How that would happen without a mass exodus of Armenians is unclear
Editor’s note: On September 20th Azerbaijan and Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh agreed to a Russian-mediated ceasefire. Armenian forces in the enclave will disarm and disband, and civilian representatives from Karabakh will take part in talks about the prospects for integration with Azerbaijan.
War returned to Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19th, accompanied by air sirens and drone strikes, as Azerbaijan launched a large army offensive against the Armenian enclave located inside its own territory. Azerbaijan’s defence ministry called the assault an “anti-terrorist operation”, intended to restore constitutional order and expel armed Armenian separatists from the region. Officials in Armenia, including the country’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, accused Azerbaijan of launching a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Armenians of Karabakh.
Videos posted online appeared to show armed drones taking out Armenian defences, and shelling near Stepanakert, the enclave’s capital. At least 25 people, including two civilians, have been killed across the region so far, according to the Nagorno-Karabakh human-rights ombudsman. “They haven’t stopped for 8-12 hours,” says Ruben Vardanyan, a former Karabakh official, describing the bombing. “It’s a full-scale war.”
Azerbaijan, it appears, now wants nothing short of Karabakh’s complete surrender. “They should disarm themselves and raise the white flag,” says Hikmet Hajiyev, an adviser to Azerbaijan’s president, referring to the region’s Armenian leaders.
Officials in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, say that the offensive is in large part a response to elections held in the separatist enclave on September 9th and recent land-mine explosions which killed six Azerbaijanis, including four police officers. But the attack seems to have been in the making for a long time. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of massing troops near the border separating the two countries and around Nagorno-Karabakh days before the elections.
Azerbaijan has also blocked the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, since late last year, so as to force the enclave’s leaders into submission. The result has been a severe shortage of food, medicine and fuel. Hunger is widespread. The government in Baku agreed to reopen the corridor on September 9th, in exchange for the opening of another road linking Nagorno-Karabakh with the rest of Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh, populated these days exclusively by Armenians but formally part of Azerbaijan, has been bloodied by two large wars in three decades. The most recent of these, in 2020, saw Azerbaijan recapture territories around Karabakh occupied by ethnic Armenians since the 1990s, when the first war was fought.
A prolonged assault on Nagorno-Karabakh could produce tens of thousands of refugees, and yet more of the kind of atrocities seen during previous wars. Azerbaijan’s army has already announced the opening of “humanitarian corridors” along the Lachin corridor for Armenian civilians. That sounds less reassuring than ominous.
The offensive is supposed to ensure Nagorno-Karabakh’s “reintegration” into Azerbaijan, says Mr Hajiyev. But how this is supposed to happen without a mass exodus of the region’s 120,000 Armenians is unclear. The government in Baku refuses to offer Nagorno-Karabakh any special rights or security guarantees. “It will be just like any other region of Azerbaijan,” says Mr Hajiyev.
Western officials have so far contented themselves with the standard calls for calm. But more striking, and noticeable by its absence, is the reaction from Russia, the region’s long-time power-broker. The presence of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers, deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh as part of an armistice, was thought to mitigate against another large war. It has not. “The Russian peacekeepers are doing nothing,” says Mr Vardanyan. “They try to [stay] out of this war.”
Since the 2020 war, Armenia has regularly accused Russia, with which it has a defence pact, of leaving it out in the cold, and drawn closer to America. The country recently hosted military exercises featuring a small number of American troops. Armenia’s refusal to conduct exercises with Russian troops earlier this year, a more recent visit by Anna Hakobyan, Mr Pashinyan’s wife, to Ukraine, and the country’s plans to join the International Criminal Court, which has issued Vladimir Putin with an arrest warrant, have all ruffled feathers in Moscow. Once Armenia is a full member, it would be obliged to arrest Mr Putin if he went there.
As a result of all this, Russia’s dictator may now be out to punish Armenia. “The Russians have given Azerbaijanis a kind of green light to do something in Karabakh,” reckons Thomas de Waal, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, “and destabilise Armenia at the same time.” In 2013, 80% of Armenians saw Russia as a friend. That number recently dropped to 35%. And on September 19th, people in Yerevan marched down the main streets shouting “Russia is an enemy”.
(c) 2023, The Economist