Artsakh at 24: A Reality Check

Sept. 2 marked the 24th anniversary of Nagorno-Karabagh’s (Artsakh) independence. This is a good time to take a reality check with respect to the situation in Artsakh. Since the ceasefire brokered by Russia in 1994, which brought the devastating war launched by the Azeris against the Artsakh Armenians to a close, an uneasy ceasefire has existed along the Line of Contact (LoC) and where Armenia’s Tavush Province shares a common border with Azerbaijan. Of late, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has increased the border violations in number and intensity. The Minsk Group, a creation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the peaceful settlement of the Artsakh issue, has proven to be a complete failure in reining in Azerbaijan’s constant violations.

Sept. 2 marked the 24th anniversary of Nagorno-Karabagh's (Artsakh) independence
Sept. 2 marked the 24th anniversary of Nagorno-Karabagh’s (Artsakh) independence

The Minsk Group tri-chairs (France representing the European Union, the United States, and Russia) have geostrategic interests that are not fully compatible with one another, while the various member countries of the EU have their differences as well. Yet, given this competing range of interests, the EU and the United States have seemingly agreed that Artsakh should be returned to Azerbaijan. Only Russian support of Armenia, however self-serving it may be to protect its interests in the South Caucasus, effectively counterbalances a pro-Azeri (and Turkish) bias by the EU and the United States with respect to the Artsakh issue.

The European Union through its various political manifestations and the United States have never accepted the validity of Artsakh’s declaration of independence. This is obvious when they constantly advocate a negotiated settlement whose sole purpose is to restore the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. One might ask why there is no outward Russian opposition to this position. Several reasons come to mind. Russia may see no need to confront the EU and the United States at this time. Moscow benefits by allowing this highly volatile situation to exist as a means to tighten its economic and political grip on Armenia; it also profits from the sale of military hardware to Azerbaijan. Ally or not, Moscow gains by playing both ends against the middle.

The Minsk Group, with its mealy-mouth response to Azerbaijan’s aggression and its amassing of military hardware that President Aliyev constantly threatens to use against peaceful Artsakh, exacerbates an already tense situation along the LoC and the border of Tavush Province in northeastern Armenia. Rather than forcefully condemning Azerbaijan’s violations, the Minsk Group succumbs to admonishing both sides to show restraint. This type of response has been responsible not only for increasing the number of violations by Azerbaijan, but for encouraging more destructive attacks using rocket, artillery, and mortar fire. It seems that Aliyev has been given carte blanche to do whatever he pleases.

The western democracies (the European Union and the United States) with all of their expressions of friendship, visiting delegations, and efforts to keep Armenia, at least marginally, within the EU orbit have allowed Azerbaijan to engage in what has essentially become an undeclared war of attrition against Artsakh and Armenia. Almost weekly these unprovoked attacks claim the lives of Armenian and Artsakh Defense Force personnel, as well as innocent civilians living in the border villages of Tavush Province. The EU and the United States have facilitated this pernicious war of attrition by Azerbaijan, which seeks (1) to create the perception that Artsakh is not a safe place to visit, to settle, or to invest funds; (2) to undermine the morale of the front-line Artsakh Defense Force soldier; and (3) to weaken the resolve of the peaceful, hardworking civilian population of democratic Artsakh.

This undeclared war, however, only serves to strengthen the determination of the Artsakh Armenians to protect their independence at all costs.

Even with his numerically larger military force, Aliyev realizes that any resumption of hostilities would have a very limited window of opportunity—from three to five days—for his forces to achieve their objectives. The disastrous unintended consequences that could flow from a renewal of hostilities is more than sufficient to cause leaders from the European Union, the United States, Russia, and Iran (and possibly Turkey) to call for an immediate ceasefire. Aliyev is well aware of this and other constraints to mounting a full-scale attack against Artsakh.

It is worth noting that when evaluating an opponent’s military strength, the mental attitude or battlefield toughness of its soldiers, especially its infantry, is a key component. In this respect, the Artsakh Defense Force soldier is superior to his Azeri counterpart. As a rule an attacking force, especially against a determined defense from well-fortified positions, can expect to sustain at least three to five times as many casualties as the defenders. The tenacity of the Artsakh defenders is rooted in their determination to protect their families, their historic lands, and their right to live as free Armenians. What is it that motivates the Azeri soldier? What is it that he is willing to sacrifice his life for on the battlefield?

What can our response be to the present situation? Obviously we do not want to increase tensions along the LoC, but that in no way prohibits us from mounting immediate and punishing counter-measures against the Azeri aggressors. In the meantime, we must continue to develop the economy to improve the quality of life of the people and to attract in-migrants as best we can. It is critical that Artsakh’s population increases. Our footprint in the liberated territories must be enlarged. Establishing strategically sited settlements in the sparsely populated regions as well as expanding settlements in the eastern border regions is economically and militarily important not only to Artsakh, but to Armenia as well.

Expanding tourism, especially with Diasporan Armenians, must be given a very high priority. Special packages appealing to different age and interest groups are necessary not only to stimulate the economy, but to create an interest in Artsakh and to foster a connection between its people and the diaspora. To date we have not done a very effective job of bringing Artsakh and the diaspora together. If we discount the subset of Armenians who are interested in and have knowledge of events happening in the Homeland (Armenia, Artsakh, and Georgian Javakhk) during this very critical period in modern Armenian history, we might find that the majority of Armenians in the diaspora have little accurate knowledge of what is happening and less interest in gaining that knowledge. One measure of that disconnect, for whatever reason, is the difficulty we have in raising substantial funds on a continuing basis.

And finally, as a testament to that lack of interest, how many Diasporan Armenians have visited Armenia, let alone Artsakh, since the turn of the century? It is our responsibility to reach out to our people rather than expecting them to reach out to us. The assistance that has and continues to be given to Artsakh is critical, but without that intimate connection it falls far short of what is required. It is important that the Armenian Diaspora shows its support for Artsakh during this troubling time.

On the diplomatic front, Azerbaijan ignores Artsakh’s declaration of independence and charges Armenia with invading and occupying its territory. The European Union and the United States, having accepted this specious Azeri charge, have required that all Armenian military forces be withdrawn from the occupied territories (our liberated territories) as a condition associated with a peaceful resolution of the Artsakh issue. The fact that the EU and the United States support the principle of territorial integrity essentially preempts not only the Artsakh Armenians’ right of self-determination, but their participation in the negotiations. Since both principles cannot support the same set of facts simultaneously, one may conclude that the European Union and the United States have decided that Artsakh cannot be independent and must be returned to Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction.

During the several decades since the ceasefire in 1994 we have done little to protect our interests beyond the stalemated negotiations and presumably Russian efforts to keep the issue from being resolved in Azerbaijan’s favor. First and foremost, the evolving principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) must be invoked by Armenia as the basis for sending its troops into Azerbaijan. We must rely on international legal scholars to develop the case utilizing the R2P principle to support Armenia’s intervention, as it was to prevent the Armenian minority in Soviet Azerbaijan from falling victim to what was developing into a modern-day genocide. The R2P principle allocates the responsibility to use force to governments, to be able to protect minorities being set upon by others within their country. However, when the government is the provocateur, who is there to help the minority beyond international forces empowered by the United Nations? In the case of the Artsakh Armenians, it was their compatriots in the neighboring country who had to act immediately. There is a significant difference between the Azeri claim that Armenia invaded their country and Armenia’s humanitarian intervention to prevent a developing genocide.

On the second point of territorial integrity vis-a-vis self-determination, again we must rely on international legal scholars to make the case where the principle of remedial secession becomes the handmaiden of self-determination. For 70 years, the Armenian minority in Soviet Azerbaijan was forced to live under a government whose discriminatory practices limited them economically and politically while their centuries-old artifacts (important to their identity) were systematically destroyed. The only solution to this intolerable situation was secession, and this is exactly what the Artsakh Armenians did. They voted for independence.

Finally, we come to the constitutional right of the Artsakh Armenians to declare their independence during the waning days of the Soviet Union. In addition to the principles already mentioned, we must depend on competent legal scholars familiar with the former Soviet constitution to develop the case supporting Artsakh’s right to declare independence.

We continue to skirt the basic issue that faces us. It is Artsakh’s right to declare its independence and the acknowledgement of that right by the European Union and the United States. If that fundamental issue had been resolved or accepted from the beginning, the negotiators would have been considering the technical details of demarcating the boundary between Artsakh and Azerbaijan; possibly the allocation of water resources between Artsakh and the neighboring regions of Azerbaijan; the evacuation of the Azeri-occupied border areas of Martuni and Martakert; and the final status of (north) Shahumian.

These and a host of other issues related to the independence of Artsakh would be on the agenda. As we know, none are. To the contrary, what we are supposed to negotiate is how and when Artsakh will be returned to Azerbaijan. Is this what the sacrifices have been about? This is the time when Artsakh needs the support of all Armenians. They should not feel that they are alone in a struggle that will not only determine their future, but the future of our Armenia.

Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.


  1. This baffles me… How about the EU and United States tell Turkey to return Western Armenian lands to the Armenian people and we also keep Artsakh since the land was Armenias to begin with. Also historic Armenia reached to the Caspian Sea so have them return all of Azerbaijan lands to the Armenians and they can move back to Turkmenistan.

  2. This is incredibly important and needs to be read and acted upon by all Armenians. In the US, we must stand up for the rule of law, which incorporates the right of self determination as it has been demonstrated in Artsakh. Karabagh defended itself in a war of aggression and prevailed with the help of patriotic Americans like Monte Melkonian, who gave his life for the homeland. Don’t let the American government continue to bow to oil interests and Turkish demands. Stand up for freedom against tyranny. Isn’t that what it means to be an American?

  3. Just got back from Armenia and Artsakh a month ago after a two week trip. The impressions was encouraging. First off, there were a lot of tourists, I met an American (Anglo-Saxon Protestant type) girl teaching English, a German man translating the works of Movses Khorenatsi, a Yuppie from Hong Kong who was traveling the Caucuses and in Shushi there was a tour bus full of Chinese tourists. The only problem was the tour bus didn’t really tell them what was going on. I explained the role of Ghazanchetsots Cathedral during the siege of Stepanakert and they were appalled. Alongside the Vardenis-Martakert Highway there is also a high voltage power line under construction. It’s fairly obvious that the RoA does not intend to let Artsakh remain isolated for much longer. As for Azeri provocations, as soon as Armenia has control of the Iskander missle system it purchased from Russia the fight will basically be over. The ability to blow up half of Baku will make the fight all too real for Aliyev, who wants to keep his people ignorant of the hopeless reality they face at the frontline.

  4. No matter how much we diasporans are brow beaten about our Armenian heritage, when returning from visiting our spiritual homeland we Armenians just don’t come back with a warm and fuzzy feeling. After all, we are just another tourist.

  5. Main purpose of all these bogus negotiations are to create false hope and consequently derail our focus on imminent danger from Azerbaijan.
    Armenia needs to go nuclear soon.

  6. … one may conclude that the European Union and the United States have decided that Artsakh cannot be independent and must be returned to Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction… HOWEVER THE WEST DID NOT HAVE THE BALLS TO CONFRONT RUSSIA IN THE CASE OF CRIMEA.

  7. It is important to remind the world that the people of Artsakh invoked the USSR constitution seeking secession from Azerbaijan. Artsakh people voted for independence. Unfortunately the USSR Supreme Soviet did not approve the people’s. vote for self-determination which sadly reflects in the attitude of EU and US. The International law protecting state’s territorial integrity and the right to self- determination are mutually exclusive. Major powers espouse one or the other whichever fits their politics. Case in point is Kosovo. The US led NATO forces against Yugo- slavia in defence of the right to self-determination of Kosovars to become independent! At the time it suited the US to breakup Yugoslavia.
    I think Armenia and Artsakh should retaliate to Azeri border provocation in a very powerful way by setting ablaze the oilfields in Baku and blow up the oil pipeline (only 50 miles away). That is the only way to make Azerbaijan understand enough is enough.

  8. I just returned from Armenia and Artsakh yesterday. During my first visit to Artsakh in 2012 I spent five days and visited most of Artsakh. This year’s visit was with my wife who was visiting it for the first time. I fully agree that we have to increase Armenian visitors from the Diaspora, but we also have to encourage western foreign nationals to visit Artsakh and understand the issues.
    The good people of Artsakh have come a long way; I noticed a lot of progress in general infrastructure, but there’s still a lot to be done to attract the educated, professional and informed western tourist. Right now Artsakh people need an urgent crash course in Tourism 101. Consultants and NGOs should get there urgently and advise. Besides rule 0, the five basic principles of what is missing on the ground are the following:
    Rule 0: Spending all of one’s financial and human resources on “decor”, fancy stonework for outside walls, fancy floor tiling, and rooms with 12 foot high ceilings is inefficient and not enough; the hospitality operation has then to be supported with adequate facilities and services;
    1. Good bedding with top quality mattresses; a must!
    2. Upgraded general catering, with tasty healthy cooking and much quicker service.
    3. Friendly front desk staff, always responding with a smile and getting the job done.
    4. WIFI working 24/7 in lobby, aisles and rooms.
    5. Well trained tour guides that are there to state the facts but also to sell our positions, talk about the war and liberation of our lands and the future we are seeking in stronger terms, be much more political, show the damaged caused to buildings from Azeri shelling from Shushi. Being shy and always politically correct in every word pronounced does not serve our purpose, since there are no Turks nor Azeris among the visiting crowds anyway. One wonders why the strategic Fort in Shushi was “closed” to visitors in high season? After one full day in Stepanakert, foreign nationals were asking me: “why did they need a Visa?”, and was “Artsakh trying to separate itself from Armenia!?! or Azerbaidjan?” It is mind boggling for Armenians to hear such questions, I responded to their queries of course, and even more. Perhaps tour guides have to spend equal time, if not more, in delivering their remarks in English. English is the language for selling our positions; Armenian and Russian are not. After spending long hours in churches and monasteries, guides should spend as much time as possible to sell our future positions in English please, to western visitors.
    But I responde to their queries

  9. We Armenians of the Diaspora and our homeland have the knowhow, determination and courage to protect and maintain what IS OURS. All we need is the leadership and action. Diaspora should show its complete and unconditional willingness to support our homeland not just morally but also financially, technically and active support to achieve these goals. Ability to exert severe military punishment for EACH AND EVERY Azeri aggression is the key for our survival ans success, not just relying on the world to take the right and just action. Let us just take an example from the West Bank settlements.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.