On August 3, 2022, Azerbaijan, in violation of the November 9, 2020 trilateral statement that ended the 2020 Artsakh War, once again launched an offensive in Artsakh in an area under the purview of Russian peacekeepers. Two Armenian soldiers were killed and 19 others sustained injuries of different degrees. In contrast to Armenia’s position of following an agenda of peace in the region, Azerbaijan continues its policy of terror, ethnic cleansing of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh and pursuing its creeping policy of occupation.
The November 9 tripartite statement has been formulated as a raw document––an accepted practice in international relations. On the one hand it allows the parties and mediators to stop military operations without having to come to a final resolution of the conflict. On the other, it leaves a wide space for the stakeholders to reconsider, formulate and advocate their interests for future peace processes. It is not by chance that the Armenian side and Western actors consistently underscore that the tripartite statement stopped further bloodshed and that other aspects of the conflict are yet to be clarified and negotiated. It is also not by chance that the Russian side sees the November 9 statement as the framework for all future processes for normalizing Armenia-Azerbaijan relations, since it mediated its signing, strengthening Russia’s position as a key player in the South Caucasus. It was expected that the signatories have opposing conceptions and interpretations of its provisions. When signing, each side already had an idea of how to spin, circumvent or reinforce provisions to their advantage and in their interests. Taking into account the magnitude of the Armenian side’s defeat, it is evident that Armenia and Artsakh entered these negotiations at a disadvantage.
Since the signing of the November 9 statement, announcements from Azerbaijan regarding Artsakh have aimed to dismiss the conflict’s existence and the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh as a distinct territory. To justify this position, Azerbaijan says it solved the conflict through war and restored its territorial integrity. Azerbaijan has even tried to justify the war as an initiative to implement the four UN Security Council resolutions adopted following the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. In essence, the Aliyev regime is unabashedly attempting to legitimize its launching of a war and attempting to resolve issues of international relations through force or the threat of force––something the international community has so far ignored while periodically sending reminders of the importance of peacefully resolving issues pertaining to the different aspects of the conflict. An example of this is U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s communique saying the United States is watching the situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh closely, urging “direct dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve issues related to, or resulting from, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
In turn, Armenia is consistently underscoring the necessity to resolve the conflict through the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairmanship, prioritizing issues regarding guarantees for the security of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, their rights and freedoms, and for a final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, in the past Armenia based the guarantees for the security and the rights of the population of Artsakh on its status. Now, he argues, the security guarantees and rights are what should condition the status: “In other words, we register that the status in the given situation is not the end but the means to guarantee the security and the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.” This stance had its reasoning, negative and positive implications, discussed in this article.
Since the end of the war, as per the third provision of the November 9 statement, the Russian peacekeeping mission deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh along the Line of Contact and the Lachin Corridor, is the key factor in ensuring the security of the population of Artsakh. It was, however, evident early on that Azerbaijan, by not signing the Russian peacekeeping mandate, had the intention of creating maneuvering opportunities and adjusting future developments to its own desired scenario. This scenario, other than aggressive actions aimed at depopulating post-war Artsakh from its Armenian population, also entails discrediting the Russian peacekeeping mission. The latter is increasingly becoming a more important task for the Aliyev regime considering the growing discontent within the Azerbaijani public regarding the presence of the Russian peacekeepers. Thus, discrediting the peacekeeping mission solves an internal problem for the Aliyev regime. It is important to note that the August 1-3, 2022 Azerbaijani attacks are by no means the first. They are simply the most recent since the signing of the November 9 statement and follow the post-war Azerbaijani takeover of Parukh Village on March 24, 2022, the Khdzabert and Hin Tagher incursion on December 11, 2020 and the capture of the Armenian soldiers there. All these incidents took place in areas under the jurisdiction of the Russian peacekeeping forces, in their presence and with their consent.
Azerbaijan’s desired scenario does not merely serve domestic ends. It also aims to secure dividends from the tense relations between Russia and the West because of the Ukraine crisis. In this context, the expansion of the Baku-Brussels energy partnership is among the most important alongside other events. Taking into consideration the importance the EU attaches to the diversification of its energy supply and easing its dependence on Russian energy, the significance of the Southern Gas Corridor for Brussels has increased. As a result, Azerbaijan plans to increase the supply of gas to Europe through the Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic gas pipelines to 9.1 billion cubic meters by the end of this year, and to 11 billion cubic meters by 2023.
Before the recent aggression of the Azerbaijani side in areas the Russian peacekeepers are responsible for, Armenia cautiously but definitively expressed its position regarding the effectiveness of the peacekeeping troops. On March 31, 2022, Prime Minister Pashinyan announced that the Azerbaijani invasion of Parukh village, in fact, took place as a result of a violation of agreements. Through the mediation of the Russian peacekeeping force, the parties reached an agreement on each removing a number of positions from the Khramort-Parukh section with the Russian peacekeeping force managing the operation. As a result, Armenian positions were withdrawn and Russian peacekeepers were deployed to that area, but before their eyes, Azerbaijanis invaded the area. Until today, the Armenian side has continuously expressed hope at diplomatic levels that the Russian contingent will ensure the withdrawal of the Azerbaijani military from that area and also expresses its expectation that the “actions or inactions” of the peacekeepers be investigated. The Armenian side has officially raised the issue and its expectations regarding a solution during CSTO, EAEU multilateral and Armenian-Russian high-level bilateral meetings.
In the meantime, there is an impression that the Azerbaijani aggression of August 3 has changed the rhetoric of official Yerevan; something which is both concerning and encouraging. On August 4, Prime Minister Pashinyan, listing the Azerbaijani provocations that have taken place in the area of responsibility of the peacekeepers, announced that “it becomes extremely necessary to adjust the details of the peacekeeping operation in Nagorno-Karabakh.” Moreover, according to Pashinyan, Armenia’s and Russia’s undersigning of the peacekeeping mission is sufficient to fully implement their mandate. If not, then it is necessary to establish that mandate internationally, or to endow the peacekeepers with a broader international mandate. Translated from the diplomatic language, this statement means that the lack of clarity regarding the peacekeepers’ operation is being weaponized by Azerbaijan to advance its agenda and put additional pressure on Armenia and Russia and, in turn, is being used by Russia as an argument to circumvent the shortcomings of the peacekeeping mission.
Official Moscow’s response to Pashinyan’s announcement was quite remarkable: Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary of Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed the baseline nature of the tripartite document of November 9, 2020, while underscoring that the close contacts between Armenia and Russia at different levels “will allow to clarify these issues.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in turn, announced that ”Moscow has not yet seen the proposals of the Prime Minister of Armenia regarding clarifying the details of the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh.” If we also add to these statements the reaction of Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the concerns of the Armenian side regarding the need to increase the effectiveness of the activities of the Russian peacekeeping troops and possible future issues, that were relayed to the top leadership of Russia in February 2021, then it is obvious that more space is opening up for Armenia for diplomatic maneuvering.
If we follow the recent emphasis being made by the Armenian side regarding the provisions of the November 9 statement, then we can also clearly see Azerbaijan’s manipulation of those provisions, its motivations, intended strategy and attempts to legitimize its every military aggression against Artsakh. In particular, while the tripartite statement identifies the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan rejects it, grossly violating the very statement it signed. While the same statement indicates the presence of the Line of Contact, Baku de facto denies its existence through its claiming of territory beyond it. Moreover, the existence of the Lachin Corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia is established in the agreement, where, Russian peacekeepers are stationed, Azerbaijan is again muddying the waters. According to point 6 of the tripartite declaration and with the agreement of the parties, the construction for a new road through the Lachin Corridor connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh should be ascertained by November 9, 2023, with a redeployment of Russian peacekeepers to guard that road. Violating this provision of the joint statement, Azerbaijan forced the Armenian parties to prematurely replace the current route of the Lachin Corridor with a new route through its military aggression of August 3. The construction of the road by the Azerbaijani side has been completed, while the Armenian part is not yet finished. As a result, in fact, a number of sections of the existing corridor will be handed over to Azerbaijani control, and it is not clear how, when, and under what conditions the Russian peacekeeping contingent will be redeployed on the new route. In other words, in a few weeks time, the new route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia will be launched through the Lachin Corridor without it ever having been jointly clarified or planned.
Not only does the only current road connecting Artsakh to Armenia pass through Lachin, but also gas, electricity, internet and communication cables for Artsakh residents leaving vital infrastructure for the lives of Artsakh Armenians hanging in the air. Azerbaijan’s haste is evident, as is its opportunity to set up check-points on the new road, and subsequently the ability to take Artsakh under complete control, jeopardizing the Armenian population of Artsakh’s right to life, and to make the Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem dream of the so-called “Zangezur” corridor come true.
At the same time, the Artsakh Defense Army and the Russian peacekeeping contingent are the only, if considerable, obstacle to realizing this scenario. Therefore, the Aliyev regime is, on the one hand, constantly reminding the world of the temporary nature of the Russian peacekeeping presence and on the other trying to distort the fourth point of the tripartite statement by hinting at the dissolution of the Artsakh Defense Army. However, the more persistent the cases of military aggression toward Artsakh become, the more crucial the role of the Artsakh Defense Army is as the defender of the physical safety of the Artsakh Armenians.
The last piece of the Azerbaijani strategic puzzle is the so-called “Zangezur” corridor. The ninth point of the trilateral statement reads, “All economic and transport links in the region shall be unblocked. The Republic of Armenia guarantees the safety of transport links between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic with a view to organizing the unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles and goods in both directions. Control over transport communication is exercised by the Border Guard Service bodies of the FSS of Russia.” It is quite obvious that the implementation of this contentious article of the statement would need strong resolve, time and agility, which have become even more difficult due to Azerbaijan’s maximalist policies. It would suffice to quote what Ilham Aliyev said last December during a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: “So today, there are no customs on the Lachin corridor. Therefore there should be no customs on the Zangezur corridor. If Armenia would insist on using the custom facilities to control the cargoes and people, then we will insist on the same on the Lachin corridor. This is logical. The decision needs to be made by Armenia. We’re ready for both options. Either no customs on both, or customs on the two.”
In essence, Azerbaijan’s haste to substitute the current Lachin Corridor with the new route is a multi-tiered combination designed to have a hybrid and at the same time concurrent effect: In parallel with controlling the road linking Artsakh to Armenia, the Artsakh Defense Army is dissolved, and as a result, the Armenian population of Artsakh is forced out. Moreover, the strategy of positioning the Lachin Corridor and the so-called “Zangezur” corridor on equal footing comes true with all its devastating consequences for Armenia’s statehood. And if Azerbaijan is successful in its intentions, the Russian peacekeeping mission in Artsakh may smoothly come to an end, and go down in history as the peacekeeping operation without a mandate and another failed mission.
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