None should sleep
A TOSCCA conversation on potential catastrophe in the Caucasus
I think I’ve finally found what Zoom is good for.
Recently, a conversation took place between various laptops around Oxfordshire and further afield, under the aegis of The Oxford Seminar for the Caucasus and Central Asia (TOSCCA). The topic was the renewed military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed 1,700-square-mile Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region (also “the Republic of Artsakh”) [hereafter “NKA”]. The speakers were Thomas de Waal, of Carnegie Europe, in Brussels, and Laurence Broers, of Conciliation Resources, UK; and the seminar was moderated by Dr Paul Wordsworth of the Oriental Institute. The event was “attended” by approx. 40-50 audients, from postgrad students and other interested parties, up to and including the university’s gazillion-selling Professor of Global History, Peter Frankopan.
De Waal (author of The Caucasus: An Introduction, Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide, and Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War) and Broers (Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of a Rivalry, and also co-editor-in-chief of the journal Caucasus Survey) were there to discuss recent developments in the region, the role of international actors, prospects for a diplomatic solution, and potential long-term outcomes of the crisis, which represents “the most substantial escalation of violence in this contested zone since the 1994 ceasefire.”
Quick history lesson
A little context may be needed here, perhaps. And probably a map. Nagorno (“upper” or “mountainous”) -Karabakh, is an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, more-or-less mirrored by the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan on the other (Iranian) side of Armenia’s south-eastern panhandle. Internationally recognised as legally part of Azerbaijan, the territory is a de facto independent state, with origins in the pre-Soviet oblast system.
When the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, the newly proclaimed republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the majority-Armenian NKA. In Robert Service’s (contested) opinion, the transfer of control of Karabakh and Nakhchivan to Turkic Azerbaijan in the early Twenties – during the communist subordination of the Caucasus in general – was part of an attempt by Stalin to gain Turkish support against the West. Others argue that the area was left “within Azerbaijan” precisely to ensure the region’s instability and unlikeliness to unite against Russia.
Azerbaijan’s president maintains that Armenians in NKA are full-fledged Azerbaijani citizens
Whatever the motivation or the detail, the NKA conflict stayed frozen in time, along with the rest of the Soviet Union, until the collapse of that empire, when the situation immediately flared up again amid the optimism of Gorbachev’s glasnost policies and the widespread air of self-determination. Undeclared guerrilla-type warfare began in the late Eighties, after the old Nagorno-Karabakh oblast parliament voted to unite with Armenia. Pogroms and massacres were perpetrated by both sides, as well as militarised economic embargoes, burning of villages, rapes of civilians, hostage-taking, mutilation of corpses, and all the rest of it.
With their last gasps, the Soviets had to send troops to both sides of the border, either to quell protests (Armenia) or prevent ethnic violence (Azerbaijan). The collapse of the USSR and withdrawal of troops flooded the black market with Soviet materiel. At both state and individual level, vast quantities of weaponry were handed over first to Azerbaijan, then to Armenia, in exchange for (and in the words of a Russian general) “money, personal contacts, and lots of vodkas.”
As the Soviet Union imploded, the newly independent Azerbaijan unilaterally rescinded the autonomous status of NKA. In 1991 an NKA referendum (boycotted by Azerbaijanis) resulted in a declaration of independence, which was followed by the creation of the Artsakh Defence Army, and a three-year “conventional” war ensued, which nonetheless still involved indiscriminate shelling, targeting of non-military installations, the use of civilian positions as cover, landmines, and various other war crimes.
The NKA/Armenians were backed by Russia, Azerbaijan by Turkey (rather predictably not siding with Armenia) and with arms from Israel and the Ukraine. Both sides fell back on wide-ranging conscription, and both made use of foreign fighters, albeit the Azerbaijanis had perhaps the more-unsavoury support of Afghan and Chechen Islamists, Turkish and Ukrainian right-wing paramilitary forces, and 350 officer “advisers” on loan from Turkey (Turkey did not put boots on the ground, as their prime minister at the time was wary of creating an additional Christian-Muslim faultline).
In the summer of 1993, substantial attacking progress was made by NKA/Armenian forces in the window of opportunity presented by political in-fighting in Baku and justified by the (frequently evidenced) need to keep the NKA enclave out of range of Azerbaijani artillery. As the Armenians turned their attention to Azerbaijani districts surrounding NKA, Turkey vehemently warned them not to attack Nakhchivan, and sent troops to the border. In response, Russian Federation forces in Armenia lined up against them.
In fact, there were frequent accounts of Russian troops being literally on both sides at the same time, which may well explain why the post-Soviet military commander warned the West, and in particular America, not to get involved, citing a risk of “World War Three”. They likewise strongly resisted the suggestion of a NATO peacekeeping force.
Armenia’s prime minister stated last year that ‘Artsakh is Armenia. Full stop’
NKA had much less of everything, except men in the field (only slightly fewer). But more than half of their military-age males had served in the Soviet Army, including in Afghanistan, whereas the Azerbaijanis had largely been kept out of fighting duties there and so lacked combat experience. Azerbaijani leadership was also not strong, militarily, and it has been said on various occasions that while the NKA issue is a mere political/territorial grievance for the Azerbaijanis, for Armenians – and certainly those who live in Nagorno-Karabakh – it is a matter of life and death.
The heart of the average 16-year-old Azerbaijani conscript was, accordingly, not really in it, and they began to suffer heavy defeats. In early 1994, in order to stop the Armenians potentially marching down on Baku itself, the Azerbaijanis hurried to sign a Russian-brokered ceasefire, more or less along the current borders. This left the NKA in legal limbo, but with significant territorial gains in Azerbaijan itself. So significant, in fact, that NKA was, along its western border anyway, effectively subsumed within Armenia.
Despite regular peace talks since 1992, the “Minsk Group” of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – actually constituted in Helsinki – has comprehensively failed to secure a lasting peace treaty. When, in 2008, the United Nations adopted a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from “all occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan”, seven countries voted against it, of whom three – France, America and Russia – are co-chairs of the Group.
As many as half a million Armenians and three quarters of a million Azerbaijanis were displaced by the conflict. And though NKA still has its own president and parliament, it is totally reliant on its alliance with Armenia, which – in addition to other problems – is essentially the only point of entry. Nagorno-Karabakh is independent really only from Azerbaijan. And only just.
The 2020 conflict – part I
All of this, alas, remains entirely relevant, 30 years later. In fact, the problem never really went away.
A cynic might ask if Azerbaijan doth protest too much
By 1998 the Azerbaijanis had begun systematically destroying medieval Armenian heritage within Nakhchivan. In 2004, an Armenian lieutenant was hacked to death with an axe at a NATO training seminar in Hungary, by his Azerbaijani counterpart. There are (relatively) big-budget films in both countries celebrating the episodes of the ’88-’94 war, and computer games in which one can essentially take part. Skirmishes, including fatalities, have continued intermittently ever since, along with threats of war from either side.
Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev maintains that Armenians in NKA are full-fledged Azerbaijani citizens, and that their “cultural autonomy” will always be protected. However, Armenia’s prime minister stated last year that “Artsakh is Armenia. Full stop.”
Prompted by increasingly “active” political stances emanating from Yerevan, the Armenian capital, there were border skirmishes in July, followed by mass protests for war in Azerbaijan, and vocal support from Turkey – which Armenia translates as tantamount to reigniting the Armenian Genocide. Throughout the summer both sides conducted war games with their respective allies, and each accused the other of importing terroristic battalions of foreign fighters.
On 27 September, hostilities were once again renewed, with martial law declared in all three political entities, and Armenia and NKA declaring total mobilisation.
Azerbaijan appears to have started it (as only really makes strategic sense); but within the first 24 hours they had accused Armenia of “gross violations of humanitarian law”, propagandising, destabilising the region, insulting the Muslim world, causing the 1992 Khojaly massacre, and embarking on cultural genocide. They then declared a “Great Patriotic War”. A cynic might ask if Azerbaijan doth protest too much.
Battlefield casualties have not been independently verified, but even at the time of the seminar (13 October), there had already been more declared Armenian casualties in the two-week war than UK casualties in the whole Afghan NATO mission 2002-2014. Which is to say over 500.
The conflict is a grim hybrid of trench warfare and drones
The conflict is a grim hybrid of trench warfare and drones, as the Azerbaijanis deploy a substantial fleet of UAVs for artillery reconnaissance as well as for direct attacks. Essentially, something of a one-sided, budget air-war. Then there is the more-standard use of heavy artillery, rockets and cluster bombs, which in addition to killing and maiming now, are wont to hang around and kill/maim people later. The NKA capital, Stepanakert, and Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, Ganja, had both seen extensive damage to civilian areas.
With Covid-19 and winter also kicking in, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, appealed for a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds, and it came into effect on 10 October, brokered by Russia and facilitated by the Red Cross. There had already been repeated violations on both sides before the seminar began.
Notes from the seminar
Paul Wordsworth introduced the discussion by highlighting that the conflict was already at a level not seen since the 1990s. “It’s very difficult to get a real appreciation of what is going on, the situation is developing very quickly, and it’s very difficult to understand how representative the media outlets are of what the situation actually is.”
Thomas De Waal opened by underscoring the “great humanitarian cost of what is basically a new war over Karabakh”. He also highlighted the “online moment-by-moment information war, which of course was not happening in the 1990s…” There had not, he noted, been “a social media ceasefire,” and the discourse was “toxic” to any kind of peace constituency – more so even than in Cyprus, he felt, or in Israel-Palestine. This also has a direct and escalatory military impact, he went on, in that “any alleged war-crime now drives the other side to justify a war-crime of its own.”
He also noted that Turkey’s overt support meant that Azerbaijan was making very real battlefield gains. “That is a key new element here… The major new difference in this campaign is Azerbaijan’s use of military drones, supplied by Israel and Turkey, that seem to be quite effective in knocking out Armenian armour and make it difficult for the Armenians to resupply their lines.”
Notably, the major gains are in the Azerbaijani territories around NKA (and not predominantly within the enclave itself), the seven provinces captured and “emptied” by the Armenians in 1994, to act as buffer round NKA. “It’s always been accepted that those territories must return to Azerbaijani control in any [peace] process. This is the long-term frustration building up in Azerbaijan which is one of the drivers of this conflict.”
De Waal’s assessment was that the international community may not approve of Azerbaijani methods, but as long as the conflict remained within those “undisputed” territories, he felt that international criticism would remain fairly muted. But seeing that the fighting had entered Karabakh, especially around the town of Hadrut – “this conflict’s Stalingrad” – he warned that this might well become a “tipping point.”
Laurence Broers warned of a risk of ethnic cleansing (on both sides) – “your Armenian’s worst nightmare” – and highlighted that if they felt “cornered”, Armenia might officially recognise the NKA republic, thereby immediately meaning that any attack on it was an attack on Armenia, which could trigger the 2002 Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) mutual-defence agreement with Russia.
In essence, Armenia won the war but lost the peace
Broers then drew back out to the historical perspective, that during the Gorbachev liberalisation era the Armenians of NKA had “felt that they were pushing on an open door” in terms of unification with mainland Armenia; but that the unique overspill of the conflict (into the surrounding provinces) had left “a very deep feeling of humiliation” on the part of Azerbaijan, and a grievance over the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis who then lost their homes. In essence, Armenia won the war but lost the peace. And since then, resource-poor Armenia has seen Azerbaijan twice double its defence budget using its oil and gas revenues.
In 2018 there was a velvet revolution in Armenia, bringing Nikol Pashinyan to power, with hopes of a diplomatic reset. For Azerbaijanis, especially, the first Armenian president not to hail from NKA seemed like a possible step towards some compromise. 2019 was the quietest year on record, in terms of ceasefire violations: and while Azerbaijan are the ones most frustrated with the status quo, Broers was clear that they should certainly not be viewed as the sole obstacle to long-term peace. Latterly there have been a series of contentious Armenian speeches and symbolic moves, from Pashinyan’s “full stop” number to the planning of another road across the occupied territories, to NKA president Arayik Harutyunyan holding his May inauguration in Shusha (once the principal Azerbaijani city in NKA) – all giving the impression that NKA/Armenia was not sincere in its share of the talks.
In July 2020 a skirmish on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border proper claimed 17 lives including a popular Azerbaijani general. Baku found itself under a wave of popular protests in favour of the government’s hostile military stance. There was a sudden surge of meetings between Azerbaijani and Turkish military officials, a slew of exercises, and various reports of how much Turkish materiel might have been left behind after said exercises were completed. Broers wondered if the timing was also perceived to be “a moment of unparalleled distraction in the broader international community,” between the US elections, mass unrest in Belarus, and the pandemic.
Azerbaijan is predominantly secular, and not at all looking for a long-term Islamist presence
The capture of some territory might initially have been considered enough to re-enter the peace process with some leverage; but Broers suspected more ambitious goals might now be being discussed. He noted, however, that even if the NKA/Armenians were taking heavy losses, the extent to which Azerbaijan could be expected to uproot their control in mountainous terrain was open to a lot of questions. But the idea that one side was about to “lose” in any serious sense might up the ante in terms of what their patrons, Russia or Turkey, might feel they had to do. What, he wondered, “are Russia’s red lines?” And might this be merely one piece in a geopolitical puzzle which also includes Russian and Turkish interests in Syria and Libya? He sees this as a contest between Russian diplomatic clout and Turkey’s direct military leverage on the battlefield.
From the Armenian side, he added, this is an issue of security, and no-one’s ever seriously discussed peace-keeping options. From the Azerbaijani side, this is about “substantive talks” – which is frankly understood as meaning their regaining the lost provinces round NKA. “It is very much a chicken and egg situation,” and who would want to put their troops in harm’s way, with no likelihood of movement in any such talks?
De Waal pointed out that the Turks have been out of the Caucasus for exactly a century, since they were face to face with the Soviet army in 1920. But now, he posits, there are two reasons Turkey might want back in: 1) “to re-enter the strategic game in the Caucasus,” per se, or 2) as leverage for political bargaining with Russia in Libya or Syria. Turkey may well be the ones who escalated the conflict, and indeed who will want it to de-escalate, in time. “We might be talking about two dishonest brokers in this conflict.”
However, de Waal continued, there remains “daylight” between Turkey and Azerbaijan on many issues, particularly the religious. Theirs is an alliance of convenience, but with different strategic agendas. For one thing, Azerbaijan is quite close with Israel, who are “Enemy No.1” in Turkey, currently. They have differing positions on the war in Syria. They have a Shia/Sunni split. And Azerbaijan is predominantly secular, and not at all looking for a long-term Islamist presence in the country, which could lead to domestic political challenges.
The entire population on both sides needs to be demobilised
Broers echoed this point for the opposition. Though there is a “thick institutional relationship,” he said, there is no absence of fault lines between Armenia and Russia. Pashinyan, who came to power in a popular uprising, “is exactly the sort of person Putin doesn’t like,” and the two leaders have an outstanding disagreement over Armenia’s ongoing prosecution of former president Robert Kocharyan (born in, and later president of, Nagorno-Karabakh). De Waal added that Pashinyan has been very careful to frame his 2018 revolution as a purely domestic one.
Anything that might involve Russia might involve America, of course. So, presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s camp, it was passed on with authority, were busily prepping a statement on the region. Broers acknowledged that the US is distracted by their upcoming election, but that Azerbaijani ardour might well be cooled if there were a louder international reaction. (Needless to say, not a single person at any time made any mention of the British armed forces – or Britain at all, frankly – getting involved.)
Wordsworth asked if there was any chance of new diplomatic approaches being introduced, to which Broers replied that, given the now-completely-segregated ethnic populations, peacebuilding circles are “miniscule”. And if Azerbaijan makes serious territorial gains in this war, then any existing diplomatic trade-offs become unworkable. Meanwhile, the NKA will now probably not accept anything less than “remedial secession” if their security is to be preserved.
De Waal agreed. What’s more, de Waal said, both sides view this as a righteous war. Broers concurred, flagging up the way in which “the ‘memory wars’ have become a massive industry” and it’s “increasingly difficult to take a nuanced or less-polarised view,” including throughout diaspora communities. A happy outcome would be a new generation who sees how this is still poisoning the region. The entire population needs to be demobilised.
The Caucasian specialists demurred over answering more-detailed questions about the Middle East, but agreed that this apparently tiny conflict was teaching everyone about the interlinked nature of everything that goes on there: more distant state and non-state actors are interpreting their own local rivalries through what’s now going on between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In the immediate term, de Waal said, Azerbaijan’s strategy seems to be to attempt to encircle NKA from high ground; but geography and winter will be Armenia’s friends, restricting both Azerbaijani ground movements and air advantage (cloud cover). Broers pointed out that in an asymmetrical fight like this, the smaller side has the advantage. “Not losing is winning.”
If the multilateral diplomatic game did not suit up fast, the military outcome would be the only one
Both agreed, though, that if the multilateral diplomatic game did not suit up fast, the military outcome would be the only one. De Waal, sardonically allowing that Minsk (in turbulent, dictator-led Belarus) is hardly the place for a diplomatic conference right now, hoped that perhaps Sweden, as the incoming OSCE chair and with a long tradition of multilateral diplomatic involvement, might convene something. Either way, Broers concluded: “A wake-up call is needed … This has been neglected and dismissed as a ‘frozen conflict’ for so long … and does need sustained, diligent, committed multilateralism to come up with a new status quo, leading away from war and towards peace.”
The 2020 conflict – part II
Well, the war has now been going for over a month, and almost entirely in Azerbaijan’s favour.
On 15 October, NKA announced the mobilisation of all civilians, more than half of whom (90,000) have been displaced by fighting. To date, three ceasefire attempts have come to nothing. Every day is a litany of media accusations and denials.
Azerbaijani forces have retaken pockets at the north- and south-east of NKA, and made considerable and ever-growing gains in the flatter lands round the south and south-west of the enclave, occupying all of the Iranian frontier area to the Armenian border, and making a push north-west towards the essential Laçin mountain corridor that connects NKA with the Armenian “mainland” – or would if all of the surrounding Azerbaijani territory’s retaken. The strategy here is entirely clear, and the only reason the Azerbaijanis are not coming around from the north (yet) is presumably that the mountains are much harder to fight in.
It doesn’t realistically look as though anybody will be stepping in while Azerbaijan merely reclaims territory the international community already accepts is hers. But Azerbaijani forces are now said to be within a few kilometres of Shusha, NKA’s second-largest city. A major thrust inside the enclave might bring consequences that cannot politically (or militarily) be rescinded.
Domestically, both sides are finding this to be a very popular war. In part this may be due to their policies of writing off the debts of soldiers (and even civilians) who suffer death or loss; but more substantially it’s the result of rampant propaganda.
Both countries have been restricting internet access, and both attempting to reduce their casualty statistics while inflating the enemy’s. Armenia has been withdrawing the accreditation of its journalists if they don’t toe the line; Azerbaijan are prosecuting one of theirs. Both sides are rounding up suspected “spies” and “saboteurs”. In Baku, hi-res drone-strike footage is being screened on billboards, with President Aliyev noisily linking them to “Turkey’s strength.”
Internationally, the ICRC president Peter Maurer is warning of “an internationalisation of conflicts which go far beyond only the parties which were traditionally involved.”
Getting accurate information out of a situation like this is not easy – let alone cutting-edge analysis
The Armenians are banning Turkish imports and have withdrawn their ambassador to Israel over Israeli sales of arms to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan recalled their ambassador to Greece over claims that Greek Armenians have been travelling to NKA to fight against the Azerbaijanis. Greek hackers have been attacking Azerbaijani websites (while Azerbaijan does the same to Armenia/NKA, of course), and a member of the Russian duma has been declared persona non grata by Azerbaijan simply for visiting NKA without their permission.
The Russians – while selling weaponry to Azerbaijan – are obligated under the CSTO to defend Armenia in the case of war. Turkey is a member of NATO – and the Armenians are calling on the USA, Russia and NATO to halt Turkey’s involvement in what they see as an attack by an overt “Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance”.
There is convincing evidence of Turkey recruiting Syrian and Libyan mercenaries to fight alongside the Azerbaijani military, and also claims of equipment and personnel coming in from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both sides, ironically, will want to play up the Islamic credentials of these fighters. Meanwhile, Turkey and Russia support Azerbaijan’s claim that there are Kurdish “terrorists” fighting alongside the Armenians. The foreign-fighters issue is a very loaded one, and purpose-built to be gamed for maximum advantage in the foreign media.
The EU and NATO have refused to criticize Turkey for its involvement, and indeed even asked it, as a NATO member, to use its influence to bring about a cessation of hostilities – which one might argue is open to a disastrous range of interpretations. President Erdogan talks of “permanent solutions” and has openly called for Azerbaijan to fight until it has reclaimed all the territories lost in the 1990s war. Putin has essentially ruled out direct Russian military involvement unless Armenia itself is attacked (though the Azerbaijanis are now right up to that line).
Two French and three Russian journalists have thus far been injured by Azerbaijani shelling. And there is the small matter of a major (Western-funded) pipeline that transports crude oil from the Caspian to Turkey and the rest of Europe.
The Minsk Group says that the involvement of “external parties” makes it harder to achieve any kind of progress in terms of peace talks. But of course, the antagonists both want and are reliant on the involvement of external parties. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have officially asked the USA to get involved.
Getting accurate information out of a situation like this is not easy – let alone cutting-edge analysis. How many books would one have to read to get this quantity and quality of insight into a long-running, remote, and complicated conflict?
It would certainly be better for everyone if these post-Soviet ‘frozen wars’ could just remain frozen
Let’s be honest: most of us could barely place Armenia or Azerbaijan accurately on a map, let alone a (disputed) autonomous Armenian-controlled statelet within Azerbaijan. But to be able to tune in from around the world, in reasonable “waking hours” (it was a little late in Sri Lanka), and pick up an hour’s worth of Chatham House-level intelligence – well, you can get more from 75 minutes in the company of people like this than you’d get from a week of Newsnight. Never has so much been learned from so few by so many – and in such a short space of time.
I’m not at all one for ubiquitous online substitutes; but a seminar for quiet, attentive adults who can leap straight in with a certain presumed understanding of a topic? That’s basically the same, whether on-screen or in an overheated lecture theatre.
What’s more – and with no disrespect to TOSCCA’s subject matter – there were a lot of coffee cups on show. And casual clothes. And if your screen is black, then you can throw in toilet breaks too. One noted scholar stepped away for a spot of child-wrangling. For my part, I had an arrack and a coffee, which both seemed fairly pertinent to Central Asia. Though I was also only wearing shorts, which – in October – didn’t.
For such trivial reasons, and far more serious ones, social media gets a dismal rap much of the time, and rightly so. But the accessibility to such seminars – which I don’t think, pre-Covid, had even been online, and therefore public in any useful sense – must surely be A Good Thing. If this is part of the new academic normal, long may it continue.
It’s a small world after all
Meanwhile, if one were tempted to draw distinctions between the cute little, self-contained Balkan wars of the ’90s, and all the much-more-dangerous, knock-on-effect alliances of the First World War (in which, the NKA conflict has its origins), you would not be too far wide of the mark. An official Armenian annexation of NKA could well yet lead to direct Turkish and/or Russian involvement, and then we’re off to the races. The world’s been proven to be exactly that small before. Frankly, it would almost certainly be better for everyone if these post-Soviet “frozen wars” could just remain frozen.
Lest anyone should still believe the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict itself to be a merely localised, irrelevant affair, over the past weekend I went to a remote kitesurfing village on the island’s west coast, where I met a French CFO from some big water project whose financial guys are all native Sri Lankans, barring one: an Armenian woman, who’d just flown home because her father has been drafted. He is 55 years old.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe