Repelling foreign invaders has been the single most recurring event throughout all of Armenian history. This year is no different.
In the early morning hours of Sept 27, Azerbaijan—with the military support of Turkey—launched an air and artillery attacks on the peaceful civilian populations in Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenian name, Artsakh) and the Republic of Armenia. Artsakh’s capital, Stepanakert, was shelled, causing damage to roads and infrastructure, as was Mardakert, Artsakh’s administrative center. Marduni, Vardenis and Goris in Armenian proper were also targeted. Among the civilian casualties were an elderly woman, her grandchild, and 18 others. Addressing Azerbaijan on national television, President Ilham Aliyev said that “there are losses among the Azerbaijani forces and the civilian population as a result of the Armenian bombardment,” but did not elaborate.
Artsakh — a region some 4,400 square kilometers (1,700 square miles) is about the size of the U.S. state of Delaware. Its Armenian pedigree hearkens back to ancient times when around 180 B.C., Artsakh became one of the 15 provinces of the Armenian Kingdom. It has a population of roughly 155,000 is comprised of a majority of Armenians, and ethnic Talysh, Lezgin and Russian peoples. Neighboring Azerbaijan has an expanse of 86,600 square kilometers (33,400 square miles) and a population of 8 million, comprised of a majority of Azeris (also known as Caucasian Tatars), and a mix of the very same groups as mentioned above.
Azerbaijan, a military dictatorship run by the Ilham Aliyev clan, has challenged Artsakh sovereignty ever since this majority-Armenian populated enclave declared its independence from brutal Azeri rule in 1994 following a protracted war fought by indigenous Armenians for the right to govern themselves on their historic homeland.
Those close to the issues surrounding the status and security of this self-governing region have expected such attacks ever since Azerbaijan’s most recent failed incursion into Armenian and Artsakh positions in July 2020.
According to Artsakh’s Defense Ministry, Azerbaijani weaponry losses amid its attack on Artsakh include a Turkish F-16, an Azeri warplane, 14 Israeli UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles), 4 helicopters, 33 tanks, and an unspecified number of armored equipment. Unconfirmed reports state that high ranking officers of the Azeri side have been killed or captured. Both sides are claiming military casualties and both countries have declared martial law.
“Azerbaijan is facing the biggest political, economic, and social crisis it’s faced probably since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first part of the Nagorno-Karabakh war [in the late 1980s],” said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia Program. Political observers point to these as the motivation behind the Azeri attacks.
Azeri President Aliyev is among several world leaders who currently face ouster because of popular domestic discontent. Many political observers—including travel blogger Alexander Lapshin once blacklisted and imprisoned by Azerbaijan for writing about Armenia and Artsakh—believe that the present Azeri regime is spoiling for war because military dictator Aliyev needs to shore up his flagging power in his own land. The majority of Azerbaijanis live in abject poverty in spite of Azerbaijan’s GDP of $27 USD billion in oil income but which is mostly appropriated by the Aliyev clan.
The current President’s father, Heydar Aliyev, was a former Soviet Politburo member and the leader of Soviet Azerbaijan from 1969 to 1987. He became President of Azerbaijan in 1993 and began to build an autocratic system that installed Aliyev clan members into positions of power, depended on patronage, and lived off the largesse of domestic oil revenues. Heydar’s son inherited his father’s power, extending the reign of the dynasty. Amnesty International, Freedom House and the Index on Censorship are among those organizations that have charged the Azeri regime with violating press freedom, stifling dissent and using the energy wealth to win favor with the U.S. and EU. Aliyev Jr’s authority also stems from manipulations of the Artsakh conflict, promoting a negative image of Armenia and Armenians as a scapegoat to compensate for the economic and social ills that his regime has created, exacerbated and ignored.
That goes a long way towards explaining why the majority of Western-backed mainstream media outlets, including the BBC, CNN, and Time magazine, have been covering for the oil-rich nation. Most have misrepresented the issue to charge that both sides simultaneously attacked each other or, that Armenia, which has in reality been maintaining a defensive posture, was the first to attack. Baku officials deny that Azerbaijan attacked Artsakh, claiming that it is conducting a counter-offensive. On the contrary, said Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, “the responsibility for these attacks rests solely on Azerbaijan.” According to Armenian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Anna Naghdalyan, “Armenia has undeniable evidence that Azerbaijan started the hostilities in Karabakh.”
When on Sept 25 the US Embassy of Armenia issued a security alert to its citizens in Armenia to exercise caution at the border between Armenia, Artsakh and Azerbaijan, it became clear that not only was the U.S. apprised of the coming attacks, but was not going to intervene, at least not at first.
Notably, in fiscal year 2018 and 2019 combined, Azerbaijan received over $100 million in military assistance from the U.S. Department of Defense via the Section 333 Building Partner Capacity program. Azerbaijan has also received billions worth of advanced weapons from Israel, in addition to technical and training support and the services of hired hacks to issue anti-Armenian propaganda articles on the media front.
Following the Azeri attacks, the U.S. State Department issued a statement of false parity, calling for both sides to cease hostilities. In a press briefing later on Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump said that the U.S. would seek to stop the violence by talking to its friends in the region. Israeli officials remain silent. While the U.S., Russia, Iran and France, among others, have called for a cease fire, Turkey, Israel and Pakistan have issued no statements calling for peace. Instead they have thrown their weight behind Azerbaijan.
After enduring many years of Azeri government-sponsored hate campaigns, disinformation, provocations and attacks, the peaceful populations of Artsakh and Armenia have recognized that when they once more repel Azeri aggression, they must do so decisively so that the specters of imminent Azeri attacks do not perpetually loom over them. On Sept 27, Artsakh Prime Minister Arayik Harutyunyan stated, “If war is what Azerbaijan wants, war is what they will get.”
In an emergency Sept 27 Security Council session of the Armenian parliament, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said “After the fact, critics may chastise me for risking Armenian lives by mobilizing our men for battle. So my question to you all today is, are you ready to surrender to Azerbaijan and live under Azeri control the way Armenians once did and suffered as a result? Because, if so, we can resolve the conflict right now.” The answer from the gallery was a resounding “No.” Both Parliament as well as the Armenian nation signaled their readiness to pay with their lives for the right to live in liberty. Thousands of able-bodied men in Armenia are mobilizing. More than 20,000 Armenian nationals residing in Russia signaled their readiness to fly back to Armenia for conscription.
PM Pashinyan said “I am prepared to die for my country and for Armenians to exercise our God-given right to live peacefully on our own land. This is our new ‘Sardarabad’. This is a struggle for our very existence.”
The PM was referring to the decisive battle Armenians fought against invading Turkey in 1918 in the midst of the Turkish-state sponsored Armenian Genocide—a battle which prevented the complete destruction of the Armenian nation.
In a statement on Monday, the Foreign Ministry of Artsakh stated, “Once again, Azerbaijan is flouting international law. In their aggression against the Republic of Artsakh, the Azerbaijani armed forces intentionally attacked civilian objects that are not military targets, used prohibited methods and means of warfare that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, as well as used indiscriminate weapons.”
Political analyst and head of the Centre for Globalization and Regional Cooperation Stepan Grigoryan said that if the fighting extends beyond 3-4 days, Armenia should begin announcing its intention to recognize the breakaway state of Artsakh, which formally declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1992.
Unlike some activist calls for reunification of Artsakh with Armenia, sure to inflame the ire of nations who already view Armenians as irredentists, recognizing Artsakh independence would contribute to the ongoing bid for international acknowledgment of statehood. To date, the Republic of Artsakh is recognized by breakaway states Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. In the U.S., ten states—California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Rhode Island—recognize Artsakh’s status as an independent republic. Artsakh’s right to self-determination is also supported by the Basque Parliament.
Historically, Russia has been invested in maintaining what they consider to be a balance of power in the Caucasus, furnishing Azerbaijan and Armenia with military assistance. This week, First Vice-Chairman of the Russian State Duma for CIS Affairs Viktor Vodolatsky commented on the possibility of Artsakh recognition by Armenia. He said that ”in order for Armenia to recognize Karabakh, Yerevan and Baku, through the mediation of the Russian Federation, need to sit around the negotiating table and settle all the issues related to the territorial dispute so that even if the republic is recognized, no side ever has the opportunity to incite an armed conflict.”
If left unchecked, Turkey, Azerbaijan’s partner in the conflict, could stoke the flames of a greater regional war. With his signature audacity, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was recently quoted saying “Armenia is the biggest threat to the region.” Turkey’s own genocidal handiwork with respect to Armenia, Greece, Cyprus and its Kurdish population say otherwise, as does Turkey’s track record of military attacks, occupations, aggressive postures and meddling in the affairs of neighboring nations Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Greece, Cyprus, India, and now, Artsakh.
Azerbaijan, established in 1918, has its own record of massacring Armenians. Azeri persecutions, pogroms and outright massacres in Nakhichevan, Baku, Sumgait and Karabakh/Artsakh were the precursors to Artsakh Armenians declaring their independence in the 1990s. They had endured decades of brutal repression by Azerbaijan ever since Josef Stalin gifted the historic and majority-populated Armenian land to Azerbaijan in exchange for Turkish support of the Soviet experiment.
At press time, social networks within Azerbaijan remain shut down. Armenian social networks are open, although Azeri hackers have attacked several media outlets in Armenia.
Confirmed reports by Reuters say that thousands of Turkish-backed mercenaries from Syria and other areas of the globe have been deployed to the Azeri front. This is not a new occurrence as Azerbaijan recruited mercenaries from Chechnya during the Artsakh War of the 1990s. Azerbaijan denies it while making baseless allegations that Armenia is importing Kurdish Worker’s Party “PKK” fighters to assist fighters in Artsakh.
Why does all of this matter? The Armenian Genocide has never been acknowledged by Turkey. After more than 100 years, Armenians, living on what little remains of their historic homeland, still have received no guarantees, protection, land return, reparations, restitutions, nor assurances that another invasion and genocide by Turkey will not occur. Erdogan has been quoted as saying that Turkey wishes to “finish what it started regarding the Armenians.” Turkey’s hegemonic actions around the world have been exempt from global punishment or even censure from fellow NATO members. This has only emboldened Erdogan. “Turkey is engaged in an “expansionist and imperialistic policy that is creating very, very explosive and dangerous problems for neighboring countries,” said Andreas Mavroyiannis, the permanent representative of Cyprus to the UN. Erdogan is poised to recapture lands that once comprised the Ottoman Empire.
Predictably, the above does not much interest the West, which is more concerned that a wider conflict could break out among regional players including Russia, Turkey and Iran, complicating NATO dominance in the region, NATO control over gas and oil, and the security of Israel. The South Caucasus is a crucial artery for gas and oil from Azerbaijan into Turkey and on to Europe and other world markets. Azerbaijan supplies about 5% of Europe’s gas and oil demands and Armenian-Azeri fighting in 2016 came close to a number of these Azeri pipelines.
Attempts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group—formed in 1992 and chaired by France, Russia and the U.S. to find a peaceful solution to the conflict—have been in a stalemate. A ceasefire was agreed upon in 1994 but Azerbaijan has violated it daily ever since.
On Monday, the European Union urged both sides to stop fighting and return to the negotiating table, following similar calls by Russia, France, the U.S. and Iran. Legislators such as Congressmen Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) have unequivocally called upon Azerbaijan to cease hostilities and to hold Azerbaijan accountable.
It is a miracle that Armenia—surrounded by enemies—has survived as a nation this long and in spite of having to fight her battles alone when superpower promises of protection have not been kept. Therefore, we should not be surprised if, as Armenia continues to gain the upper hand on the battlefield, she chooses to disregard calls for restraint for fear that Armenia will overtake Azerbaijan. Artsakh’s ability to attack the nearby Baku-Ceyhan-Tblisi crude oil pipeline may be the only language that Azerbaijan and its partners understand.
One must hope that repeated naked aggressions of this sort will deter any more Armenians from joining hands with Turkish and Azeri charlatans who promote fake reconciliation initiatives when their real intention is to deter peace-loving Armenians from aspiring to realize their natural rights.
Although Russia has been strategically cooperating with Turkey and Azerbaijan on many occasions, if the fighting continues and Artsakh/Armenia come under grave threat, Russia will have no choice but to prevent penetration, not because of any love for Armenia, but because they know they will then lose the entire Caucasus to the Pan-Turkist agenda.
The time is now to condemn Azerbaijan and Turkey, to impose sanctions upon them, withdraw foreign aid, and install neutral observers and peacekeeping troops along the line of contact. Turkey, Israel and Pakistan must be warned that by supporting Azerbaijani atrocities they are setting a bad example to the world, endangering global peace, and jeopardizing aid to their own countries.
Lucine Kasbarian is an Armenian-American journalist and editorial cartoonist. Many of her articles are archived at armeniapedia.org/wiki/Lucine_Kasbarian