Un cease fire was established in Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan's lightning offensive on September 20, which at least 200 dead and led to the capitulation of the secessionists. Two days later, the UN Security Council, meeting at the request of France, was scene of muscular exchanges between representatives of Baku and those of Armenia, which historically protects this region incorporated into Azerbaijan during the Soviet era but populated almost exclusively by Armenians.
Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed its independence from Baku in 1991, at the time of the collapse of the USSR. What followed was a three-year war, ultimately won by the Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh, largely supported by Armenia. They subsequently established the Republic of Artsakh in this area, a De facto state with full state functioning, with official structures, elections and an army, but which has not been recognized by any state represented at the UN. Baku had never accepted this defeat, and Karabakh became one of the many frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space. Azerbaijan successfully restarted large-scale hostilities in 2020, recovering a considerable part of the disputed region. Does his victory on September 20 mean the end of this conflict?
Historian Taline Ter Minassian, specialist in the region, answers here the main questions we ask about the current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and the future prospects of its inhabitants.
What is life like today in Stepanakert, the main city of Nagorno-Karabakh and capital of the self-proclaimed republic in 1991?
People are very afraid. Many of them are holed up in caves. A ceasefire has been declared, but Azerbaijani soldiers are close to the town – they weren't very far from it anyway, since even before the attack on September 20, they already held the neighboring town of Chouchi, barely ten kilometers away, and from which they taken control in the 2020 war.
Part of the population was gathered at Stepanakert airport – an airport where no civilian plane has landed for thirty years, and which is now a sort of entrenched camp in the hands of the Russian military, present as part of the peacekeeping mission established at the end, precisely, of the 2020 war.
What was the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh on the eve of the attack just launched by Azerbaijan?
On November 10, 2020, a ceasefire signed under the auspices of Vladimir Putin put an end to what was called the “44-day war”, which was in reality the second Karabakh war. The first having been won by the Armenian camp at the beginning of the 1990s. The second, in the fall of 2020, was incontestably won by Azerbaijan, which then took back the perimeter around the enclave, until then controlled by the Armenians, as well as about two-thirds of the enclave itself.
Le cease fire provided that communications should be ensured between, on the one hand, Armenia and Karabakh, via the Lachin corridor route, and on the other hand between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, which is an exclave of Azerbaijan located to the west of Armenian territory and bordering Turkey – that is to say that Azerbaijan and Turkey would benefit in this hypothesis, therefore, from a sort of direct land connection.
A certain number of Armenians – a figure of 120 is mentioned, but it is difficult to verify – had remained in the areas of Karabakh still controlled by the authorities of the Republic of Artsakh, as well as in certain adjacent territories taken over by the Azerbaijani. I went to Stepanakert at the very beginning of the implementation of the 000 ceasefire agreement. The situation seemed more or less stabilized, in particular due to the presence of Russian peacekeeping forces stationed there. along this famous Lachin corridor.
But this situation could not satisfy Azerbaijan for long which, last winter, set up a real blockade, by interrupting all traffic within the Lachin corridor. Karabakh had therefore been cut off from Armenia, that is to say from its only link with the outside world, for nine months. A few days before the September 20 attack, Azerbaijan had reopened a road linking its own territory to Karabakh, officially to transport humanitarian aid but in reality, undoubtedly, also and above all to transport its soldiers and military equipment.
On September 20, in total violation of the ceasefire signed in 2020, Azerbaijan launched a violent attack against Stepanakert and its surroundings. There were many deaths, including several Russian soldiers, including one of the senior leaders of the peacekeeping forces. President Ilham Aliyev wrote a short letter to Putin regretting their death. In less than 24 hours, the authorities of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic were forced to agree to total disarmament.
Why did Azerbaijan decide to attack now?
It is a banality to say it, but for Russia, officially guarantor of the ceasefire, the priority today is obviously elsewhere. As part of its war in Ukraine, Moscow needs Turkey, which is Azerbaijan's international sponsor. An unmistakable sign: the day before the Azerbaijani attack, Erdogan said in an interview that Crimea would never return to Ukraine. He had never said such things before. This can be interpreted as a sort of bargaining chip against the passivity of the Kremlin in the Karabakh affair. One thing is certain: Aliev would not have taken action without Erdogan's green light. Rich in the proceeds from the sale of its oil, over-armed, notably thanks to its arms purchases from Israel, with which he has recently become closer, Azerbaijan was obviously very superior militarily to the Karabakh forces.
How to explain this connection?
It's a very complex diplomatic game. For Israel, which greatly fears Iran, it is important to have good relations with Azerbaijan, which has strained relations with this countrys, notably because the Iranians fear the irredentism of their northern region, which is called Iranian Azerbaijan, and also because Iran is very hostile to NATO, of which Turkey, Baku's great ally, is a member.
The big maneuvers never stop, everyone defends their interests: two days ago, the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu visited Tehran and the two countries have displayed their understanding... As for the simple Armenian inhabitants of Karabakh, they do not understand much about this Great Game of which they are the victims, since they are now faced with the risk of being expelled from their lands.
Is there a risk of ethnic cleansing orchestrated by Baku in Karabakh?
The Azerbaijani authorities may well deny it and affirm that the inhabitants of Karabakh have the vocation to be citizens of Azerbaijan like the others, in reality a campaign aimed at terrifying them and pushing them to leave has been underway for a long time – this was in particular the aim of the blockade of the Lachin corridor, which starved Karabakh.
Now that Azerbaijan has taken over the entire enclave, it is difficult to imagine that Armenians could continue to live there for very long without security guarantees. A mass exodus seems likely – which would be a sort of repetition of the most terrible pages in Armenian history, such as those of 1915 or 1921.
Closer to us, the Armenians have not forgotten the Soumgaït massacre committed by the Azerbaijanis in 1988.
How can we characterize the current Azerbaijani regime?
It is certainly an authoritarian regime, which has absolutely nothing of a democracy. It is led by a dynasty in place since Soviet times, since the country's previous president, Heidar Aliyev (1993-2003), father of current President Ilham Aliev who succeeded him after his death, was a prominent KGB officer and member of the Politburo of the USSR, before becoming the President of the Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) of Azerbaijan.
The regime crushes any dissenting voice and has little intention of leaving the slightest autonomy in Karabakh, even though this region was only integrated into it during the time of the USSR and it then benefited from the status of an autonomous region within of the Azerbaijan SSR.
Beyond that, the Azerbaijanis continue to assert themselves as "the brothers of the Turks" and use, regarding their link with Turkey, the formula "One nation, two states". Armenians have no place in this vision.
Today, Baku and Ankara – which officially deny the Armenian genocide of 1915 – are in a position of strength and no kindness should be expected from them towards the Armenians. They would be very naive to take the words of those responsible in Baku at face value – especially since they have just betrayed their word by violating the 2020 ceasefire without qualms.
Armenia, this time, did not intervene to support Karabakh…
Certainly, but it did not have the means, since the lost war three years ago, where it had lost thousands of soldiers. Today in Armenia there is a major hostile movement against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, accused of having tried unsuccessfully to play on all sides and of having sought to give too many guarantees to Russia, Azerbaijan and the West; but there is also the understanding that, whatever the reasons, the Armenian army did not, this time, have the capacity to fly to the aid of Karabakh alone.
In summary, we seem to be witnessing once again an episode similar to that of a hundred years ago, when Armenia was caught between Mustafa Kemal's Turkey and the USSR. Except that there is no longer a USSR to absorb it, and Russia is certainly not going to try to do so, if only because it has no territorial continuity with Armenia.
Beyond Karabakh, is Armenia in danger?
We will have to follow this story of the junction of Azerbaijan and Turkey through southern Armenia. If this materializes, it is yet another catastrophe for Armenia, which risks being reduced territorially. But this is a scenario that Iran will absolutely want to prevent, because Tehran is very keen to maintain a common border with Armenia and such a corridor would amount to depriving it of this. A generalized explosion could then not be ruled out.
Westerners have been more discreet on this issue, even if France urgently convened the UN Security Council...
The Europeans are far away, the Americans even further. What matters here is the play of regional powers. And if Iran is hostile to Azerbaijan, on the other hand Ankara fully supports it and Russia does not want to get angry with either Azerbaijan or Turkey.
Moscow has always given preference to Baku over Yerevan, particularly for Azerbaijan's hydrocarbon wealth – this is also one of the reasons why Karabakh was ultimately allocated by the Bolsheviks to Azerbaijan. rather than Armenia. In short, once again, the Armenians find themselves alone in the face of their inextricable geopolitical situation.
Taline Ter Minassian, Historian, university professor. Director of the Observatory of Post-Soviet States (CREE team), National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (Inalco)