Armenia faces a critical choice in Nagorno Karabakh

April 2022 was marked by significant developments around the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. When Russia launched a “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, it seemed that all other post-Soviet conflicts would enter “silent mode,” as no one would care about Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria. However, this was not the case, at least for Nagorno Karabakh. On April 6, 2022, the European Union organized an Armenia–Azerbaijan summit in Brussels. President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan agreed to form a border demarcation/delimitation commission until the end of April and take concrete steps to start peace talks. The issue of border delimitation and demarcation also was among key priorities during the November 2021 Sochi meeting facilitated by Russian President Putin. However, despite the signature of the trilateral statement, no tangible moves have been made. After returning from Brussels, PM Pashinyan made a landmark speech in the Armenian Parliament. He stated that the international community offers Armenia to “reduce the threshold on Karabakh status,” which, if translated from the diplomatic language, means that Armenia should agree to see Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan with some level of autonomy. Pashinyan also argued that Armenia should sign the peace treaty with Azerbaijan as soon as possible and reiterated that Armenia accepts the five principles of the peace treaty shared by Azerbaijan. The critical message of those principles is the recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, including Nagorno Karabakh, which goes in line with the idea “to reduce the threshold of status for Karabakh.”

The April 6 meeting in Brussels revealed the EU, and probably the US, approach to the settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Armenia abandons its demand that Nagorno Karabakh will never be a part of Azerbaijan, while the West convinces President Aliyev to abandon his rhetoric that Nagorno Karabakh does not exist. As a mutual compromise, Armenia and Azerbaijan agree on Karabakh’s autonomy within Azerbaijan. No details are available regarding the borders of that autonomy (should it include the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region within its 1988 Soviet borders or only the territories currently under the protection of the Russian peacekeepers). There is uncertainty regarding the essence of autonomy (should it be a political-territorial unit, resembling the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic within Azerbaijan, or only some sort of cultural autonomy in line with the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities).

Other issues remain obscure, including the citizenship of people living in that autonomy (should they have dual Armenian/Azerbaijani citizenship, or only Azerbaijani one). No details are available regarding the composition of local law enforcement bodies, the monetary system (should the deal allow circulation of both Armenian and Azerbaijani currencies), and should Azerbaijanis have the right to live in the territories currently controlled by Russian peacekeepers.

Among these uncertainties, one issue is, perhaps, clear. Suppose Armenia and Azerbaijan sign a peace treaty that fixes their agreement on the future status of Nagorno Karabakh. In that case, it will allow Azerbaijan and the West to demand that Russia withdraw its peacekeepers from Nagorno Karabakh either immediately or at least in November 2025. Azerbaijan and the West will immediately declare Russian troops in Nagorno Karabakh as an occupational force in case of Russian refusal. Given the complete rupture of Russia–West relations, the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno Karabakh is the primary motive for the West’s efforts to facilitate the signing of a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This policy aligns with Russia’s containment and deterrence strategy, implemented by the US and its allies with the primary goal to weaken Russian influence in the post-Soviet space.

It is challenging to assess whether the West believes that it has the capabilities to secure the “prosperous life of Armenians within Azerbaijan” or it does not care about the fate of Karabakh Armenians. The West implements the classical “carrot and stick” policy toward Armenia. It offers increased financial and technical assistance if Armenia accepts the deal and threatens that in case of refusal, it cannot prevent Azerbaijan from launching another war against Armenia and cannot support Armenia if war starts. Simultaneously, Azerbaijan continues its policy of military blackmail against Armenia. During his April 22 speech, President Aliyev warned Armenia that this was Armenia’s last chance to make peace with Azerbaijan. If Armenia rejects recognizing Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, Baku will not recognize the territorial integrity of Armenia, opening the way for further military aggression against Yerevan.

Meanwhile, the second part of the equation, Russia, has its views on the future of Armenia–Azerbaijan relations. The strategic goal of Russia is to have a permanent military presence in Nagorno Karabakh, and Russia understands that it needs an Armenian population (should it be currently 100,000 or even 50,000 or less is sufficient for that goal, is uncertain) there to secure this goal. Meanwhile, Russia is interested in seeing fewer tensions along the Armenia–Azerbaijan border and the line of contact in Karabakh. Russia believes that the West is pushing Azerbaijan to escalate, hoping to trigger a military clash between Russia and Azerbaijan. It will ruin Russia–Azerbaijan relations transforming Azerbaijan into another Georgia for Russia and will create tensions in Russia–Turkey relations. Meanwhile, if Russia does not answer to the growing Azerbaijani attacks against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, the West will use it to portray Russia as too weak. It remains to be seen how Russia can claim to be a global power or hope to win the war in Ukraine if the Kremlin has to swallow the humiliation by tiny Azerbaijan. 

To avoid this choice between bad and worse, Russia wants to launch and coordinate the Armenia–Azerbaijan border delimitation and demarcation process to facilitate the opening of regional communications and the start of Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiations on a peace treaty. However, the West wants to see the signature of the Armenia–Azerbaijan peace treaty no later than the end of 2022 with a mutual agreement on the status of Karabakh. But Russia is not in a hurry. It believes that the complicated conflict with a history of more than 100 years cannot be finally settled during several months of negotiations.

The Armenian leadership faces a critical choice. It may accept the West’s offer and quickly sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, recognizing Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. As the second option, Armenia may start the negotiations on different tracks (border delimitation/demarcation, restoration of communications and peace treaty) but not hurry to sign the treaty. If Armenia chooses the second option, Azerbaijan may escalate against Armenia and Karabakh. Again, Russia is not interested in large-scale escalation, but Russia cannot prevent Azerbaijan from launching an attack. So, Azerbaijan will not seek to occupy Kapan, Yerevan or Stepanakert but may launch weekly subversive actions. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan, the EU and the US should understand that putting too much pressure on the current Armenian government to sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan may trigger a political crisis in Armenia, resulting in a change of government. It is difficult to argue that in that scenario, the next government of Armenia will be more Western neutral or more inclined to normalize relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey.  

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan
Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan is the founder and chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies. He was the former vice president for research – head of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense Research University in Armenia. In March 2009, he joined the Institute for National Strategic Studies as a research Fellow and was appointed as INSS Deputy Director for research in November 2010. Dr. Poghosyan has prepared and managed the elaboration of more than 100 policy papers which were presented to the political-military leadership of Armenia, including the president, the prime minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Dr. Poghosyan has participated in more than 50 international conferences and workshops on regional and international security dynamics. His research focuses on the geopolitics of the South Caucasus and the Middle East, US – Russian relations and their implications for the region, as well as the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. He is the author of more than 200 academic papers and articles in different leading Armenian and international journals. In 2013, Dr. Poghosyan was a Distinguished Research Fellow at the US National Defense University College of International Security Affairs. He is a graduate from the US State Department Study of the US Institutes for Scholars 2012 Program on US National Security Policy Making. He holds a PhD in history and is a graduate from the 2006 Tavitian Program on International Relations at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

6 Comments

  1. I am not convinced of any predictions made in this article, because there is no evidence of who said what. Pashinyan the gigantic inept liar claiming “the west said…” means nothing. How do we know it is not Russia behind all this “the west said this and wants that”? We see all of Russia’s policies unfolding in the region.

    However the interesting part was… “but Russia cannot prevent Azerbaijan from launching an attack”.

    Really??

    So Russia cannot make SIMPLE STATEMENTS, like…

    *In case of attack on Artsakh we will recognize the sovereignty of Artsakh*…?
    or
    *In case of attack on Armenia we will recognize our treaty obligations and join forces with Armenia and Azerbaijan will pay for all damages*…?

    And you can also appreciate that the fake 2020 war would NEVER have happened with these simple statements, correct? Let’s just remember for a minute how “Mother Russia” absolutely didn’t give a sh*t what the “international community” thought when it invaded Georgia, recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as nations, seized Crimea, destabilized eastern Ukraine and now invaded it in its entirety with full force… except that when it was time for Armenians and Armenia’s security and prosperity, Russia instead played the “we cannot help Armenia because Artsakh is not recognized” bullsh*t card.

    One would think that Armenians would have learned all the Russian/Turk tricks after a century, instead we keep falling into the same Russian hole over and over and… thanking Russia for SUPPOSEDLY getting us out of it. We truly are a pathetic lot.

  2. Is it in Armenia’s interest to sign a treaty at this stage? Why some insists for treaty before 9th of May? and Why Armenia shall resist? Iran is there to Support Armenia, and prevent coercion of Armenia by your Eastern and Western neighbors. Armenia has the support of your Northern and Southern neighbors. Iran will intervene at a moment notice to support Armenia. We are Locked and Loaded. Forces and equipment are positioned and ready to cross the border and restore the balance as required.

    • We just need the right PM for that. Persians have been our oldest neighbours. It is common sense to join forces with them. But then the West will really get pissed off!

  3. Name one good thing that Pashinyan has achieved for Armenia and Artsakh? Just one? There isn’t any. The few choices now left Armenia are a direct result of the recent massive losses all attributed to the incompetence of one man; Pashinyan. Lets start by asking why during the war he didn’t mobilize the Armenian army? Was it on purpose? Of course it was. And supposedly he will now decide Armenia’s and Artsakh’s future? Just WOW! Hes the enemy within.

    • Pashinyan has forced you to open your eyes to the realities on the ground. No more delusions of believing that Armenia can remain in a state of perpetual conflict and have peace and prosperity at the same time. Mobilizing the army at that late stage was too little too late. He was dealing with the hand left to him by previous administrations. Strategic concessions and international recognition of adjusted borders should have been finalized at time of Armenia’s military ascendancy over its neighbor.

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