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Nagorno-Karabakh update: September 21 2023
A new status quo appears to have taken hold in the south Caucasus region.
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With the caveat that I am still trying to take a break from world news, events in Nagorno-Karabakh this week have been impossible to ignore and I think merit some sort of update, even a brief one. I’m throwing this together on the fly so please bear with me if there are details that seem to be missing or downplayed. Again, we’ll be back to a regular schedule on Sunday unless something interferes.
On Tuesday, the Azerbaijani military began what it called an “anti-terrorist” operation in Karabakh. As I’m sure you know, thanks in part to the War on Terror “anti-terrorism” has become an easy go-to justification for governments looking to wage war for reasons they may not feel comfortable expressing openly. The operation did manifest after Azerbaijani officials claimed that six people had been killed by Karabakh landmines in the neighboring Khojavend district, but even if we assume that’s true the scale of the Azerbaijani offensive was not something that could have been slapped together in immediate response to a provocation. It’s clear the Azerbaijanis were waiting for an excuse (again, assuming they didn’t manufacture one).
The Azerbaijani military claimed that its operation was only targeting “legitimate military installations and infrastructure” with “high-precision weapons.” Of course, the stifled media environment in Azerbaijan generally and in Karabakh specifically makes it impossible to prove or disprove those claims. The Azerbaijanis also said they’d opened evacuation corridors for civilians in Karabakh to escape the fighting—one of them through the Lachin Corridor into Armenia, which I suspect was the one they were hoping most people would take. By Tuesday evening at least 26 civilians had been killed according to a former Karabakh official, and the Azerbaijani government was offering to hold peace talks in the town of Yevlakh—provided the Karabakh regional government disarmed its defense forces and dissolved itself first.
On Wednesday the Azerbaijani and Karabakh governments announced a ceasefire, with Karabakh authorities having agreed to two Azerbaijani demands: the disarmament of their defense forces and the removal of Armenian military forces from the region. The latter is a thorny issue because the Armenian government has insisted that it has no military forces in Karabakh, which legally is a separate entity. The degree of integration between the enclave’s military and Armenia’s military remains an open question. The Karabakh government has not to my knowledge agreed to dissolve itself but this ceasefire is a surrender in all but name and the main immediate question isn’t whether Karabakh will survive as an autonomous entity but rather how and how quickly it will be brought back under direct Azerbaijani rule.
Despite a handful of reported ceasefire violations on Thursday the cessation appears to be holding at this point and there has been an initial contact in Yevlakh between Azerbaijani and Karabakh officials to discuss the region’s status. Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan is claiming that the operation killed in total more than 200 people and wounded over 400 others, though again there’s no independent confirmation of those figures (which could be underestimates as easily as they could be overestimates). Thousands of people have been displaced though the dust is still settling so specificity in terms of how many are displaced within the enclave and how many have fled to Armenia (or will flee in the coming days) remains to be seen.
Many things, to be sure, remain to be seen. The possibility of widespread ethnic cleansing has loomed over Karabakh since the end of the 2020 war that restored territory around the enclave to Azerbaijani control. Ethnic cleansing has been a recurring feature in the conflict over Karabakh and between Armenia and Azerbaijan going back at least to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Fears about the status of Karabakh’s Armenian population grew when the Azerbaijani government blockaded the Lachin Corridor late last year, cutting off the enclave’s lifeline for food, fuel, medicine, and other basic needs.
Those fears are going to be omnipresent now, Azerbaijani rhetoric about “reintegrating” Karabakh’s population into Azerbaijan notwithstanding. Talk of protecting Armenian “rights and freedoms” rings especially hollow in a country whose government doesn’t respect anybody’s “rights and freedoms,” least of all those of a secessionist minority. Autocratic Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has fantasized openly about punishing Karabakh Armenians too many times for a few anodyne words about “reintegration” to mean anything unless they’re backed up by genuine, verified action. Unconfirmed reports of Azerbaijani atrocities have been circulating online but I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about those piecemeal except to say generally that atrocities in this situation would not be at all surprising.
There’s a lot more to unpack in the wake of this week’s events. The Russian-Armenian relationship may be beyond repair at this point. It was one thing for Russian peacekeepers to look the other way during the Lachin blockade, but their failure to keep any semblance of peace over the past couple of days is undeniable. Azerbaijani forces were even able to kill Russian soldiers without drawing a reaction. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is already facing renewed hostility from the substantial Karabakh element that has long been a significant factor in Armenian politics, but whether that will wind up costing him his job is impossible to predict right now. Karabakh’s new status, whatever that winds up being, will undoubtedly have implications for Armenia’s diplomatic interactions with Azerbaijan and with Turkey, Azerbaijan’s primary patron, but here as well it’s way too early to draw any conclusions. Apart from the immediate concern for Karabakh’s population, these are some of the big issues to watch moving forward.
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