Responsibility for the Nagorno-Karabakh Debacle

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In September, while world leaders were in New York for the United Nations General Assembly deliberating about international cooperation, rule of law, human rights, and the peaceful resolution of disputes, half-way around the world in the mountains of South Caucasus, an Azerbaijani offensive was setting the stage for the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from their ancestral land, Nagorno-Karabakh.

By the end of September, over 100,000 Armenians had absconded from Nagorno-Karabakh and found refuge in neighboring Armenia. By the time the first UN mission in 35 years of violent conflict arrived in Stepanakert, the capital of the enclave, as few as 50 Armenians were left in Nagorno-Karabakh. The UN mission was silent about humanitarian conditions in outlying towns and villages.

In Armenia’s capital Yerevan, the shock of losing Nagorno-Karabakh brought angry protesters to Republic Square demanding to identify the culprits responsible for the debacle. Fingers pointed in the first place to Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for abandoning Nagorno-Karabakh. Next to blame were President Vladimir Putin, Russia, and the Russian peacekeeping forces for standing aside, even tacitly approving Azerbaijan’s offensive. Western institutions and governments, particularly the United States and the European Union, were on the blame list as well for failing to deter Azerbaijan’s aggression.

What happened, what did the culprits do or failed to do to deserve blame, and what can be done next?

The Facts

The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is mainly over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave with a majority Armenian population incorporated arbitrarily in Azerbaijan during the early Soviet years. Following the fall of the USSR in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992-1994 and 2020. Pogroms against Armenians in Azerbaijan, and mass displacement of over one million people in both countries continue to poison relations. On 2 September 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh seceded from Soviet Azerbaijan to preserve its population’s right to life, formed democratic governance institutions, and continued to self-govern until September 2023.

On 19 September, following a nine-month medieval siege of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan launched a massive offensive on the enclave, overwhelming its meager self-defense forces within 24 hours. The European Parliament called the attack “unjustified” and a “gross violation of human rights and international law”. Armenia was unprepared militarily and could not help the enclave. The fewer than 2,000 Russian peacekeepers stood aside as Azerbaijan’s forces bombarded civilian and military targets indiscriminately. Azerbaijan completely ignored toothless Western protestations to halt the offensive.

Since 12 December 2022, Azerbaijani forces had blocked the five-kilometer-long road through the Lachin Corridor, the only lifeline connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh for the supply of essential goods, thus imposing a siege on the enclave. Over the course of nine months, the siege resulted in severe shortages of food, medicine, electricity, and fuel. The Russian peacekeepers, deployed to ensure, among other tasks, the free movement of goods and people through the Lachin Corridor, were unable and unwilling to end the blockade. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued two interim decisions, in February and July 2023, ordering Azerbaijan to reopen the corridor. The international community, including the U.S., the E.U. and others repeatedly urged Azerbaijan to end the blockade. Yet, Azerbaijan ignored the ICJ decisions and international appeals.

The siege was a prelude to the 19 September all-out Azerbaijani assault against Nagorno-Karabakh. During the preceding weeks, Azerbaijan had received planeloads of military supplies from Turkey and Israel, repeating the pattern during the weeks preceding Azerbaijan’s 2020 war on Nagorno-Karabakh. Without help from Armenia and after a nine-month starvation siege, the self-defense forces of Nagorno-Karabakh were overwhelmed and capitulated within 24 hours.

In a charm offensive, Azerbaijan promised food and other humanitarian assistance to Nagorno-Karabakh, and allowed the ICRC to deliver a single convoy with 70 tons of essential supplies. Azerbaijan’s propaganda machine “flooded social media with pictures of [its] forces handing chocolates to the very same children it deprived of the most basic foodstuffs for months as they crossed into Armenia.” Most offensively, within days of seizing Stepanakert, Azerbaijan renamed one of the streets after Enver Pasha, the Ottoman architect of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

Facing defeat and humanitarian disaster, on 21 September, the Armenian authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh met with representatives of Azerbaijan in Yevlakh, just north of the enclave, to discuss their surrender. Azerbaijan demanded: (1) the complete disarmament and surrender of the Nagorno-Karabakh self-defense forces; (2) the surrender of the enclave’s leaders for “criminal” prosecution; and (3) the reintegration in Azerbaijan of the enclave’s population without any minority protections. The Russian-brokered talks ended with the dissolution of the enclave’s authorities.

The Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, fearing for their lives after a nine-month starvation siege and the international community’s impotence to end the siege, and fearful of reprisals and mass atrocities, prepared to take refuge in Armenia. With the pressure on civilians at its height, Azerbaijan opened the Lachin Corridor on September 24. Within a week, over 100,000 Armenians absconded, taking refuge in Armenia, and the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh was complete. More than two millennia Armenian presence in Nagorno-Karabakh was no more, and the destruction of Armenian cultural and religious heritage in the enclave likely the next victim.

Notwithstanding the aggression and atrocities committed by one side, on September 27, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres incredibly “urged both sides to respect human rights.” On October 1 when the population had already fled Nagorno-Karabakh, a UN needs assessment mission visited Stepanakert. The mission did not have access to rural areas but noted that “between 50 and 1,000 ethnic Armenians remain” in the enclave. Among other flaws, the statement used biased language copied directly from Azerbaijan’s presidential website. Regrettably, the first UN mission to the region in 35 years of violent conflict was a shocking disappointment.

At a September 14 hearing at the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim warned that the U.S. “will not countenance any action or effort … to ethnically cleanse or commit other atrocities against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh… We have also made abundantly clear that the use of force is not acceptable. We give this committee our assurances that these principles will continue to guide our efforts in this region.” Five days later, Azerbaijan painfully exposed the naked truth that outcomes the West “calls ‘unacceptable’ cannot be stopped by words … alone.”

The international community’s failure to impose consequences on Azerbaijan for repeated breaches of international obligations, including repeated attacks against Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, and a nine-month blockade of Lachin Corridor and siege, encouraged Azerbaijan to launch the latest aggression, the ethnic cleansing, and the genocide of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. The world cannot pretend they did not see this coming.

Responsibility for the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh

Azerbaijan’s Responsibility

Azerbaijan’s hereditary dictator-president Ilham Aliyev and his senior lieutenants bear criminal responsibility for the breaches of international law committed against Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Moreover, Azerbaijan breached the UN Charter’s Article 2 admonition against the threat or use of force in resolving disputes, particularly when negotiations are ongoing under separate Western and Russian mediations.

In August 2023, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Luis Moreno Ocampo concluded that the blockage of Lachin Corridor and the siege of Nagorno-Karabakh, then in its seventh month, “should be considered a Genocide under Article II, (c) of the Genocide Convention: ‘Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.’” He added, this was a Genocide by starvation. The Lemkin Institute for Genocide supported Ocampo’s conclusion, as did other scholars of Genocide.

While “ethnic cleansing” is not recognized as an independent crime under international law, the term has been acknowledged in judgments of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) and has been described as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” Such acts constitute crimes against humanity and could also fall within the meaning of Genocide.

Additionally, ethnic cleansing is referenced in the Responsibility to Protect principle adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, stating that countries “have the responsibility to protect their population from the commission of “genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes.”

Moreover, “the fear/apprehension of the population – due to the coercive environment created by the months-long blockade and the recent armed attack – would meet the threshold for” the more severe crime against humanity.

On October 3, the Armenian Parliament ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. With this, “Armenia could file immediately a special ‘Article 12(3)’ declaration granting jurisdiction to the Court over the forcible deportation of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh onto Armenian territory.” Even though Azerbaijan has not ratified the Rome Statute, Article 12(3) could expose Aliyev and other Azerbaijani officials to the jurisdiction of the ICC.

Armenian Responsibility

The Armenian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan bears the principal political responsibility for the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh. In September 2022, Pashinyan acknowledged the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and conceded that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan so long as the “rights and security” of the enclave’s Armenians could be guaranteed under Azerbaijani sovereignty. While the recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is inevitable provided the border between the two countries is delineated, Pashinyan’s recognition that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan is a gratuitous concession offered without the consent of or consultation with the enclave’s authorities. Pashinyan’s giveaway, reaffirmed repeatedly throughout 2023, closed the door to international support for the continuing de facto independence and future de Jure recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence.

As a populist leader, Pashinyan was likely responding to the wishes of a segment of Armenia’s population fatigued by decades of war with Azerbaijan. These wishes corresponded with the U.S. and E.U. mediators’ preference for a quick solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

For the past year, Pashinyan was reorienting Armenia’s security umbrella from Russia to the West, naively hoping to earn the U.S. and E.U. mediators’ support in the ongoing negotiations with Azerbaijan. Ultimately, Pashinyan had nothing to show for his reorientation and concessions beyond toothless expressions of concern, condemnations, and sympathies. The U.S. and E.U. mediators supported Azerbaijan’s stance regarding the conflict under the veneer of defending its territorial integrity. Pashinyan’s passive response served to whet Aliyev’s appetite and to turn his considerable military arsenal against Armenia, demanding parts of the country’s southern Zankezur or Syunik district, which Aliyev falsely calls “Western Azerbaijan”.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s leadership as well has responsibility for the debacle. The U.S., France, and Russia, jointly within the context of the OSCE Minsk Group, advanced comprehensive proposals, among others the Madrid Principles in 2008, to prolong indefinitely the de facto independent statusof the enclave and eventually to submit its right to self-determination to a referendum. The Nagorno-Karabakh authorities imprudently rejected the proposal because it required the return of territories around the enclave occupied temporarily in 1994 as a security buffer. Other opportunities were also squandered.

Following the 2020 defeat, creative compromises could have avoided the complete loss of Nagorno-Karabakh. Possibly, instead of full independence, some level of autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh could have guaranteed the rights and security of its inhabitants under the control of their elected authorities, ultimately accepting Azerbaijan’s de jure sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh but maintaining the enclave’s de facto self-determination.

In general, among the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, compromise is concomitant to weakness. accordingly, one party or another at different points rejected OSCE Minsk Group proposals. Thus, Azerbaijan’s disposition to accept any compromise was doubtful. Instead, Azerbaijan spent its petrodollar earnings to amass weapons purchased from Turkey, Israel, Russia, the U.S., and Europe, and trained for the day when it could solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by force, in its favor. Regardless, when the status quo of a violent conflict is unsustainable, advancing creative compromises could open unforeseen doors in visionary conflict resolution efforts.

Western Responsibility

In the past year, the U.S. and E.U. in coordination, and Russia separately, have been mediating peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. More than a dozen summits and foreign minister-level talks have convened. The Nagorno-Karabakh leadership has been excluded from these talks. The latest Armenian-Azerbaijani summit under E.U. mediation was scheduled for 5 October in Granada, Spain, but Aliyev cancelled his participation at the eleventh hour.

While optimists among the U.S. and E.U. mediators expected a peace agreement to be concluded between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the end of the year, Azerbaijan’s aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh and the ethnic cleansing of the enclave’s Armenians have obliterated any such rosy forecast.

Due to Azerbaijan’s increased role in supplying gas to Europe with the war in Ukraine, the E.U. and U.S. mediators wished a quick solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh status, urging the enclave’s reintegration within Azerbaijan with “guaranties for the rights and security” for its Armenian inhabitants. Yet, for the reintegration of Armenians Azerbaijan offered only citizenship rights under the country’s flawed constitution that could not guarantee rights for individual or minorities. Given decades of violent conflict and virulent Armenophobia in Azerbaijan, without robust guaranties, Armenians feared for their lives. Mediators were tone-deaf to this reality.

With the Nagorno-Karabakh status removed from the negotiation agenda, the mediators could focus on the border delineation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and communication linkages, including Azerbaijan’s demand, supported by Turkey, for a “corridor” under its control through the southern Armenian Syunik region between Azerbaijan and its Nakhichevan exclave. Azerbaijan’s latter demand relies on the 9 November 2020 tripartite armistice agreement that Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan signed to end the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, paragraph 9 of which provides for “transport connections between the western regions of … Azerbaijan and [Nakhichevan] … [for] unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions.” Since the main objective of the tripartite agreement was to end all hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh (para. 1), Azerbaijan’s September 19 resumption of all-out war breached and nullified altogether the agreement. Consequently, Azerbaijan has no legal standing for its demand of a passage through Armenian territory. However, given the strategic significance of communication linkages in the South Caucasus, a mutually beneficial agreement may be possible to negotiate between the parties.

Regrettably, the U.S. and E.U. mediators opted to support Azerbaijan’s interpretation of international laws regarding territorial integrity and self-determination. The U.S., the E.U. and others took into account the evolution of international law for the recent cases of Kosovo, East Timor, and others, favoring remedial self-determination when the fundamental rights of segments of those countries were breached. Given the growing Western dependence on Azerbaijan’s goodwill to increase gas supplies to Europe, the U.S. and E.U. mediators violated their obligation to remain impartial in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and to respect their own precedents. They favored Azerbaijan’s interpretation of unconditional territorial integrity, in essence acting as the latter’s lawyers.

When by the end of September, the entire population of Nagorno-Karabakh was on the road to Armenia, U.S. and European officials arrived in Armenia to express hollow concerns, grief, and sympathy, also donating paltry sums for humanitarian assistance. The U.S. and Europe, not to forget Russia, had empowered Aliyev by failing to impose consequences for Azerbaijan’s earlier breaches against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Aliyev was allowed to get away with “might makes right”, signaling that power counts more than international norms, and that if one wants peace, one must prepare for war.

Russian Responsibility

Since February 2022, Russia has been preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, and its bandwidth for geopolitical interests in the South Caucasus has narrowed considerably. Sensing this, Azerbaijan repeatedly tested the Armenian military defenses and Russia’s possible response to violations of the 2020 tripartite agreement. The blockade of the Lachin Corridor, and repeated Azerbaijani aggression against Armenian positions around Nagorno-Karabakh as well as along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border remained unchallenged. The developing Azerbaijan-Russia and Turkey-Russia transactional relations undoubtedly also influenced the permissive Russian conduct, which encouraged Azerbaijan to pursue the September 19 onslaught against Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia did not react even when in the first hours of the attack Azerbaijani shelling killed the deputy commander of its peacekeeping force.

Moreover, since Pashinyan’s 2018 election as prime minister following a “color revolution” in Armenia, President Putin has been distrustful of the journalist turned prime minister through a popular uprising. More recently, Pashinyan’s actions have been interpreted in Moscow as anti-Russian, including an unprecedented joint military exercise in Armenia with the participation of a small U.S. military contingent, Pashinyan’s spouse visiting Kyiv, and Armenia’s ratification of the ICC Statute, all during September.

Following Pashinyan’s giveaway of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, President Putin declared that, if Armenia is prepared to give away Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, it is no longer for Russia to advocate for the enclave’s self-determination. Putin then urged Nagorno-Karabakh’s integration in Azerbaijan. Thus, Russia pivoted to supporting Azerbaijan in its quest to subjugate Nagorno-Karabakh, instead of maintaining its previously ambiguous position on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh that favored Russia’s continuing presence in the South Caucasus.

Beyond the impact on Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia’s ire is likely to have catastrophic consequences for Armenia’s economy. Important pillars of Armenia’s economy, including 90% of the country’s power generation capacity, are controlled by Russian interests. Armenian agricultural exports to Russia are already facing restrictions. Some 40% of Armenia’s exports go to Russia. Also, a sizeable number of Armenians working in Russia sent in 2022 US$3.6 billion in personal remittances to their families in Armenia. Ultimately, Russia may try to “reinstate its influence over Armenia through a like-minded replacement for Pashinyan…. The aim would be to reverse Armenia’s orbit toward the West”.

What can be done now, urgently?

Urgent humanitarian needs in Armenia must be addressed first. The 100,000 refugees in Armenia need shelter, food, health care, schooling, and emotional support to preserve a modicum of dignity. They must be designated as “refugees” and the UNHCR invited to provide urgent assistance. The assistance provided by the Armenian government is insufficient. The international community has the responsibility to provide protection and care for these refugees.

Additionally, the refugees’ right to return to Nagorno-Karabakh must be preserved. However, Azerbaijan’s hollow rhetoric and bare minimum terms offered for the return of Armenians are insufficient. Concrete measures must be in place for Armenians to enjoy meaningful autonomy and minority rights under international monitoring and protection. Moreover, it is incumbent upon the international community to ensure that the homes these refugees abandoned, and their belongings are not destroyed, confiscated, looted, or otherwise damaged.

Some 300 Nagorno-Karabakh leaders are wanted by Azerbaijan for alleged war crimes committed during the enclave’s three wars. Already, some have been taken hostage, humiliated in front of cameras, and transferred to Baku prisons. Among those detained are: Ruben Vartanyan, philanthropist and former head of the enclave’s authority; Arayik Harutyunyan, Bako Saakyan, and Arkadi Ghukasyan, former presidents; David Babayan, former foreign minister; Lyova Mnatsakanyan, former defense minister; and Davit Ishkanyan, former parliament speaker. Other leaders’ whereabouts are not known.

These leaders must be freed immediately, at the very least as a confidence building measure. The international community, in particular the U.S. and the E.U. have the duty to pressure Azerbaijan to free them immediately. Additionally, Armenian POWs have been detained by Azerbaijan during the brief September fighting. Also, an unknown number of POWs remain in Azerbaijani custody since the 2020 war. Now that the war has ended, the POWs must be freed immediately in accordance with the Geneve Conventions. The “50 to 1,000” Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh – mostly elderly, sick, and injured, must be provided protection by the deployment of international eyes and ears, human rights monitors, and reporters, to the enclave. These monitors must be allowed to visit remote areas of the enclave where rumors of massacres and mass graves have emerged before any evidence is destroyed.

A robust monitoring mission, more numerous than the current EU mission, must be deployed urgently along the entire border of Armenia and Azerbaijan to prevent Azerbaijan from attacking southern Armenia in its quest to establish a corridor to Nakhichevan through sovereign Armenian territory. Consideration must be given to this mission having security enforcement powers. The alternative to monitors with enforcement powers is arming Armenia with defensive weapons to remedy the asymmetry of forces. Currently, Armenia cannot stand against the superior armed forces of Azerbaijan.

The U.S. and the E.U. have expressed regrets and disappointment for not doing more to restrain Azerbaijan. It is too late for such regrets for Nagorno-Karabakh, but not late for Armenia. However, time is of the essence. The U.S. and E.U. jointly must assist Armenia to delineate urgently its borders with Azerbaijan. Also, Armenia requires massive international economic assistance to recover from the latest debacle. Otherwise, Armenia risks to fall into internal turmoil.

More significantly, the U.S. and E.U. must stop all military assistance and sales to Azerbaijan. U.S. and E.U. sanctions could restrain Azerbaijan’s next likely aggression against southern Armenia. However, carbohydrate interests will likely preempt any such sanctions on Azerbaijan.

Beyond the urgent needs, to reach an end of conflict and sustainable peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the current mediation effort must be reconsidered to provide symmetry against Azerbaijan’s military and geopolitical advantages. Moreover, mechanisms ought to be provided to address a legacy of conflict and abuses that have caused deep wounds both in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Hrair Balian
Hrair Balian
Hrair Balian has practiced conflict resolution for the past 35 years in the Middle East, Africa, Balkans, Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia. He has served in leadership positions with the UN, OSCE and NGOs, including The Carter Center (Director, Conflict Resolution, 2008-2022).

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