Artsakh: One Year After the April War


Special for the Armenian Weekly

One year ago, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale military offensive against the Artsakh Republic along the Line of Contact (LoC). Failure by the command structure to heed the available intelligence credits the Azerbaijani forces with a surprise attack that not only put our soldiers at risk, but the civilian population of Artsakh as well.  With an Armenian population living in close proximity to the LoC, we cannot afford to depend solely on the proven dedication of our soldiers to protect Artsakh.

Talish in the days following the April War (Photo: Ani Avetyan/The Armenian Weekly)

Unfortunately, nothing can replace real time intelligence and the proper maintenance and availability of equipment and supplies. These failures during the 2016 April War allowed Azerbaijan to extract a dear price in casualties and the loss of strategic terrain, small as it may have been. Note that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group has not objected to Azerbaijan’s occupation of this terrain, nor have they made any effort to have it returned to Artsakh.

Since the April War, there has been no let-up in Azeri sponsored violations. Azerbaijan has continued to attack our forward position with sniper fire, mortar and artillery shells, and never ending probing actions causing casualties that we can ill afford to sustain indefinitely.  The Minsk Group countries seem more concerned with protecting their geostrategic interests vis-a-vis Azerbaijan (as well as with Turkey) than in responding to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s military adventurism that creates a potentially explosive situation along the LoC.

Given the parochial national interests of the Minsk Group countries, their hands-off policy with respect to Azerbaijan is not about to change in the near future, if at all.  In fact, the Co-chairs are as much a part of the problem as is Azerbaijan.

As a result, the passing year has brought us no closer to independence. Negotiations continue, but without any substantive results. President Aliyev’s constant reference to Azerbaijan’s military strength and setting-up Armenians as the strawman for his country’s ills has actually benefitted us. As a result, he has put himself in a position where any compromise could very well result in a coup d’etat by the military, which would end his family’s political and financial dynasty. To strengthen his hold on power, a rigged referendum in 2016 created the position of Vice President, to which the President appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva. He is engaged in a high stakes gamble that has no guarantee of success.

Objectively, we are on the losing end of the negotiation process through no fault of our own. However, as has been mentioned many times in the past, the negotiation process was never meant to result in Artsakh’s independence.

Let us look at the recent comment of President Francois Hollande of France, a friend of Armenia. When he met with the Coordinating Council of Armenian Organizations of France in Paris recently he commented that “we must open real negotiations for the resolution of the [Artsakh] conflict. We need to find elements of conflict resolution. We know them: they have been fixed; these are the Madrid principles… They will lead, if they are applied, to the self-determination of Nagorno-Karabagh.” Note the reference to Nagorno-Karabagh and not Artsakh. How can that be of comfort to Artsakh; to the Diasporan Armenians; or to Armenian President Serge Sarkisian (though Sarkisian seems to support evacuating the liberated territories to achieve peace in the region)?

The Madrid Proposals are anathema to Artsakh’s independence and, obviously, to its unification with Armenia. The phased process that the Madrid Proposals require work against our best interests. Each phase, if implemented, incrementally weakens our military and demographic position in Artsakh.

In return for giving up control not only of the liberated territories, but Karabagh itself for which some 7,000 azatamartiks (freedom fighters) died, an international peace-keeping force will be stationed in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabagh region to protect our people. Against whom?  Against the government and the Azerbaijani civilian population until such time a plebiscite is held to determine Karabagh’s status. By the time voting takes place, the demographic composition of Karabagh will have become predominately Azerbaijani. For us to believe that Karabagh’s independence can be the outcome of the plebiscite is beyond being naive.

The same Francois Hollande, in a meeting with President Sarkisian, suggested that there might be a need to impose sanctions if the violations continue. Is he referring to Azerbaijan?  Yet nothing is done to pressure Azerbaijan when it refuses to deploy the sound verification system agreed to with Armenia. Isn’t this sufficiently egregious to elicit a stern response by the Minsk Group or to consider applying sanctions as suggested by President Holland?  Obviously not.

(L to R) Presidents Sarkisian and Hollande at a joint press conference in Paris

In the same vein, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reminded Azerbaijan that reclaiming the “occupied territories” (liberated lands) is not an internal matter.  Neither is military action an alternative to a negotiated settlement. That was somewhat comforting to our side. He then stressed the importance of adhering to the process based on the Madrid Proposals which should not be comforting for us. Within weeks after that comment he replied to a question as to whether or not Armenia should be concerned with the apparent Russian-Turkish rapprochement. Again, his response was not reassuring.

“This normalization of relations between Russia and Turkey should not be regarded as a process that may harm other states.” He continued by saying that Russia has an interest in the “…opening of the Armenian-Turkish segment of the EAEU’s external border for the free movement of people, goods, and services.”

Two things should be understood. The benefits for Armenia of an open border with Turkey are illusory. I have made that point numerous times in the past. Turkey has a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of over $850 billion (give or take a few). Armenia’s GDP is between $10-11 billion.   Within a decade after the border is open, Turkey would dominate the Armenian market and whatever Russia did not own, Turkey would. We would literally be mortgaged politically and economically to both countries. The benefits of an open border would flow to the politically connected in Russia (as it presently does), Turkey, and the oligarchs of Armenia who have been bleeding our country dry since independence was declared. The losers as always would be the citizens of Armenia and Artsakh.

The second point to consider is that Foreign Minister Lavrov should realize that a genocidal mindset has blinded every Turkish leader from Ataturk to Erdogan with respect to Armenians and Armenian culture. The leaders of Azerbaijan have had the same mindset. Any rapprochement with Turkey must wait for the successful unification of Artsakh with Armenia.  This is, above all else, a moral imperative that the western democracies (including the United States) and Russia owe the Armenian people. To make matters worse, we have Armenians such as former President Levon Ter Petrosyan, who work against Artsakh’s and our nation’s interests. He would return the liberated territories; supports the Madrid Proposals; and believes that a promised plebiscite could yield independence for Nagorno-Karabagh. He is wrong on all three counts.

‘Not only is the independence of Artsakh at stake, but the future of a unified greater Armenia as well. Can there be any issue of greater importance than this?’ (Photo: Araz Boghossian)

It is unfortunate that the countries represented by the Minsk Group co-chairs have yet to properly define the real issue posed by the Karabagh conflict. It is even more regrettable that our leaders have done nothing to address this serious error. The territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is not the issue. It has been accepted by the European Union and the United States to avoid the de jure recognition of Artsakh and by Russia so that it can continue to play both sides against the middle.  Exercising the principle of self-determination cannot be denied because the territorial integrity of the affected state would be affected. As stated many times before, the claim of territorial integrity by Azerbaijan would be valid only if it had been invaded by Armenia. Such was not the case. Armenia’s humanitarian intervention does not rise to the level of a military invasion of a neighboring country. Again, our leaders have failed completely in countering this specious claim by Azerbaijan.

Why was humanitarian intervention necessary? It was based on the evolving concept of a government’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) minorities from harm within its political jurisdiction. Azerbaijan failed to protect the Armenian minority in Sumgait, Baku, and Kirovabad (Ganja) because it was the government itself that was responsible for the harm being inflicted. This harm, rising to the level of genocidal intent, continued during the war initiated by Azerbaijan, in Maraga and during the ceaseless bombardment of unprotected civilian areas of Stepanakert from the heights of neighboring Shushi. Without the humanitarian intervention by military forces from neighboring Armenia, the Armenian population of Karabagh would have been decimated. Armenia’s humanitarian intervention in Azerbaijan to save a vulnerable population from a genocide was based on its interpretation of the R2P concept.

One year after the April War (2016) the situation is less than promising for several reasons.  1. Our casualties due to Azeri violations along the LoC continue unabated.  2. The LoC still remains a volatile boundary. The sound locator system agreed to and then denied by Azerbaijan cannot be deployed. 3. The negotiations are still wedded to the Madrid Proposals that do not provide for Artsakh’s ultimate independence. 4. Finally, we continue to participate in a process where Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and not Artsakh’s declaration of independence is driving the entire negotiating process.

Azerbaijan has successfully seized upon a principle (territorial integrity) historically recognized that is embedded in the Helsinki Accords and in the Charter of the United Nations that serves as the basis for the Madrid Proposals. We seem oblivious to the fact that Artsakh’s independence is still not what this is all about. It is about making Azerbaijan territorially whole again. It is difficult to understand why there is such an obvious lack of effort by our leaders in government as well as the leaders of our political parties to counter this claim by Azerbaijan. Not only is the independence of Artsakh at stake, but the future of a unified greater Armenia as well. Can there be any issue of greater importance than this?


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. OSCE is the problem itself. It serves dual interests. Loyalty first and is for the countries of the representatives. Peace may hurt Russia’s economic and military interests, same with France, and the US. Won’t even go into the interests and goals of the fourth. Converting to Islam, stretching is turcik boundaries, trade, and eventual occupation of those countries.
    Armenia and Artsakh should learn to be independent of all and educate OSCE and the rest of the world of the real history of Artsakh, not how it has been interpreted/embedded in recent documents. But how when they seem to have become dependent on all sorts of do-gooder organizations including NGOs.

  2. The people,our brothers and sisters, in Artsakh are protected only by the thin line of their military, from those who have inflicted atrocities on them. The Baroness Carolyn Cox described well to the west and the House of Lords, the brutality the Armenians had and were suffering in this part of their ancient, historical homeland that was torn off of of Armenia by Joseph Stalin and placed in the hands of those hostile to them. It is clear that should Artsakh be given again to Azerbaijan, they, the Muslims who have killed so many, will do what they said and have done, and as their President has said: If there is one Armenian left alive, they will hang him in Baku! Even with short term foreign peace keepers, the disarmed Armenians would be under the Sword of Damocles. God love the Christians of Artsakh and let the world see that they must be free.

  3. Great article by Michael. Thanks Armenian Weekly.
    If only Armenia would cooperate with the Diaspora, we could all make more progress.
    But no, Serge and the oligarchs don’t care.
    When Azerbaijani genocidists are about to descend on Yerevan, Serge and the oligarchs will flee to where they have stashed their stolen billions.
    I ask you, what actions can we take now to make sure this does not happen? I can think of a few.
    Anyone have any other ideas?

  4. I support the approach described in this article. Given Turkish economy size and diplomatic traditions, Armenia should be very cautious on every proposal. Armenia also need to tell European and Russian governments that based on after WWI experience Armenia does not hold much trust toward them. Also Armenian govt should assure that armenians are willing to fight rather compromise their safety, because no assurances from anyone can guarantee armenias safety other than armenian armed forces, therefore any further agreement with turks and azeries needs to have an article restricting their armed forces size and locations near armenian border.

  5. The situation is as bleak as Mensoian puts it here. Urgent united coordinated and multi fronted action is imperative now to derail Yerevan’s disastrous course at this 11th hour!

    Yerevan has been cornered by its disastrous policies and “diplomacy” over Artsakh for at least 20 years. Instead of building up the state and developing the economy and well-being of the people which is the foundation of a strong state the leadership has been lining up its own pockets for years while the army, the only guarantee against Turkish genocidal intent, has been allowed to run down. Instead of preparing for war and planning to advance towards Kur and Gandzak, the only strategy which would have cooled down Turkey’s/Aliev’s hot head, it has been preparing to sell off hard won victories of our people: Give away the liberated Armenian lands around the former NKAO. This, as Mensoian points out, is the beginning of the end for Artsakh. Baku’s next move will be the taking of Sunik in the south of Armenia and then Armenia is check-mated in three moves with Yerevan and its surrounding as the only Armenian territories remaining in an ocean of aggressive Turks.

  6. referring to artsakh as nagorno-karabakh doesn’t bother me at all. i use them interchangeably.
    plebiscites aren’t respected in the international community for some reason. kosovo simply declared independence. that’s the model to follow.

  7. Having analysed the war from a distance and archival footage, there is not a single civil defence brigade!!! Back in Lebanon we had some shelters were you could potentially stay away from the Syrian GRAD missiles. In Artsakh still after all the escalation, not a single bomb shelter. Add upon that I am sure that everybody has noticed, Artsakh is as barren as a green desert. Not a single place to shelter, not a single forest not a single tree! Unfortunately yet again, the task of securing our brothers has befallen on us the diaspora and not the local authorities!
    May God help us honestly, may God help us.

  8. Imposing a will requires sacrifice on a long term basis. The will is manifested not only through regular resistance but by aggressive readiness to reclaim usurped lands.
    Note: I recommend negative comments not to be given the chance for public reading.

    • I too have noticed the barren land between the front lines. It occured to me that if the soldiers would have planted trees twenty years ago, by now, the Azerys would not be able to see as much on our side. But immagine if those trees were California Sequoya trees: American Redwood trees. Those trees grow immense. So large that no tanks or bullets or bombs could remove them. A ringof trees like that growing 20 feet every year, would provide cover and an immense future lumber resource.
      So I offerred a needy family in Artsackh $60 to plant 100 Sequya seeds in Armenia or Artsackh. No bite.

  9. Thank you Michael. I believe if you asked any fellow Armenian they will agree that this article is a very good assessment of the situation. We can all see that, and I am sure so can our leaders in Armenia and the Diaspora. Then why don’t they act out of nationalism and compassion for our brave soldiers who are being forced to lay down their lives for our security? We should take a lesson from history. You can only negotiate from a position of strength. We need to step up our intelligence and match it with the necessary equipment and infrastructure so that we repel all Azeri attacks with clinical accuracy and strategic gain. As the Archbishop of Artsakh suggested every Armenian need to pay 1% of their annual income in helping our homeland. This could be held in a special fund under the dual control of Armenia and Diaspora leaders with co-signatory to any expenditure and lets keep the oligarchs out of the equation.

  10. I am never surprised to hear a Turk or a pseudo-Turkish Azerbaijani, such as Aliyev, make such statements. You see, you need to understand what these people are all about to understand the reaction they show toward us. Aliyev is a coward. He is the same Azerbaijani “patriot” who was hiding in Moscow during the war at his ripe military age in the Artsakh Liberation war WHILE all current and former Armenian presidents, ministers and other leaders were in uniform fighting on the front lines as soldiers and commanders sending coward Aliye’v countrymen back to Baku in body bags.

    Aliyev makes such empty statements not because he has any honor or he is patriotic but he does so because he is fearful of Armenians who are united as one homogeneous nation while his artificial state is divided among several ethnic groups with no unity and under his oppression. His hollow coward words don’t come from his heart but from his pockets full of petrodollars. The Armenian nation, united as one, not only destroyed in the battlefield the Azerbaijani army far much in resources and more in numbers, most of whom were forced to fight as opposed to mostly Armenian volunteer units, but they also caused major humiliation on the Azerbaijanis by bending them to the Armenian will by bringing Azerbaijanis to their knees to beg the Armenians, through Russian mediation as they did a year ago in April, to stop the war before even more occupied territories were liberated by the Armenians.

    Throughout their lives these institutionally-brainwashed Turks and pseudo-Turkish Azerbainanis have been told they belong to a proud nation and noble race with hollow and artificial histories full of myths and so much so that losing to Armenians has affected them psychologically in major ways. They are unable to digest their defeat so they make all sorts of excuses and empty threats to feel good about themselves but of course to no avail. It is very much like when a man loses his manhood and he is in denial and has to say something or do something, instead of saying or doing absolutely nothing, to feel like he has gotten a piece of his manhood back. At the end of the day these are all empty gestures.

    What Armenians should do against their Turkish enemies is to get even stronger than they already are and not just alone always be prepared to defend themselves but to take the fight to the enemy in the time of their own choosing when the opportunity presents itself and keep reminding the enemy that even today, with all those petrodollar billions, they are still the same defeated cowards as they were a quarter century ago.

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