Three years after the 2020 Artsakh War, which led to a trilateral ceasefire agreement between the leaders of Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan, Aliyev celebrated the culmination of his aggressive and hate-oriented policy against Artsakh Armenians in occupied Stepanakert. The city had become a ghost town after the forceful displacement of more than 100,000 Armenians following the September 19 attack.
Dictator Aliyev effectively shattered all illusions that the Armenian government and international partners had regarding the rights and security of Artsakh Armenians. Deliberate and well-planned actions against the indigenous population ultimately achieved the desired outcome, forcing the Armenians to abandon their homes and lives in Artsakh.
“Our victorious Armed Forces, who gifted us this day, showed courage, heroism and selflessness on the battlefield, expelling the enemy from our ancestral lands. This is a historic event. There has not been such a victory in the centuries-long history of the Azerbaijani people. Twenty years ago, when I started my work as President, I told my dear people that we should be ready to liberate our lands by means of war,” stated Aliyev during his speech from occupied Stepanakert.
In doing so, while consistently portraying Armenians as “enemies”, he also acknowledges that he simulated a decades-long negotiation process, ultimately preparing the country for war. This is not the first time Aliyev has proclaimed war to be his life mission; however, his main aim is to normalize the use of force and the policy of aggression.
“So many times, we have been told that there was no military solution to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. I was saying that if this issue is not resolved peacefully, we will be left with no other option,” Aliyev stated in Stepanakert, conveniently overlooking the fact that he himself rejected potential peaceful settlements, such as at the 2011 Kazan summit, and instead chose to pursue a war that he had been methodically preparing for.
Since Aliyev fully embraced his aggression in 2020, he felt comfortable continuing the policy of using force and other tools of pressure, with the culmination point for Artsakh occurring on September 19, 2023. Understanding when and how Azerbaijan’s leadership is opting for another war is crucial.
The reality is that prior to the attack that resulted in the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians of Artsakh, state-sponsored Azerbaijani media had been discussing a military operation against the Republic. This discussion intensified after the establishment of an illegal checkpoint in the Lachin corridor. For instance, in July, Azerbaijan’s state Az TV aired a news segment with the headline “Azerbaijan might go for Revenge-3 operation in Karabakh.” Similar headlines and news reports appeared frequently in Azerbaijani media.
It is worth noting that throughout the ten months of the Artsakh blockade, Azerbaijan received numerous calls from international actors, especially from Western partners, to end the siege including the decision of the International Court of Justice that called for the unblocking of the Lachin corridor. However, Aliyev disregarded all those calls and proceeded with his perilous intentions, as he never perceived any danger or consequences for himself or for Azerbaijan when ignoring international obligations. Aliyev consistently tests international reactions before taking action. The blockade, establishment of an illegal checkpoint, the kidnapping of Vagif Khachatryan from the ICRC, and many other actions were aimed at gauging reactions and possible responses from the outside world. Even if the rhetoric condemning this behavior appeared to be harsh, there was no real action, essentially emboldening Aliyev to commence military aggression.
What Went Wrong and Why?
Azerbaijan launched the attack on September 19, following months of propaganda, implicit threats and campaigns of disinformation. Why did they choose that date?
Interestingly, in an October 4 article, Politico published information referring to its diplomatic sources, that on September 17, the EU, Russia, and the U.S. held secret talks in Istanbul days before the Nagorno-Karabakh blitz. According to the source, “the meeting focused on ‘how to get the bloody trucks moving’ and ensure the supplies of food and fuel could reach its estimated 100,000 residents.”
This information was never denied, raising several questions. First, why did they choose to meet in Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan and a party to the conflict? Second, if these sides, despite their contradictions, decided to join forces to provide aid to Nagorno-Karabakh, how could Azerbaijan risk initiating a military attack? It seems unlikely that Azerbaijan would go against Russia, the European Union, and the United States.
The way events in Nagorno-Karabakh were handled may leave the impression that there was international consensus allowing Azerbaijan to “resolve the issue” within 24 hours. But before jumping to conclusions, let’s examine the actions of each side or mediator—the U.S., the EU and Russia—prior to September 19.
Ineffective Calls by the United States
It’s important to remember that five days before the attack on September 19, Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Yuri Kim, during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, stated, “the United States will not countenance any action or effort—short-term or long-term—to ethnically cleanse or commit other atrocities against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. The current humanitarian situation is not acceptable. Humanitarian access through the Lachin corridor and other routes must be made available now. We have also made it abundantly clear that the use of force is not acceptable. We give this committee our assurance that these principles will continue to guide our efforts in this region.” Baku completely ignored this statement.
On September 19, a phone call took place between Aliyev and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. According to the press release from the State Department, Blinken emphasized that the parties must resume dialogue to resolve the differences between Baku and ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, stating that there is no military solution to the conflict.
However, the events that unfolded after that tragic day completely contradicted what the international community and the U.S. had been urging Aliyev to do. Despite the ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, the U.S. did not issue strong enough statements or take meaningful action. On September 25, while Armenians were being forcefully displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh, President Biden’s envoy Samantha Power arrived in Armenia to express American support for Armenia’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and democracy, and to address humanitarian needs stemming from the violence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Power was accompanied by Yuri Kim.
During her visit near the border town of Kornidzor in the Syunik region, where forcibly displaced Armenians were arriving, Power was asked whether she agreed with warnings that the exodus reflected “ethnic cleansing”. Power, a former genocide scholar, refused to use the term.
The U.S. administration remained silent about the political aspects of the events in Nagorno-Karabakh, primarily focusing on the humanitarian aspect. However, during an October 2 press briefing, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller reiterated their call for an independent international monitoring mission. The mission would provide transparency and reassurance to the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, particularly for ethnic Armenians who wish to return. “Azerbaijan has made those assurances. We think there ought to be an international monitoring mission there to observe and guarantee them,” he stated. Up to this point, Azerbaijan has demonstrated no tangible indications of its willingness to engage in discussions regarding the establishment of an international monitoring mission, thereby denying displaced Armenians a genuine chance of return.
The impression is that the words and actions of U.S. officials were either not honest enough or strong enough, leading Aliyev to believe that the risk of another aggression against Artsakh Armenians was worth taking.
Weak reactions from the U.S. emboldened Baku to change its wording and challenge diplomatic ethics in response to Washington’s statement about the territorial integrity of Armenia. On November 2, in response to an inquiry from the Voice of America’s Armenian service, the State Department emphasized that “any violation of Armenia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity will have serious consequences.” This was received with great discomfort by Baku. In their response, they blamed the U.S. for the war in Artsakh, stating, “It was the mediation efforts involving the United States failing to yield results and the failure to prevent Armenia’s aggressive policy that led Azerbaijan to liberate its lands militarily. Therefore, among other facts, the United States also bears responsibility for its inaction to resolve the former conflict peacefully.”
Through this statement, Baku is attempting, on the one hand, to change the narrative about the negotiation process and downplaying the fact that its intention was obviously a military scenario and on the other hand, it is openly expressing territorial claims toward the Republic of Armenia. Baku is even going so far as to threaten the U.S., saying, “Any unfriendly action against Azerbaijan would not yield positive results, and such actions would be adequately addressed.”
The State Department did not publicly respond to this statement, leaving room for the possibility that signals were conveyed through negotiation channels. However, Azerbaijan ignored all calls and the entire negotiation process mediated by American partners. The rights and security of Artsakh Armenians were violated through military aggression and forced displacement. Despite this, there have been no consequences for Aliyev’s regime so far. If the U.S. hopes that this approach will bring Aliyev back to the negotiation table and persuade him to sign a “peace treaty,” they are mistaken. The inaction and irresponsibility towards their own statements serve as a signal to Aliyev that he can push further and expect more.
The EU’s Unjustified Hopes
On the eve of Azerbaijan’s attack on Artsakh, President of the European Parliament Charles Michel posted on his Twitter page stating, “Humanitarian supplies are finally underway to Karabakh Armenians. Welcome the simultaneous passage of humanitarian cargo via Lachin and Agdam.” He went on to say that this must now be regularized, while noting that it is essential to launch talks between Baku and the Armenians of Artsakh on their rights and security, “which the EU stands ready to support.” He was clearly expressing support for Russia’s action of opening the Aghdam road and calling for further de-escalation.
On the following day, September 19, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said that Azerbaijan had broken its promise not to resort to military action in Nagorno-Karabakh. She urged Baku to stop shelling and return to the negotiating table.
According to Baerbock, Azerbaijan had made a promise, and once again, Baku faced no real consequences for that attack and the ethnic cleansing. Similar to the U.S., EU officials made weak statements referring to the tragic events in Artsakh as ethnic cleansing. However, on October 5, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution on the “situation in Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan’s attack and the continuing threats against Armenia.” It expressed solidarity with the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh who were forced to flee their homes and ancestral lands and described the situation as amounting to ethnic cleansing. This resolution unfortunately does not reflect the official approach of the EU.
The first EU official who visited Armenia after the tragedy on October 3 was Catherine Colonna, Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs of France. During the press conference with Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan, she said, “What happened is an obvious violation of international law. I want to repeat that because I have heard many times from Russia and Azerbaijan that this was a voluntary departure. No, this was not voluntary; it was forced. No departures were voluntary; they were choices made under threat and the use of force.” This was the strongest statement from an EU member state, avoiding the use of the term “ethnic cleansing”.
After committing ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan refused to attend the meeting in Granada. Armenia went alone, where President of the European Council Charles Michel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and French President Emmanuel Macron met with Pashinyan. The Armenian side unilaterally restated its commitment “to all efforts directed towards the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, based on mutual recognition of sovereignty, inviolability of borders, and territorial integrity of Armenia (29,800 sq.km) and Azerbaijan (86,600 sq.km), as mentioned in President Michel’s statements of May 14 and July 15, 2023.”
When Aliyev received a call from Charles Michel after the meeting, he highlighted that eight Azerbaijani villages, including seven in the Gazakh district and one in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, remain under Armenian occupation. He emphasized the importance of liberating these areas. According to Azerbaijan’s logic, all the reached agreements work unilaterally, benefiting only Azerbaijan.
When Armenia made the significant mistake of recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan with no proper guarantees, Aliyev took advantage of the situation. He ignored all obligations regarding the rights and security of Artsakh Armenians, refused to engage in dialogue with Artsakh officials within international mechanisms, and deliberately carried out ethnic cleansing. Now, with his mission in Nagorno-Karabakh fully accomplished, Azerbaijan wants more and tries to portray the recognition as working unilaterally.
For instance, from May 2021, Aliyev has been referring to Armenia as “Western Azerbaijan” and demanding that Armenia hand over eight villages without any obligation to return the village of Artsvashen or other territories within the 29,800 sq.km occupied by Azerbaijan in 1992.
Not surprisingly, Azerbaijan also rejected a planned meeting in Brussels with Armenia’s leader, which was scheduled for the end of October. According to Ararat Mirzoyan, the meeting did not take place due to Aliyev’s schedule. Prior to that, voices from Aliyev’s camp, such as Member of Parliament Rasim Musabekov, criticized the EU’s role, specifically the meeting in Granada. Musabekov stated, “As for the peace treaty with Armenia, I think Azerbaijan doesn’t have a strong need to hasten the signing of the peace treaty with the mediation of the EU or Moscow…” This indicates that Azerbaijan has no interest in signing any agreement, as they believe that the issue can be resolved through force and that agreements reached through EU mediation can be used unilaterally. The EU will be limited to statements and making calls. This policy of inaction leads to no peace, no treaty, and new threats in the South Caucasus.
Russia’s Unhidden Help
It is evident that the majority of responsibility falls on the shoulders of Moscow and Putin personally. Putin acted as mediator and ensured the implementation of the November 9 trilateral statement. Russian peacekeepers were deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh, and their presence played a crucial role in the return of Artsakh Armenians after the devastating 2020 war. However, Russia did not fulfill its obligations, and instead of taking responsibility, they largely blamed Pashinyan and the West, attempting to find an excuse for themselves.
A week prior to the military attack, on September 12, Vladimir Putin, in his speech at the Eighth Eastern Economic Forum, stated, “The Armenian leadership, in fact, recognized the sovereignty of Azerbaijan over Karabakh […] and Azerbaijan says you should solve all the issues on Karabakh on a bilateral basis[…] the mandate of Russian peacekeepers[…] exists, and the issue of the humanitarian character and not allowing ethnic cleansing didn’t disappear. I hope the Azerbaijani leadership, as they told us, is not interested in ethnic cleansing; on the contrary, they are interested in the process taking place smoothly…” Though Putin hasn’t specified which process he was implying, he basically restated that the mandate of Russian peacekeepers obliged them to prevent ethnic cleansing, which they failed.
It is worth remembering that on the eve of the September 19 attack, Russia was actively pushing for the opening of the Aghdam road in an effort to de-escalate the situation. This step was welcomed both by the EU and the U.S.
The first and the last Russian truck with humanitarian aid from Russia’s Red Cross crossed Azerbaijani territory and reached Nagorno-Karabakh through the Aghdam-Stepanakert road on September 12. Nagorno-Karabakh authorities granted permission for Russian aid to be delivered directly from Baku-controlled territory using the Agdam road. In reciprocation, Azerbaijani authorities agreed to allow concurrent aid deliveries to Nagorno-Karabakh through the Lachin corridor. A statement made by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirms this. On September 12, after the Russian truck reached Stepanakert, Azerbaijani MFA spokesperson Aykhan Hajizade said, “We declare once again that Azerbaijan, in parallel with the utilization of the Aghdam-Khankendi road, is ready to ensure necessary conditions for the transportation of goods through the ICRC, with customs and border procedures at the Lachin border checkpoint being observed.” However, despite all the promises by the Azerbaijani side, the Lachin corridor was not opened until September 24, the day Artsakh Armenians were forced to leave en masse from their homeland.
Throughout the process of the Armenian’s ethnic cleansing, Russia did not make appropriate or adequate statements. Moreover, even after Azerbaijani forces killed Russian peacekeeping personnel, Moscow decided to downplay the issue. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova later stated, “Russian peacekeepers who died in Karabakh fell for the sake of peace.” Azerbaijan acknowledged the “mistaken” killing of the peacekeepers a day after their death.
However, in comparison with the negative attitude towards the U.S. and the EU, and the rejection of their frameworks for peace negotiations, Azerbaijan had no choice but to pay the price to Moscow for its inaction and, in reality, for its help. If Putin was linking the presence of the peacekeepers with preventing Armenians’ ethnic cleansing, they remained after the entire Armenian population was forcibly displaced. The terms of their continued presence were presumably discussed between Aliyev and Putin in Bishkek on October 12.
A day prior to that bilateral meeting, Aliyev met with participants of the 53rd meeting of CIS Council of Heads of Security Agencies and Special Services in Baku. In his speech, he praised Russian mediation efforts, stating, “We regard the mediation of the Russian Federation with gratitude because Russia is our neighbor and ally, as well as Armenia’s ally. This country is located in our region, unlike those who are thousands of kilometers away.” Aliyev criticized Pashinyan for not attending the meeting in Bishkek and instead going to Granada: “The Armenian prime minister flies six hours to Granada and participates in an incomprehensible meeting, where Azerbaijan is discussed without actually being present, but he cannot fly for two to three hours to Bishkek. He has other important things to do. This is what we all have to say openly.” It is evident that Azerbaijan prefers Russia’s mediation over the frameworks proposed by the EU.
Not surprisingly, it was only after the meeting with Putin that Aliyev first arrived in occupied Stepanakert on October 15. This signaled that Russia and Azerbaijan had agreed on the new status quo, which involved no Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, and it did not prompt the Russians to leave the region.
The International Puzzle
After successfully implementing the policy of ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, despite the inadequate reactions from the United States and the EU, and with significant assistance from Russia, the leadership of Azerbaijan now feels comfortable to disregard Western partners and their calls for further negotiations. Baku recognizes that Moscow cannot be treated with the same level of disregard as Washington and Brussels, which is why they are sensitive to Russia’s involvement and are giving it a prominent role in mediation, something the Armenian side is avoiding for obvious reasons.
First of all, the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh who took no actions to prevent the tragedy has significantly affected the attitude of both the Armenian leadership and the public. This negative impact sheds light on the effectiveness of further negotiations within the Russian format. Second, the agreements regarding territorial integrity were reached with the mediation of the EU and the U.S., implying that it is now Azerbaijan’s turn to give something in return after Armenia’s “lowered benchmark” in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, leading to inadequate and dangerous concessions. However, the mistakes made by Yerevan and the shortcomings in Stepanakert are separate topics that warrant further discussion.
Until now, the impression is that on the eve of September 19, Aliyev was advised against resorting to military actions and ethnic cleansing. However, he carried out his egregious military operations that resulted in hundreds of deaths and more than 100,000 displaced, forcing Armenians to abandon their homes and history, which spans over millennium.
All indications suggest that there was a silent and undisclosed international consensus regarding Baku’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh. If this was not the case, reactions would vary, and real consequences would ensue. It is crucial to determine whether Armenia’s partners in the EU and the U.S. have drawn any lessons from these tragic events or if they will continue to appease the dictator with mere calls and expressions of concern without substantive action. Maintaining the same policy may pave the way for future aggression, potentially in the Tavush and Ararat regions of Armenia, where so-called “enclaves” are located. These areas are strategically important for Armenia as they connect the country with its neighbors, Georgia and Iran.
Azerbaijan, in line with its policy, is already preparing the groundwork for a potential act of aggression. Recently, Azerbaijani state TV aired a program that clearly contains a threat of aggression: “We liberated Karabakh in the 44-day war, we cleared it from Armenian terrorism in about 24 hours. Consider the time difference, Pashinyan… one or two hours of Azerbaijan is enough to liberate eight villages. Think well…” Azerbaijan is not concealing its aggressive intentions, and rather than relying solely on Aliyev’s promises to the international community, the only way to prevent this scenario from materializing is to take prompt action.
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