Soldier in Syunik (photo Avedis Hadjian)

As the Post-Soviet Order Collapses, Azerbaijan Tests New Ways to Pressure Armenia

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By Avedis Hadjian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

It was five minutes past midnight and Lilit was praying by the window of her apartment in Jermuk, a resort famous for its mineral water and spas in southern Armenia. Suddenly, enormous, orange balls of fire lit up the sky.

“This is it,” she said aloud to herself. “The war has begun.”

The blitzkrieg attack by Azerbaijan in the early minutes of September 13, 2022 left at least 6 civilians and 200 Armenian soldiers dead in two days of fighting, which stopped after the prompt diplomatic intervention by the US State Department and, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, his government too.

Few spots in the world concentrate so much geopolitical imbalance as Armenia. Squeezed in the South Caucasus, at the intersection of the imperial interests of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, it now faces growing threats by the autocratic regime of Azerbaijan, its neighbor to the east and victor of a brutal war two years ago.

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The attack in September may have been an attempt by Azerbaijan to test global tolerance for aggression against sovereign territory of Armenia. If so, it backfired. With Azerbaijani forces that have now set up posts at least five miles inside sovereign Armenian territory, locals are wary.

Incense burns next to the tomb of 44-day war hero at Yerablur, the military cemetery in Yerevan (January 2021, photo Avedis Hadjian)

And on December 12, Azerbaijan blocked the road leading from the Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, the conflict risks escalating again. Armenia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing Azerbaijan of “pursuing the policy of ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

All this may be pointing to a dictatorship that is rushing to make the most of the tectonic shifts happening in global geopolitics. With a wealth based on depleting oil fields and fickle legitimacy, founded on the fading popularity it earned after the 2020 war — that failed to capture Artsakh, even if it badly injured her — these actions by the Azerbaijani regime of Ilham Aliyev are either part of a masterplan unknown to others or they may be erratic decisions that are not yielding the desired results.

After inflicting catastrophic defeat on Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in a 44-day war in 2020, Azerbaijan occupied more than 50 square to miles of sovereign Armenian territory in a blitzkrieg attack along a 120-mile front on Sept. 13-14 this year. He has now set its eyes on the southern Armenian province of Syunik.

Aliyev is threatening a new war, saying on November 25 that Armenia would not be able to “stop” his troops from forcibly opening a corridor that would link the mainland to Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani exclave to Armenia’s southwest.

War in the Making?

On the way to southern Armenia, Ara Zargaryan pulls over by the side of the road and stretches his arms out. “This is Armenia at its narrowest,” he says. At this stretch, the country is some 25-miles wide, flanked by Azerbaijani territory on both sides, with the mainland to the east and the exclave of Nakhichevan to the west.

War veteran Ara Zargaryan at the narrowest stretch of Armenia, only 25 miles wide. In this part of Syunik, Armenia is flanked by territory under the control of Azerbaijan, including the exclave of Nakhichevan, an Armenian region ethnically cleansed of Armenians by the Azerbaijanis and given to the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic by the Kremlin in the early years of Sovietization (November 2022, photo Avedis Hadjian).

Zargaryan, a former seminarist and now a volunteer in the Armenian army who fought in the 44-day war and took part in the defense of Jermuk, stayed in Lilit’s apartment, who opened her home to 20 soldiers, offering shelter and food to them for weeks after the fighting was over.

In Jermuk, Lilit was visiting her neighbor, Maryam. The two women were among the very few residents — perhaps a dozen or two — who decided to stay in the city of 6,000 after the civilians were evacuated during the two days of fighting.

Maryam, a widow and the mother and grandmother of soldiers serving in the Armenian army, has seen war on and off since independence in 1991. Her son, who fought in the 44-day Nagorno Karabakh war, returned unharmed from fighting yet with a memory that has been haunting him from the first day of combat in Jabrayil, now a ghost town captured by the Azerbaijani forces in 2020. “Just as they were emerging from their hideout, he saw the car in which his four friends had just got into go up in flames,” possibly struck by a drone.

Analyst Benyamin Poghosyan believes a new war is in the making, saying it may happen by the end of 2022 or March-April 2023. “Any timeframe is based on perceptions, misperceptions, and speculation, but Azerbaijan is preparing for war.”

No Margin for Errors

Conditioned by an unforgiving geography, any adverse developments in the defense and foreign relations of this tiny democracy can rapidly escalate into a potentially existential crisis. “Armenia cannot afford any gambles,” said Levon Ter Petrossian, the first president after the republic proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Ter Petrossian does not see an easy way out. “There could have been one if war had not broken out in Ukraine.”

The implications of the war in Ukraine worry him. “That war may draw in Russia to such an extent that it may lose the capacity and even the will to mediate and influence in the developments in the South Caucasus.”

With global attention focused on Ukraine, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is just a blip in media coverage. The government of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan insists on a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, yet the bellicose rhetoric coming from Aliyev is a clear indication it is intent on pursuing a maximalist agenda by military means.

Just outside the village of Khnatsakh, in Syunik, two reservists in camouflage outfits are surveying the Azerbaijani positions with binoculars, even though they are visible to the naked eye on the hills in the distance. The magnifying lenses of the binoculars — an inscription in English on them reads “Made in the USSR” — reveal no soldiers in the outposts yet they expose the Azerbaijani blue, red, and green flag, with a white crescent and star in the middle.

Residents of Khnatsakh, a village in Syunik now within miles of outposts set up by occupying Azerbaijani forces (photo Avedis Hadjian)

Just behind the young reservists, atop a taller hill, a Russian flag flies over a fenced perimeter. It’s Russia’s air surveillance station.

When asked why the Russian forces had not fulfilled their treaty obligation to defend Armenian borders against the Azerbaijani attack, the soldiers laughed the question off. “Are you serious?” they asked the reporter.

A Russian military base in Armenia. On the white wall on the left, a mural with the portrait of Russian leader Vladimir Putin can be partially seen (November 2022, photo Avedis Hadjian).

A former high official who has taken part in the negotiations with the Russian Federation that led to the strategic alliance with Armenia in the early years of independence was unsure about the protection it afforded to the country.

“How could Russia guarantee Armenia’s territorial integrity,” asked that former official. “It cannot even guarantee its own.”

Inside Khnatsakh, Vladimir, a cheerful farmer who still works at 82, and his wife, 76, can see an Azerbaijani tower a hill away from their balcony. It appears unmanned and without a flag. Yet it is there, presiding over the homes and fields of this village of some 700 residents.

The son of a World War II veteran who entered Berlin with the Red Army in 1945, Vladimir’s views were shaped during conscription in the Soviet Union of 1950s. While he is prone to taking at face value Putin’s arguments for invading Ukraine, he has given up on Russia as a potential savior of Armenia. “We are living,” he says, when asked how they are doing, using a common formula in Armenia to say that  things are going well. But then he adds, with the same merry tone, “We are living, envying the fate of the dead.”

The Aliyev Factor

Yet it is the danger posed by Azerbaijan, rather than major power politics, that looms large over Armenia. The narrative that the declining Russian influence in the South Caucasus is being filled in by Turkey is only partially correct, says Anna Ohanyan, political science professor at Stonehill College, as it underestimates and obscures regional factors.

These include Azerbaijan’s deepening authoritarianism and its associated state weakness driving that fracture.

“It is the legitimacy challenges for the Aliyev regime and the associated institutional weakness of the Azerbaijani state that is pulling external powers into the region, and in a way that can be most destabilizing,” Ohanyan said. “Pulling in Turkey in the 44-day war, expansionist rhetoric directed at Iran, deepening Russia’s influence over its opaque energy deals with Azerbaijan, these are some of the factors that feed into the great, middle, and regional power rivalries in the South Caucasus.”

Climate change is also a factor that has been overlooked, yet it may have critical importance, especially for a country like Azerbaijan, an autocracy in a hurry, with rapidly-depleting oil fields.

While it is true that the reports of fossil fuels’ death have been greatly exaggerated, there can be little doubt of their demise in the coming decades. According to the International Energy Agency, Azerbaijan’s oil and natural gas production brings in around 90 percent of Azerbaijan export revenues and finance 60 percent of the government budget.

A Turkish-Azerbaijani truck, stopped by a soldier of the Russian peacekeeping force at a checkpoint in Artsakh on the road from Stepanakert to Karmir Shuka (January 2021, photo Avedis Hadjian).

This affects Russian calculus too, weakening its imperial leverage over a freewheeling, increasingly militaristic regime like Aliyev’s.

“The profitability of Russia’s oil fields has been declining, and the Western sanctions on Russia [after Crimea’s annexation] made it hard to bring in new capital to explore new oil fields,” Ohanyan said. “This technology is also needed to make the Arctic open for navigation, which would have enhanced Russia’s leverage over the Eurasian connectivity.”

Yet with the continuing war in Ukraine, Russia’s weakening will accelerate, she predicts. “Russia will emerge from this war with much weaker leverage over the continent.”

The implications for Armenia and other countries may be dire.

“Climate change can result in major political shifts globally, which can threaten smaller nations, considering the deeply interconnected world we live in today,” says Madlen Avetyan, professor of anthropology at LA Valley College.

Yet both she and Ohanyan also see opportunities in the geopolitical transformations taking place.

“These political shifts can also present niche opportunities for some small nations to fill power vacuums that appear in their region,” Avetyan said. According to Ohanyan, “This is a post-imperial moment for Russia, and an opportunity for Armenia to diversify and institutionalize its relations with other powers, near and far.”

On the other hand, Karen Harutyunyan, an analyst and reporter at CivilNet, a media organization based in Yerevan, says that Armenia can dismiss Russia at its own peril. He has faulted Pashinyan’s government for an inconsistent policy towards Russia, which has been perceived sometimes as openly hostile to Moscow.

A jeep of the Russian peacekeeping forces in Stepanakert (January 2021, photo Avedis Hadjian).

“In the end, Russia is a country that, for all its flaws, is very important for Armenia,” he said. “Even if it has no constructive role, you should always be mindful that it may have a destructive role.”

In the circumstances, the prospects of a peace treaty that would put an end to conflict in the region are dim at best. CivilNet’s analyst Eric Hacopian says that as long as the military balance is not addressed, peace cannot be assured.

“Unfortunately, so much of the political legitimacy of the regime in Baku comes from aggression,” he said. “The other thing about a piece of paper is that no matter what they say, the heart of the argument is Artsakh, and there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room and it’s Russia — they can blow up any agreement: we have no idea what they will do or what condition that country will be in six months from now or two years from now or three days from now.”

But signing anything doesn’t mean anything, he said. “The moment you say you sign and say we accept each other’s borders, and the next day something happens in Artsakh and any Armenian government says something, [Azerbaijan] will say ‘you are violating the agreement, you are interfering in our internal rights, we are going to fight revanchism.”

Defense expert Nerses Kopalyan, political science professor at the University of Nevada, advocates the “military porcupine” doctrine, the one underpinning Taiwan’s deterrence architecture. In the face of such an imbalance of military power, Armenia should become extremely costly to defeat.

“The time has come for Armenia to reconfigure its security architecture as it exists now, as opposed to these grand understandings that Russia will come to our rescue and the continuous reliance on Russia,” Kopalyan said.

Soviet Maps

Existential fear is what has mobilized Armenians from all walks of life. A young priest, Geghard Hovhannisian, who was the spiritual pastor of Amaras, a 4th century monastery in Nagorno-Karabakh right by the front lines when the 2020 war broke out, donned military fatigues over his priestly collared shirt and took up arms along with a defense unit made up of reservists and volunteers. He fought for weeks until he was injured. “The last thing I remember was the tank firing against us,” he said. He woke up in a hospital in Yerevan, where he recovered.

He asked his church superior for permission to go to war. Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan, who at the time was the primate of the Armenian Church in Artsakh (the Armenian name of Nagorno-Karabakh) was silent for a minute. “Astootsov,” he then said, simply. “With God.”

For, the other 800-pound gorilla in the room is, of course, the Armenian Genocide. Armenians’ existential fears about their neighbors are rooted in history. To this date, Turkey not only does not recognize the Genocide. Its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even praised the memory of one of the architects of the Genocide, Enver Pasha, in a “Victory Parade” in Baku on December 10, 2020, to mark Azerbaijan’s victory in the Karabakh war, with substantial Turkish support.

A Turkish-Azerbaijani truck, stopped by a soldier of the Russian peacekeeping force at a checkpoint in Artsakh on the road from Stepanakert to Karmir Shuka (January 2021, photo Avedis Hadjian).

Yet a source who is directly familiar with the meeting of Pashinyan and Erdogan in Prague on October 6 said the Turkish leader told the Armenian prime minister to sort out their problems with Azerbaijan, following which he would eagerly open the border with Armenia. Turkey has closed it since 1993 in solidarity with its ally Azerbaijan.

A policy of open borders would not be an altruistic endeavor by Erdogan. Paradoxically, he sees it as a way to stimulate the depressed economies of the Turkish provinces on the border with Armenia.

A sign in Nerkin Hand alerts visitors to the proximity of the border. Azerbaijani occupying forces have set up positions within miles of the village (November 2022, photo Avedis Hadjian).

At the same time, Turkey is building up the pressure on Armenia with its close cooperation with Azerbaijan’s army. In a conflict that involves many dimensions — autocracies and dictatorships versus democracies; energy supplies — there is a confluence of interests between Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Russia into opening an outlet to the West by way of Azerbaijan through Armenia, now that the war in Ukraine has blocked Russian access to Europe.

A further complication for Armenia is the common interests many external players — including the United States and Israel — share against Iran. A European diplomat in Yerevan, who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed his frustration over what he believed was American lack of support for Armenia. “They could have provided early warning to Armenia,” he said, speaking of the September 13 aggression. “I’m sure US satellites are permanently monitoring Azerbaijani troop movements.”

In no small part, the conflict has its roots in Soviet map-drawing. The inextricably intertwined republics, with ethnically diverse or segregated enclaves and exclaves, were conceived to prevent a breakup.

A Volga car, a relic from the Soviet era, passes by a herd on the highway in Vayots Dzor (photo Avedis Hadjian)

“The policy of the Soviet Union was to create conditions in various republics, through which the central authorities could create problems and control their behavior,” says cartography expert Rouben Galichian. “To such end during 1927-1940 small and large plots of Armenian land were given to Azerbaijan, often through illegal means and by orders from the central government, for which hardly any document is available — suffice it to say that Azerbaijani enclaves are sitting on Armenian highways, while the Armenian enclave is in a remote corner of Azerbaijan.”

In the end, as the Armenian-Azerbaijani war and other conflicts in the former Soviet Union have shown, secession was not impossible. It simply became much more bloody.

(Avedis Hadjian is a writer and journalist based in Venice. He is the author of Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey (Bloomsbury, 2018)

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