International news attests to the blatant injustices and the end of an international legal order built in the aftermath of the disasters and atrocities of World War II. Major powers, such as the United States, Russia and China, through their postures and actions, have slowly but surely neutralized the principles of international law by not respecting them. Among the small but powerful states, Israel is the best example of a country that has considered itself above international law since its occupation of the Palestinian territories: The UN system has adopted more than hundred resolutions condemning Israel since 1947; they have never been implemented. The most recent calls for an immediate ceasefire in present hostilities.

“There can be no double standards when we speak about human rights. The rights of one group of people are not higher than that of the other,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk. He added: “The rules apply equally to everyone.” The decline of respect for human rights and the principles of international law is not recent but the crisis has reached a new peak through the forced, massive displacements of the populations of Karabakh (Artsakh) and Gaza.

It is appropriate to analyze the perspective of the strategic challenges posed to Armenia and the Armenian nation in the light of the current events, geopolitical changes and democratic declines worldwide. This article sets out the reasons why Armenia should adopt a diplomatic strategy of positive neutrality with its various international partners, and what the immediate legal and political challenges are that it faces.

A Disaster Predicted in Karabakh

In an article written at the end of January 2022 (“Autodétermination du Haut-Karabakh: un pronostic engagé ou réservé?” in Haut-Karabakh, le Livre Noir, [Eds. Eric Dénécé, Tigrane Yégavian], Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement (2022)), I concluded that the only realistic solution for Artsakh “could draw inspiration from the experience of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Since Russia already is the de facto administrator of security and police in the disputed territories, it would be appropriate for a mandate to be given to Russia by the UN Security Council. This solution would have the advantage of easing immediate tensions, giving adequate time for discussions on the future status, allowing a controlled return of displaced Armenian and Azerbaijani families to their homes, and observing in time the behavior of the communities towards each other. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic should take advantage of this respite to demonstrate its capacity for self-government. Azerbaijan should use this time to end its policy of institutional hatred and racial discrimination. This transitional stage would be long but inevitable to reestablish trust between the two populations.”

It was specified that the implementation of such a solution depended on three factors: the consent of all stakeholders, the resolution of governance problems in Armenia and the evolution of the regional geopolitical situation.

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The outbreak of war in Ukraine and the new proxy wars between the Western bloc (United States, Canada, Europe) and the Eastern bloc (Russia, China, Iran) precipitated the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. The region was emptied of its Armenian population in record time, without resistance.

The abandonment of Karabakh was a scenario written and planned since the Prague agreements. Russia, the United States, France and Turkey pressured Armenia to abandon Artsakh. In this context, it is regrettable that September 19 cost new human lives. It is likely that the Turkish President himself informed Nikol Pashinyan of this attack during their telephone conversation on September 11. Is there any quid pro quo for the concessions made by Armenia? We don’t know yet.

Looking for culprits and past and present responsibility is not a priority although the time will come for that. The diaspora also has its own responsibility in this collective failure and there is much to say about that. No consideration has been given to the objective problems of constitutional order, democratic governance and respect for the rule of law in Armenia. There are political prisoners and other human rights issues, the judiciary independence is not guaranteed (World Bank report “Supporting Judicial Reforms in Armenia: A Forward Look” [2023]), and the legislative and executive powers are controlled by a single political party, while the dangers of a lack of national concord and of a global pan-Armenian strategy in a threatening external environment were anticipated.

The ceasefire agreement of November 10, 2020, had territorial and sovereignty consequences beyond the cessation of hostilities. It should have been discussed in Parliament — the only constitutional body empowered to ratify international agreements. Violations of constitutional law have also occurred in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh): President Samvel Shahramanyan dissolved the self-proclaimed republic without referring it to its parliament or to the people. Whatever the circumstances and external pressure may have been, the decree he issued is unconstitutional and has no legal value.

Is Armenia’s Security Guaranteed?

The authentically Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was sacrificed by Armenia for hypothetical guarantees of its own national security and territorial integrity. At the same time, the leaders of the Republic of Artsakh did not undertake serious steps on the diplomatic front and demonstrated their inability to establish themselves as a politically autonomous entity. For example, a three-stage plan presented in early April 2023 to Artsakh authorities suggested organizing the signing of a petition by the people of Artsakh calling directly for the UN Security Council to decide on protection measures. This plan was not considered at all.

The radical change in the situation on the ground (i.e., there are no more Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh) makes the implementation of this plan more challenging, but it remains legally valid. Its first step is no longer the prevention of ethnic cleansing but the return of Nagorno-Karabakh’s displaced Armenian population, under international protection. Their right of return is absolute. All legal and diplomatic efforts should focus on this goal. The priority must be the adoption of a resolution by the United Nations Security Council establishing the right of return of the Armenian populations of Artsakh to their native territory under the provisional administration and protection of the United Nations, as well as the release of all prisoners of war detained illegally in Azerbaijan. These priorities must be at the top of claims in the negotiation rounds to come between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But is Armenia in a position to bear that legitimate claim?

The psychological balance of power between the negotiators has been unequal since the military defeat in November 2020. It is even more so today. The establishment of a government of national unity is vital because the coming set of events is even more critical for the future of the Armenian nation. There is now talk of a possible attack on either the sovereignty of Armenia or on its territorial integrity.

Currently, the construction of roads and other communication links is underway in Syunik. The issue is who will retain control of the territory and oversee the security of these axes of communication. Azerbaijan makes no secret of its territorial ambitions over Armenia, while Iran defends Armenia’s territorial integrity, and Russia, scalded by the harsh criticism of the Armenian Prime Minister and his close lieutenants, could do without Armenia. If a rapprochement of Armenia with the West at the expense of Russia were to be confirmed, it would take place under the control of Turkey, hence weakening Russia’s influence in the region.

International Context and Weakening of Russia

Russia is entangled in the Ukrainian conflict. Its actions in Artsakh were meant to appease Turkish and Azerbaijani appetites in the South Caucasus so as not to open a second front, just as the Stalinist power had pursued the same policy a hundred years ago by transferring Armenian Karabakh to the Azerbaijan SSR to appease inter-ethnic conflicts.

If the Karabakh Armenians do not return home, the loss of territory will be fatal not only for the Armenians but also for Russia: Azerbaijan would have the legitimate right to request the withdrawal of Russian troops maintaining the ceasefire. In the long term, Turkey’s neo-imperial ambitions in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which are loud and clear, will seal Russia’s fate in these regions: Turkey’s defense budget is growing sharply (+150% in 2024) just as the widespread rearmament in all NATO countries are warning signs of increased tensions.

The United States, France and the European Union have promised security and protection to Armenia. Without an army on the ground, these promises have no value. For the time being, the Western aid concerns democracy and rule of law, which is of little help.

The Armenian Prime Minister maintains his agenda for signing a peace agreement with Azerbaijan by the end of 2023. He hoped to obtain a first commitment from Azerbaijan during the European summit in Granada on October 5. President Aliyev, having obtained the evacuation of the Armenians from Artsakh, is no longer rushing to sign the peace treaty: he did not even go to Grenada. It is now in his interest to raise the stakes.

Azerbaijan and Turkey will bide their time and prefer to achieve an alternative commercial route which passes along the border on the Iran side. This creates additional pressure on Armenia to concede passage through its territory, the so-called “Zangezur corridor.” The principle of a regional integration plan (3+3 format, Armenia/Georgia/Azerbaijan + Turkey/Russia/Iran) seems to satisfy all the protagonists except Georgia.

Will Armenia be sacrificed too?

If the West and Turkey aim for a common objective —eliminating Russia from the South Caucasus — they have different positions in relation to the territorial integrity of Armenia. France is unclear about its objectives, even as it champions Armenia. It is not the same for the United States, whose policy in the region, just as in the Middle East, is dictated by Israel (anyone who wants to understand what is happening in the region must read or reread the best-seller by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt: The Israel Lobby and the U.S. Foreign Policy).  The US Department of State has reaffirmed its strong support for Armenia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity but at the same time, its closest ally, Israel, leads the regional strategy.

Israel’s next target is Iran. This fact has just been confirmed by Netanyahu and high-ranking military officials but also by the American administration. The Israeli media machine aims to convince the world that Iran is the real architect of the Hamas attack (a claim that is not confirmed by the Pentagon nor Secretary of State Blinken). In 2002, it was the neo-conservatives (Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle, Adelman, Woolsey, Libby, Bolton, Wurmser and Abrams) who convinced George W. Bush that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (which was notoriously false) to justify the military invasion. The pro-Israeli lobbies have all discreetly but effectively supported this version in Washington DC.

The strategy to destabilize Iran rests on Azerbaijan. The latter has a double interest: to circulate freely in the south of Armenia and to reunite the Azeri peoples of Nakhichevan and North-West Iran with Azerbaijan. The interest for Israel is also twofold: Isolating Iran by cutting its geographical link with Armenia and agitating the Azeri population of Iran with the aim of disintegrating Iran and neutralizing its regional influence (Syria, Lebanon, Gaza).

As part of its strategic partnership with Azerbaijan, Israel has been complicit in the criminal enterprise of ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population of Karabakh, not only by supplying high-precision weapons for the last three years but also by advising its proven method: establishment of checkpoints, siege strategy, forced expulsion, arrest of leaders and the  forced colonization of newly conquered territories to create a fait accompli on the ground, which would hinder the return of the displaced.

The anti-Russian discourse in certain Armenian circles is not foreign to the cooperation established with neoconservative groups (John Bolton et al.), the American Enterprise Institute and Christian Zionists. These groups pursue objectives contrary to the security and sovereignty of Armenia as explained.

Others in Armenia and in the diaspora have bought into the vision of the West as a savior angel that would come to protect Armenia in the event of a Turkish-Azerbaijani aggression. The same miscalculation prevailed at different periods of Armenian recent history (End of 19th century until the genocide, Post genocide protection in Ottoman Empire until withdrawal of allied countries in 1922). Were this option to exist, the reaction time of Western powers would be operationally too late, given the smallness of the Armenian territory and the existence of two fronts.

The West will not engage militarily. it doesn’t have the will nor the capacity. It should be remembered that Cyprus has been occupied by Turkey since 1974, and that Crimea, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria have come under Russian control over the last 15 years. The fate of other Ukrainian regions is still uncertain.

France has decided to initiate military cooperation through supplying defensive weapons and training military personnel. These means will not be operational for a certain time, the time necessary for an army to assimilate a new military doctrine, integrate new weapons into its defense system and train its personnel. Azerbaijan continues to purchase numerous weapons and has much more at its disposal.

Balancing of Relations between West and Russia

Bitterness reigns in all political circles in Armenia and in the diaspora over the fact that Russia has failed in its role as protector of the Armenians. This fact is indisputable but it is appropriate to recall several other facts that mitigate and nuance this assessment.

First, it is too easy to say that Russia has abandoned Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia has never recognized the Republic of Artsakh statehood since 1991 and it did not resist its reintegration into Azerbaijan.

Second, the mandates of peacekeeping or interposition forces rarely include the use of military force against warring parties. The most tragic example of that was the failure of United Nations forces to prevent the genocide of the Bosnians of Srebrenica by Serbian paramilitary groups.

Third, Armenia cannot take the risk of completely divorcing itself from Russia in a period of such acute regional and international turbulence. More than half of the country’s economy depends on Russia (banking system and exports), while even more importantly, energy supplies are 100 percent under Russia’s control. The nuclear power plant and mining operations are also under Russian control. Its borders are still guarded by Russia and long-term military cooperation agreements were signed in 2010 and 2013.

Separating completely from Russia today means handing over the keys of Armenia to Turkey. A Russian presence allows the deadlines to be pushed back, giving Armenia time to strengthen itself militarily and develop a new foreign policy.

Fourth, one needs to be more measured about what will ultimately emerge from the current international crises. The effects of the moral failure of the West (United States and Europeans) must not be neglected. They are less credible due to their proper violation of the values they impose to others. The destruction of international public order and the challenge to Western hegemony mainly the American one by the rest of the world, are also key factors.

West Losing Moral Legitimacy

Is Russia less respectable than the United States? It is in terms of democracy and rule of law. It is not in terms of violations of international law? The war between Russia and Ukraine appears to be a balanced war compared to Israel’s completely asymmetrical war and disproportionate military response in Gaza. Hamas has committed indiscriminate terrorist acts, which constitutes a fundamental error and a reprehensible act that deserved a targeted reaction. However, the trapped civilian population is the main victim of the internationally wrongful collective punishment by Israel. One must understand that the Palestinian youth are desperate because they have always lived in conditions of siege, humiliation, bombing, and are offered no political perspective. They prefer to die resisting. Hamas’ influence grew out of Israel’s intentional policy of rejecting any diplomatic solution based on the two-State principle on the basis of pre-1967 borders. Israel has systematically sabotaged all efforts in this direction, weakened or eliminated those who could have negotiated a peace plan. The sixteen-year siege of Gaza (this territory was already an open-air prison because the border with Egypt is under Israeli control) has strengthened Hamas.

Religion has nothing to do with the roots of the conflict. The designs are above all nationalist and the ambitions are territorial: the ongoing destruction of Gaza has two objectives: the first one is to destroy the visible and underground infrastructures of Hamas and the combatants; by doing so, the territory becomes uninhabitable and this forces its Palestinian population to leave it: a second “Nakba” is underway. The annexation of the territory may well be Israel’s second objective.

The parallel between the processes of forced displacement of the native populations of Artsakh and Gaza is striking. But in their implementation, that of Presidents Erdogan and Aliyev could almost earn them the qualification of humanists.

France, Europe and foremost the United States bear heavy political, moral and legal responsibility in the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Gaza. They are complicit in the crimes committed: ethnic cleansing and violation of international humanitarian law. These are serious and blatant violations of peremptory norms of international law.

We are also witnessing an unprecedented repression of civil and political rights and freedoms at the domestic level: banning of gatherings in support of the Palestinian population and arrests of demonstrators. The assimilation of criticism of the State of Israel to anti-Semitism has reached a new level. Students and professors are threatened with sanctions from their universities, due to pressure from donors.

The restructuring of the international order will take place and it is not certain that the United States and the Europeans will emerge victorious because their moral legitimacy is collapsing and resentment against them is increasing; their abysmal public debt will force them to stop financing the wars waged by their permanent or circumstantial allies; their disastrous policies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East trigger crises and increase the flow of migrants towards Europe, a process that will increase political and social tensions within European states and encourage a political refocusing towards nationalist and xenophobic parties.

Hence pro-American statements in Armenia deserve to be more nuanced and the Executive’s political decisions must be temporized. The Prime Minister, usually provocative, looks wiser. He has been criticizing Russia but in an objective and measured manner because he does not close the door to constructive dialogue. Could the silence of the opposition in recent months and their resignation as to the forced evacuation of Karabakh be a sign of a national political consensus?

In the current state of the regional and international crises, and in consideration of West’s moral bankruptcy and weakening, Armenia should keep a balanced policy in its relations with the Eastern bloc (Russia, Iran, India, China) and Western powers (Europe, France, Canada, United States). It should also establish a government of national unity and develop a strategy of positive neutrality if it wishes to protect its territorial integrity and preserve the chances of Armenians returning to Artsakh under negotiated guarantees. The loss of Southern Armenia would be the end of Armenia, because the Armenian population, already prey to strong emigration would otherwise no longer see a viable future. The numbers suggest a dangerous trend: an expert report on demographic issues, presented at the Future Armenian Convention in March 2023 in Yerevan, indicates that at the current pace of depopulation, the Armenian population would reach 1.9 million in 2050 and 1 million in 2100.

(Philippe Raffi Kalfayan based in Paris, is a lawyer, lecturer in international law and a former secretary general of FIDH (International Federation of Human Rights), who has earned a Ph.D. in international law. He is a regular columnist for the Armenian Mirror-Spectator.)

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