Azerbaijan’s success in its ‘anti-terrorist operation’ in the Armenian-controlled area of Karabakh is another sign Russia’s Eurasian sphere of influence is in retreat. Pro-Russian Armenia is a long-time Russian military ally which together with Georgia is helping Russia evade Western sanctions. Energy rich Azerbaijan, a military ally of NATO member Turkey and Israel, is the only South Caucasian state supporting Ukraine in its existential fight against Russia’s invasion.
Article four of the November 2020 ceasefire agreement stated that ‘The peace-making forces of the Russian Federation shall be deployed concurrently with the withdrawal of the Armenian troops.’ The fact that Azerbaijani forces fought Armenian forces, albeit for only a day, shows that Yerevan had been disinforming the outside world about their non-existence and had in fact been supplying paramilitary ‘Artsakh self-defence forces’ in the Karabakh enclave.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan denied Armenia had anything to do with these illegal military forces, but this was impossible as they had to be rotated, supplied with military equipment, and trained. Russian peacekeepers also turned a blind eye during the last three years to Armenia supplying ‘Artsakh self-defence forces.’ Azerbaijan estimated there were upwards of 10,000 illegal forces in Armenian-controlled Karabakh.
Over the last three years Azerbaijan attempted to negotiate with Armenia for a post-conflict peace treaty using Russia as a broker, but this failed. Azerbaijan never felt Russia was fully interested in resolving the conflict and instead preferring to maintain a frozen conflict – as Russia has for over three decades in Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Moldova’s Transniestr since the 1990s.
Azerbaijan then turned to the West to act as a broker to encourage Armenia to sign a post-conflict peace treaty. The EU eventually came, but late to the process in 2021 and – unlike Russia – attempted to act as an honest broker. This was much to the chagrin of France who, with its large Armenian lobby, has always adopted a biased pro-Armenian position on the South Caucasus. After over a decade of being AWOL from the South Caucasus, the US came even later to the negotiating table after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Armenia’s unwillingness to withdraw its illegal military forces from Karabakh, while stalling and dragging out negotiations, sent a signal it was unwilling to recognise Karabakh as Azerbaijani sovereign territory. This represented a threat to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity that continued to destabilise the South Caucasus by preventing any normalisation of Armenia’s relations with its Azerbaijani and Turkish neighbours.
Another factor was the human dimension.
During the First Karabakh War in the late 1980s and early 1990s, victorious Armenian forces ethnically cleansed 700,000 Azerbaijanis from Armenia and the twenty percent of Azerbaijan they occupied until 2020. Nearly three quarters of a million IDPs could not return to their homes and rebuild their villages and towns because of the huge number of landmines that were laid during Armenia’s occupation. In addition, a high level of insecurity stemmed from the continued presence of illegal military formations in Karabakh and the absence of a post conflict peace treaty.
Despite US and EU condemnation and threats of sanctions, Azerbaijan is fully compliant with international law in demilitarising illegal military formations on its internationally recognised territory. Additionally, it is in the West’s national interests to support Azerbaijan because it is the only pro-Western country in the South Caucasus and the only one supporting Ukraine’s struggle against Russia’s invasion.
In talking of Armenia turning West, Pashinyan has ignored the fact Putin does not do Brexit’s; or to be more precise Armexits. Armenia is a member of the two most important Russian-led organizations in the former Soviet space – the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Russia launched the CSTO in the 1990s to counter NATO and the EEU in 2010 to compete with the EU.
Armenia’s reorientation to the West is made even more difficult by the fact it has three Russian military bases on its territory. It is doubtful President Putin would agree to Armenia demanding these Russian forces withdraw from Armenia. The FSB (Federal Security Service), Russia’s internal intelligence service which is constitutionally assigned to domestic responsibilities in Russia but also operates throughout the former USSR, patrols Armenia’s borders. This would represent a third difficult negotiation with Russia if Pashinyan acted upon his pro-Western rhetoric to turn Armenia westwards.
Western national interests should align with Azerbaijan because it is the only South Caucasian country not assisting Russia in evading international sanctions imposed in response to its illegal invasion of Ukraine. Armenia and Georgia are both assisting Russia’s evasion of Western sanctions.
Finally, but largely ignored by Western policymakers, Armenia is the lynchpin in the Russian-Iranian military axis of evil. Armenia has long established military ties to both Iran and Russia and has acted as an intermediary for the delivery of Iranian drones to Russia that are fired at Ukrainian civilian and economic targets. US and European air defence systems protect Ukraine from Iranian drones supplied to Russia through Armenia.
Azerbaijan’s anti-terrorist operation came after three years of failed negotiations for a post-conflict peace treaty with Armenia. Following its defeat in the Second Karabakh War, all Armenia had to do was agree to recognise the former Soviet republican boundary as its international border with Azerbaijan – as was the case throughout the former USSR in the 1990s. Unfortunately, Armenia was not willing to take this step and hence war came for a day to the South Caucasus and Azerbaijan has completed the liberation of its internationally recognised territory that it began in three years ago.