The cards are now face up again. Baku feels strong enough to finish the task that it considers pending for a long time: regain control over the entirety of Nagorno Karabakh, an area with an Armenian majority embedded in Azerbaijan.
He understands that, in the shadow of the war in Ukraine, he has ample room to maneuver to deal the last blow to an Armenia that does not have its own means to resist the onslaught or effective support from Russia, despite the fact that Moscow It appears as guarantor of its security within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization – from which it decided to withdraw its representative last month.
The Azeri president, Ilham Aliyev, knows that he has a clear demographic and military superiority – tripling Armenian capabilities – and that Turkey remains willing to support him in his war adventure, as it did in the last war in 2020, when Baku achieved a net gain of land from the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh – created in 2017, changing its previous name from the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, which not even Yerevan recognizes as a State –, which allowed it to recover four of the seven districts lost in 1994.
The Azeri victory also meant that the Kalbajar district was under their control as of November 15, 2020, as well as Agdam (as of the 20th) and Lachin (as of December 1). In summary, Azerbaijan regained practically all of the 8,000 square kilometers it had lost in the previous clash, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh reduced to the original 4,000 square kilometers.
The steps of Baku
Since that moment, Baku has been taking the necessary steps to break its neighbor’s resistance and to align powerful external actors in its favor or, at least, to guarantee its passivity.
Thus, a harsh blockade of the Armenian enclave has been established for the last nine months, closing the Lachin corridor with the clear intention of creating an unsustainable situation that would convince the local Armenian population that their only option was to definitively abandon their homes, without anyone being able to change his mind; and it has even allowed itself the detail of lifting it just last September 12 in a gesture of apparent good will, before starting the offensive that it has now unleashed. For this, the Azeri Ministry of Defense has used the excuse of terrorism, although in its words it was clear that its objective is to destroy all the military capabilities of a republic that it does not recognize.
We are facing a new chapter of a conflict that already has three episodes of open violence since 1918-20, when both territories were subdued by Moscow and integrated into the Soviet Union, passing through the 1988-1994 war – in which Armenia managed to prevail. territorially–, to reach that of 2020. All this without in any case –be it through the mediation attempts already inaugurated in 1994 by the Minsk Group (USA, France and Russia), within the framework of the OSCE, or the approval of the Madrid Principles, in 2007 – the peaceful resolution of the problem has been achieved.
Added to the general impression that no one is going to stop Azerbaijan until it manages to impose its dictate by force is the weakness conveyed by the Armenian Prime Minister himself. Nikol Pashinian came to power in 2018 leading a pro-Western proposal that not only implied distancing himself from Moscow, but also more or less expressly renouncing Nagorno Karabakh.
The drama he now faces is that, even though he is willing to give in to Azerbaijani pretensions, he finds himself with fierce opposition from his own military commanders and, furthermore, he may have the intimate conviction that Baku will not be content just to become with the entirety of Nagorno Karabakh, but its territorial appetite could immediately lead it to eliminate Armenia itself.
Surrender of Nagorno Karabakh forces
In just 24 hours, Baku has already achieved the complete surrender of the Nagorno-Karabakh forces, as staged this Wednesday with the cessation of hostilities agreement announced by the Karabakh authorities, which includes the commitment that the Armenian forces who could still be in that territory have to leave it without delay.
The immediate reading of what happened seems very clear. Armenia does not have its own means to withstand Azeri pressure and Russia – which maintains a contingent of some 2,000 troops in Artsakh as a guarantor of the 2020 agreement – has shown that it is not willing to mobilize more means to meet the challenge posed by Azerbaijan, when the that it has in Ukraine forces it to concentrate efforts. In any case, it is also clear that Russia has failed as a security guarantor with a balance of power policy between Baku and Yerevan that has not managed to prevent Yerevan from leaving its orbit (getting closer to Washington) and Baku from curbing its territorial appetite. , with the clear support of Turkey.
For its part, Armenia fears, rightly, that despite its threat of intervention if the Azeris modify the current borders by force, Iran will not act on increasing its support, if only because it needs to concentrate its limited capabilities in addressing the internal challenge that the regime has in the face of an increasingly open citizen response and the daily Israeli desire to clip its wings in the region (with Syria and Lebanon in the first place).
Pashinián must also realize that the United States is not willing to get directly involved in a conflict of this nature, even now that it has some 85 of its own soldiers participating, for the first time, in military maneuvers with the Armenian Army. Finally, you can also assume that the European Union, which in July last year signed an agreement with Baku to double the volume of gas imports by 2027, is not going to jeopardize its relations with Azerbaijan over a territory that It seems more and more at hand for Aliyev.
Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde is co-director of the Institute for Conflict Studies and Humanitarian Action (IECAH)