Destruction in Nerkin Karmiraghbyur village of Armenia

Ambassador Nersesyan Comments on the Recent Crisis on the Armenian-Azerbaijani Border

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WASHINGTON – Ambassador Varuzhan Nersesyan, the representative of the Republic of Armenia to the United States, in a recent interview discussed the incidents of Azerbaijani aggression which began on July 12 at the border of the northeastern Armenian province of Tavush.

The attacks began on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border on Sunday, July 12, at 12:30 p.m., the ambassador said, when an Azerbaijani military vehicle suddenly approached military positions on the territory of Armenia. After receiving warnings, the soldiers in this vehicle left to return to Azerbaijan, after which bombing and shelling with artillery of Armenian positions began. At least 16 were left dead during the first three days of fighting, including 4 Armenian military men and 12 Azerbaijanis (as officially confirmed by the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan; unofficial Azerbaijani sources indicate a higher number of losses).

Destruction at Nerkin Karmiraghbyur village of Armenia

After several days, a ceasefire was arranged for Wednesday, July 15, through the mediation of the Russian, American and French co-chairs of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which allowed the Azerbaijani side to remove the bodies of dead soldiers for burial, but this arrangement was breached only hours later, in the predawn hours of Thursday, July 16, by the Azerbaijani side, the ambassador said, and artillery fire resumed.

Destruction from Azerbaijani attacks at Chinari village of Armenia

Armenian forces were able to destroy two tanks firing mortars toward Tavush, shoot down 13 drones, and kill many members of the Azerbaijani special forces unit attempting to advance to Armenian territory, while an Azerbaijani drone struck an Armenian truck on a humanitarian mission. No Armenians were killed.

By July 20, there was relative calm and the ambassador expressed his hope that this would turn into a more solid ceasefire.

Panoramic view of Armenia’s Tavush region

The Background

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Nersesyan stated that Armenia did not start the recent clash, despite Azerbaijani claims to the contrary. He declared that to understand this incident, the broader context must be examined. He said, “It happened as part of an entire campaign from Azerbaijan—bellicose rhetoric, attempted blackmail of Armenia and propaganda. This is not a one-time occurrence.” Most significantly, on July 6, less than a week prior to the start of the attacks, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan proclaimed on television that the Minsk Group’s activities were meaningless and threatened to resolve the Karabakh issue militarily. Nersesyan said, “So what happened was the direct responsibility of the Azerbaijani authorities.”

Nersesyan pointed out that Azerbaijan consistently has refused the proposal of the Minsk Group co-chairs to establish a mechanism of detection of ceasefire violations, which was proposed in 2016 in Vienna. If adopted, the number of monitors would have been increased along with the use of electronic devices to monitor ceasefire violations and determine the party responsible.

Armenia had supported this idea in order to stop the periodic shooting taking place on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, Nersesyan said, but Azerbaijan evidently “was afraid that it would be caught.” The lack of such a mechanism makes it difficult to provide direct proof about any particular incident.

Azerbaijan in general has been promoting a belligerent approach in the region, Nersesyan said, and even ignored the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s call for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 crisis. It carried out a large-scale military exercise with 10,000 military personnel and hundreds of tanks and combat artillery this May.

Furthermore, Nersesyan said, in the aftermath of the original incident, attacks were undertaken by Azerbaijan against various civilian infrastructures, including a factory producing masks which are necessary during the COVID-19 crisis. Buildings in several Armenian villages near the border were damaged, including a kindergarten in Aygepar village. Nersesyan said that luckily so far only one Armenian civilian has been wounded but much physical damage has occurred. The full evaluation of the damage will be completed within a week’s time. Restoration of 12 houses has already started, he added.

Nersesyan said that while in the Artsakh Republic the terrain gives Armenians the advantage of higher positions versus the Azerbaijanis, in Tavush, the geographic range is varied and does not give an advantage to either side.

The spread of COVID-19, Nersesyan said, was a factor of course in the current situation. On the one hand, the situation in Armenia was under control as the health care system was able to cope with it both in the general population and the army. Thus, he said, “It does not create obstacles for the armed forces to work for the defense of Armenia.” On the other hand, he remarked, “Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan need a war under COVID.”

How to Resolve the Situation

Nersesyan said, “What we need is a responsible partner, one who can uphold its own positions and commitments. We have seen that Azerbaijan is noncommittal with respect to its own agreements.”

He pointed to the breach of the arrangement for a ceasefire on July 16 and exclaimed, “How can you consider it a reliable partner when only a few hours after the ceasefire was arranged it breached it again? It dispatched a group of 100 special forces soldiers toward the position called Anvakh (“Fearless”) position in Tavush, though it was repulsed, with heavy losses. This is not good for anyone.”

He also observed that on July 16, a spokesman of the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry threatened to bomb the Metsamor Nuclear Plant in Armenia. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia stated in this regard, “With such statements the leadership of Azerbaijan acts as a menace to all the peoples of the region, including its own people,” he noted.

The good news, Nersesyan said, is that the fighting was still localized. He said, “We are cautious and watching carefully. We don’t need a local provocation to turn into a major fire. That is why we are calling upon the international community and the co-chairs of the Minsk Group to take decisive steps to restrain Azerbaijani aggression and force Azerbaijan to return to the negotiating table. We are not interested in an escalation of the conflict.”

Armenia Continues to Defend Itself

Until the ceasefire is consolidated, the ambassador declared, Armenia is ready to defend itself resolutely. He said, “Our intention is not to escalate and continue the spiral of this vicious circle, but it takes two to tango. We cannot deescalate unilaterally. We need to deescalate together. We hope that the international community will take the appropriate measures.”

He said that it may be true that Azerbaijan has much greater numbers of military personnel and equipment. “But,” he emphasized, “this fight is not about the size of military forces. It is about effectiveness, quality, professionalism and determination. As the recent fighting demonstrated, and also the April 2016 war, despite this enormous accumulation of military equipment and manpower, Azerbaijan was not able to utilize it to achieve success. The armed forces of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh have learned through the decades of this ongoing confrontation to fight in this asymmetric warfare and have the necessary skills, knowledge and strategy to fight and defend their land.”

He also pointed to the reforms and modernization that Armenia conducted after the April 2016 war, which intensified after the Velvet Revolution. Armenia obtained, for example, certain types of combat aircraft and antimissile defense systems which allowed it to shoot down drones in the recent fighting. A couple of weeks ago, even the Defense Minister of Azerbaijan complained in an interview that Azerbaijan was no longer able to target Armenian and Nagorno Karabakh soldiers because the latter already possess certain types of surveillance equipment.

While regretting all loss of life, Nersesyan said, “What happened is the consequence of Azerbaijan’s own actions. The Republic of Armenia is ready to immediately defend and use proportionate force to counter any encroachments on the Republic of Armenia and Artsakh. The losses Azerbaijan suffered are the results of Azerbaijan’s own aggression.”

He concluded, “I am proud that the armed forces of the Republic of Armenia were able to fulfill their duty 100 percent.”

International Relations

When asked whether Armenian-Russian relations remain strong after the Velvet Revolution, Nersesyan replied that “Armenian-Russian relations are developing according to their normal dynamic nature and I don’t think they have deteriorated whatsoever.” On the other hand, he said that Azerbaijan is disseminating false propaganda when it claims that Armenia is trying to deliberately get Russian intervention (just as with the case of the CSTO).

Nersesyan said that Russia plays an important role in the resolution process along with the US and France as Minsk Group co-chairs, and Armenia fully supports this format of negotiations. Armenia continues to develop relations equally with the European Union, Russia the United States, and all other partners.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a statement on July 15 urging a ceasefire, just like the Russian Federation or the Minsk Group collectively. There is one general concern with the international response in this situation. Nersesyan said, “We would have preferred that the international community call things by their own names—namely, that they hold accountable the party responsible for violations.”

There is also a neighboring state which is a destabilizing regional power. “Since the outbreak of this violence by Azerbaijan,” said Nersesyan, “Turkey has issued extremely unhelpful rhetoric and statements. This was at all levels, president, minister of defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others. The bottom line for all these statements is that Turkey threatens to intervene on behalf of Azerbaijan directly and indirectly.”

This is similar to Turkey’s destabilizing role in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Libya, Syria, Lebanon and North Africa, he continued. “We have seen what Turkey is doing in other regions and now it is playing destructive role in the South Caucasus. This is a serious threat to international peace and security. The international community should not turn a blind eye to Turkey’s conduct.  This is once again proof that Turkey cannot play any mediation role in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict whatsoever.”

Nersesyan remarked that the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the US House of Representatives and the Senate last year has a modern day significance for the regional security because Turkey continues to pursue the same hostile intentions and policies toward Armenia as in the past. When Turkey’s leaders declare readiness to sacrifice their lives for Azerbaijan and support for whatever decisions their Azerbaijani brothers will take, Nersesyan wondered, “How should one read those statements?”

Tavush and the Diaspora

Nersesyan said that the people of Tavush Province are the real heroes of the current situation. He said, “They are themselves the defenders of their land. They are so confident that they will continue their lives there and develop their lands, though Azerbaijanis constantly shoot at them when they go out to do agricultural work.”

Panoramic view of Armenia’s Tavush region

The provincial governor of Tavush announced that the government will immediately work to restore the houses damaged in the bombings and shootings. Those which cannot be repaired will be replaced by new houses. Nersesyan said that this shows the top priority given by the Armenian government to the development of border provinces like Tavush.

In the short-term, Nersesyan reassured American Armenians, the Armenian government is able to provide its population with all the necessary assistance under the current circumstances. However, for the mid- to long-term, he said, it is very important for the Armenian diaspora to invest in Tavush and other border regions to develop infrastructure and create jobs so that the people can continue to live on their lands and peacefully progress.

Nersesyan also praised the ongoing lobbying activities of the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee of America in Washington.

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