Tuesday, 19 September 2023

Downturn in Karabakh?

Published in Analytical Articles

By Robert M. Cutler

September 18, 2023

The negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan were making important and substantive progress before the summer break. In the interim, however the Armenian government and diaspora have taken advantage of the diplomatic hiatus to launch a sustained, high-level international campaign that appears designed to create obstacles to a final peace settlement. Time is increasingly important due to political considerations. The end of the current calendar year is a crucial date. Obstacles should not be tolerated, and a concerted good-faith effort by all parties is required.

 

Azer-Arm flags large

 

BACKGROUND: For about the first year following the November 2020 trilateral agreement, contacts between Armenia and Azerbaijan took place most in trilateral Russian-mediated forums seeking to implement the agreement's provisions. But as from the end of 2022, the President of the European Council Charles Michel has motivated multiple meetings in Brussels with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and as from early 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has added his personal and institutional involvement to the process. 

Difficulties have arisen principally from the fact that the Armenian government has not fulfilled several provisions of the trilateral ceasefire agreement signed in November 2020. It has not withdrawn the thousands of Armenian armed forces still occupying the Azerbaijani internationally recognized sovereign territory in Karabakh under the protection of Russian “peacekeepers.” Tanks, artillery pieces, and other heavy equipment are also still present. Satellite photography provides evidence of the reinforcement of emplacements and construction of new ones. Armenian forces continue to plant mines that cause civilian casualties, and the government refuses to provide accurate maps for de-mining these territories. In addition, it has failed to disclose information about mass graves of executed Azerbaijanis that are being uncovered as Azerbaijan begins to redevelop and repopulate the formerly occupied territories.

It is useful to point out that the entire Armenian population of the Karabakh region is not “separatist” but rather the separatism is motivated by a relatively small subset of extremists, who hold the local population as hostage pawns and refuse peaceful coexistence within Azerbaijan, even when the international community recognizes Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. Armenia occupied a significant portion of Azerbaijani territory, including the former Nagorno-Karabakh, for decades. It is incorrect to say there is a full blockade. The Lachin Road is not entirely closed. Essential supplies and medical care are facilitated. However, the ethnic Armenian leaders in Karabakh reject alternative aid routes for delivery of foodstuffs, even while claiming that a humanitarian crisis, even a “genocide,” exists.

The public declarations of Prime Minister Pashinyan, in which he recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity including Karabakh, unfortunately do not align with the realities on the ground. Yerevan continues to fund the Armenian entity in Karabakh and to maintain its forces there, posing security risks to Azerbaijan, which consequently regards them as legitimate military targets.

IMPLICATIONS: Armenia has made some cosmetic moves lately that give the impression that it is willing to entertain a realignment away from Russia toward the West. For example, it has mainly let fall dormant its participation in CSTO, although contrary to some reports it is not contemplating withdrawal from the organization. For the first time, eighty-five American servicemen participated in joint maneuvers with Armenian forces on Armenian territory from September 11–20. Further, Armenia has delivered its first shipment of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. And Pashinyan has publicly said it was a mistake for Armenia to rely so much on Russia for security. 

It is important not to be misled by these superficial and token gestures. The strategic partnerships not only with Russia but also with Iran remain in place. In September last year, an Armenian newspaper quoted a leak from Pashinyan’s parliamentary group, where he said that his strategy was to delay a resolution of the conflict until 2025 when the mandate of the so-called Russian peacekeepers will expire. The facts on the ground make it clear that Armenia is still solidly a Russian subaltern, as well as an ally of Russia’s ally Iran, with which it has increased the integration of its national military-industrial complexes, also providing assistance for Russia’s electronic-technical advantage in Ukraine. Further, Armenian trade statistics indicate rather clearly that it is playing an important role in assisting Russia to circumvent Western sanctions.

The military and material facts on the ground make it clear that Armenia would have great difficulty exiting the embrace of the Russian bear, even if it genuinely wished to do so. Russia maintains not only its military base at Gyumri, for which the lease has been renewed. It also maintains the Russian 3624th Air Base with a squadron of attack helicopters at Erebuni Airport five miles from central Yerevan, and the Border Service of the FSB controls Armenia’s international frontiers. In addition, Russian state companies own the Armenian state railway company and the Armenian state natural-gas distribution system. They are also overwhelmingly influential in the financial sector through their preponderance in the Armenian banking system. Still further, Armenia’s international trade statistics very strongly suggest that the country facilitates Russia’s circumvention of Western sanctions, and the increasing integration of the electronic and technical sectors of the Armenian and Iranian military-industrial complexes is very much to Russia’s advantage.

CONCLUSIONS: According to Hikmet Hajiyev, advisor to Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev and the head of the foreign policy affairs department of the presidential administration, the peace agreement is approximately 70 percent finalized. It is imperative to persevere and accelerate the movement toward a comprehensive peace agreement between the two sides. The end of the current calendar year is an important deadline. In 2024, the American political scene will become preoccupied with domestic politics in the run-up to the November elections. Ursula von der Leyen’s term as President of the European Commission also expires next year. The formal process of nomination begins in the middle of the year, and she has not said whether she will be a candidate again.

Charles Michel’s term as President of the European Council likewise also expires late next year, with the succession politics beginning in summer. In this connection, it is important to mention that the constructive mediation that he has been conducting personally between Pashinyan and Aliyev is his personal initiative. As such, it has no institutional basis in the European Council, his Office as its President, or the European Union more broadly. It is therefore the most fragile of all the existing forums. This fact underscores the need to enhance and accelerate the movement toward a comprehensive accord, particularly as France has sought to dilute it through the summit meetings of the European Political Community, which was an initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Intensive consultations and diplomatic initiatives are occurring on all sides during the present crucial period. After failing last month to get the UN Security Council to make a statement on Karabakh, France announced again its intention to seek a new UN Security Council Resolution, but then failed to pursue this. President Macron announced a trip to Yerevan and Baku, which never occurred. Secretary of State Blinken has held telephone calls recommitting himself and his prestige to the peace process on the basis of gains made up until now. The situation is extremely fluid and requires the best and most sincere efforts from all sides.

Robert M. Cutler is a past fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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