With world distracted, Azerbaijan tries to stamp out Karabakh separatists

Time may be running out for the self-declared republic of Artsakh, which lies within Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-populated region of Azerbaijan.

As Azerbaijani forces launched a concerted military assault on Karabakh Tuesday, no help appeared to be forthcoming from the West, Russia, and even the region’s long-time sponsor Armenia. People on the ground in the region’s capital of Stepanakert described massive shelling of the city beginning Tuesday afternoon, and a desperate scramble to find shelter.

“The basement is full of children crying,” Gayanne Sarkisian, an operations manager at the Hub Artsakh nongovernmental organization, told the Monitor over a Zoom call after taking refuge. Whenever she can get an internet connection, Ms. Sarkisian sends out urgent pleas for help on social media. “The situation is so tense, we hear them shelling, we hear exchanges of fire. People are hugging each other, trying to make the kids smile, but panic is spreading.”

Azerbaijan described its lightning operation as “anti-terrorist activities of a limited character,” designed to eliminate the fighting capabilities of the region’s defenders using “precision strikes.” Armenia’s foreign ministry described it as a “mass-scale aggression” that portends “ethnic cleansing” of the region’s Armenian population.

Russia, which maintains about 2,000 peacekeeping troops in Karabakh, said it had been informed about the operation just minutes before it began. Moscow issued a terse statement urging the two sides to stop fighting and observe the terms of a peace deal that was reached between Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan earlier this year. There seemed little chance that Russian troops would intervene.

“Everyone, including Armenia, agrees that Karabakh is part of the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan,” says Sergei Strokan, an international affairs columnist for the Moscow business daily Kommersant who recently returned from a trip to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. “So, it’s very difficult to argue with Azerbaijan’s desire to dismantle all Armenian military infrastructure in the region, and perhaps put an end to the ‘independent’ Armenian administration there, which Baku considers to be illegal. It remains to be seen how far they will go. Russian peacekeepers are there, but it looks like they will do nothing.”

Karabakh now seems isolated and alone. But its leaders remain defiant.

“The people of Artsakh do not accept to be part of Azerbaijan, and at the moment we need to communicate this strictly,” David Babayan, former minister of foreign affairs of the little self-declared republic posted on his Facebook page last week. “Our right to be independent can not be dismissed by any country, including the Republic of Armenia.”

Broken cease-fire

The conflict is centuries old, but has its current roots in the breakup of the Soviet Union three decades ago. Nagorno-Karabakh, which the USSR had designated as an “autonomous region” within Azerbaijan, was at the center of a savage war and mutual waves of ethnic cleansing that ended in the early 1990s with Armenian victory, the self-declaration of Artsakh as an independent state, and the Armenian occupation of large swaths of Azerbaijani territory, which made tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis refugees in their own country.

Attempts to find a diplomatic solution never got much traction over the intervening decades, with Azerbaijan insisting on the return of its territories, including Nagorno-Karabakh – perhaps with some form of autonomy for the little territory – and Armenia refusing various attempts by the Minsk Group, headed by Russia, France, and the United States, to broker some kind of compromise.

After years of building up its military forces, oil-rich Azerbaijan launched a 44-day blitzkrieg in 2020 that swept the Armenians out of most of the captured territories. Under the terms of a Russian-brokered cease-fire, Azerbaijan stopped short of occupying most of the original Armenian-populated territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Its eventual status was left to further negotiations which have seen no progress. The leaders of Karabakh refuse to accept anything short of independence or reunification with Armenia. Azerbaijan insists on asserting full sovereign control over the territory.

Since last December, Azerbaijan has been blockading Karabakh by choking off all access to Armenia, preventing movement of people and supplies. The goal, officials in Baku said, was to compel the self-declared entity to accept that it is part of Azerbaijan and negotiate terms. Defiant leaders in Stepanakert have so far refused to do so, but on Tuesday evening they did reportedly issue an appeal to Azerbaijani leaders to cease hostilities and open negotiations.

Russia has made some efforts to get the sides to think about a settlement that would protect the civil rights of Karabakh Armenians, if not the self-determination they yearn for. But Moscow has been deeply distracted by its war in Ukraine, and is currently irritated by Armenia’s flirtations with the U.S., including ongoing joint Armenia-U.S. war games.

“I suspect that Armenian leaders want to orient themselves toward powers that are very far away, and imagine [the U.S.] might solve Armenia’s problems,” says Andrey Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament. “They should remember the geographical factor, and realize that only the states in their immediate neighborhood have any real interest or ability to help in resolving these issues.”

Azerbaijan blames Russia for failing to disarm Armenian fighters in Karabakh under the terms of its 2020 peacekeeping mandate. Armenians are angry that Russian troops didn’t prevent the Azerbaijani blockade of Karabakh. With the crisis coming to a head, Moscow appears unwilling to step between Azerbaijani forces and the defenders of Karabakh, at least for now.

No one to intervene?

Tuesday’s Azerbaijani assault on Karabakh has sharpened political divisions within Armenian society, which has never fully adjusted to the humiliating military defeat of three years ago.

Many Armenians say they feel a sense of hopeless rage at what looks like the imminent erasure of the Armenian entity in Karabakh, a region that is considered the cradle of Armenian culture. While Azerbaijan is being careful to avoid the appearance of ethnic cleansing, Baku has made it clear that the Armenian population must give up their self-declared independence and either accept the terms of Azerbaijani citizenship or leave the country.

Hundreds of protesters converged on Yerevan’s central Freedom Square Tuesday to urge the government into action to help beleaguered Karabakh. Many blame the prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, for losing the war and then selling out Karabakh by formally agreeing the territory is a sovereign part of Azerbaijan.

“The protesters are demanding action to help the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh,” says Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the independent Caucasus Institute in Yerevan. “I don’t see how that would be possible in any practical way. Armenia and Karabakh are physically separated, and I can hardly imagine a military operation from Armenia that might try to break through.”

Mr. Strokan, who has been talking with officials in Baku in recent days, says that Azerbaijan will probably continue squeezing Karabakh until its self-declared regime collapses and accepts Azerbaijani sovereignty.

“The present Azeri goal is to dismantle the military potential of the Armenians, which they will probably accomplish in a few days. They might stop at that, leaving the Karabakh administration toothless,” he says. “Or, they might press on to dissolve the local authorities, and replace them with new Azeri ones. In any case, it doesn’t look like anyone is going to intervene to try to stop it.”

Astrig Agopian contributed reporting from Paris.

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