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Armed Armenian troops sitting on top of an armoured personnel carrier with an Armenian flag.
Armenian troops suffered a crushing defeat in the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Bumble Dee via Shutterstock

Nagorno-Karabakh: in the aftermath of war, Armenia faces an unpalatable choice

More than six months have passed since the “second Karabakh war”, as it is now called, came to an abrupt end last year with Armenia all but defeated. The ceasefire hastily signed on November 9 – after Azerbaijan took the historically significant fortress town of Shushi/Shusha in the mostly Armenian-inhabited enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh – may have brought active hostilities to an end, but left many questions unanswered.

For the first time since the earliest days of the conflict, Russian forces were introduced into those parts of the region still under ethnic Armenian control – marked orange on the map below – to guard the peace between the two sides. Under the terms of the agreement, Armenian forces also withdrew from territories adjacent to parts of the contested region – the dark green coloured areas on the map. The blue areas of the map show the territories that were recaptured by Azerbaijan.

As a result, the frontline between the two adversaries shifted all the way to the old, Soviet-era boundary between the two states, with the two sides facing off against each other across the eastern border of Armenia’s southernmost province of Syunik for the first time in over two decades.

Map of the Caucasus region showing de facto borders after the ceasefire, explained above.
The lie of the land after the ‘second Karabakh war’ in November 2020. Curious Golden via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

This border issue has become particularly salient in recent weeks. Several reported incursions of Azerbaijani forces into internationally recognised Armenian territory have added to Armenian society’s insecurities in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 war. Even during the war, fears of Azerbaijani encroachment into Armenian territory prompted the government of Nikol Pashinyan to ask for the stationing of several hundred Russian servicemen in the province as a “tripwire”.

Those fears have now been exacerbated by repeated references to southern Armenia as the “historical territory of Azerbaijan” at the highest levels of Azerbaijan’s government. The idea that the encroachments in Syunik are somehow connected with these utterances, and Azerbaijan’s vocal insistence on a fully-fledged “transportation corridor” across the province has raised tensions even further.

Political turmoil

In the run-up to Armenia’s upcoming snap parliamentary elections, these fears have now reached fever pitch. Following Pashinyan’s resignation on April 25, Armenia’s nationalist opposition is interested in maximising the perception of his government as incompetent and weak. Opposition social media channels are amplifying this point by posting leaked documents and floating allegations of secret territorial concessions to Azerbaijan.

Women and men carrying a giant red, blue and orange flag through the streets at night.
Supporters of Armenia’s opposition Homeland Salvation Movement at an anti-government rally in Yerevan,the capital of Armenia, March 2021. EPA-EFE/ Narek Aleksanyan

It doesn’t help that most Armenian voters have already lost faith in any assurances given by the government, thanks to what is seen as a disastrous and mendacious communications strategy during the war. Ahead of the election on June 20, it will be hard to convince the Armenian people to accept any attempts to agree permanent mechanisms aimed at resolving the border conflict. This was pointed out in no uncertain terms in a recent statement by a coalition of civil society organisations not associated with the nationalist opposition.

Much of the latest movement on the border may have to do with Azerbaijan maximising its positions in preparation for upcoming negotiations on a final settlement of the conflict. It may effectively be grabbing bargaining chips through “salami tactics” while the balance of power is still massively in its favour – rather than attempting to gain control of Syunik, or forcing the opening of a transportation corridor, as feared by some in Armenia.

Azerbaijan wants Armenia to face it across the negotiating table as weakened and insecure as possible, facing a series of accomplishments whose reversal would command a correspondingly high price. Recent statements by Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, have made clear that any peace agreement would be conditional on Armenia’s acceptance of Nagorno-Karabakh as an integral part of Azerbaijan. Armenia’s response that a comprehensive agreement would primarily involve determining the enclave’s political status leaves both sides as far apart as ever, even before the onset of negotiations.

Russia’s role

The recent episode has also highlighted Armenia’s dependence on alliances that could, at best, be described as “fickle”. For more than two decades, subsequent Armenian governments were all too happy to effectively outsource much of the country’s national security to Moscow. To a lesser extent, Armenia also relied on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of post-Soviet states in the name of maintaining an increasingly untenable status quo.

But the CSTO has revealed itself as the empty box many suspected it to be, both during the war, and during the recent border episodes. Official appeals by Armenia citing several CSTO provisions prompted barely a whimper from what is essentially a Moscow-sponsored facade of an alliance. A high-ranking Russian diplomat stressing that its doors were also open to Azerbaijan for good measure.

And, while Russia did oblige Armenia by stationing troops in Syunik, it was noticeably lukewarm in its support for the Armenian position in the recent stand-off with Azerbaijan. Despite Russia’s bilateral mutual defence treaty with Armenia, Moscow’s statements were even more restrained than those of the United States or France.

The Armenian electorate thus faces an unpalatable choice: an incumbent who was responsible for the worst military defeat in over a century, or a mostly nationalist opposition composed of former leaders whose only recipe for the future is more of the same – and an even greater dependence on Moscow. Meanwhile, much-needed new ideas following the November 2020 disaster are few, and will likely take much time and effort to emerge from the ashes of war.

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