The (Unlikely) Last War in Karabakh of 2020: Empires Return

The (Unlikely) Last War in Karabakh of 2020: Empires Return

What led to the Second Karabakh War, how was it different from the previous ones, and what to expect next. Regional Post’s expert Tigran Zakaryan tries to explain. 

Text : Tigran Zakaryan    Photo : Areg Balayan


The war that didn’t end war

Just a few months after humanity plunged into the devastating World War 1, in October of 1914 the renowned British novelist Herbert George Wells published a book representing a series of articles printed in the first weeks of the war in London newspapers. The title of the book that argued that bringing imperial Germany to its knees would ensure global peace and stability immediately went viral and it read as follows: “The War That Will End War”.

The course of history showed that this was a naïve concept, yet ensuring a long-term peace through inflicting a crushing military defeat to the enemy remains a valid theory in political practice today.

The situation in the aftermath of the First Karabakh war and the ceasefire in 1994 looked very much similar to that of the aftermath of World War 1. Most part of the Armenian society, in Armenia proper, in Nagorno-Karabakh as well as in the Diaspora, with few notable exceptions, considered the war effectively over, arguing that Azerbaijan would not dare to launch an attack against Armenians for the fear of further territorial losses.

An Armenian soldier during clashes with the Azerbaijani army
 

Azerbaijan indeed looked for the ceasefire as a much needed respite in order to bring into order its own economy, which looked promising thanks to its rich hydrocarbon deposits in the Caspian shelf.

In the first years immediately following the ceasefire in both Armenia and Azerbaijan influential politicians and social figures were urging to reach a final peace which would also curb Russian growing influence in the region and stimulate economic development. While then Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan failed to find supporters of his peace plan (which, as he argued, was better to be signed sooner, as Armenia militarily still held the upper hand, than later, when this superiority could be undermined) and had to resign in 1998, Azerbaijani leadership, especially under Ilham Aliyev (since 2003) became increasingly aggressive and intransigent with an aim of using the profits from the oil and gas sale on the procurement of modern arms and military equipment. Actually Baku made no secret of its military buildup.

Azerbaijan’s efforts were concentrating at keeping the issue topical both for the local and international public through a combination of different steps. For the internal public it was picked up the strategy of rewriting and re-editing of historical facts coupled with an aggressive propaganda of racial hatred against Armenians as a part and parcel of the Azerbaijani identity in the making. On international stages Baku used every opportunity, including bribing foreign officials or public figures, to promote its own story of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. On the other hand provoking small-scale skirmishes along the contact line in Karabakh and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border served this purpose as well.

Armenia, with rampant corruption and promised extensive investment projects by the Diaspora and other interested parties failing, had much difficulty especially after the 2008 crisis to keep up militarily with Azerbaijan. In terms of foreign policy the Georgian crisis of 2008 had also an important lesson to teach to Armenia: leaving the Russian sphere of interests is not safe, especially when you are a small nation.

Under those conditions the political leadership of Armenia and Artsakh which was reluctant of changing anything radically in the state, society and economy, that could undermine their own rule, had to rely on external forces, manly Russia, negotiating with it from increasingly weakened positions.

Meanwhile Kremlin’s growing ambitions in the region did not permit the empire, a peacemaker by its own definition, to play on one field alone. Growing Russian-Azerbaijani military, economic and political partnership, so irritating to Yerevan (which however, apparently lacked any leverage to influence them), came to be detrimental to Armenian positions in the Karabakh issue. This came to a point when Russia, started to use Armenian interests as its bargaining chip in its talks with Azerbaijan.

In the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk group co-chairs (represented by Russia, USA and France), Armenia was being pressured to cede some territory, the so-called security zone around the former NKAO in exchange for vague promises. Yerevan initially was inclined for some kind of a tradeoff – in exchange for the recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh sovereignty – such a scenario became increasingly impossible in view of Baku’s growing assertiveness (even more bolstered after launching the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in 2006) as well as Armenian political and social discourse which strongly discouraged any discussion on possible territorial concessions.

Sign with the name of the fallen Armenian soldier

 

Armenia could only hope that international players – Russia first of all – would disagree to a change in the status quo in Karabakh and in case of an attempted military invasion by Azerbaijan, a steadfast frontline defense that could thwart Baku’s plans of a quick victory would be enough for winning time for the external players to react and intervene.

This seemed to have worked more or less accurately in 2016, during the so-called Four-Day War that did not bring any substantial success to Azerbaijan in military terms and ended with a Russian diplomatic intervention. However, as many argue, albeit it clearly was the greatest military action in Karabakh following the 1994 armistice, it was not a full-fledged war, but a major show of force and a serious and last warning.

 

Cannons talk, diplomacy fails

In the early hours of 27 September 2020 full-fledged hostilities erupted along the whole contact line in Artsakh. It became immediately clear that this time it was a real war with an unprecedented scope in terms of equipment, hardware and the military potential involved.

The events in the war unfolded at a lightning speed. From the first day of the war the Artsakh officials stated that peaceful settlements, including Stepanakert had been shelled. There were casualties among peaceful population. 
Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh immediately announced on the state of war and mobilization, while Azerbaijan next day declared a partial mobilization.

Football pitch in Stepanakert bombed

 

This war was unusual in many aspects. First of all, it was Turkey’s unprecedented involvement in the war and could only be compared to the Turkish-Armenian war of 1920. Ankara’s open involvement in all stages of the war, starting from planning, logistical organization, commanding units (and some even say that the overall command of the operation), sending jihadist mercenaries from Syria and other areas up to direct participation of the Turkish military in certain operations and the crucial air support could indeed be considered as a game-changer in this war.

Turkish involvement was not missed upon some international players, such as France, Russia or the USA, Iran who on different levels and through different diplomatic language criticized Ankara particularly over the involvement of the Syrian mercenaries. 
This war also underlined the importance of controlling information flows during a war. Azerbaijan immediately shut down most of social media on its territory while this was not the case of in Armenia, which failed to establish firm control over the information security of its society.

A graffiti of Armenian-Artsakh united map

 

Another side of the information war was the “hunt for journalists” in the war zone by Azerbaijan. On 1 October two journalists from the French Le Monde magazine were injured in shelling of the Martuni town of Artsakh, while on 8 October while visiting the St. Savior’s Cathedral in Shushi two Russian journalists and their Armenian guide were wounded in a missile attack on the church. Many international journalists later stated that Azerbaijani UAVs were shadowing and in some cases deliberately targeting them and this seems no exaggeration in view of Baku’s attempt of imposing an information blackout on news that could undermine its positions.

Throughout the war the international community repeatedly attempted to mediate at least a brief humanitarian ceasefire in order to collect the dead and injured and that objective seemingly was reached several times. However all of them – mediated by the Russian (10 October), French (18 October) and US (26 October) diplomats and top officials invariably failed to be implemented.

Russian flag in wthe Dadivank monastery after the ceasefire

 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet at the beginning of the hostilities expressed alarm over the suffering of civilians and just a few days before the end of the war warned against possible war crimes, urging to refrain from targeting civilians, without making specific reference to either side.

 

A 21st century war

Not only local but also international military experts were both puzzled and alarmed at the implications of the war in this seemingly secondary region of the world. The extensive use of UAVs, modern technologies, which at times turned the war into sheer carnage, exposing the vulnerability of the armor and conventional air defense systems makes many to believe that this war was a precursor of a new generation of wars.

There was little that even resolute or well-trained troops with high morale could do when they were practically exposed defenselessly to precise air attacks inflicted or guided by UAVs and superior air force.

“Welcome”

 

Nevertheless the Armenian and Artsakh troops fought hard, against heavy odds succeeding in defending the frontline in the east and north but not the crucially important lowlands of the Arax valley.

In the initial several days, after heavy fighting the Armenian and Artsakh troops were forced back from their first line of defense in the southeast and northern section of the frontline. In the meantime they inflicted significant losses on Azerbaijani armored formations with anti-tank guided missiles and artillery, destroying dozens of vehicles.

However Azerbaijan’s heavy use of drones in strikes against Armenian air defenses, gradually gave them air superiority, which proved to become critical.

In the second week of the war while Yerevan announced on “partial retreat” as Baku claimed having success in the southwest in the directions of Cabrayil and Fizuli, which according to Azerbaijani sources were taken on 9 and 19 October respectively.

Azerbaijani troops quickly advanced along the Arax river, taking control over the Khodafarin bridge and the nearby dam and the authorities announced that since 22 October of the border area with Iran was fully secured.

Taking control over more mountainous area to the north was harder for the Azerbaijani troops and their offensives towards the cities of Shushi and Lachin from south and southeast were halted with different levels of success.

In the last days of October the Artsakh authorities stated that the Azerbaijani units were just a few kilometers away from Shushi, but fighting continued in the forests and mountains to the south and southeast of it.

The first days of November, as Artsakh’s southern city of Hadrut was lost the Armenian troops were engaged in heavy fighting along the Goris-Lachin-Shushi-Martuni line, with ultimately losing control over Shushi.

 

Yet another Pax Russica?

The war came to somewhat abrupt and to many an unexpected end with an agreement signed on 9 November by the Russian, Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. It was clear that the text of the agreement was drawn by Russia and was pre-negotiated with Turkey, which throughout the war showed its potential to subvert any peace initiative in the region that did not take into account its own interest.

The so far shaky peace has came at a high cost – Azerbaijani control over the city of Shushi, the very symbol of the Armenian victory in the first Karabakh war, as well as other territories in the south, and evacuation of the Kelbajar, Lachin and Aghdam territories, which were still under the Artsakh control by the time the agreement was signed. Around 40,000 people from Artsakh are now displaced from their homes, while the Armenian presence there is seriously compromised.

Russian peacekeepers are the only force that holds back Azerbaijan from launching another war, while Moscow hopes to eternalize its presence in Karabakh, as an important tool of maintaining its influence over Baku.

Burnt shop in Stepanakert

 

Time will show as to what part of the imperial ambitions of the two regional powers – Russia and Turkey – will come true, yet even now there are voices of discontent in Azerbaijan claiming that the war brought about a loss of Azerbaijan’s own independence to Turkey and to some degree to Russia.

It is beyond doubt that regional and global empires will continue playing on the differences of minor nations, in this case Armenia and Azerbaijan, in order to establish their versions of peace and the only real alternative for those who want to keep their independence is to establish their own, real peace, based on the notions of good neighborhood, respect of the rights and freedoms of each nation and individual.

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