Relative calm returned to Nagorno Karabakh on Wednesday after Armenian separatists reached a tentative truce with Azerbaijan, which launched a full-scale military operation a day before in a bid to wrestle back full control of the enclave and secure the surrender of the local militia.

At least 200 people, including 10 civilians, were believed to be killed in the latest flare-up of violence in a long-running conflict that threatens to suck in regional powers like Russia, Turkey, and even Iran, in the worst-case scenario. Locals described the intense shelling and drone strikes as close to a full-scale war, while the world powers, especially the U.S. and E.U., urged Azerbaijan to halt its operation that was seemingly long in the making.

That Azerbaijan might launch some sort of military operation was not completely unexpected.

Farid Guliyev, Ph.D

On Wednesday, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev struck a triumphalist tone when he noted that pro-Armenian authorities surrendered. “Karabakh is Azerbaijan,” he said. The mood was darker in Yerevan, where thousands of protestersdemanded the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, whose government refused to get embroiled militarily in the latest conflict.

Armenian protesters also vented their frustration with Russian peacekeeping forces in the enclave, charging them with complicity with the Azerbaijan side.

“That Azerbaijan might launch some sort of military operation was not completely unexpected,” Farid Guliyev, Ph.D., a lecturer in Comparative Politics at Baku-based Khazar University, told The Pavlovic Today. “There was some military build-up in that area in recent weeks as well as along the border with Armenia.” According to him, Baku had grown frustrated with the lack of progress on a lasting deal with Armenia.

Christina Maranci, a professor at Harvard University, noted that Azerbaijan “wants to take the territory of Artsakh [Arstakh is the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh], and to cleanse it of Armenians.”

“We know this from the language coming out of Baku for the past three years, and from propaganda including the postage stamp showing Azeri soldiers “disinfecting” the region of Armenians,” she said in an emailed statement to The Pavlovic Today.

The professor conceded, “The Republic of Armenia is not strong enough militarily to launch a counter-offensive.” The enclave, she said, has been “much diminished in size since 2020, and its population has been weakened and starved through the blockade.”

“The pathway is thus open for complete invasion,” she added, describing the bleak picture for local Armenians.

Though internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, Karabakh had remained a contested territory, most of which comprised of ethnic Armenians. In 2020, Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a devastating 44-day war that left 7,000 people dead. That bloody war tilted the balance of power in favor of Azerbaijan but left major issues of sovereignty, supply routes in and out of Karabakh, and the state of armed separatist forces unresolved.

The latest bout of fighting lasted no more than two days. But how long the ceasefire would hold is a perplexing matter entangled in a larger web of complex geopolitical and regional issues involving diverse actors such as Turkey, Russia, Iran, Armenia, the U.S., E.U., and Karabakh Armenians.

For months, tensions were brewing over the simmering dispute around transport routes connecting the mountainous enclave with the outside world, especially with Armenia. The tense situation in Karabakh eventually came to a boiling point this summer when Azerbaijan shut down the Lachin corridor in June, the only viable route connecting the enclave with Armenia. Guliyev claimed that Azerbaijan emerged disillusioned with the lack of control over the route as locals reportedly smuggled arms to boost the local militia, to the chagrin of Baku.

“Azerbaijan has insisted on the road that would reconnect Karabakh with the rest of the Azerbaijani territory while Yerevan and Karabakh Armenians have maintained that the Lachin road linking them to Armenia shall be the sole route,” he said.

The officials in Baku billed the latest military offensive as an “anti-terrorist” operation in response to the elections held in the enclave in early September and land-mine blasts that claimed the lives of at least six Azerbaijanis, including four police officers.

The cessation of the most recent fighting became possible only after Karabakh Armenians agreed to the longstanding Azerbaijani demands of disarming. On Thursday, sides convened to discuss the fate of Armenians in Karabakh. Pashinyan’s government seeks promises for the safety and well-being of ethnic Armenians before a final settlement. Facing the political heat at home, the Armenian prime minister feels cornered at the negotiation table.

Previously, a months-long blockade, a term Mr. Guliyev disputes, led to widespread concerns about the humanitarian suffering of the locals in Karabakh. The deteriorating humanitarian crisis amplified by the shortage of food and medical supplies led to a clash of narratives on both sides. Some entrapped residents and diaspora Armenians have portrayed Baku’s shutdown of the Lachin corridor as a genocidal attempt to cleanse an ethnic group deliberately.

“I think that Baku knows that they can get away with it,” Professor Maranci said. She went on to say: “The Russian peace-keepers did not protect Armenians in Artsakh, and the US and the EU (not to mention the UK) have sat by and simply “expressed concern” (if that).”

Russia’s Waning Influence

What happens in Nagorno-Karabakh never stays there. It usually has repercussions beyond the region. After the truce, protesters stormed government buildings in Yerevan to rant against what they perceived as the capitulating approach of the Pashinyan government and the conceived inactivity of Russian peacekeepers. The embattled Armenian prime minister already telegraphed willingness this spring to accept Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh in return for guarantees for the local Armenians.

The two-day fighting also raised significant questions about Russia’s reliability as a mediator in the conflict. Previously the paramount outside actor with troops in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno Karabakh, Moscow played a decisive role in keeping things calm. Until now. As Russia bogged down in Ukraine, its regional influence has seemingly waned and ebbed, leaving a vacuum for local players to pursue their respective agendas, paying little to no mind to Moscow.

Still, Mr. Guliyev suggests that counting out Russia from any equation regarding the conflict in Karabakh would be premature. He asserted that Baku understood this well and came to acknowledge Russia’s interests, while “Prime Minister Pashinyan’s rhetoric has been manifestly anti-Russian in recent months, drawing criticism in the Kremlin.”

“So in the event of a military operation,” he reasoned, “policymakers in Baku may have calculated that Moscow wouldn’t side with Armenia on this issue and would give Baku a green light.” Their reasoning probably proved prescient.

The Armenian government has recently adopted a pro-Western stance and did not host CSTO military drills with Russia this year. According to Guliyev, all this might have infuriated the Putin regime, which, in the end, did not rush to the help of the Armenian side at the eleventh hour.

Yet, for Armenia, writing off Russia is not plausible in the short run. The country’s dependence on Moscow runs deeper than many may have thought.

“However, even if the Pashinyan government wanted to move away from Russia as they claim, there are still Russian military bases in Armenia, and Armenia has emerged as a new shipment hub for re-exporting Western goods to Russia in avoidance of Western sanctions over the war in Ukraine,” Mr. Guliyev argued.

“Russia won’t leave Armenia voluntarily,” he noted in a poignant reminder, adding, “and Armenia doesn’t have a readily available alternative to replace Russia as a security guarantor or trade partner.”

Will the West do more than express concern, or will they be complicit in genocide?

Professor Christina Maranci,

While the fighting raged on, the scholar expressed doubts about a possible escalation.

Armenia appeared reluctant to get involved in a fight with Azerbaijan, which was also extremely cautious against attacking Yerevan’s territory directly to avoid triggering a defense clause between Armenia and Russia, envisaging Russian involvement in the case of an attack. Baku sought to keep its offensive entirely limited to the mountainous enclave.

As negotiations are underway, Guliyev expects Azerbaijan to demand nothing less than establishing full control over Karabakh, thus fulfilling its internationally-sanctioned sovereignty over the enclave.

On the other hand, Professor Maranci blamed the international community for inaction.

“My question is this: will the West do more than express concern, or will they be complicit in genocide? It is either one or the other.”

One side’s hope and sense of victory means despair and fear for the other side. The ongoing Karabakh talks reveal the pull of opposite psychological and emotional forces that shape how two communities in the region conceive the unfolding drama from different lenses. 

Abdullah Ayasun is a New York-based Turkish journalist specializing in international and American politics. He is a recipient of the 2023 White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) scholarship. Ayasun...

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