Breaking Analysis | September 2nd, 2023
Armenian nationalists rejecting Azerbaijani sovereignty and seeking a Moscow-led protectorate put humanitarian aid at risk and will not acquire a single inch of territory.
Dr. Yavuz is a professor of political science at the University of Utah and author of Erdoğan: The Making of an Autocrat (Edinburgh University Press, 2022) and Nostalgia for the Empire: The Politics of Neo-Ottomanism (Oxford University Press, 2020). You can read his latest article for Middle East Policy, “A Torn Country: Erdoğan's Turkey and the Elections of 2023,” through this link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/mepo.12705.
The Karabakh conflict in the North Caucasus has emerged as the second-most-significant conflict involving Russia. Historically, the region of Karabakh has been populated by Armenians, while the surrounding areas have been inhabited by Azerbaijani Turks. Throughout the existence of Azerbaijan, Karabakh has been an integral part of the country. During the Soviet era, it functioned as an autonomous region within the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. However, as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, the Armenian minority pursued reunification with Armenia, leading to the ethnic cleansing of Karabakh’s Azerbaijani residents in 1993—facilitated by Armenia and Russia. This resulted in Armenian forces’ prevailing and occupying approximately 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory. Russia consistently aligned itself with Armenia. Despite negotiations spanning three decades, a lasting solution remains elusive.
Following the initial Karabakh War and the peace talks conducted between 1994 and 2018 (prior to Nikol Pashinyan’s becoming Armenian prime minister in May of that year), Azerbaijan proposed granting special autonomy to Karabakh Armenians, contingent upon the recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. However, Armenians rejected these offers and instead threatened to seizing more Azerbaijani land. Such rhetoric, including hints at advancing toward the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, contributed to the conditions that sparked the Second Karabakh War in 2020.
On August 5, 2019, Pashinyan visited Karabakh and orchestrated a large rally in Stepanakert (Khankendi to the Azerbaijanis), during which he proclaimed, “Artsakh [Karabakh] is Armenia, and there’s no room for debate.” The prime minister led the crowd in chanting “miatsum,” signifying unification with Armenia. This term gained significance during the surge of Armenian nationalism in the late 1980s. The consequences of miatsum have had far-reaching effects. To maintain control over 20 percent of Azerbaijan, Armenians relied heavily on economic, military, and diplomatic assistance. The Republic of Armenia diverted significant funds toward Karabakh and defense, hampering the republic's overall development. This resulted in Armenia’s becoming overly reliant on Moscow. In addition, a large number of Armenians migrated to Russia or the United States, while many young Armenians lost their lives, compromising potential progress across generations.
The Second Karabakh War resulted in substantial casualties for Azerbaijan, with nearly 3,000 soldiers killed and many more wounded. The country achieved victory and has been hesitant to make concessions. In November 2020, Moscow facilitated a trilateral ceasefire agreement. This permitted 1,960 Russian peacekeeping troops to be stationed in Karabakh, responsible for guarding the Lachin Corridor, the sole route between Armenia and the enclave. The agreement also stated, “The Republic of Azerbaijan shall guarantee the safe movement of citizens, vehicles, and cargo in both directions along the Lachin Corridor.” In return, Armenia committed to “guarantee the safety” of transportation routes connecting mainland Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan enclave.
Azerbaijan President Ilhan Aliyev’s took an unequivocal stance as he signed the agreement: “The status quo? Went to hell. It failed; it was shattered to smithereens. It is not and will not be there. As long as I am president, there will be no status quo.” In response to the hesitance to accept Azerbaijani sovereignty, he answered, “Karabakh Armenians should understand that by being part of Azerbaijani society with security guarantees and their rights intact, including educational, cultural, religious, and municipal rights, they can lead a normal life.” Aliyev’s objectives were the region’s complete integration into Azerbaijan and its economic advancement. He extended an invitation to Karabakh Armenians to embrace Azerbaijani citizenship, affording them the same rights as other minority groups in Azerbaijan.
Regrettably, this offer met with resolute rejection. The Armenian leadership violated essential ceasefire conditions by refusing to build transport links to Nakhchivan. As well, Karabakh Armenians resisted Azerbaijani citizenship, prompting Aliyev to assert sovereign rights over the Lachin Corridor. Aliyev’s intention is not to eliminate or forcibly displace Armenians, as some allege. Instead, he seeks to integrate the population—ideally through voluntary means, or through coercive measures if necessary. Aliyev has proposed using the Aghdam-Stepanakert (Khankendi) Road to supply Karabakh Armenians, and wants them to formally recognize Baku as the capital of all legitimate Azerbaijani territories. However, Armenian nationalists adamantly decline this humanitarian assistance and reject Azerbaijani authority.
The concluding phase of the second Karabakh conflict presents two distinct choices: Armenians can accept integration and enjoy rights and security as with any other minority in Azerbaijan, or they can chart their own course elsewhere. Should they reject this, they may realize their version of miatsum without gaining even a single square meter of Karabakh land. Indeed, Armenians appear inclined to abandon Karabakh entirely rather than to live peacefully under Azerbaijani sovereignty. They are trying to galvanize public sentiment by accusing Azerbaijan of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and they insist on Moscow’s playing a larger role, potentially leading to a Russian protectorate over Karabakh. Both strategies will yield counterproductive outcomes.
Is There Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing?
In an effort to rally international opinion, the Armenians labeled the blockade of the Lachin Corridor as genocide. In both international and domestic law, this is an abhorrent crime, guaranteed to spark moral outrage. Consequently, nearly every ethnic, religious, or racial group has an interest in framing hardships as genocide; we have seen this in the Darfur crisis, the Tibet situation, and the Uyghur persecution in China. Russia took a similar approach in its attempt to justify the invasion of Ukraine.
Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, contends that a “credible basis exists to believe that genocide is taking place against Armenians” within the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory. He argues that the Lachin Corridor blockade deprives the region of essential resources like food and medical supplies, and he highlights starvation as “the covert weapon of this genocide.” Ocampo’s understanding of the region’s history is rudimentary and largely inaccurate, and his legal argument appears weak. Nevertheless, his report has garnered major media attention.
The Armenian government similarly urged the UN Security Council to convene and discuss the “genocide in Karabakh.” However, lacking evidence to substantiate the claim, the council refrained from making any statements on the Karabakh events. Having failed in this bid, the Armenian side enlisted Professor Juan E. Mendez of the American University-Washington College of Law to issue a preliminary report. Mendez’s findings centered on the risk of genocide for the Karabakh population, as opposed to Ocampo’s assertion that “the crime of genocide is taking place.”
Instead of pursuing genuine dialogue to improve living conditions in Karabakh, the Armenian political elite appears to be squandering time and further alienating the Azerbaijani government. The population confronts significant infrastructure challenges, including access to electricity, oil, gas, and water. Addressing these pressing issues requires collaboration with the government in Baku. Nonetheless, some Armenians prioritize independence over more immediate concerns affecting their economy, comfort, and well-being. The secessionist approach taken by certain Karabakh Armenians does not seem rational or pragmatic.
In addition to weaponizing the concept of genocide, Armenian nationalists have outlined two main goals: transforming Karabakh into a Russian protectorate or seeking territorial autonomy. Yet, neither of these options appears viable.
The Secessionist Policy: Advocating a Russian Protectorate
Karabakh Armenians remain reluctant to acknowledge their defeat in the 2020 conflict, despite international law that recognizes the territory as part of Azerbaijan. They have declined bilateral negotiations and strive to internationalize the dispute by emphasizing Moscow’s role as a mediator and working to maintain the presence of Russian troops. However, Aliyev rejects this approach, asserting that the issue falls squarely within its internal affairs. Despite Armenian provocations, Moscow reluctantly acknowledges the Karabakh issue as a sovereign concern of Baku and has reiterated its commitment to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity—a stance established when the country gained independence in 1991.
Amid this impasse, Armenians face an uncertain future within Karabakh. Many see living under Azerbaijani sovereignty as degrading and unacceptable, which significantly diminishes the prospects of peaceful coexistence. For some Armenians, leaving Karabakh may seem preferable. Davit Babayan, an advisor to Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto state minister, demonstrates this sentiment in stating, “They [Azerbaijan] only want to discuss how we will become citizens of Azerbaijan, and it’s unacceptable for us.” Instead of negotiating terms for Azerbaijani governance over the region, Babayan suggests “seeking political refuge from the international community and requesting a secure corridor to leave their homes.” Given such circumstances, it seems prudent and necessary to facilitate the departure of those Armenians who reject Azerbaijani sovereignty, even if their civil rights are ensured by the Baku government.
Certain Armenian aspirations hinge on Russia’s continuing presence in the Caucasus, which raises concerns among Western policymakers. By aligning themselves with Russian imperialism, Armenians risk undermining their own objectives. While Moscow seeks to solidify its influence, it also recognizes the drawbacks of endorsing secessionist aims, especially when compared to the potential benefits of cooperation with the Azerbaijani and Turkish governments.
Where Does Russia Stand?
The Kremlin has adroitly exploited frozen ethnic conflicts in neighboring regions to consolidate its influence along the fringes of its former empire. Instances of this strategy include conflicts in Donbass, Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, which Russia both instigated and manipulated. Similarly, Moscow had sustained and manipulated the Karabakh conflict until Azerbaijan took action to regain its territorial integrity through the 40-day war in 2020. Subsequently, Russia intervened and declared it would deploy a military contingent—purportedly as peacekeepers—until at least 2025.
The Russian presence has served to fortify the determination of Armenians to pursue an irredentist path, rejecting gestures toward negotiations and peaceful integration. To realize its unification goals and integrate Karabakh Armenians, Baku has recognized the necessity of reducing the enclave’s reliance on Armenia and enhancing humanitarian services by establishing a fresh supply route through the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam. However, the Armenians have rebuffed aid delivered via this route.
Russia is hindering the emergence of an environment conducive to a genuine peace accord. Such a deal would undermine Moscow’s rationale for sustaining or expanding its influence in the South Caucasus. Some Russian actors have tried to mobilize Karabakh Armenians in support of a permanent military presence in the region, potentially culminating in a Moscow-led referendum for the area to join the Russian state.
In the face of Aliyev’s resolute posture, its diminished standing due to the Ukraine standoff, and its declining relevance in the region, Russia appears to be recalibrating its stance and adopting a more conciliatory approach. In recent weeks, for the first time, Moscow has called on Karabakh Armenians to accept Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and engage in dialogue. Following a meeting with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts on July 25, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov remarked:
The path ahead is not an easy one. Numerous complex and critical issues must be resolved. Among the most sensitive is and remains the question of ensuring the rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh in the context of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
This indicated a notable departure from Russia’s prior approach, which aimed to uphold the status quo and maintain its role as a mediator. Moscow has also shifted blame onto Pashinyan at every opportunity. However, this stance remains ambiguous and constitutes a principal obstacle to a resolution. While Russia articulates the need for Armenians to compromise and accept Azerbaijan’s sovereignty, it simultaneously fosters hopes among Karabakh Armenians for autonomy or the potential for a Russian protectorate.
Instead of engaging directly with Baku and addressing concrete issues to enhance the living conditions of their fellow Karabakh Armenians, nationalists advocate effectively transforming the region into a Russian garrison. Should they persist in this, they risk achieving miatsum without acquiring a single inch of Azerbaijani territory.