercises in Armenia with the participation of a small US military contingent; the visit to Kyiv of Pashinyan’s spouse; and steps by Armenia to ratify the ICC Statutes – all during September of this year. These initiatives no doubt influenced Russia’s position of neutrality if not endorsement with respect to the Azerbaijani attack against NK.
Finally, given growing Western dependence on Azerbaijani goodwill to increase gas supplies to Europe following the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions imposed on Russia in 2022, US and EU mediators have not exactly been impartial third parties in the NK conflict. Most importantly, they have favored the Azerbaijani interpretation of territorial integrity and self-determination without taking into account the evolution of those rights during the past fifty years in the cases of Kosovo, East Timor, South Sudan and other cases favoring remedial self-determination when the fundamental rights of a segment of the population in a country is breached.
MR: What do we know about the situation on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh? What are Azerbaijan’s objectives, and do you think President Ilham Aliyev feels emboldened to pursue aims beyond this contested region?
HB: Within 24 hours after Azerbaijan launched its full-scale assault on NK, the enclave’s Armenian self-defense forces capitulated and sued for a cessation of hostilities in an attempt to spare the civilian population. By then, the Azerbaijani forces had already divided the enclave into isolated parts and approached the suburbs of Stepanakert, NK’s main city.
Thousands of refugees had escaped to Stepanakert and the nearby regional airport seeking protection. As of this writing they remain without food or shelter. Thousands of others were isolated in remote district villages and we have little or no news about their conditions. Hundreds had been killed and an unspecified number injured. Hospitals were overwhelmed with little or no medical supplies to care for the wounded. The civilian population is in a state of panic, fearing for their lives once Azerbaijani forces overwhelmed the enclave completely. On Sep 23 information started to emerge pointing to massacres of Armenian civilians, mass graves being dug, and thousands missing. While such reports remain unconfirmed, immediate access to these areas to investigate and prevent atrocities is an urgent priority.
The Armenian authorities of NK agreed to meet in Yevlakh, just north of NK, on 21 September with representatives of Azerbaijan to discuss the terms of their capitulation. Azerbaijan demanded: (1) the complete disarmament and surrender of the NK self-defense forces; (2) the surrender of some 1,000 former and current leaders of the NK Armenians, both military and civilian, for criminal prosecution; and (3) the reintegration of the NK Armenians in Azerbaijan as citizens of that country. The Armenian side demanded guarantees for the security of the population integrated in Azerbaijan. Other terms and conditions under discussion were not made public at the time of this writing. The first day of the talks in Yevlakh were inconclusive. According to informed sources, the Armenians of NK were given three days to disarm and surrender.
By 22 September, thousands of NK Armenian women, children and elderly who had taken refuge in Stepanakert and the nearby airport under the protection of Russian peacekeeping forces were out of food and had no shelter, demanding to be allowed to leave for Armenia. In a charm offensive, Azerbaijan was promising food and other humanitarian assistance, with the ICRC allowed to bring into NK a single convoy with 70 tons of essential supplies. Azerbaijan was also trying to convince Armenian civilians that they had nothing to fear if they had not committed crimes against Azerbaijan.
MR: How do you assess the role of the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government in this crisis? Does the criticism of his performance and the resulting protests present a threat to his tenure?
HB: Pashinyan not only conceded that NK is part of Azerbaijan, he also cut Armenia’s budget allocation to the NK authorities in September of this year. Pashinyan basically abandoned NK, leaving the enclave without a champion for the population’s rights and security. By turning away from Moscow and naively relying on the West to fill the void, he ended up with empty promises. To make matters worse, when NK came under Azerbaijani attack, he basically announced that the war unleashed on NK was a matter between Azerbaijan and NK that did not directly concern Armenia and its government, thus forfeiting Armenia’s responsibility to protect the Armenian population of NK.
Moreover, for the entire past year, Pashinyan has been trying to reorient Armenia’s international posture to the West, naively hoping to earn the US and EU mediators’ support in the ongoing negotiations with Azerbaijan. Yet, at the end Pashinyan had nothing to show for his concessions beyond toothless expressions of concern and sympathy. The US and EU mediators continued to support the Azerbaijani position in the conflict under the veneer of protecting its territorial integrity. Pashinyan’s non-response to the Azerbaijani aggression against NK may also serve to whet Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s appetite to turn his arsenal against Armenia and demand parts of the country in the south, which he calls “western Azerbaijan”.
Pashinyan’s leadership of Armenia’s international relations in the past year has been nothing short of incompetent, uninformed, and counterproductive. He has also refused to hear advice from competent experts in his own government. Regrettably, the opposition has failed to advance a viable alternative to his failed governance.
With the Azerbaijani forces threatening Armenian civilian centers in NK, the “negotiations” between Azerbaijan and NK authorities still inconclusive, ethnic cleansing imminent in NK, a refugee crisis threatening to overwhelm Armenia, angry crowds threatening the political stability of Armenia, and an international community seemingly indifferent, the full consequences of the Armenian government’s incompetence and the NK catastrophe are yet to unfold.