The Latest Developments
In previous articles, I have described the severe violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by Azerbaijan during the 2020 Artsakh War, the lack of international involvement, and the wide range of increasing security and humanitarian post-war issues of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The situation escalated even more in the last week. After not allowing Artsakhtsi workers or Russian peacekeepers to repair the damaged natural gas pipeline that supplies Nagorno-Karabakh from the Republic of Armenia, Azerbaijan “fixed” it for only two days, reportedly to install a shutoff valve and cut the gas again during freezing weather, which also revealed that it had intentionally damaged the pipeline the first time.
Moreover, in violation of the 2020 ceasefire statement, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive. With the use of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 UAVs, its armed forces took control of the village of Parukh and the Karaglukh strategic hill, and has been also trying to take control of Khramort village. Currently, Russia has urged Azerbaijan to withdraw its troops from Parukh, subsequently generating an exchange of controversial statements by the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides and showing that the situation remains unresolved by the Armenian side. Three members of the Artsakh defense force were killed and 15 injured. Women and children were evacuated. Political analyst Tigran Grigoryan from Artsakh noted, “The mere fact of the Azerbaijani military presence on the top of the height will induce multiple civilians to abandon their homes. This can be called a policy of creeping ethnic cleansing.” Thus, Azerbaijan is once again violating the trilateral cease-fire statement of November 10, 2020, even if it is largely unfavorable for Armenia, and disproportionately favorable for Azerbaijan.
The reaction of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs United States, France and Russia brought a rare alignment of the three countries since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All of them deplored the advances of the Azerbaijani troops.
The Intensification of False Narratives by Azerbaijan
The Azerbaijani authorities and its lobbyists have reacted by intensifying their aggressive propaganda and disinformation campaign, summarized in several of their official statements starting from March 25.
The first Azerbaijani narrative refutes the obvious violation of Article 33 of the UN Charter on Peaceful Settlement of Disputes, justifying military aggression as a legitimate action to restore its territorial integrity, and blaming a lack of progress in negotiations based on the principles agreed under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group.
Presenting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a territorial integrity issue and trying to portray the Armenian side as an aggressor are both false. Artsakh has been historically Armenian and it was forcibly incorporated into Azerbaijan as an autonomous region—the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO)—upon Stalin’s decision. It declared independence from the Soviet Union upon its dissolution in 1991, in line with the Soviet Constitution. Azerbaijan’s response to the decisions of NKAO’s regional parliament were massacres in Sumgait and Kirovabad (now Ganja) in 1988 and in Baku in 1990. They were followed by Operation “Koltso” (Ring) in 1991, when the Azerbaijani authorities, with the support of Soviet troops, deployed tanks, combat helicopters and artillery to kill civilians and empty settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian side’s military victory in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War doesn’t change the reality that Azerbaijan had launched it, and Armenians were exercising their right to self-defense to prevent ethnic cleansing in their native lands.
Even if we accept that Nagorno-Karabakh is considered part of Azerbaijan by most of the international community, military aggression against Armenians and the constant attempt to carry out ethnic cleansing either by an explicit military aggression or through depriving them of human rights and making their life unbearable, violates multiple norms of international law. The state cannot incite an unprovoked military aggression and push out an ethnic minority from its territory. Each state has a responsibility to protect its civilian population and ensure their rights, including minorities, not to murder or deport them. The statements and actions by Azerbaijan have shown, throughout the history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, that Azerbaijan wants the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh without its native Armenian population. The maximum that Azerbaijan has proposed in previous negotiations has been autonomy with social rights for Nagorno-Karabakh, if its residents accept Azerbaijani jurisdiction and citizenship. However, since the 2020 ceasefire statement, Azerbaijan has withdrawn even the offer of autonomy, refuting the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh as an entity, distorting its history, and violating even the social rights of the Armenians there through the creation of a humanitarian disaster.
Although it casts blame on the OSCE Minsk Group for not being able to broker a resolution to the conflict throughout the past decades, Azerbaijan itself has rejected most of the proposals presented by the Co-Chairs, evidently trying to win time while directing a large proportion of the profits gained from the exploitation of oil and gas pipelines to its army and preparing for the next war, as admitted by the President of Azerbaijan himself. Since the 2020 ceasefire statement, Azerbaijan has been refuting the existence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and blocking the role of the OSCE Minsk Group in the resolution of the conflict. In addition, the Azerbaijani President, security forces and public figures have been spewing hate speech, xenophobia and discrimination toward Armenians, reflected in the claim by Armenia to the International Court of Justice and the provisional measures that the ICJ issued against Azerbaijan on December 7, 2021. Thus, Azerbaijan has been rejecting the right to self-determination, and civil and political rights of Armenians, only strengthening the resolve of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to never accept Azerbaijani jurisdiction over them.
The Azerbaijani side has also been demanding the withdrawal of the “remnants of the Armenian army and illegal Armenian armed groups,” in its recent propaganda campaign, claiming that the Armenian side hasn’t fulfilled Provision 4 of the 2020 ceasefire statement, which states that “the peacemaking forces of the Russian Federation shall be deployed concurrently with the withdrawal of the Armenian troops.” This provision refers to the troops of the Republic of Armenia, which have in fact withdrawn from Nagorno-Karabakh since the end of the 2020 war. Azerbaijan is aiming to project this provision over the Artsakh defense force, aiming to deprive Armenians of their right to self-defense. Even in large UN-mandated peacekeeping missions (which the one in Artsakh is not due to the lack of an international mandate, not being multinational and having a small size), extreme caution is taken not to fully dissolve self-defense forces or groups or conduct disarmament of only one side of the conflict, and certainly not by force. It is even more unacceptable to do so to the victimized party of the conflict, while the perpetrator has much higher military capabilities, is aggressively continuing to arm further, and systematically threatening civilians from a vulnerable ethnic group, especially before the comprehensive peace agreement and reconciliation, and in the conditions of ongoing threat for the resumption of the conflict.
At the same time, Azerbaijan fails to address its grave violations of the ceasefire statement, in particular, by continuing to hold at least 35 Armenian Prisoners of War and three civilian captives, in violation of Provision 8 (according to Armenian human rights defenders, the total number of PoWs held by Azerbaijan is close to 80), continuing to advance is military positions as early as December 2020 and occupying more Armenian villages through the use of force, firing at civilians, kidnapping, threatening and intimidating them.
All of this also reveals the non-genuine and manipulative nature of the peace agenda, claimed by Azerbaijan before the international audience. It hasn’t been aimed at positive and sustainable peace but only at imposing maximalist, unreasonable and unacceptable demands against the Armenian side, mixed with territorial claims over the Republic of Armenia, and threats to start a new war, both in Nagorno-Karabakh and Republic of Armenia, up to the capital Yerevan.
The Rules of Engagement of Russian Peacekeepers
Finally, Azerbaijan has implied that the Russian peacekeeping contingent is located in Nagorno-Karabakh temporarily. Their actions have also indicated their tendency to de-legitimize them. Thus, Azerbaijan reveals its intention both to achieve the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping contingent, at least at the end of its current term in 2025, but possibly earlier as it tries to take advantage of the severely deteriorated reputation of Russia. Moreover, Azerbaijan and its lobbyists are trying to create associations between the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the conflict in Donbas, as well as South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria; while it fits another group of conflicts – those in Timor-Leste, Kosovo and South Sudan based on severe human rights abuses and the threat of ethnic cleansing.
In this context, the rules of engagement and the reasons for the failure of the Russian peacekeeping contingent to prevent the advances and violations by the Azerbaijani military forces are not entirely clear. The Russian peacekeeping forces don’t have a legal mandate from the UN or OSCE. Their presence in Artsakh is based on the 2020 tripartite ceasefire statement. 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 UN has established three basic principles for its peacekeeping operations: consent of the parties, impartiality and non-use of force except in self-defence, and defense of the mandate. A peacekeeping operation can be deployed without the consent of a party to the conflict upon the decision of the UN Security Council under Chapter VII on the Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression. The defense of the mandate includes, first, the protection of the civilian population, and the non-violation of the ceasefire arrangements or peace agreements.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia has emphasized the importance of implementing a proper investigation of the actions of the peacekeeping contingent during the assault of the units of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces into the area of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, and expressed an expectation that Russian peacekeeping contingent issues a clear demand that Azeri forces return to their starting positions and to undertake concrete, visible steps to resolve the situation and prevent new casualties and hostilities.
The unilateral role of Russian peacekeepers in Artsakh without an international legal mandate was risky, even before the war in Ukraine. Since then, it has become trickier, given the conflicting perceptions about their agenda and reliability, their continuing military operations in Ukraine and the impact of sanctions against Russia. Ukraine will be a priority for Russia, and if Azerbaijan decides to proceed with further intensification of military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia may find it difficult to juggle. At the same time, the imminent threat of ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh is obvious, and Russia remains the only power that has demonstrated its interest in ensuring the security of Armenians in Artsakh, which can explain the appeal by the Artsakh authorities to Russia increase the size of its peacekeeping contingent. However, the security guarantees provided by the Russian peacekeepers may prove not to be sufficient to prevent creeping ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Artsakh, even before the end of their term. The extension of their mandate in 2025 will most likely be challenged by Azerbaijan.
Accountability of Relevant Actors
If Azerbaijan reaches its apparent objective to conduct creeping ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, whether through hard or soft methods, all actors will be accountable:
This time, Azerbaijan will not escape from being condemned and stigmatized as an aggressor, having used unprovoked military force against civilians. Even if the international community considers Nagorno-Karabakh to be within Azerbaijan, that doesn’t excuse ethnic cleansing of civilians, constituting an ethnic group, in violation of a range of fundamental norms of the international legal framework.
Having lost the role of physical security guarantor of Artsakh, Armenia still has a responsibility to intensify its diplomatic efforts with bilateral partners and international organizations to draw their attention to the gravity of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh to ensure its security. It cannot follow the example of Albania’s lack of engagement in the settlement of the Kosovo conflict. Kosovo has received massive support from the international community, including NATO, the EU and UN; Nagorno-Karabakh has no international support.
Russia has taken responsibility for defending Nagorno-Karabakh in line with the 2020 ceasefire statement. This engagement by Russia has been perceived positively; even the West has accepted Russia’s role in maintaining the ceasefire and stabilizing the security situation in the region. If Russia fails, it will harm Russia’s reputation even further. It will also lose the trust of Armenia, one of its last traditional allies. There are already suspicions among some circles in Armenia that Russians and Azerbaijanis may have made a deal at the expense of the security of Armenians, to enable the creeping occupation by Azerbaijan in exchange for non-competition as a gas supplier to Europe. They refer to the declaration that Russia and Azerbaijan signed on the eve of the Ukrainian war, formalizing increased cooperation between the two countries from a partnership to an alliance, and containing provisions about security cooperation. At the meeting between the senior military command of Russia and Azerbaijan held in Baku on March 22, 2022, according to Azerbaijani press releases, they discussed “the withdrawal of Armenian troops.”
In spite of the extreme polarization, Russia, the US and France, represented in the OSCE Minsk Group, should keep this last remaining area of cooperation between them to work together or separately, to exert pressure on Azerbaijan to halt aggressive actions and return to the negotiating table, aimed at a comprehensive and sustainable resolution of the conflict. If needed, they need to take the issue of the breaches of peace and security to the UN Security Council and build consensus there. A more appropriate peacekeeping architecture in Nagorno-Karabakh would be a multi-national peacekeeping mission consisting of Russians, as brokers of the 2020 ceasefire statement, and other OSCE nations, such as EU member states, mandated by the United Nations, and including not only military but also a civilian component. Such unity and solidarity seem difficult to imagine in the current geopolitical environment, but the possibility of contributing to the peacekeeping architecture in Nagorno-Karabakh, such as through border monitors by the OSCE or the EU, should be considered.
The reputation of the EU and the US will suffer for having abandoned an entity and an ethnic group in the European neighbourhood, applying double standards instead of values, ignoring severe abuses of human rights, and being led by geopolitical interests, especially in light of their gas dependency on oil-rich autocratic Azerbaijan. Their unwillingness to condemn and sanction the aggressor will be compared against their active engagement in managing the Ukrainian crisis. The justification of the controversy around the notion of territorial integrity in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not valid, given the Kosovo precedent, where the international community, led by the West, prevented ethnic cleansing in 1999.
Finally, the UN should be alert and responsive to convene emergency meetings of the UN Security Council or General Assembly, if the situation escalates further, to prevent another military aggression and ethnic cleansing. It has admitted that it did not act robustly enough to prevent the massacre in Srebrenica and the genocide in Rwanda, nor the more recent massacres of Yezidis and Rohingya. Instead, it should take action based on the principle of Responsibility to Protect, endorsed by the UN in 2005, and further reflected in the 2009 UN SC Resolution 1894 on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. It should also resolve the issue of access of humanitarian and development assistance to Nagorno-Karabakh, in line with its principle of “Leave no one behind”, pledged by the UN member states for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Yet another military aggression and ethnic cleansing will further jeopardize the international order established after the Second World War, the UN Charter and other norms of the international normative framework.
Azerbaijan’s main goal is the removal of ethnic Armenians from Artsakh through the creation of conditions unfavorable for living, as well as creating an atmosphere of fear among the Armenian population.Read more
After weeks of blocking gas supply to the population of Artsakh, the Azerbaijani Armed Forces launched an attack in the Askeran region, taking control of Parukh village and surrounding positions. While the international community has offered concern, sanctions are what’s needed.Read more
Baku is consistently thwarting all post-war negotiations and existing formats, as the sole agenda of Aliyev’s regime is the total annihilation of Armenians from Artsakh, and possibly even the Republic of Armenia.Read more
Media commentators, analysts and historians have all scrambled to draw historical parallels to make sense of Putin’s recent aggression toward Ukraine, but there have been relatively few nuanced references to World War I.Read more
Azerbaijan openly announced that it would begin to destroy the Armenian cultural heritage of Artsakh and erase traces of the Armenian language from monuments. The European Parliament is one of the first institutions that has reacted to this Armenophobic policy.Read more
Over a year after Russian troops were deployed to Artsakh, here’s what we know about the Russian presence there, with the historical background for Moscow’s drive for boots on the ground in Artsakh.Read more
On December 7, the International Court of Justice announced its decision regarding the request for provisional measures by Armenia and Azerbaijan, marking the next stage in the ongoing conflict between the two states.Read more
In light of the existential threat, high probability of ethnic cleansing and the already imminent humanitarian crisis in Artsakh, the international community has an obligation to grant remedial recognition to Artsakh.Read more