The 2020 Artsakh War finally came to an end after three failed ceasefire attempts mediated by the U.S., France and Russia over a month and a half of war, with the tripartite ceasefire statement mediated by the Russian Federation. The result 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 it deteriorated their security situation and escalated the existential threats they are facing. The local authorities of Artsakh have stated clearly that being subjected to Azerbaijani jurisdiction is unacceptable to them. After the defeat in the war, the need for a defined status and security guarantees by a peacekeeping force are also vitally necessary. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s actions are only intensifying concerns of ethnic cleansing.
What are the risks and opportunities for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the post-war situation and in the current turbulent international context, including the crisis in Ukraine? The resolution of the conflict consists of several interlinked components, including status, security, human rights and development. Given the complexity of the current situation, this article will mainly focus on the security component.
Various options for resolution were discussed between the parties under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group over 27 years of negotiations. It may even be worth discussing, at least for research purposes, whether the foundations of the negotiations were set on the basis of a contradiction between the principles of territorial integrity and self-determination to begin with. Artsakh was forcibly incorporated into Soviet Azerbaijan as an autonomous region upon the 1921 decision of Joseph Stalin, and had seceded from it in 1991 in line with the Soviet Constitution, as the Soviet Union was dissolving. Therefore, Azerbaijan’s claim that Artsakh’s independence violates its territorial integrity is not valid. This issue can be taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), to seek a conclusion similar to the International Advisory Opinion on the Accordance with International Law of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Respect of Kosovo by the ICJ in 2010.
Armenia, along with the international community, also missed the opportunity to make parallels and use the precedent of international peacekeeping missions and remedial secession in Timor-Leste, Kosovo and South Sudan. Timor-Leste gained full independence from Indonesia in 2002. South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Kosovo is the only one in the trio still not admitted to the United Nations, having gained partially-recognized independence from Serbia in 2008 through a unilateral declaration. In all these cases, human rights-centered approaches were predominant in shaping international relations and international law, especially among the European Union countries and the U.S.
In practical terms, the stage-by-stage proposal by the OSCE Minsk Group, first suggested in 1997, was quite similar to other conflict zones where the lives of the civilian population were under threat, such as Kosovo, Timor-Leste and South Sudan. In these cases, international or regional peacekeeping missions were established in line with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The state-by-stage proposal envisaged the gradual return of the territories outside the original Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) to Azerbaijan, except for the Lachin region; the deployment of international peacekeepers; and the provision of security guarantees for the Armenian population of Artsakh; with the final determination of Artsakh’s legal status to come in later negotiations. The notion of the deployment of international peacekeepers also featured in the 2007 Madrid Principles and the 2011 Kazan plan. The 2015 Lavrov Plan mentioned Russian peacekeepers instead of international peacekeepers.
During the 2020 Artsakh War, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said that “any armed peacekeeping force in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone should not include Minsk Group Co-Chairs, including the United States, or neighboring countries… any sort of Turkish mediation or peacekeeping role is a non-starter for the United States, as well as for Armenia. We believe that both countries should accept Scandinavian peacekeepers, and we are working with Scandinavian governments to put together a peacekeeping force that could be deployed into the region to keep the ceasefire.” Those peacekeepers could have been deployed under the auspices of the UN, OSCE or EU Common Security and Defense Policy.
However, the ceasefire attempts facilitated by France and the U.S. in October 2021 failed, and the active phase of the war ended in line with the Russian-mediated tripartite ceasefire statement of November 10, 2020, that included the deployment of Russian peacekeeping troops for a duration of five years, with the possibility of extension. Unlike other conflict zones where a Russian military presence is controversial, in Artsakh, they are currently seen as the main, if not only, security guarantor for the local Armenians.
At the same time, the Russian peacekeeping forces don’t have a legal mandate from the UN, OSCE or even from the CSTO. Their presence in Artsakh is based on the tripartite statement signed between the Heads of States of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 10, 2020. PM Pashinyan stated in July 2021 that Aliyev hasn’t signed the subsequent document outlining the mandate of the peacekeepers. It is not clear for the Armenian public whether this document was expected to be signed only between Russia and Azerbaijan, or would also include the Armenian side, whether the Republic of Armenia or Artsakh Republic local authorities, nor how the rights of the Armenians in Artsakh would be ensured. Due to the lack of an international legal mandate, Russian peacekeepers don’t have mechanisms for accountability either. They are not reporting to the UN or OSCE about their activities.
The November 10, 2020 tripartite statement stopped the active phase of armed hostilities but new losses and serious security and human rights violations against the Armenians of Artsakh continue to be inflicted by Azerbaijan in the presence of the Russian peacekeepers. According to a recent report from the International Crisis Group, there had been 219 incidents in the period between when the 44-day war ended and February 15, 2022. This count is several times higher than during the pre-war period.
The largest violation of the ceasefire happened only a month after the ceasefire statement, on December 11-13, 2020, when the last two villages of Hadrut region, Mets Shen and Hin Shen, together with Dizapayt monastery and Kataro monastery, were seized by the Azerbaijani military forces, together with more than 60 Armenian military servicemen defending the area in the absence of the Russian peacekeepers who were late to deploy there. In the following year, some of them have been released thanks to the mediation of various actors of the international community, while others are still held in captivity.
Throughout the period since the ceasefire statement, Azerbaijan has been provoking security incidents in Artsakh, such as taking civilian inhabitants hostage while they were conducting their routine livelihood activities and threatening them. The Azerbaijani Armed Forces have killed several civilians with impunity.
There were several incidents of escalation provoked by the Azerbaijani side in October 2021. On November 8, 2021, an Armenian utility worker who was repairing a damaged water pipe was killed near Shushi, allegedly by a member of Aliyev’s security service. The Lachin Corridor linking Armenia to Artsakh was temporarily closed to traffic in both directions.
Since February 24, 2022, the Azerbaijani military has intensified the intimidation of Armenian civilians in Artsakh, using loudspeakers to demand that the inhabitants of the Khramort and Nor Shen border villages stop agricultural activity and leave the area, threatening to use force if they refuse to comply. In the following days, the armed forces of Azerbaijan started intensively firing weapons of different caliber, including mortars, in the direction of the administrative areas and roads of Khramort, Nakhichevanik, Khnushinak and Karmir Shuka communities, interrupting agricultural work and obstructing the free movement of residents. The Azerbaijani forces demonstratively accumulated heavy equipment (tanks) in the direction of the village. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, 60 mm and 120 mm grenade launchers have been used, one civilian was wounded, and women and children had to be evacuated to a more secure location, although they returned the next day. This is happening in an area where Russian peacekeepers are present. Since there is no transparency regarding the rules of engagement of the Russian peacekeeping forces, it is not clear what kinds of actions they are expected to take in such situations. The Human Rights Ombudspersons of Armenia and Artsakh have underlined that those actions by the Azerbaijani forces are obviously aimed at stripping Artsakh of its native Armenian population, as well as damaging the reputation of the Russian peacekeeping mission and undermining the enormous efforts made to ensure the peaceful life of the civilian population.
On March 8, 2022, the whole territory of the Artsakh Republic was deprived of its natural gas supply due to damage to the pipeline coming from Armenia. The accident took place in an area that is under the control of Azerbaijani forces, close to Shushi, and the Azerbaijani forces have not been allowing employees of the ArtsakhGas company or representatives of Artsakh law enforcement bodies to approach the area to fix the pipeline. There is no explanation for the cessation of gas supply or the causes of the accident, whether it was due to a technical failure or as a result of sabotage by the Azerbaijani side. The interruption of the natural gas supply has caused serious humanitarian repercussions in Artsakh and is an indication of the intention of the Azerbaijani side to disrupt the normal life of the people there. The former Human Rights Ombudsman of Armenia, Arman Tatoyan, has assessed it as a criminal and terrorist act and an indication of ethnic hatred, Armenophobia and a threat to regional peace.
This accident, which has still not been resolved, also indicates the intent of Azerbaijan to deprive Artsakh of its basic energy security and water security. With the loss of Karvachar (Kelbajar), Artsakh has lost its water resources and hydroelectric plants, lands for agriculture and their associated jobs, and has become more isolated, with only one corridor–Lachin–connecting Artsakh to the outside world through Armenia. Currently, there are reports that Lachin may be handed over in the near future. Artsakh’s electricity network connection to Armenia also runs through the Lachin region. Thus, if Azerbaijan were to control the region, it would intensify the threat to energy security. The alternative road that is under construction by Azerbaijan is remote and much longer, bypassing residential areas. Azerbaijan is also building a number of dual civilian-military airports in the area, including one in Lachin. All of this is deepening the enclave status of Artsakh, in contradiction to the contemporary norms of declaving, rather than enclaving territories. Locked up territories belong to the past and haven’t left a positive track record through history, such as the Danzig corridor during WWII, and are incompatible with a sustainable peace.
At the same time, throughout the whole period since the war, Aliyev has been systematically using xenophobic hate speech directed against 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. Azerbaijani authorities are continuing to bring up the next generation in the spirit of ethnic hatred toward Armenians, and presenting them distorted versions of history in the spirit of territorial claims. Another manifestation of ethnic discrimination by Azerbaijan against Armenians is the damage to or appropriation of Armenian cultural heritage in Artsakh, including damaging Armenian monasteries, removing Armenian artifacts and denying the Armenian origin of the cultural heritage of Artsakh through erasing Armenian inscriptions and declaring them to be Caucasian Albanian, Russian or Udi. In February 2022, Azerbaijan announced plans to erase Armenian traces, such as old writings, from churches, which was met with some outcry. In September 2021, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) referred to this issue in a resolution focusing on the “humanitarian consequences of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.” On March 9, 2022, the Resolution on the Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh was adopted by the European Parliament and strongly condemned Azerbaijan’s continued policy of erasing and denying the Armenian cultural heritage in and around Artsakh. The resolution acknowledged that the erasure of Armenian cultural heritage is part of a wider pattern of a systematic, state-level policy of Armenophobia, historical revisionism and hatred toward Armenians promoted by the Azerbaijani authorities, including dehumanization, the glorification of violence and territorial claims against the Republic of Armenia which threaten peace and security in the South Caucasus.
The treatment of PoWs, hate speech and destruction of cultural heritage are reflected in the provisional measures that the ICJ issued against Azerbaijan on December 7, 2021. They urge Azerbaijan to:
a) Protect from violence and bodily harm all persons captured in relation to the 2020 conflict who remain in detention, and ensure their security and equality before the law;
b) Take all necessary measures to prevent the incitement and promotion of racial hatred and discrimination, including by its officials and public institutions, targeted at persons of Armenian national or ethnic origin; and
c) Take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage, including but not limited to churches and other places of worship, monuments, landmarks, cemeteries and artefacts.
Artsakh is turning into a locked up grey zone, which is against contemporary international norms. The UN and other international organizations don’t have a presence in Artsakh, due to its unrecognized status, to monitor the violations of the ceasefire, to record violations of international humanitarian law or to provide humanitarian assistance. The only civilian international presence in Artsakh are the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the HALO Trust, a demining NGO. After having suffered disastrous consequences in the war, Artsakh is not even receiving humanitarian assistance from the international community since Azerbaijan is not authorizing its delivery through the Lachin corridor. This situation contradicts the UN principle of “Leave no one behind” pledged by UN member states for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Since February 2021, the entrance of foreign citizens to Artsakh has been restricted and regulated. This includes the access of diasporan Armenians without Armenian citizenship, international media and NGOs.
In August 2021, Aliyev even claimed that there are only 25,000 Armenians left in Artsakh. During the war, half of its population was indeed displaced to avoid civilian casualties. However, their return was organized throughout 2021, and according to the Artsakh authorities, the current number of its population is 120,000, about 20,000 below the pre-war level.
Also, since 2021, Azerbaijan has been refuting the very existence of “Nagorno-Karabakh” as an entity or a region, as well as the existence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is a backwards development even in comparison to the Soviet-era status of the NKAO. Aliyev has also been using offensive language toward the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and blocking their role in the resolution of the conflict, including visits to the region. While Azerbaijan has been sabotaging the work of the OSCE Minsk Group, Armenia has been advocating for its revitalization.
Besides the Azerbaijani policies and practices in Artsakh, Azerbaijan has been conducting an Armenophobic, aggressive and militaristic policy toward Armenia, using hate speech, presenting territorial claims against the Republic of Armenia, conducting a creeping annexation of border regions since the end of November 2020, escalating it to a military aggression in May-June 2021, especially in the Syunik and Gegharkunik regions. While continuing to keep Armenia under blockade and its roads with Armenia closed, together with Turkey, Azerbaijan has been demanding an extraterritorial corridor through Armenia connecting Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhichevan that, according to both Turkey’s President Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Aliyev, will “reunite the Turkic world.” Armenia was caught by surprise by such an unprecedented degree of ambition and aggression by Azerbaijan. The Armenian leadership has declared an agenda for long-lasting peace, suggesting to begin the process of delimitation and demarcation of the Armenian-Azerbaijan border, and suggesting that roads and communications in the region be opened.
Russia has been the key mediator on the agenda of the expected delimitation and demarcation, as well as unblocking communications. The roles of other actors such as France and the US–the other co-chairpersons of the OSCE Minsk Group–as well as that of the EU and the UN, have been diminished in the post-war period. The OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs remain committed to the approach that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not resolved and a comprehensive and sustainable resolution should be negotiated under the OSCE Minsk Group (MG). The OSCE MG attempted to revitalize discussions in October 2021 but without much success. Given the difficulties of the activities of the OSCE MG in light of Azerbaijan’s denial of its role, as well as the polarization of relations between Russia and the West, the EU and France, as the country that is currently holding the EU Presidency, have demonstrated a creative approach and have applied a new format since the end of 2021 through organizing meetings between the Heads of State of Armenia and Azerbaijan, facilitated by the President of the European Council Charles Michel and President Emmanuel Macron of France. Those meetings mostly focus on the humanitarian aspects of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and have enabled the return of a number of PoWs to Armenia. The EU has offered to provide expert advice on delimitation and demarcation, as well as committed to provide development aid both to Armenia and Azerbaijan.
To sum up, taking into account both the consequences of the 2020 Artsakh War and the ongoing war in Ukraine, there are a range of risks in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict:
- Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Azerbaijani military forces have intensified provocations in Artsakh by firing at villages, intimidating civilians and sabotaging the supply of gas from Armenia to Artsakh. Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, it is obviously taking advantage of the fact that the attention of both the international community and Russian peacekeepers are focused on Ukraine. It is hard to imagine that the OSCE MG will be functional any time soon after the Ukraine crisis, given both the resistance by Azerbaijan and also the confrontational relations between Russia and the West. The resumption of active hostilities around Artsakh is not inconceivable. Azerbaijan may resort to the large-scale use of force again, especially as their earlier actions did not generate adequate condemnation.
- If a large-scale military offensive doesn’t take place, there is a danger that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may be forgotten and frozen once more. In the best case scenario, Artsakh may just remain in its current state, increasingly turning into a grey zone, lacking self-sufficiency in terms of energy and water resources, with increasing difficulty for civilians to conduct their daily lives, and not receiving any international assistance for its humanitarian and development needs. This situation created by Azerbaijan is apparently aimed at making Armenians leave Artsakh. Even if Russian peacekeepers stay there, it is not a full peacekeeping architecture. They may be able to ensure the survival of Armenians there, but will not be able to resolve the conflict, the issue of self-determination and other human rights and fundamental liberties of the population. Another risk is the distortion and misunderstanding of the nature of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in light of the propaganda, false narratives and disinformation that create associations between it and the conflict in Donbas, as well as South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria.
- An even bigger risk is that the Russian peacekeepers may leave, whether by their own choice in light of their current difficulties in Ukraine or due to an agreement with Azerbaijan with which it formalized its alliance just one day before the military operations in Ukraine started. As noted above, the presence of Russian peacekeepers has remained the only security guarantee for Armenians in Artsakh and is perceived by them not only positively but as a necessity for their physical existence. In light of the Ukraine crisis, Azerbaijan has intensified its efforts to discredit the Russian peacekeeping presence in Artsakh, and it may challenge its legitimacy before the end of their mandate or take advantage of the lack of a legal mandate by an international organization to reject its extension at the end of its mandate in 2025. If such a scenario happens, the international community, in particular the OSCE and the EU, should be ready to step up and establish a multilateral peacekeeping mission in Artsakh. Without it, the likelihood of ethnic cleansing, whether through massacres or displacement is undeniable.
- It is critical that the international community understands the severity of the problems in post-war Artsakh and pressures Azerbaijan to move away from an aggressive militaristic approach and embrace negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group or alternative formats suggested by the EU. There should be an unambiguous message that the use of force is not an option and will be met with appropriate consequences. It is insufficient to focus on only humanitarian aspects and ignore political issues, in particular those that are related to the security, human rights and development needs of the population of both Artsakh and the border regions of Armenia. There is a need to formulate a new, human-centric approach to ensure the comprehensive and sustainable resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.