Armenia has reached a new watershed as it fights for its existence for the first time in a century. The modern history of Armenia will be seen through the prism of before September 27, 2020 and after it.
In the early hours of September 27, Azerbaijan unleashed a large-scale war against Armenia and Karabakh, undermining the fragile peace of the South Caucasus. Along the entire border of Artsakh and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, Azerbaijan’s artillery, rockets, drones, and combat aircraft launched a massive offensive. Given the geography, tactics and methods of the offensive, the autocratic regime of Ilham Aliyev aims at forcibly occupying the territory of Artsakh through committing large-scale atrocities. The evidence indicates that this was not a sudden flare up. The military build-up of the last two decades in Azerbaijan and constant ceasefire violations since 2008 have led to frequent outbreaks in the Karabakh-Azerbaijani border and the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Since the very first day of this latest conflict, Azerbaijan shelled cities and towns in Artsakh aiming at inflicting irreparable damage on civilians and infrastructure. One of the two corridors connecting Artsakh to Armenia, which was opened a few years ago, has become non-operational because of missile attacks. The second road, which has been in operation since 1992, has become the main vein again. At the beginning of the ninth day, the number of military deaths on the Armenian side is more than 250, including civilians. Since 2014, Azerbaijan has refused to disclose the official number of its combat casualties, however, the visual evidence suggests a death-toll of a few thousand combatants.
Turkey vs. International Community
During the initial 24 hours of the offensive, the international community, except for Turkey, urged the conflicting parties to cease the fighting immediately. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, the only negotiation framework since 1992, also issued a statement to that effect. Ankara, however, has unilaterally sided with Azerbaijan, a decision that was neither novice nor unprecedented. Since the early 1990s, Azerbaijan has received military, political, diplomatic, and moral support from Turkey, a NATO member country. However, from time to time, Turkey went beyond extending support to Azerbaijan; on at least two occasions in 1993, it threatened to unleash its army against Armenia. Turkey reinforced its troops along the border with Armenia in April 1993 and later in October, Turkish jets made reconnaissance flights over the border, stepping up Turkish surveillance in the area. Turkey’s increasing involvement in the region led to blocking European aid shipments to Armenia in times of a food and energy crisis. After 27 years, Turkey is again extending its unilateral and direct support to Azerbaijan, further undermining the region’s fragile stability and security.
Frequent meetings between autocratic Aliyev and Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the past ten years, joint military drills, and signing and implementing several strategic documents have enhanced both armies’ strategic compatibility. Turkey has helped Azerbaijan modernize its armed forces according to NATO standards and boosted the confidence of the Aliyev regime, whose family has been ruling Azerbaijan since 1969, with a hiatus between 1983 and 1993. In July 2020, during the escalation on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Erdogan and the entire political-military leadership and the parliamentary groups, except the pro-Kurdish party, made statements unilaterally supporting Azerbaijan. During his recent UNGA statement, Erdogan once again reaffirmed his previous position of condemning Armenia “for being a threat to the regional peace” which sounded like a statement drafted by Aliyev’s speechwriters.
Since Sunday, September 27, however, Turkey has been directly engaged in the conflict. Since early September, there have been multiple credible reports that Turkey has contracted and deployed terrorists and mercenaries from Syria and Libya to Azerbaijan to fight against Armenia and Artsakh. While France has condemned the allegations, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the case and implicitly urged Azerbaijan to refrain from such a dangerous venture. Russians remember the 1990s quite well, when Chechen terrorists and Afghan mujahideens participated in the Karabakh war alongside Azerbaijan in the 1990s, creating much trouble for the North Caucasus where Russia was fighting its war against the terrorists. Turkey’s position does not come as a surprise as Turkish security companies have been contracting and transferring mercenaries to conflict zones for quite some time now. Even in the 1990s, many terrorists used Turkey as a transit country to go to Chechnya to fight against Russia. For instance, since June 2020, Turkey has done the same by transferring mercenaries from Syria to Libya and paying monthly salaries ranging from $700 to $2000.
What made Turkey a party in the conflict was its air forces’ direct engagement in the fight against Artsakh and Armenia. On September 29, a Turkish F16 shot an Armenian SU25 in Armenian airspace near the city of Vardenis in eastern Armenia, killing the pilot. The Turkish F16s are also in charge of “Bayraktar” UAVs operating along Azerbaijan's border with Armenia and Artsakh. The operation command center of Turkish F16s and UAVs is reportedly situated between Kars and Erzurum. Turkish air forces are also conducting reconnaissance flights along the Turkish-Armenian air space. It is not a strange coincidence that Turkish jets were in Azerbaijan. They have been stationed in different military air-bases of Azerbaijan for a long time, before the recent escalation. Erdogan’s flamboyant rhetoric and non-constructive and dangerous policy have further undermined the situation. Erdogan has a rare talent of tarnishing Turkish image in any given situation. His confrontation with all of Turkey’s neighbors, except Georgia, has further cornered his country. As a result, Erdogan has made Turkey an outcast in the international community. He has made Turkey’s foreign policy more militarized, projecting power far beyond its borders and actual capacity. Turkey’s foreign policy after 2016 and especially 2018, when the executive presidency was finally instituted, has become aggressive and assertive. Turkey’s self-promoted image of an emerging regional power has been damaged, probably, beyond repair.
As a reaction to the direct Turkish involvement, Armenian public opinion has made it clear that Turkey is back to finish off what it failed to complete a century ago: to exterminate Armenians and continue the Genocide. The parallels run deeper than that. Precisely 100 years ago, in September 1920, Kemalist Turkey unleashed war against the First Republic of Armenia, and within two months, Armenia was defeated, which led to the Bolshevik’s intervention and eventual Sovietization of democratic Armenia. “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” an expression attributed to Mark Twain is more than pertinent these days in the region.
Armenia, being a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), has so far refrained from invoking Article 4 of the Treaty (an attack against one, is an attack against all), similar to Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Armenia’s Pashinyan has talked to Putin three times since the escalation urging the Russian President to stop Azerbaijan’s aggression. However, the war continues to raise more questions about its geopolitical implications. Russia is not only Armenia’s strategic ally since the early 1990s, but is also widely seen as its main security guarantor. The Russian military base in Gyumri and its air base in Yerevan have been widely perceived as a manifestation of Russian-Armenian strategic cooperation.
Since September 27, the Kremlin-affiliated media has started to discuss the deployment of Russian peacekeepers along the Contact Line. The Armenian Government has been against it not only now but also in the 1990s. This proposition of Russia is seen as a pretext for launching the Lavrov plan, which largely coincides with Azerbaijani preference of the conflict resolution: return of the five adjacent regions of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) to Azerbaijan, the return of refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs) to their former places of residence, and only after that deciding on the status of Karabakh. A proposition which was first made in 1997 and has been rejected by Armenia multiple times.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued a statement on the recent escalation urging the parties to cease the violence. Three permanent members of the UNSC, Russia, France, and the U.S. are also co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, which has been in charge of the negotiations since 1992. All the leaders of the co-chair countries have voiced concerns about the recent escalation. The memories in the South Caucasus are still fresh when then French President Nikolas Sarkozy negotiated a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia after they engaged in a short war in August 2008. French President Emmanuel Macron, has been particularly vocal. He initiated a phone conversation with Putin, urging the conflicting parties to cease the fire and de-escalate the situation. Macron has also pledged to initiate more tangible steps in the coming days. However, judging from the situation, France was not able to achieve tangible results.
The neglected conflict in the South Caucasus has reminded the world of its existence again. However, this time, the global circumstances are different as the world fights against the pandemic with no end in sight. In Azerbaijan, Aliyev’s regime, inspired by bellicose Erdogan, has challenged the shaky foundations of the South Caucasus security architecture and decided to take advantage of the declining global order. After Iraq, Syria and Libya, Turkey has now turned to the South Caucasus, where Russia’s interests are vital. The weak and disintegrated Russia of the 1990s was able to withstand the Turkish encroachment in the 1990s; understandably, today’s Russia understands that Turkey’s ambitions did not evaporate. Russia has vested interest in Armenia; therefore, any display of accentuated neutrality or any move of imposing a solution that won’t be interpreted as favorable to Armenia will expand anti-Russian sentiments already present in the country and promoted by some circles. Russia’s difficult relations with Armenia’s new leadership are also seen as possible reasons for its lack of action and slow response in recent days.
The Aliyev regime’s decision to resort to violence has no prospect of succeeding. It has just reopened the circle of violence, refreshing the memories of the early 1990s. Violence begets violence, while goodwill begets goodwill. The new Armenian government was the most constructive leadership Aliyev’s regime could hope to have as a counterpart since the 1990s. Pashinyan’s government, enjoying the support of the majority of the population, could find solutions, propose compromises and work them out. However, Aliyev underestimated Pashinyan’s display of inclination to take tangible steps. He fell victim to Pashinyan’s rhetoric and actions. As a result, the Armenian Parliament is considering to either officially recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) Republic as an independent state or sign a military-political alliance with it. Azerbaijan has lost the momentum again. Aliyev’s war has three objectives to achieve: avenge for decades of self-inflicted sense of humiliation; inflict large-scale damage on the civilian population and infrastructure; extend the collapse of his regime. The first one is difficult to quantify, he was “victorious” on the second goal, while the third and the main goal is yet to be achieved.
The onslaught of two repressive regimes, in close cooperation with terrorists from the Middle East and the North African region, against the democratic regime of Pashinyan is more than a military aggression. This vicious triangle is a “civilizational” challenge, as it was aptly identified by Armenia’s Prime Minister. Armenia’s democracy, which showed profound signs of recovery since April 2018, is now under attack. For the first time since 1994, it is threatened from the outside by two outcast regimes and their proxies. Armenia and Artsakh need help to survive and thrive.