Armenian Ombudsman Arman Tatoyan inspecting the area around Sev Lake

Azerbaijani Intruders Pressured to Retreat as Armenia Puts CSTO Alliance to the Test

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GORIS –– Azerbaijani troops have yet to pull out of the area around the remote mountain lake of Sev Lich [“Black Lake”]. The news follows an almost three-day-long standoff on the border between Syunik and the adjacent province of Karvajar which recently fell under Azerbaijani control.

Azerbaijani soldiers reportedly crossed into the internationally recognized territory of Armenia on the morning of May 12 in the vicinity of that lake under the guise of conducting “border adjustments.” Local Armenian forces halted the Azerbaijani intrusion, which reached some 3.5 km (2.1 miles) into Armenian territory, and prevented them from digging entrenchments. Armenian Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutyunyan later announced: “The Azerbaijani forces near the Sev Lake have been surrounded by the Armenian military. All approaches to the area are under our control.”

However, the Azerbaijanis refused to return to their starting line, citing a Soviet-era demarcation purportedly showing the entire area of the lake as falling within their side of the border. Armenian authorities countered that claim with a 1975 topographic map of the area clearly showing the border between the two then-Soviet republics as crossing the northern third of the lake, with the other two thirds firmly inside Armenian territory.

Soviet-era topographic map from 1974 clearly showing the border between the two republics splitting the top third of Lake Sev

Some claims in Armenian media of Azerbaijani forces entering the adjacent villages of Ishkhanasar and Verishen, a suburb of the provincial capital of Goris, were denied by the Ministry of Defense, and the villagers themselves later said they heard these rumors from the Internet.

One clause of the November 9 ceasefire agreement which ended last autumn’s bloody war in Artsakh was the “return” of 7 buffer territories around Artsakh. At least three of these territories border the Armenian provinces of Syunik and Gegharkunik, while the Soviet-era borders, which had never been designed as international boundaries, had never been properly demarcated. Since the war ended, a delicate process of border demarcation has been taking place under Russian supervision, using Soviet-era maps and GPS coordinators. However, the existence of a variety of differing maps has frustrated these efforts.

With the Karvajar province handover taking place in December, heavy snowfall prevented both Armenian and Azerbaijani border guards from setting up border markers in some of the more remote and mountainous sections of the border. With the spring thaw melting most of the snow in the area in early May, Azerbaijani military engineers rushed to set up at least one position well within the territory of Armenia.

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This unprecedented incident – the most serious breach of the tense ceasefire in place since last November —  has sparked fear in Armenia that Baku is planning to make good on multiple threats to seize parts of the southern Syunik province by force. Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev has publicly spoken of potentially launching an invasion in the Meghri area before walking back those comments following international outcry.

Azerbaijani military engineers conducted entrenching works within the territory of the neighbouring Gegharkunik province as well, according to its governor. “Yesterday [the Azerbaijanis] encroached on our border towards the village of Kut under the guise of setting up border demarcations using erroneous maps,” Governor Gnel Sanosyan told reporters. “We blocked them from moving any further and are waiting for negotiations to conclude so they may return to their side.”

Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who called the situation “explosive” during an emergency meeting of the Security Council on the evening of May 12, declared that Azerbaijan’s incursion would not be tolerated. “I hope that this situation would be resolved with the Azerbaijani soldiers peacefully returning from whence they came,” Pashinyan said, adding that diplomacy was but one of the options at his government’s disposal to resolve the conflict. Referring to the seemingly-falsified maps carried by Azerbaijani military engineers, Pashinyan characterised the incident as a “pre-planned provocation” designed to test Armenia’s response as a precursor to further incursions.

With Azerbaijan refusing to back down by the 13th of May, Pashinyan announced that the crisis would escalate as his government formally invoked Article 2 of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Moscow-led mutual defense agreement that Armenia is a part of. Under the treaty, any intrusion against one member state is considered to be an aggression against all member-states.

By invoking Article 2, for the first time in the organization’s history, Pashinyan is testing both the CSTO’s resolve in fulfilling its treaty obligations, while simultaneously drawing a red line in the face of further potential violations of Armenian sovereignty by Baku. Speaking to the Mirror-Spectator, Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based think tank Regional Studies Center, called the situation “A test of Armenian resolve and Russian response.” He further cautioned that as Azerbaijan probes for weakness, “we should only expect more such incursions and escalations.”

Dr. Anna Ohanyan, a Nonresident Senior Scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace agreed: “This is a straightforward case of a breach of sovereignty, a norm which enjoys the most support within international law. Russia has a chance to come out stronger as the global player it so craves to be by supporting its obligations. It has a lot to lose if it does not play this right.”

The move has also been interpreted in Yerevan as an attempt by the prime minister to quell domestic critics who accuse him of being soft on defense. Former President Robert Kocharyan, Pashinyan’s chief rival in the upcoming snap elections, has specifically castigated the prime minister for neglecting to strengthen the security of the vulnerable Syunik province, a charge which some of his supporters feel is vindicated by the recent crisis.

Responding to chiding from the opposition, Secretary of the Security Council Armen Grigoryan responded that the Army “did not have time to man the entire length of the new border before snowfall,” adding that continuous work was being undertaken to redeploy along the new border. Still, the government’s move has been supported by parliamentary opposition leader Edmon Marukyan.

For its part, Baku denied that its military personnel had even crossed into Armenian territory. “Our border guards are stationed along positions belonging to our country,” the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Azerbaijan is committed to easing tensions in the region and calls for appropriate measures to this end.” The statement also revealed that the commander of the Azerbaijani Border Guards was apparently away on a business trip at the time the incident first escalated. Incidentally, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was also attending a music festival in the occupied city of Shushi several dozen miles away, while at the same time, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili was in Armenia on an official visit.

However, international pressure has continued to mount on Baku to pull back its troops across the official border. The CSTO has convened an emergency session and declared that it was “monitoring the situation. If necessary action will be taken in accordance with provisions of the Collective Security Treaty charter.” Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized the need to strictly comply with all provisions of the November 9 ceasefire agreement. “The Russian side reaffirmed its disposition to continue active mediation efforts and maintain close contacts with Yerevan and Baku in the interests of ensuring stability in the region,” read a statement posted to a Kremlin website. General Alexandr Dvornikov, Commander of the Southern Military District of the Russian Armed Forces was also dispatched to Yerevan where he met with Armenian Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutyunyan.

In the United States, Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on President Joe Biden to support Armenia. “The violation of Armenia’s sovereign territory by Azerbaijani troops is a dangerous and illegal act of aggression that underscores the sustained threat that the Armenian people continue to face,” the senator said.

Yet the strongest condemnation of the incident came from French President Emmanuel Macron. Following a phone call with his Armenian counterpart, Macron posted on Facebook in Armenian that “France always stands in solidarity with Armenia,” calling on Azerbaijan to immediately remove its troops, and promised to bring up the matter to the UN Security Council, of which France is a permanent member.

On Friday March 14, the Armenian Ministry of Defense announced that, following a night of negotiations, the Azerbaijani forces were “waiting only for an official order from their superiors to retreat to their original positions.” It is unclear if this order has been issued as of yet, however.

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