On September 19, Azerbaijan announced the start of a military operation in the separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, classifying the actions as “anti-terrorism measures”. The bombings in the Armenian-majority region left more than 200 people dead and represented the breaking of a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, mediated by Russia, still in 2020.
The risk of a new large-scale war involving the two countries ended up resulting in a truce agreement less than 24 hours after the attacks began. In practice, it was a capitulation of the Nagorno-Karabakh forces. The enclave has the presence of Russian peacekeepers and is part of an intricate game of geopolitical interests in the Caucasus. And, despite the truce, it poses an enormous humanitarian risk for the civilian population of Karabakh, which is now controlled by Azerbaijan.
Last Friday (22), armed units from the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh began handing over weapons and military equipment as part of the truce agreement. The information was reported by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
“In compliance with the agreements reached, the armed formations of Karabakh began the delivery of weapons under the control of Russian peacekeepers,” the ministry said.
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According to the Ministry of Defense, six units of armored vehicles, more than 800 units of light and anti-tank weapons, as well as around five thousand ammunition have already been delivered. In addition, Russia reported that Russian peacekeepers will deliver more than 50 tons of humanitarian supplies to the civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, including through the Lachin corridor, which was blocked for 10 months.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region is an Armenian-majority separatist enclave within the territory of Azerbaijan. Independence has been claimed since 1994, but is not recognized internationally. The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region led the countries to two wars: one between 1991 and 1994, and another in 2020. In both conflicts, the ceasefire was mediated by Russia, which maintains peacekeeping troops in the separatist enclave which, in turn, has around 120 thousand Armenians living in the region.
The military operation launched by Azerbaijan last Tuesday rekindled the possibility of a new major war in the Caucasus, considering that the Azerbaijani government made it clear that only the “total and unconditional” surrender of the Armenian military presence in the separatist region would put an end to the military operation.
“The only way to achieve peace and stability in the region is the unconditional and complete withdrawal of the Armenian Armed Forces from the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and the dissolution of the so-called (Armenian) regime,” the country’s Defense Ministry declared.
Armenia, in turn, denied that it had troops operating in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Arabakh. At the same time, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is the target of criticism and intense protests in the capital of Yerevan. Since the Azerbaijani military operation broke out, protesters have taken to the streets throughout the week and accused Pashinyan of not supporting the Armenian population during Azerbaijan’s offensive.
There was an agreement to end the military offensive, but Armenia and Azerbaijan did not sign an actual peace agreement. The ceasefire is far from representing a stable scenario, considering that there has been no agreement regarding the future of the local Armenian population.
In a statement last Thursday (21), Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that, according to the government’s assessment, “there is no direct threat to the civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.” The statement contradicts the speech of Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, who, during a UN Security Council meeting, stated that “Azerbaijan’s intention is to complete the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh”.
The situation of the Armenian population in the separatist region had already been critical over the last nine months amid an escalation of tension between Baku and Yerevan. In December 2022, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, leaving the enclave’s population isolated. At the same time, Baku interrupted the supply of gas, food and medicine to Karabakh, which has been seen as a violation of the 2020 ceasefire agreement, as well as a way of forcing an exodus of the Armenian population from the region.
At the time, Armenian diplomats urged Russia to intervene with its peacekeeping troops and guarantee the 2020 agreement, which provides that the Lachin corridor must be under the control of Russian forces.
In an interview with Brasil de Fato, Russian political scientist and writer Stanislav Byshok states that the question that arises now does not concern the legal status of the territory, but about the “cultural rights of Armenians who are in the region”.
“This is a question of respect for the national specificity of the region, so to speak, it is not a question of the legal status of the region. This question is probably much more complicated than the military victory that happened quickly, efficiently and with a capitulation ( of Nagorno-Karabakh) in one day”, he states.
According to him, with the control exercised by Azerbaijan over the separatist territory, the fate of the local population “depends solely on the goodwill of Baku”.
“If local Armenians recognized Baku’s jurisdiction over their territory, in return, Azerbaijan might agree to grant them a certain ‘cultural autonomy,’ he said.
The expectation is that, given this scenario, the current situation could lead to a mass evacuation of the Armenian population from the Nagorno-Karabkh region. The deputy director of the Institute of History and Politics at Moscow State Pedagogical University, Vladimir Shapovalov, is more emphatic and states that the exodus of the local population is inevitable.
“Everything indicates that there will be an exodus of a significant part of the Armenian population from Azerbaijan, and people living in Karabakh must go to different destinations, Armenia, Russia, or even other countries such as the USA, France, but the main destinations must be Armenia and Russia”, said the analyst to Brasil de Fato.
According to him, “the position that Azerbaijan has taken in recent years does not fit into the canons of a democratic and legal resolution of the situation, does not fit into the canons of traditional relations of equal rights between peoples.”
“I believe that Azerbaijan will not allow certain divisions, including from the cultural and national point of view of Karabakh. Therefore, a significant portion of the population will probably leave Nagorno-Karabakh”, he adds.
Azerbaijan’s onslaught against the Armenian-majority enclave is associated with a lack of concrete support from the international community for Armenia and Baku’s intricate position in the international arena, which has the war in Ukraine as a backdrop.
Azerbaijan has geopolitical benefits from Ukraine war
With the war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan was able to enjoy strategic gains linked to the dynamics of Western sanctions against Russia. With the cut in imports of Russian oil and gas by Western countries, Azerbaijan, which is rich in fossil fuels, became an alternative to the USA and the European Union, leveraging the purchase of oil and gas from the Caucasus country . At the same time, Azerbaijan became an alternative for Russian exports of energy resources, reselling surplus domestic gas and oil consumption to the West.
This cyclical dynamic of the commercialization of energy resources guaranteed Azerbaijan an economic and politically privileged status amid the crisis between Russia and Western powers.
On the other hand, Russia, Armenia’s traditional ally, currently has an unstable relationship with the country’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who has demonstrated closeness to the US, and hinted at the possibility of holding joint military exercises with Washington.
Therefore, Moscow has a great interest in maintaining its influence in the Caucasus, but involvement in the war in Ukraine prevents the Kremlin from intervening more emphatically in the conflict.
For political scientist Vladimir Shapovalov, this is a key goal for Russia: that the South Caucasus is not a US sphere of influence. According to him, for Russia, in the current situation, “the military presence in Armenia is an important guarantee of stability in the region”.
Russia’s interests in maintaining its presence and influence in the region, however, are limited by being fully focused on the Ukrainian war front. When speaking out about the conflict, Moscow called for an end to hostilities, but classified the crisis as an internal matter for Azerbaijan and celebrated the resolution of the Baku military operation.
Thus, the inaction of the international community, in particular, Armenia and Russia, in defending Nagorno-Karabakh’s claims creates a scenario of Azerbaijan’s dominance in the region. Military and legal control is consolidated with the latest developments. The ethnic conflict in the enclave is nebulous and unpromising from a humanitarian point of view.
Editing: Patrícia de Matos