Millstone of history: Surrender of Garabagh junta and its strategic consequences
Analysis by Sergey Bogdan
ANALYTICS 24 September 2023 - 18:26
It took the Azerbaijani Armed Forces less than a day this week to force the remnants of armed separatists in the Garabagh region to capitulate. They would have completed this task long ago, but the cost of human lives would have been much higher. Strategic patience and consistently increasing pressure on the Armenian nationalists bore fruit. By September 22, the separatists began to surrender their weapons, and the pro-Western and pro-Russian Armenian opposition worked together to destabilize their own government.
In strategic terms, the configuration of the entire South Caucasus has changed radically. Armenia can finally shake off the ashes of Gorbachev’s project of Karabakh separatism and start building a normal state in cooperation with its neighbours. The only alternative to this is suicidal conflict and degradation.
The events of this week should sober up supporters of territorial expansion in Armenian society. The anti-terrorist measures of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces to neutralise the separatist armed formations began in conditions when revanchist sentiments and international intrigues of the Armenian leaders undermined Baku’s last hope that it would be possible to achieve the dismantling of separatist structures through negotiations and their voluntary dissolution. The Azerbaijani military and civilians blowing up in a mine explosion was the last straw.
The closure of supply routes and rotation from Armenia left the Armenian nationalists no choice but to bet even more on a mine war. It was an old tactic that they adhered to until 2020 — not having the strength to defend the occupied lands, they planted mines in these lands. In recent months, the separatists were even more incapable of anything, but they tried to survive at any cost — waiting for more revanchist forces to come to power in Armenia, plus the international political situation would change.
It seemed to them that their calculation might be justified. Last weekend's elections in the Armenian capital did indeed show that Pashinyan's power is faltering. His party did not lose but lost the opportunity to lead Yerevan without the opposition. This was partly due to the low turnout. In general, the possibility of radical revanchists returning to power loomed on the horizon. The latter have already begun to expand their bridgehead for their march to power in Armenia, having consolidated their positions in the separatist structures with the "election" of Dashnak Davit Ishkhanyan as chairman of the separatist "parliament" on August 9.
The problem of weakening Pashinyan was aggravated by the possible consequences of the exercises with the United States for Armenian politics. Let us emphasize that it was not the exercises themselves - Washington hardly ever seriously intended to save the separatists! What was dangerous were the possible consequences among Armenian revanchists - the exercises gave them hope that the Americans would get involved in the Armenian game in the region and the Garabagh project could be saved, the main thing being not to let it sink before its time.
Separatists and Dashnaks opened the season of hunting for Pashinyan
And everything pointed to the fact that the project was about to sink, as the Azerbaijani side was already tired of these uncomplicated and obvious attempts to replay the results of the 2020 war. It was clear that Baku was about to put an end to it. When it became clear that the separatists' days were numbered, the Armenian leadership distanced itself from them, immediately after the start of counter-terrorist measures, declaring that it had no intention to intercede for the Garabagh figures.
No wonder, since they are forever linked to the corruption and mafia of the pre-Pashinyan times. The Armenian prime minister had made his position clear a couple of weeks earlier. He did not congratulate the new separatist leader Samvel Shahramanyan on his "election" on September 9, and even added that "there is nothing to congratulate him with". No one else from Armenia's leadership sent congratulations either. However, Shahramanyan was congratulated by well-known enemies of the current Armenian leadership among revanchist elements - former Armenian leaders Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan, former Karabakh separatist leaders Arkady Ghukasyan and Bako Sahakyan.
In continuation, on Armenia's Independence Day (September 21), Pashinyan made an address to his compatriots, in which he did not mention the Garabagh separatists, but referred to the 1991 Almaty Declaration, which confirmed the inviolability of Azerbaijan's borders.
Naturally, the Armenian opposition did not waste a minute after the start of anti-terrorism operations by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces but began to destabilise Armenia. However, the scale of the demonstrations was not impressive; by the weekend only about a hundred people were detained. But the oppositionists diligently inflamed passions, hoping to overthrow the Armenian prime minister.
For example, on September 21, provocative reports appeared about the entry of the Azerbaijani army into Khankendi. Among those detained as a result of the unrest in Yerevan were representatives of noble families of the old regime, for example, the son of the former President of Armenia and separatist leader Kocharyan, and also the son of Kocharyan’s friend, the Armenian billionaire Stepanyan. The Stepanyans - the eldest and their sons - have a long trail of murky real estate deals in Russia with the participation of high-ranking officials of the Russian government. So, behind the “patriotic protests” in Yerevan are people with serious money, a dark past and interesting connections.
By the way, these details do not prevent Western media from promoting the protests, despite signs that revanchist forces are preparing a pro-Russian Maidan. On September 21, in an interesting way, it was the Russian Sputnik that was the first foreign media outlet to announce the creation by revanchist forces in the Armenian opposition of a de facto alternative government led by the famous activist of the expansionist movement Vazgen Manukyan. Among the opposition to Pashinyan, a prominent role is played by the Country of Living party, which criticizes Pashinyan’s foreign policy and is supported by the famous Russian businessman Ruben Vardanyan. The latter is also being promoted in the West.
By the way, a pro-Russian movement called Country of Living was created in 2020 in Belarus by a figure who urgently arrived from Russia, also with the support of the West. It was this that destabilised the situation in the country at that time. Even in the most seemingly tense circumstances, the superpowers of the East and West can clash “in public” while simultaneously cooperating behind the scenes.
Victory and caution
However, it is not easy to warm up Armenian society for a revanchist Maidan. This is also facilitated by the fact that anti-terrorism measures in Garabagh were carried out with minimal casualties - there is no picture for CNN. Even the aforementioned Ruben Vardanyan admitted that the Azerbaijani army approached the matter carefully: “They are trying to take posts. They don’t enter Stepanakert... the residents are mostly in bomb shelters.”
Having achieved success, Baku refrained from unnecessary displays of triumph, winning another landslide victory that restored full sovereignty over Garabagh. Extremist forces could well have taken advantage of the ceremonial entry of troops into Khankendi to spoil this holiday with bloody provocations. The ground has been prepared for them: their politicians have been telling racist tales about Azerbaijanis to the Armenians for decades. Already on September 22, Western media, especially French, started talking about an “Armenian Srebrenica” in Garabagh, hinting at a repeat of the massacre in Bosnia in the 1990s.
Baku probably foresaw the danger of such provocations. Assistant to the President of Azerbaijan Hikmet Hajiyev said that an amnesty for members of separatist armed formations is a done deal, provided that the relevant persons lay down their arms: “Even for former military personnel and combatants if they can be classified that way, we provide an amnesty.”
In addition, representatives of the Armenian population of the Garabagh region and the central government met in Yevlakh on September 2.
French dead end
Thanks to Baku's restrained steps and previous years of diplomatic preparation by the Azerbaijani government, attempts by Armenian nationalists to mobilise foreign powers to their defence failed. Late on September 21 evening, an emergency meeting of the Security Council on the situation in Garabagh was held, convened at the initiative of France.
Apart from the foreign ministers of France and Germany, as well as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Borrell, no one criticized the actions of the Azerbaijani government to restore the territorial integrity of the country. However, Germany’s position is also more likely connected with the radical course of the representative of the Green Party Bärbock, who holds the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs. So support for the separatists from Germany was very conditional.
On September 21, the influential London Economist stated: “Nobody wants to stand in the way of Azerbaijan. Western powers mainly compete with each other, issuing routine condemnations. Fearing being drawn into a major war with Azerbaijan, which it will almost certainly lose, the Armenian army appears to want to stay out of the conflict. The deafening silence was the lack of response from Russia.”
However, for the current leadership of Armenia, another aspect is much more important - the opportunity for Armenia, under the smokescreen of a dying separatist project, to finally “go to the West.” On September 21, Pashinyan criticised Russia, calling “not to turn a blind eye to the failures committed by Russian peacekeeping forces in Garabagh.” Specifically, he accused its peacekeeping forces of their inability to maintain supply routes for the separatist armed forces (“Lachin corridor”) and their current defeat. Pashinyan was theatrically indignant: “Why did this latest outbreak happen? If the peacekeepers could agree on a ceasefire, why couldn’t they agree before the attack that there would be no attack on Garabagh?” We write theatrically, because, apparently, Pashinyan has long ago wanted Russian intervention least of all.
Pashinyan’s problem is that the West is in no hurry to accept him. In fact, Armenia can only “go to the West” under the wing of France - clearly not the strongest member of the “collective West”, whose power is melting before our eyes. In addition, France has traditionally had problematic relations with the United States, with which Yerevan would like to get closer.
In other words, this “Western turn” of the Armenian leadership looks like a dubious idea. Perhaps it consoles itself that France will be able to tap into the EU's capabilities. However, due to recent events, the EU was not even able to accept statements due to lack of consensus and EU High Representative Josep Borrell had to publish the document simply on his own behalf! It should be added here that militarily the EU is not even a dwarf, but simply a sham, and therefore Yerevan finds itself in yet another geopolitical impasse. There is only one way out of it - through a return to normal good neighbourly relations with Azerbaijan and Türkiye.
Chessboard of Azerbaijani leadership
This will be facilitated by the full reintegration of Garabagh into Azerbaijan, overcoming the consequences of Armenian nationalist propaganda. However, this is only one of the obvious further tasks that are on the agenda of the Azerbaijani state. It makes sense to put first among them the issue of closer connection of the territory of Azerbaijan.
After all, speaking about the corridor through Armenia, Baku is not encroaching on the territory of the modern Republic of Armenia, but only wants to restore routes for more convenient communication between Nakhchivan and the rest of Azerbaijan. Yes, after the aggression of Armenian nationalists in the early 1990s, a replacement for Armenian roads was found, but it is clear that the restoration of communication routes between Nakhchivan and the rest of Azerbaijan through Armenia will certainly benefit everyone.
As in the case of the liquidation of Karabakh separatism, Yerevan can choose whether to agree or not with the historical inevitability of such transformations and become part of a process that will give Armenia the opportunity to break out of the strategic impasse and begin to develop. If you don’t agree now, you will most likely have to, as in the case of Garabagh, still agree with its result later, but on much worse terms.
The point is that recent events will lead to a definitive shift in the balance of power in the region. And it concerns, in particular, such a concept as strategic depth. Strategic depth is not an abstract term; it means, among other things, a longer time of approach of enemy missiles, a more significant opportunity to conceal the deployment and movement of one's troops, and so on.
It is considerations of strategic depth that explain why Armenian nationalists held on to the captured seven districts adjacent to the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) to the last, even though they could neither develop them nor defend them - only mine them. Let's look at the map: Armenia was not only the smallest republic of the USSR (29,800 square kilometres), it was also stretched in length. The separatists kept up to 13,300 square kilometres under occupation between 1994 and 2020. This made it possible not just to increase Armenia's strategic depth by increasing its territory by half. More importantly, the Karabakh separatists were building up this depth in the southern, most vulnerable and narrow part of Armenia's territory, south of the Vardenis Ridge.
Yerevan has lost the remnants of this additional strategic depth associated with the captured Azerbaijani lands. But the hope for its restoration among Armenian politicians and generals was smouldering. If it becomes clear to the Yerevan establishment that the bloody Karabakh adventure is over, this will inevitably lead to a structural transformation of Armenian approaches and greater readiness to seek mutual understanding with its neighbours. After all, fighting with Azerbaijan and Türkiye, having such a configuration, is simply suicidal. We are not talking about an instant revision of Armenian policy, but about its inevitability, and precisely in this direction. There is no alternative to good neighbourliness and joint development in the South Caucasus, just as there is no alternative in any other region of the world.
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