Azeri incursions along the Line of Contact (LoC) during the past several weeks have escalated significantly in frequency and intensity. As would be expected, the Artsakh defenders have been more than able to protect their homeland against these blatant violations of the ceasefire agreement. The escalation occurring just prior to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s meeting with Armenian President Serge Sarkisian and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, seemed counterproductive.
Border violations or not, no worthwhile result for Artsakh and Armenia could be expected to come out of the Sochi meeting or any subsequent meetings for obvious reasons. Sarkisian is concerned with the de jure recognition of Artsakh’s independence while Aliyev, ignoring Artsakh’s de facto independence, is determined to brand Armenia as an aggressor illegally occupying Azeri territory. How can negotiations produce any meaningful results when there is no agreement on the conflict that must be resolved? For too long we have allowed Azerbaijan to frame the issue in its favor. Unfortunately for us, the European Union and the United States have bought into this fiction, to the detriment of Armenia and Artsakh. The impossibility of reconciling the Azeri claim of territorial integrity with Artsakh’s rightful claim to independence based on the principle of self-determination should be obvious. It must be one or the other (see “Artsakh: A Zero Sum Solution Weighted in Favor of Azerbaijan“).
Russia, as the third member of the Minsk Group (with the United States and the European Union) charged with monitoring the negotiations, is pleased with the present impasse, which facilitates Putin’s policy of playing both sides against the middle. How bizarre, even in the Machiavellian world of international politics, to have your treaty ally selling up-to-date military hardware to your enemy. Unfortunately we must suffer an ally who enjoys playing the alternating role of good friend-bad friend at our expense. And with respect to Armenia’s less than voluntary agreement to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), President Putin allowed Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev to support Aliyev’s claim against Armenia by chiding Sarkisian that Armenia’s accession to the EEU must be based on its officially recognized borders.
Given the sophisticated intelligence-gathering technology available, the need for these cross-border violations by Azerbaijan with its loss of life are unnecessary. By now each side should be well aware of the number, type, disposition, and preparedness of the troops manning the LoC. If these cross-border incursions by Azerbaijan are meant to weaken the morale not only of our soldiers but the civilian population, most of whom live in rather close proximity to the LoC, they have failed. It should be apparent to Azerbaijan that these flagrant violations of the ceasefire agreement have only increased the preparedness and determination of the Artsakh Armenians to protect their rightful claim to independence.
The second objective that these constant violations seek is to project Aliyev as being in control of a situation that seems to escape a successful conclusion. Aliyev is a victim of his own making. He has not hesitated to proclaim that his military appropriations continually exceed Armenia’s annual national budget. That his purchase of military equipment has created the largest military force in the south Caucasus more than capable of retaking Artsakh should negotiations fail. Conveniently overlooked is the fact that he is squandering the nation’s wealth on these military acquisitions and the self-aggrandizement of a favored few to the detriment of a socioeconomically impovished population. How much longer can his bellicose statements ring true when rhetoric fails to match results? A dictator that is perceived as a toothless tiger should begin to worry about his ability to remain in power.
No doubt Aliyev is fully cognizant of this dilemma as well as the constraints on his oft-repeated threat to use military force, if necessary, to retake Artsakh if negotiations fail. Whether or not there is support by the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group for Armenia and Artsakh’s independence, all nations (with the questionable exception of Turkey) that have an interest in the south Caucasus abhor the thought of renewed hostilities. Russia, Iran, the European Union, the United States, Georgia, and the United Nations would immediately pressure Azerbaijan to enter into renewed negotiations or mediation at the first sign that it was preparing for a resumption of hostilities. International economic interests would raise cautionary flags. Any disruption in the flow of energy resources would have global ramifications. However, the more worrisome development would be the range of unintended political consequences that might unfold.
Can it be anticipated what the response by Russia and Iran might be if Ankara decided to augment its forces along the Armenian frontier or to a friendly occupation of Nakhitchevan on behalf of Azerbaijan? Or just as ominous are the possible repercussions if worried Georgian officials decided to refuse, restrict, or delay the urgent need by Russia to increase its garrison in Gyumri. Russia cannot afford to lose its only anchor in the south Caucasus or be unprepared to respond to any likely Turkish provocation against Armenia. Any weakening of this vital foothold would not only push historic Russian interests back to the northern slopes of the Caucasus, but likely reawaken anti-Russian movements within the region’s already restive Muslim population. It would facilitate Turkish economic and political domination of the south Caucasus and its long-sought expansion across the Caspian Sea that would compete with Russian interests in Central Asia. Multi-ethnic Shi’ite Iran neither needs nor wants a strong Sunni Turkish-Azeri alliance along its northern and northwestern borders that would accompany a weakened Armenia if it lost Artsakh.
We do have our limitations. However, when we factor in our strategic location (Armenia-Artsakh) that politically benefits Russian interests and economically benefits Iranian interests, we are not without some leverage. We do play an important role in limiting Turkish expansion in the southern Caucasus. Knowing this, we cannot allow our efforts to be circumscribed either by the uncertainty of success or the possibility of failure.
The unthinkable loss of Artsakh would be a catastrophic blow not only to Armenia, but to Hai Tahd and the morale of those of the younger generation who must continue to seek the justice that has eluded those of the passing generations. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has just won a convincing victory as president of Turkey that should keep him in power for another five years. Facing a weakened Armenia will only stiffen his resistance to genocide recognition and a host of other issues that have remained dormant for the past century. The likelihood of Ankara bowing to either domestic or international pressure is highly questionable for the foreseeable future. Can it be expected that a weakened Armenia will encourage the xenophobic leaders of Georgia to implement much-needed and promised programs and policies to improve the onerous political, economic, and cultural environments within which the Javakhahayer must live? And of greater significance is the fate of our brothers and sisters in Artsakh, whose sacrifices to live on our historic lands as free and independent Armenians would have been in vain.
The continuation of the status quo for Artsakh is reasonably certain, especially when the interests of the European Union and the United States do not coincide with Russia’s. However, passive reliance on this fact alone cannot guarantee ultimate victory. It is vital that we implement a well-thought-out plan properly funded to accelerate a constant annual increase in Artsakh’s population as well as its strategic distribution. Land without people has seldom been a winning combination. To facilitate this need for a significant increase in population, economic development must also be accelerated not only to attract repatriates, but to develop a positive attitude that Artsakh is permanently ours. It is not an easy task, but it is a vital task that cannot be delayed or sold short. The future of Armenia and Artsakh is inextricably linked, as is the creditability of Hai Tahd which hangs in the balance.