On March 24, 2022, Azerbaijan launched a military assault against the village of Parukh, in Artsakh’s Askeran region. It continued to attack Artsakh Defense Army positions throughout the night, continuing the next day. The use of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), i.e. drones, resulted in 14 wounded on the Armenian side. Three servicemen died. The Russian peacekeepers have been reported to be negotiating with the Azerbaijani Armed Forces to withdraw to the positions they held on March 23. However, Azerbaijani troops remain in Parukh, with some renewed gunfire being reported on March 26.
Out in the Cold
Just as Azerbaijan launched the 2020 Artsakh War under the media cover of the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. presidential election, the now month-long invasion of Ukraine by Russia seems to have provided enough of a distraction for Azerbaijan to once again escalate its offensive activities against the Armenians of Artsakh.
It started in late February with a loudspeaker threatening the villagers of Khramort, adjacent to Parukh in the Askeran region, to leave the area or they would be harmed. The threats were followed days later by different caliber gunfire, wounding a resident of Khramort. The village lies within the borders of the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), to which Armenians retreated after handing over the city of Aghdam, following the November 10, 2020 tripartite ceasefire statement. Russian peacekeepers are supposed to be responsible for the security of the town.
In addition to being left out in the cold in the international diplomatic sense, Artsakh residents have also been left without access to natural gas for winter heating since March 8, 2022. The pipeline that supplies Stepanakert and the rest of Artsakh from the Republic of Armenia was damaged due to an explosion in an area that is under the control of the Azerbaijani military, near Shushi. Attempts to rule out deliberate sabotage have not been successful, due to Azerbaijan’s denial of access to the area to journalists or ArtsakhGaz company employees. No explanation for what caused the initial interruption in supply has been given by Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan refused access to the pipeline to repair crews for days, despite mediation efforts by the Russian peacekeepers. The Armenians of Artsakh were left in sub-zero temperatures, with a sudden switch to more expensive electric heating burdening the power grid (also supplied from the Republic of Armenia) and resulting in intermittent outages.
After days of stalling, Azerbaijani crews repaired the pipeline themselves and restored service, roughly coinciding with a visit by UN staff to Shushi on March 18. However, service was disrupted again on March 21. The Artsakh National Security Service reports that a shut-off valve had been installed during the repairs and is being leveraged by Azerbaijan to cause suffering among Artsakh’s population. At the time of writing, service is yet to be restored.
On March 26, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia released a statement, which ends by saying:
The international community must take effective and targeted steps to prevent attempts to destabilize the situation in the South Caucasus. At the same time, we place importance on investigating the actions of the peacekeeping contingent during the incursion of Azerbaijani troops into their area of responsibility in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as a clear demand for the return of Azerbaijani troops to their original positions. We also expect the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh to take concrete, tangible steps to resolve the situation, to prevent new casualties and hostilities.
Also on March 26, a rally was held in Stepanakert, urging the international community to recognize the independence of Artsakh in order to avert a new genocide.
On March 23, 2022, before the attack on Parukh, Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the EU Peter Stano had released the following statement:
The European Union is concerned about reports of a renewed disruption of the gas supply to Stepanakert/Khankendi. Following the first disruption of the supply on 8 March the EU encouraged Azerbaijan’s active engagement on the matter, which led to repair works and the resumption of the gas supply on 19 March. There is an urgent need to ensure the immediate resumption of the gas supply to the affected local population, in particular in the context of the dire weather conditions, and the EU calls on the authorities in control to allow this to happen. The European Union is closely following this and other developments in the region and will continue its engagement towards sustainable peace and stability for the South Caucasus.
At his March 25 daily press briefing, Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, offered the following on the topic:
I can tell you that the Secretary-General is concerned about reports of fresh fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. The Secretary-General urges the sides to refrain from any actions and statements that could escalate the situation and to address all outstanding issues, including humanitarian concerns, through direct dialogue and within existing formats.
On March 24, a protest was held in front of the UN office in Yerevan against Azerbaijan’s humanitarian and psychological assault against Artsakh.
In the evening of March 25, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the situation in Artsakh and the importance of resolving the ongoing crisis. Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan also sent a letter to Putin, requesting that the size of the peacekeeping mission be increased.
France was one of the first to release an official statement on March 18 regarding the gas supply interruption:
The Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs [Jean-Yves Le Drian] spoke successively to his Azerbaijani and Armenian counterparts. He highlighted the importance attached to stability and peace in the South Caucasus and our desire for close consultation with the countries of the region. He signalled his concern about a recent resurgence of incidents on the ground and emphasized the need to implement every means available to reduce tensions. He highlighted the importance of contacts between the parties concerned to enable the recently damaged gas pipeline, which supplies the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, to be reconnected.
The Minister and his interlocutors took stock of the implementation of the guidelines set at the virtual summit of 4 February between President Macron, the President of the European Council, President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan. He also expressed France’s willingness in its various capacities, including as Co-Chair of the Minsk Group, to support the process of negotiating a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
He welcomed his Armenian counterpart’s recent visit to Turkey on the invitation of the Turkish authorities and encouraged further discussions with a view to normalizing relations between the two countries. The situation in Ukraine was also discussed during the two conversations. Among other things, the Minister welcomed the humanitarian aid provided to Ukraine by Azerbaijan, and discussed with his Azerbaijani counterpart the energy supply challenges for countries in the EU’s neighbourhood.
France released a second statement on March 25 regarding the attack on Parukh:
France deplores the incidents that have occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh, in particular the armed incidents and troop movements in the Parukh and Khramort regions. It requests that the forces which have advanced withdraw to their initial positions, in accordance with the ceasefire declaration of November 9, 2020.
It also notes with concern a new gas supply disruption to the population of Nagorno-Karabakh and requests that the connection allowing the supply of this population be restored. The Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs raised this issue during his recent meetings with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts and called for the supply to be restored as soon as possible, while the weather conditions remain severe for the population living there.
France is in constant contact with Armenia and Azerbaijan to promote dialogue and progress on the various topics under discussion.
Giorgi Gogia, Associate Director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, spoke out on Twitter regarding the gas shutoff:
For the second time in 2 weeks, Nagorno-Karabakh residents are left without heating in freezing temperatures because of a gas pipeline running through Azerbaijan-controlled territory. Many bakeries are also unable to operate causing an acute shortage of bread. The gas cut also affects educational institutions, including kindergartens and schools. They remain closed as they cannot be heated. Urgent steps are needed to avoid further humanitarian crisis. Recent weeks have also seen an uptick of violence on the line of contact. If this is a deliberate attempt at forcing population displacement that would be a breach of the Geneva conventions.
A few tweets attracted attention due to their later deletions. The Twitter account of the Ukrainian Parliament announced that “The Azerbaijani Armed Forces went on the offensive in Karabakh, taking advantage of Russian soldiers being [redeployed] to Ukraine.” The tweet, which was later deleted along with the Telegram message it linked to, was accompanied by a thumbs-up emoji, effectively endorsing the assault before backtracking.
Freedom House is a Washington-based charity that receives funding from the U.S. Federal Government. It is best known for its Freedom in the World country rankings. On March 23, 2022, its official account tweeted, “#Azerbaijan must prevent a humanitarian crisis by restoring unhindered gas supplies to the people of #NagornoKarabakh, who have endured weeks of freezing temps without heat or water.” The tweet included a shortened link to the March 23 EU statement, expressing concern about the disruption of the gas supply. The tweet was widely shared. The next day, however, at the height of incursions by Azerbaijan against Parukh, it became apparent that the tweet had been deleted, setting the Armenian Twitterverse (and other social media) ablaze. In the absence of an explanation, speculation about what had triggered the seeming withdrawal of support for the basic human rights of the Armenians of Artsakh abounded. But just a few hours later, Freedom House reposted a new, identical tweet, repeating its original message.
EVN Report reached out to Freedom House for an official comment and received the following reply:
“Freedom House has an approval process for tweets from our official account. Unfortunately, there was some confusion about whether the tweet had been approved before posting, and it was taken down. We apologize for the confusion and stand by the original tweet that points out people in Nagorno-Karabakh are suffering from a lack of heat during freezing temperatures.”
Alex Galitsky, Communications Director for the Armenian National Committee of America – Western Region Office, points out that this had not been the first tweet critical of Azerbaijan that Freedom House had taken down. On October 27, 2021, weeks before Azerbaijan launched a military assault against the Armenian region of Syunik in the context of declarations that he would establish the “Zangezur Corridor” by force, Freedom House tweeted, “It’s time for democratic nations across the world—including the US—stop ignoring the threat [Azerbaijani] President Aliyev’s corrupt authoritarianism poses to freedom and democracy in the region.” The tweet included a link to an article in The National Interest, a Washington-based publication, authored by Michael Rubin, a Resident Scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute think tank.
In the aftermath of Azerbaijan’s November 16, 2021 attack, it became evident that the tweet had been deleted (and not reposted). Freedom House offered the following explanation:
“We shared the article because it cited Freedom House research, deleted the tweet because it failed to attribute that statement to the author of the article, and didn’t repost it because we are a small, overwhelmed team and didn’t want to draw further attention to the mistake. As a rule, Freedom House will always call upon democratic nations to confront authoritarian regimes and work for a world where all live freely.”
For reference, the statement in the tweet is not a direct quote from Rubin’s article.
Walking the Talk
Freedom House’s own 2022 Freedom in the World Report highlights that “Authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic liberties, and at providing aid to others who wish to do the same.” It lists Azerbaijan in the category labeled “Worst of the Worst”. Armenia has improved its score from 45 to 51 after the 2018 parliamentary election, 53 in 2020, and 55 in 2021, amid ongoing reforms to electoral legislation and a clampdown on corruption. In the same timeframe, Nagorno-Karabakh has also implemented reforms and held historically competitive elections in the same timeframe, raising its score from 30 to 36 in the midst of war, even while it lost points directly because of Azerbaijan’s attacks against its civilians. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s score has reduced from an abysmal 12, down to 9. But bringing home better grades on a report card is cold comfort when your bakeries can’t bake bread and your farmers are getting shot at in their fields. And Aliyev didn’t seem to mind the tsk-tsk when his country took part in hosting the UEFA Euro soccer championship tournament a month after military advances into Armenia’s Syunik and Gegharkunik regions in 2021. The lack of any real consequences has demonstrably emboldened him to stage attack after attack.
Deleted tweets can be disheartening, but the real crushing blow comes when you realize the disconnection between a country’s human rights record and the policy response of Western nations. Turkey is still a member of the NATO alliance, which is supposed to stand for freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Turkey dipped from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” in Freedom House’s reports in 2018, after a constitutional referendum concentrated even greater power in the hands of Erdogan, who has ruled the country for 19 years. Turkey masterminded the 2020 Artsakh War through recruiting mercenaries and deploying drones. Never mind sanctions and demanding accountability, few Western leaders will even voice these undeniable facts. Can you blame Armenians who assume that Turkey’s NATO allies were contented by the outcome of the 2020 Artsakh War, made possible by NATO military technology, even if it involved collusion between Turkey’s and Russia’s authoritarian leaders to grant them both boots on the ground in Azerbaijan and stem democratic sentiment in Armenia?
Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act bans the United States from delivering military aid to Azerbaijan. However, since 2001, an amendment allows the President to waive this ban if it is determined that doing so will not undermine peace efforts. Presidents from both parties have renewed the waiver annually for the last two decades, even in 2021 in the aftermath of the 2020 Artsakh War. A notice that the waiver would be renewed was published on May 4, 2021. It was only one week later that Azerbaijani troops marched across the Armenian border. They remain on Armenian territory to this day.
In a January 31, 2022 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that, from 2014 through 2021, the Executive branch had fallen short of statutory reporting requirements to Congress related to Section 907. The U.S. has provided a total of $164 million in aid to Azerbaijan that qualifies as “security assistance” and is subject to the Section 907 waiver. Both the Armenian National Committee of America and the Armenian Assembly of America have launched efforts to ensure that number doesn’t continue to grow.
The international reaction against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was slow to build momentum but has culminated into a broad array of economic measures and military aid. The U.S. has banned oil and gas imports from Russia, largely cut it off from the SWIFT system of international financial transfers, and Russian oligarchs’ yachts, planes and other luxury assets are being seized in cities across Europe.
The U.S. Government knows full well that Aliyev is a threat to freedom and democracy in the region. It also knows that just raising the specter of sanctions can defuse the situation. But does it care enough?
At her March 25 press briefing, Jalina Porter, Principal Deputy Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, offered the following:
I’ll start off by saying that we are closely monitoring the situation along the line of contact established following the November 2020 ceasefire. The United States is deeply concerned about Azerbaijani troop movements. Troop movements and other escalatory measures are irresponsible and unnecessarily provocative.
I can confirm that our assistant secretary did speak with both the Armenian foreign minister and the Azerbaijani foreign minister on March 24, and she just reiterated what Secretary Blinken told Prime Minister Pashinyan as well as President Aliyev on March 21 and 22, which was calling both sides to show restraint and intensify diplomatic engagement to find comprehensive solutions to all of the outstanding issues. Armenia and Azerbaijan just need to use direct communication channels to immediately de-escalate.
The United States, as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, remains deeply committed to working with the sides to achieve a long-term political settlement of the conflict.
It can start by not directly funding the military carrying out these attacks.
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