On March 2, 2022, in its historic “Uniting for Peace” session, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution reaffirming Ukrainian sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.
It demanded that the Russian Federation immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine and “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” A total of 91 countries sponsored the resolution, 141 countries voted in favor, 35 countries abstained, a number of countries did not take part in the vote and 5 voted against. Azerbaijan, which had signed a declaration on raising its cooperation with Russia to the level of an alliance only one day before the start of the war in Ukraine, did not take part in the vote. Armenia was one of the countries that abstained, most likely generating both resentment from its traditional ally Russia and dissatisfaction from the Western countries strongly supporting Ukraine.
The current war in Ukraine and the reaction of the international community to it is perceived with mixed feelings in Armenia for a range of complex reasons. It has equally complex implications on Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh (in Armenian – Artsakh). Despite controversial and even polarized perceptions, there are a few shared beliefs being confirmed in Armenia:
- various conflicts receive international attention based on double standards,
- muted consequences against Azerbaijan for the 2020 Artsakh War normalized war as an alternative to resolving disputes through negotiations,
- geopolitical interests prevail over the normative framework of human rights and the values of democracy, which is leading to the collapse of the international order.
Disregarding UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ March 2020 call for a global ceasefire in light of COVID-19 and the subsequent UN resolution adopted in June, Azerbaijan launched long-planned and large-scale military operations, i.e. a war, against Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) on September 27, 2020, in a few instances extending them to the border regions of the Republic of Armenia. It was an obvious violation of Article 33 of the UN Charter on Peaceful Settlement of Disputes. Azerbaijan adopted a policy of trying to justify the war as a legitimate action to restore its territorial integrity, presenting the content of the UN Security Council Resolutions 822 (April 30, 1993), 853 (June 29, 1993), 874 (October 14, 1993), and 884 (November 12, 1993) on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in a distorted manipulative manner, and blaming a lack of progress in negotiations based on the principles agreed under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group.
According to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, as of February 9, 2022, the number of military personnel and civilians who died during the 44-day war, counted 3,812 people, including 3,736 military personnel and 76 civilians. The whereabouts of 217 people remain unknown, out of which 196 are military personnel, and 21 are civilians. During the war, most of the civilian population was evacuated to Armenia to prevent greater civilian casualties. However, most of the military servicemen were 18-20-year-old conscript soldiers and not professional servicemen, which means a significant loss of a whole generation of a small nation.
The war was accompanied with various violations of international humanitarian, customary and human rights law. Azerbaijan applied constant shelling of residential areas and civilian infrastructure with cluster munitions and bombs, ballistic missiles and rocket launchers in the capital Stepanakert, as well as other towns and villages, such as Shushi, Martakert, Martuni, and Hadrut, targeting kindergartens, schools, monasteries and churches, and medical facilities, including a maternity hospital. Women, children and the elderly huddled in basements as makeshift bomb shelters. There is evidence that civilians, military servicemen and prisoners of war (PoWs) were subjected to mutilation and decapitation. An unknown number of PoWs and civilian captives remain in captivity to this day, and are used as a bargaining chip by Azerbaijan to seek concessions from Armenia. Some of them are undergoing prosecution, some of them were tortured and killed in captivity, including civilians and even women civilians. Many of those crimes were committed on the basis of ethnic hatred and racial discrimination. Those crimes have been investigated both by international and national human rights organizations, and the Human Rights Ombudsman of Armenia. Some of them have been reflected in Armenia’s claim to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in relation to Azerbaijan’s violations of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
Azerbaijan captured not only the surrounding territories of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) that were the subject of negotiations, but also parts of the NKAO itself—the city of Shushi and region of Hadrut. While Shushi had historically been a multi-ethnic city, Hadrut had been exclusively Armenian throughout its history. Now, no Armenian can even visit either of them. While all civilians had been evacuated from Shushi, those who tried to return to collect their belongings from their houses after the tripartite cease-fire statement were captured as dissidents or even labeled terrorists. There is evidence of the torture, mutilation and killing of elderly civilians that stayed behind in their homes in Hadrut. There is explicit evidence of the campaign of harm to Armenian monasteries and churches, using cultural appropriation and historical distortion to reject their Armenian origin.
Moreover, Azerbaijan started refuting the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh as a region, as well as the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and started using offensive language toward the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and blocking their role in the resolution of the conflict, in spite of their statements that the conflict is not resolved.
The population of Artsakh is 140,000, that of Armenia 2.9 million, while the population of Azerbaijan is 10 million. Armenia was a security guarantor of Artsakh, with a responsibility to protect its people due to their common ethnicity, the small size of its population and territory, and the vulnerability of Artsakh given the history of the conflict and its unresolved nature and a lack of an international peacekeeping mission there.
There was overwhelming evidence of both political and direct military support to Azerbaijan by Turkey, which has the second-largest army in NATO, including thousands of jihadist mercenaries recruited and transported by Turkey from Syria and Libya, the use of Turkish Bayraktar UAVs, and the presence of Turkish military instructors and pilots in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan also used Israeli drones, Belarussian and Russian ballistic missiles, cluster munitions and other heavy artillery, many prohibited by international humanitarian and customary law since they indiscriminately target civilian populations and infrastructure, and cause human suffering. Azerbaijan also used white phosphorus on the forests of Nagorno Karabakh, in which both civilians and military were sheltering at the end of the war, thus harming both people and the environment. There was an unconfirmed and possibly false report that the white phosphorus was supplied by Ukraine, the fifth biggest supplier of armaments to Azerbaijan after Russia, Israel, Belarus and Turkey.
Armenians were exercising their right to self-defense, fulfilling their responsibility to protect, and preventing the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh’s Armenians in their native land against a military aggression. The history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has had disturbing episodes of ethnic cleansing, including but not limited to massacres of Armenians by Azerbaijanis in Shushi in 1920, in Sumgait in 1988, and Baku in 1990. Artsakh has been historically Armenian but was forcibly incorporated into Azerbaijan as an autonomous region upon Stalin’s decision upon the creation of the Soviet Union. It had declared independence from the Soviet Union upon its dissolution in 1991, in line with the Soviet Constitution. In response, Azerbaijan started the First Nagorno-Karabakh War that lasted until 1994, with heavy casualties on both sides. It ended with a Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement in 1994, but the negotiations under the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by Russia, the U.S. and France had not been able to broker a final peace agreement.
The officials of Armenia and Artsakh have traditionally underlined the right of Artsakh’s Armenians to self-determination and the existential threat that Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh would face under Azerbaijani control. They were actively using the terms remedial secession and remedial recognition during the 2020 Artsakh War, especially until October 19, the reported date when the negotiations mediated by Russia to stop the war at that point failed. Armenian thinking was in line with the Responsibility to Protect approach, endorsed as a global political commitment by UN member states at the 2005 World Summit and further reflected in the 2009 UN Security Council Resolution 1894 on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict.
At the same time, the international community largely recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. The contradiction of the principles of territorial integrity and self-determination reflected in the UN Charter and the OSCE Helsinki Final Act has been one of the most difficult dilemmas in international law, mostly resulting in deadlock in favor of territorial integrity. Self-determination through granting independence was mainly applied in the case of decolonization, as well as the independence of the former Soviet Republics and most of the entities within the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. At the same time, it was not applied for other entities in the same Soviet Union and Balkan region, leading to long-lasting and severe armed conflicts involving attempts at ethnic cleansing and abuse toward civilian populations targeting certain ethnic groups.
There were cases where the notion of remedial secession were applied, such as Kosovo, Timor-Leste and South Sudan. By its nature, “remedial secession” is not a realpolitik interest-based notion, but a liberal value-based notion, justifying secession of the given entity, as well as intervention on the part of the international community toward that end, from the point of view of international human rights and humanitarian law. However, its application has often been based not only on the extent of human rights violations in those entities, but largely on geopolitical factors and double standards.
While the movements to secede were assessed as justified and were supported in Timor-Leste, Kosovo and South Sudan based on severe human rights violations, the conflicts in Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were stigmatized as unjustified separatism supported by Russia. As for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it was at times placed in the same basket; however, there was some understanding that it was different from the other conflicts.
During 27 years of negotiations, neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan seemed interested in the resolution of the conflict. Armenia was mostly trying to maintain the status quo and Azerbaijan was preparing for a new war. Azerbaijan started operating oil and gas pipelines in 2005, became an energy supplier to Europe, and started investing a significant portion of hydrocarbon profits in its military industry to change the military balance in the region in its favor. Azerbaijan’s arms imports in the period 2011–2020 is estimated by SIPRI to be 8.2 times higher than that of Armenia. Azerbaijan was also conducting an aggressive campaign of false narratives about the nature of the conflict, accompanied with institutionalized bribery in the form of the “Azerbaijani Laundromat,” and “caviar diplomacy”. Armenia largely failed to develop multi-vector foreign policy and promote favorable diplomatic narratives on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
When the second large-scale Nagorno-Karabakh war started in 2020, Armenians expected support from the international community. Many Armenians, especially liberal, progressive and educated professionals, expected the international community to apply measures that it is now applying with respect to the war in Ukraine: to adopt resolutions at the UN, OSCE and other intergovernmental organizations, condemn Azerbaijan, impose sanctions for starting the war, and for committing war crimes.
However, the international community was largely indifferent to what was happening in Nagorno-Karabakh. The predominant reaction of international organizations, such as the UN, EU, OSCE, NATO, CSTO, and individual member countries, was to urge both sides to refrain from the use of force. They mostly maintained this balanced language, which reflected their policy of parity throughout the conflict. There was not even acknowledgement that it was Azerbaijan that had started the war, and the Armenian side was defending the civilian Armenian population on their native land.
President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has publicly admitted on multiple occasions after the war that it had initiated the war to “resolve the conflict.” He has continued to do so through public speeches and interviews. It is hard to imagine that the intelligence services of major powers were not aware which side began the hostilities. The U.S. embassy in Baku had even issued a travel warning days before the attack began.
The UN Security Council convened two sessions to address the ongoing armed conflict during the 2020 Artsakh War—on October 8 and 19, 2020. The UN Security Council did not adopt a resolution or President’s Statement but only published press releases about the meetings. The Armenian expert community has been trying to understand which countries blocked the consensus for adopting an official document in the UN Security Council. According to various reports, the names of the United Kingdom, China, and non-aligned movement countries have come up, but none of those assumptions have been confirmed.
Armenians with a pro-Russian orientation expected Russia or the CSTO to stop the military aggression by Azerbaijan based on their commitments to Armenia, in line with respectively bilateral and collective defense treaties. However, they did not intervene based on the argument that the military aggression was not taking place on the territory of the Republic of Armenia. Until now, there are controversial assumptions in Armenia about why Russia, which was considered a traditional ally of Armenia, could not prevent the war but was able to stop it only after 44 days.
Given the chasm between Armenia’s commitment to democratic values and the hereditary authoritarianism of Azerbaijan, Armenians with a pro-Western orientation expected support from the European Union, Council of Europe, OSCE, the U.S. and other actors who profess the values of human rights and democracy. In April-May 2018, Armenia underwent a Velvet Revolution and declared an agenda of democratic reform, and Artsakh conducted democratic elections in March 2020. Armenians with a pro-Western orientation were expecting NATO to contain the military support by its ally Turkey to Azerbaijan during the war, including the recruitment of mercenaries. However, the EU, OSCE, Council of Europe and NATO all urged “both sides” to stop fighting, without defining which party was the aggressor and which party was on the defensive side. As for the countries in the European Neighborhood, Ukraine was supportive of Azerbaijan, and Georgia banned the transfer of military assistance to Armenia through its territory during the war.
The collective position of the Western countries was largely based on their geopolitical interests, based on a policy of parity between oil- and gas-rich but autocratic Azerbaijan over much more democratic Armenia. This approach was highly criticized by the conservative political forces and groups in Armenia, feeding their conspiracy theories about the negative correlation between democracy and national security. It also caused frustration about the lack of support from Western partners among the progressive and liberal civil society in Armenia.
After three failed ceasefire attempts mediated by the U.S., France and Russia over a month and a half of war, the fighting finally stopped with the tripartite statement on ending hostilities mediated by the Russian Federation that was vastly unfavorable for Armenia. It legitimized the war for Azerbaijan and defined new concessions from Armenia in the immediate or near future that were not anticipated in any options discussed throughout 27 years of conflict negotiations. Not only did it not ensure sustainable solutions for the security concerns and human rights of Artsakh’s Armenians, but deteriorated their situation and escalated existential threats they are facing. They have stated that they don’t imagine themselves under Azerbaijani control. They don’t see themselves without a status and guarantees by a peacekeeping force.
In the post-war reality, the Russian peacekeeping force has become the only provider of security for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Unlike similar conflict zones where the lives of the civilian population are under threat, such as Kosovo, Timor-Leste and South Sudan, the ceasefire was not accompanied with the establishment of an international or regional peacekeeping force with the responsibility to protect. Based on the tripartite statement of November 10, 2020, a unilateral Russian peacekeeping force without an international legal mandate was established in Artsakh, with a duration of five years with the possibility of extension.
The active phase of armed hostilities has stopped, although violations of the ceasefire and new losses for the Armenian side followed in 2021. Aliyev has been threatening that, if Armenia attempts to restore its defense capabilities or doesn’t agree to never-ending unilateral concessions expanding beyond Nagorno-Karabakh, it would launch another war. It has launched several military offensives, as well as creeping annexation in the territory of the Republic of Armenia, under the justification of the lack of delimitation and demarcation between the two countries, resulting in new casualties, prisoners of war and territorial losses for Armenia. It has been aggressively presenting territorial claims over Armenia, extending them up to its capital Yerevan, and demanding an extraterritorial corridor linking Azerbaijan and Turkey at the expense of Armenia’s sovereignty. Moreover, Aliyev has been using hate speech toward Armenians in his public speeches on a regular basis, such as during the opening ceremony of the military trophy park in Baku, where dehumanized mannequins of Armenian military servicemen were featured for small children to baulk at. And yet, despite all this, the international community has largely maintained the policy of parity and neutral language toward Azerbaijan and Armenia.
To conclude, Armenia is still going through the heavy security, political, economic, social and psychological consequences of the 2020 Artsakh War. The trilateral statements on ceasefire between Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia do not reflect Armenia’s interests, as it faces continuing threats for the further use of force by the President of Azerbaijan, subsequent intrusions by Azerbaijani forces into border areas and other means of political-military pressure to impose continuing concessions.
In this context, the abstention by Armenia was the only rational choice, aimed at reconciling its most vital security challenges with its system of values and sovereignty concerns. Moreover, with that vote, Armenia mirrored the contradiction between professed values of democracy and human rights on one side and geopolitical economic and security interests on the other, which it witnessed among the international community during the 2020 Artsakh War.
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