After Azerbaijan’s salvo launch, Baku defeated Armenian proxy fighters – the Artsakh Defence Army – in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, who it believed should have been disarmed and disbanded in compliance with the November 10 tripartite agreement. Since 2020, progress on the Russia-brokered deal has been slow, raising the risk of large-scale hostilities.
On September 9, the Armenia-aligned Parliament of the “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” held a new so-called presidential election and chose Samvel Shakhramanyan as its new leader. Though the move was not recognized by international organizations or regional states, it fuelled Baku’s rage. In subsequent weeks, it accused the Artsakh Defence Army of laying mines on freshly constructed roads, “interfering” with the electronic systems of planes flying over Azerbaijan and killing and injuring Azerbaijani soldiers and policemen in sabotage attacks.
Azerbaijan’s “counterterrorism” operation started on September 19 with the mission to establish full sovereignty over its UN-recognized territory. In less than 24 hours, Azeri troops captured strategic heights, blockaded the routes for armed supplies and attained the enemy’s surrender. The Kremlin’s peacekeeping troops looked on while the Azeri campaign was too swift for Yerevan or Tehran to make good on their rhetoric.
Seeing Armenia’s hope of Russian involvement vanishing quickly into thin air, Karabakh’s Christian residents hurried to leave their abodes before the Azeri soldiers even showed up. Three decades ago in 1992, Armenia oversaw the mass evacuation of Azeris from the same territory after it militarily took over large swaths of land. Condemning Armenia’s annexation, UNSC Resolution 884 of 1993 recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as an Azerbaijani territory. At the time, the invading forces ransacked cities such as Shusha, Zangelan and Fuuli with miniscule to no media coverage. In 2020, Azerbaijan gave Armenia its comeuppance by liberating its captured territories as well as Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow intervened in Yerevan’s favor and negotiated a ceasefire before Baku’s troops could run over Stepanakert or Khankendi, the largest city and capital of the “Republic of Artsakh.” Azerbaijan was exercising its inherent right to self-defence as stipulated in Article 51 of the UN Charter, and the September 19 counter-terrorism operation was no different.
Nevertheless, the lightning operation achieved its objective within hours, the mass exodus of Karabakh Armenians is creating a global spectacle. Despite Baku’s assurances of reintegrating the Nagorno-Karabakh region, fear is holding Karabakh Armenians hostage as a sizeable number of them are settlers alongside others who have lived there for generations. Despite the deep-rooted animosity, a sizeable number of Armenians still live in Azeri cities, mostly due to intermarriages. The scare of ethnic cleansing is partly due to Armenian collective memory and also a last-ditch effort by Armenian politicians to attract global sympathy.
While promising protection of life and property, Azerbaijan is not blocking the exodus. Open-source intelligence does not hint at summary executions of Karabakh Armenians or attacks on civilian properties. So far, three officials of the Armenia-backed regime have been arrested and transferred to Baku, owing to their earlier actions against Azerbaijan. Azeri State Security Service announced the arrest of former separatist leaders Vitaly Balasanyan and Arayik Harutunyan. Ruben Vardanyan, a businessman and former regional minister who is sanctioned by Ukraine, is another prominent Artsakh leader in Azeri custody. Azerbaijan seeks to try those Karabakh Armenians who have been involved in committing atrocities against its people.
Though there are no legal and political arguments in favor of the status-quo ante, the visuals of migrating Karabakh Armenians on social and mainstream media are creating an impression of a human rights issue as well as a humanitarian crisis. France’s foreign minister criticized Azerbaijan while Germany is demanding an EU observer mission to monitor the situation. The failure of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States, led Azerbaijan to use the military option decisively in September 2020. Interestingly, Iran and France’s ambassadors held a rare meeting in Yerevan on September 22 to discuss Azerbaijan’s military operation. Tehran is nervous about the prospect of losing a 32-kilometer border with Armenia in the wake of Azerbaijan’s capture of Syunik city and establishing the Zangezur corridor to Nakhchivan; this exclave also borders Turkey. Iran sees Azerbaijan as a base for Israeli activities while France has belatedly opted to secure Armenia’s Christian population and restrict Turkey’s rising influence. Seemingly, it is too late for France and Iran, two key allies of Armenia, to impact the ground realities.
Yerevan’s cozying up to Washington and even the holding of joint military drills seem to have further angered Moscow. In January, Armenia refused to host the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s wargames. The decision backfired, resulting in Russian peacekeepers’ passive role during the September 19 operation.
Turkey cemented its multi-dimensional relations with Azerbaijan by signing the Shusha Declaration in June 2021. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Azerbaijan’s autonomous exclave on September 25 to sign a protocol on the Kars-Nakhichevan railway project and inaugurate a military complex with his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev. Later, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey spoke over the phone.
The possible advent of about 100,000 Karabakh Armenians will have political and economic implications for the Armenian government. However, it is unlikely to create a political crisis in the country, which was more probable after the defeat in the 44-day war. The migrants’ return to Karabakh will be a matter of negotiation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, requiring European and US mediation.
Azerbaijani gas can ease political pressure off European politicians’ shoulders in light of Russian energy supplies being barred to the European continent due to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Besides, Baku is Europe’s friendliest and nearest capital on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Armenia is Christian and democratic, unlike Azerbaijan. It remains to be seen as to how Russia’s consent to the September 19 operation impacts Azeri policy. Moscow exercises little leverage over Baku which has been pursuing a pro-Western foreign policy for two decades now.
If Armenia takes a pragmatic route by normalizing relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, it has much to gain. The Zangezur corridor is Yerevan’s trump card in Caucasus geopolitics which would make Iran even less relevant. For now, it is anybody’s guess.