Salvage: a conversation on Nagorno-Karabakh

After six weeks of brutal war over Nagorno-Karabakh, is there anything left to save between Armenia and Azerbaijan? We speak to two historians of the conflict to understand its implications.

Editors of oDR Gerard Libaridian Thomas de Waal
8 December 2020, 11.05am
CC BY-SA 2.0 ogannes / Flickr. Some rights reserved

This autumn, six weeks of war raged between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, killing and displacing thousands in a brutal continuation of the now decades-long conflict. On 27 September, Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, began a military offensive that sought to wrestle back control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the territories that surround it. The war came to an end on 9 November, after Russia brokered a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This deal proposed that Armenia hand over both parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and areas in the buffer zone that surround it, with a Russian peace-keeping force deployed to protect the road that connects the territory to Armenia.

As part of our coverage of the war, openDemocracy spoke to historian and diplomat Gerard Libaridian, who retired from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2012, and Thomas de Waal, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe.

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Gerard Libaridian, top, and Thomas de Waal, below | Source: boon.am, personal archive

You both have deep experience of trying to figure out what is happening with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. What are the questions that you've been asking yourselves over the past six weeks as this war has been waged? What are the main questions that you've been wanting to answer for yourself?

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TDW: I guess there's one overriding question: why war? We, the world, the Armenians and Azerbaijan, have had 26 years to forge a peace. There’s been a fairly stable situation - not much violence in that time, although certainly outbreaks of violence. Some quite serious international players have been involved, including three big powers - France, Russia and the US. So the question is: after such a long period, why did it have to come to war? That is the overriding question I've been asking myself.

There are lots of lesser questions. For example, the enthusiasm with which Azerbaijani people - some of whom were not even born when the last conflict was halted - have supported the war. The enormous mobilisation on each side, the incredibly tame response from the west. Russia's agenda, Turkey’s agenda. But I think the main question is: why did it have to come to this? It's a failure, a general failure. I feel it personally as a failure, as someone who is trying to promote peace initiatives and talk about compromise. And that's been haunting me really all this time as I've seen the casualty lists mounting up, and all these young people dying, as well as a new generation embracing hatred and bitterness.

At the same time, there’s now this very old-fashioned great power peace - which isn't really peace, because it's not a full peace agreement. So I guess I can begin to answer that question, but that's the question that has been bothering me.

GL: I think it has been easier for me to answer that question - why did it end up with war? - because I could see where the sides were going. In my mind, both sides have had war as the fallback position. When it would start and how it would go were different questions, but it was clear it would start at some point - and when it did, it would be much more deadly than what we've seen before. But the questions I've had were: when will Russia intervene? How far does Azerbaijan want to go? And will it go all the way to full ethnic cleansing - and thus resolve the conflict?

The statement that this conflict doesn't have a military solution has never struck me as valid. Because if you have the military power to do it, as Azerbaijan does, then you resolve the problem by ethnic cleansing. Now, an Armenian victory would not have resolved the conflict. That is, Azerbaijan would have never given up on Karabakh, and would have never acceded to Karabakh’s independence as some people in Armenia thought might happen under a new victory. In that situation, we would have been back to 26 September, waiting for another war. But an Azerbaijani victory that includes ethnic cleansing, and taking all seven districts, as well as Karabakh, then I thought that would end the issue.

"The biggest question is unknown: will there be enough Armenians who will feel secure enough to go back? Will the numbers make a difference in the outcome? That is, would there be enough justification for an Armenian Karabakh?"

There’s also the question of Russian intervention - and the larger issue: how will different regional powers benefit from this? How will they use it? And along with that, to what extent was there any Russian-Turkish coordination? For example, when Turkey gets involved so heavily in an area which Russia considers its bailiwick, and Russia does nothing until quite late, until Armenia is exhausted. Was there any tacit understanding between them?

My other question was: when would Armenia say, okay, enough, let's get the best deal possible? It was clear on the third or fourth day that the Armenian side could not withstand the assault, that the contact line had been breached in the south. And there were explanations on the Armenian side that Armenian forces had set a trap for the Azerbaijani army. But obviously that was not the case.

The final question, raised after the war, concerns the ceasefire agreement, which I consider to be very fluid. It has too many moving parts. And the biggest question is unknown: will there be enough Armenians who will feel secure enough to go back? Will the numbers make a difference in the outcome? That is, would there be enough justification for an Armenian Karabakh? To justify some territorially defined entity with rights as yet to be determined and, secondly, to justify the presence of Russian peacekeeping troops there. This is very important, and that's why you see Russia very involved in helping Armenians return to Karabakh.

One thing that is no longer a question: there is now hardly any possibility that Karabakh might achieve independence even in the distant future. That is now completely gone. That is very clear, and is assumed in the ceasefire agreement, but clearly stated by President Putin. The negotiations will not be on whether Karabakh will be independent or not, united with Armenia or not, but rather what kind of autonomy will Karabakh have - if any - within Azerbaijan.

TDW: Right. We also have some very clear statements by President Aliyev. Even in the middle of the war, he was giving interviews talking about high status for Karabakh. We were getting briefings about nice models of autonomy, but in his victory speech, he immediately started disavowing that, and openly mocked Pashinyan. “What happened Pashinyan? As long as I'm President of Azerbaijan, there will be no status, your status has gone to hell.”

I would agree with you, Gerard, on your point about the viability of Karabakh as to how many Armenians return. I think this is something that we will watch. The unpleasant reality for the Armenians of Karabakh is that their future is now pretty much determined by Baku and Moscow, not by themselves. Moscow and Baku will be negotiating for the next five years, because that's when Azerbaijan has a de facto veto over extending the peacekeeping mandate.

Azerbaijani military equipment near Fizuli, December 2020 | (c) Aleksandr Kazakov/Kommersant/Sipa USA. All rights reserved

We're going to have two different agendas here. First, the Russians, who have got boots back on the ground in the South Caucasus, and who need to justify that by a fairly viable Armenian Karabakh, which is something to protect. Second, the Azerbaijani side, having halted for various reasons before what would have been a very bloody battle to capture Stepanakert, will perhaps seek a slower, more gradual emptying of Karabakh. This means that in five years’ time, Azerbaijan would be confronting a more or less half-empty territory which they could then gently take over. So there are two agendas there, which I think are contrary. But neither of them is an Armenian agenda. There's one in Russia, and one in Azerbaijan.

GL: I would add a point to the question of what kind of status President Ilham Aliyev would think about at the beginning or at the end?

My understanding is that for Heydar Aliyev, his father, having grown up in the Soviet Union and a high-ranking Soviet official, the kind of federalised state with autonomous regions and republics was normal. For him, it wasn’t difficult to imagine a Karabakh that was autonomous. And he always talked about the highest level of autonomy, whatever it meant for him at that time. But it was clear that Ilham is more of a transition figure. He lived through a long period of his father's rule, but also in Azerbaijan as a nation state, and as a nation state that has quite a few issues with regard to its own identity. So, a unitary state was very important. And therefore, it was not difficult for him to move from a high level of autonomy to non-territorial autonomy. That's an important distinction when it comes to who is ready for what in terms of their mental framework, what they can imagine.

"Russia has been able to do one thing very clearly with this ceasefire agreement. The US is out, the west is out of this region. They have very little to say"

The second point is with regard to the Russians. I think what we're seeing is, on the one hand, Russia and Armenia trying to bring as many Armenians back as possible, but on the other hand, that does not stop Azerbaijan and Turkey from doing everything they can to make Armenians uncomfortable, insecure, and make sure that they don’t come back in large numbers. This is a part of the new game that is evolving. That is, Azerbaijan will move in as many Azeris as possible and they will spend a lot of money on that. I’m not sure that resettling Azeris in Karabakh will be limited to Shushi or the Hadrut area and certainly in the districts that are taken back. But they can always create the image of an insecure Karabakh and certainly, with what you said regarding the five-year limit after which Azerbaijan can say to the Russian troops, sorry, there aren't enough Armenians here, you can go. I think that's the new battlefield in the area. And this is part of the larger issue around whether Turkey will be satisfied as a second string to Russia in the South Caucasus. And will Russia let Turkey get any more than what it has?

Russia has been able to do one thing very clearly, with this ceasefire agreement. The US is out, the west is out of this region. They have very little to say. And if you follow Putin's, and certainly Lavrov’s discussion during the meeting with Putin, they were saying: we want the Minsk Group, we still want France and US involved, and what we would like them to do is now to concentrate on getting more humanitarian aid. What that statement leaves out is more important than what’s in it. This statement is telling the west that Karabakh is no longer your business. And now also having given a piece of the pie in the South Caucasus to Turkey, Russia has tried to move Turkey further away from NATO, the US and the west.

There is a proposition that this is the end, or certainly the twilight of high-level western engagement on the Karabakh issue - to what extent is this a recognition of an already existing reality?

GL: I don’t think there has been an increase in the Russian involvement, it has been steady. But there has been a remarkable decrease in the involvement of the US, and that makes it easier to keep out France. The formalities have been kept, but we have seen a decline of US interests in the region. This precedes President Trump's position, which is to allow Russia to manage its own affairs, and American interests are not that important anymore. This, I think, was evident during the Obama administration as well. Maybe even going back to George Bush Jr.

But this is part of the decline of the new kind of empire that the US created. It's been evident for some time in terms of withdrawals. The difference has been: how do you withdraw? Trump did it his own way. When Trump decided to withdraw some troops from Germany, the critique from the Democrats was not that he shouldn't have. It was rather that he should have consulted, he should have prepared Germany, he should have talked with NATO. That was the critique. So, there has been a kind of recognition by the US that “we are not what we used to be”.

Related story

As a brutal war rages over Nagorno Karabakh, for many Armenians the lack of international response is deafening.

In recent years once or twice a year the US sent a delegation to the region, saying: you guys are very important to us. But in fact, there wasn’t much more that was happening. Clearly the absence of the US and Europe means a larger share of decisions going to Russia. But, also, we have seen Putin in general becoming more aggressive. But he was not more aggressive in Karabakh. He was just waiting, biding his time. I had written long ago that Russia will wait for the right time to do it. Meanwhile, you had Crimea, Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya. We have a new world order, which is characterised by disorder.

TDW: I’d more or less agree, but I think there are some nuances here. I don’t think the west is completely out of this region. I agree that there’s been disengagement. But certainly, Georgia is a very different country from where it was - certainly a much more internationalised country, the EU engagement there is strong. The Americans also have quite a soft spot for Georgia, they have military trainers in Georgia.

I don’t think Russia has been particularly strategic here. I think Russia has been quite opportunistic, I see a general retreat in the neighbourhood by Russia. This was quite a surgical intervention with a fairly small peacekeeping force. There’s one or two things Russia wants out of this: some boots on the ground, the transport corridor through Nakhichevan benefits Russia, in a sense - it connects Russia, through Azerbaijan, the former occupied territories, a little bit of Armenia to Turkey. That's something that Russia wants.

"When Lavrov is rather cynically saying we want the US and France to be there to support our wonderful peacekeeping operation with their humanitarian intervention, that’s also an admission that they are required. When he says he wants to keep the Minsk Group, which Russia clearly wants as a rubber stamping organisation, that’s also a sign that Russia doesn't want to be seen as the unilateral actor"

But we’re also looking at a massive post-conflict reconstruction and resettlement programme, and I don't think anyone is able to pick up the tab except for some major international institutions. Russia certainly doesn’t have the money for it. Before this crisis, Azerbaijan was having a terrible year with a falling oil price. Currently the big headlines in Turkey are actually not about Karabakh, but economic problems and the fall of the lira. So I think there's still a little bit of leverage in the west in terms of post-conflict work - reconstruction, humanitarian intervention, demining and so on, which can only be done by international agencies. The question is: to what extent can the UN or EU use this as political leverage to keep a foot in there?

When Lavrov is rather cynically saying we want the US and France to be there to support our wonderful peacekeeping operation with their humanitarian intervention, that’s also an admission that they are required. When he says he wants to keep the Minsk Group, which Russia clearly wants as a rubber stamping organisation, that’s also a sign that Russia doesn't want to be seen as the unilateral actor. So I entirely agree that the west has been caught napping, and has been disengaged. But I think there's still one or two opportunities to get involved.

Then, of course, there's the question of Armenia’s domestic choice. Nikol Pashinyan has played this conflict disastrously. His failure at diplomacy is one major reason why the Armenians lost this conflict, and they could have got so much more out of it had they played it differently. On the other hand, I don’t think Armenia as a society wants to roll back the openings that they made in 2018, particularly in the fight against the oligarchic, closed, corrupt system. And so I think Armenian society may be very disappointed with the lack of Western support during this crisis, but I still think there’s quite a strong democratic movement in Armenia, and we need to not lose sight of that.

GL: I would point out one thing: slight movements by big powers, even during their waning years, can be determining for small states.

What is a detail for Russia or the US, may be something determining for the three small republics in the South Caucasus. Levon Ter-Petrosyan used to say: Russia is an elephant - when it catches a cold and sneezes, we get crushed. This is in the early 90s, of course. My friend Vafa Guluzade, President Aliyev’s advisor, with whom I worked closely, used to give examples from history. And I told him: don’t make the mistake with regard to Russia. He said Russia is over, it’s weaker than anyone else. And the US is getting stronger. And you know, including NATO. And I said: Don’t make the mistake Armenians did before 1915. The Ottoman Empire was the “sick man of Europe,” and was weak, hadn’t won a war for a while. But it was weak compared to the UK to France, not compared to poor Armenians and Arabs and Kurds. Secondly, when Lavrov is inviting the others, he is mainly pushing the UN agencies - not the OSCE, not even the EU. He wants to make US and French influence as diffuse as possible and to involve as many of other countries as possible.

With regard to the domestic issue. I would say two things. Number one, from my conversations with the Armenian prime minister, there was an important strain in his thinking: the value of democracy for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict. He believed that when Armenia becomes democratic, it will necessarily - with a little bit of diplomatic work - compel western countries to revise their position on the conflict.

Russian peace-keepers, 26 November | (c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Now, for 25 years the international community - including mediators, US, France, Russia, Iran, Turkey, everyone - had told Armenia two things. One, that they will not recognise Karabakh’s independence. Two, the seven districts, which were occupied around Karabakh, must be returned, regardless of what meaning they have for Armenia - historical, political, security or whatever. These districts must be returned and be replaced by other security measures. In essence, the international community supported Azerbaijan, and not the Armenian side, in the fundamentals of conflict resolution.

Pashinyan thought that for western countries the value of democracy was higher than their own interests. This is a big mistake he made - that is, he believed that this would be the way to solve the problem. Time may not be on our side, the idea went, but if we can gain time, get stronger, and western countries will help us and see our side - then becoming democratic would be a major asset against the autocrats in Azerbaijan. That the international community can change its position because you are democratic. And this argument was there throughout the past two and a half years.

And the final point I'd like to make, Tom, with regard to your comment is that I agree that Armenia is not the Armenia of five years ago. The hold of the oligarchs has been broken, a former president has been jailed, and another one is charged. The question is: Will this fact be instrumentalised enough to prevent the oligarchs and the non-democrats from coming back, maybe with the help of Russia? This is a big question. If you see the opposition in the street to Pashinyan today, which was there from the beginning - because it involves oligarchs, because it involves former presidents who had committed illegal acts and who must be held accountable - this is the group that is the current opposition. Although in terms of Karabakh, they were in full support of the position that Pashinyan had taken - that is, you don't give anything back, you insist on independence. They supported the mentality, the idea that we have time - and if it's war, we can go to war, and we can win.

I would say that the oligarchs and others who lost power during the last parliamentary election still control the media and may still be able to control the narrative too; they might be able to use their huge financial means and ready-made demagoguery for revanchism, to impose a change of course in the country.

TDW: I think that's a very good warning, Gerard. We look at the Republic of Cyprus, for example, which is a democratic country, it's part of the EU. And yet in terms of international affairs, it's still a one-issue country. Unfortunately, a predictable scenario for Armenia is that even if it has some kind of internal democracy, it only has one message internationally, which is very much focused on lost lands and grievances.

GL: You can see two positions in Armenia already. There are those - who tend to be on the younger side - who say, okay, we lost Karabakh. Now, we can do whatever we can, but it's no longer the centre, we lost it. Let’s accept it. And now let's work, let’s focus on Armenia. And on the other hand, there’s enough ideological tools in the hands of the oligarchs and others to say: no, we should go back to the old agenda, we should rearm and have a better army - go back to the old thinking; they argue that what went wrong was the execution of the war, not the framework within which we looked at the conflict and conflict resolution. Diplomacy was failing, they would say, because our diplomats were unable to convince the world that Karabakh should be independent.

It’s difficult to say how this will play out. It’s easier for the second group of oligarchs, ultra-nationalists and maximalists to come back to power by arguing the above, rather than by saying: okay, we made a big mistake and we lost, let’s see what we can save, but now we have to focus on Armenia.

What might be the different scenarios for salvaging the current situation in Armenia - both internally and with regard to Karabakh?

GL: An ideal scenario is that there is a territorially defined Armenian Karabakh that has decent enough autonomy and security that most Karabakh Armenians will return. The situation would be stabilised, blockades lifted, and a kind of normalcy evolves over a period of time; people get back to knowing each other.

And may I in this respect, in parentheses, say the following, that Tom made a point regarding the intensity of hatred on both sides. What I would point out is that, from my experience, my father was a survivor, my grandfather was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, and they did not have hatred in their heart. They had questions maybe, they didn’t look at explanations (something happened!) My father, who was a Turkish speaker anyway, went back to Turkey for his vacations. Our generation is the one who grew up not knowing Turks, and so Turks became abstractions strictly identified as the people who committed genocide – we did not know any Turks through family, social or business contacts. Turks were abstracted, they were dehumanised in our minds. It’s our generation that started hating.

And I think this is what happened in the case of the Armenia-Azerbaijan. conflict. That is, for many years, there were very strong contacts. Not only because Armenians and Azerbaijanis were in the same state, the Soviet Union, but also they were neighbours. Intellectuals and artists got together. The communist ideology brought everyone together through the “Brotherhood of nations” principle, which may not have been so deep, but it was there. These two peoples knew each other.

And then it changed, and these peoples don’t know each other anymore. It’s become easier to hate. It’s easier to feel someone you’re killing is not someone you know.

One possibility is that Armenia establishes ties with Azerbaijan; Azeris and Armenians live together in Karabakh - not necessarily as closely as before - and then Armenia settles its bilateral relations with Turkey. The worst scenario is that Armenians may go back, but as Tom said, there are protracted anti Armenian actions that will weaken, rather than strengthen the presence of Armenians there.

One of the consequences of this war has been the further loss of Armenian sovereignty with regard to Russia. The southern border is now controlled by Russia, and not just the western. The eastern border will be controlled by Russia. Any kind of reorganisation will depend on Russia to begin with, because they're in charge now. So that means further limitations on the Armenian government’s power to determine policy. We may return to something closer to what there was in the Soviet period - that is, no contact with Turkey. Russia could do a lot of propaganda, saying Turkey is responsible for this or that action, as has happened before. Consequently, Armenians may not want to have anything to do with Turkey. With Azerbaijan, it will be regulated by Russia or will be the framework will be determined for the time being.

The worst possible scenario is that Armenia will be isolated. The country will have no international relevance - it will have nothing but the diaspora, and the diaspora’s abilities are limited. There are all kinds of scenarios in between, of course, maybe neither of these extremes are more likely than something in between - which means that there's a lot of work to be done.

For Armenians and Armenia, the first task is to understand what went wrong. It's very difficult to move ahead in a steadier fashion if you don't accept what was lost. My wife was saying this morning: “I'm only just realising what was lost.” She knew technically what had been lost, but now she says, It’s been so many days, and every day it becomes worse. The problem in Armenia is that it’s not only the people who are traumatised, but the government is, too. I think Pashinyan is in total shock. I don’t think he can think straight.

Secondly, I think Armenia, as I’ve maintained before, will need to have direct contacts with Azerbaijan and Turkey. If it does not want to lose all possibility of having a say in what happens to its interests in the future. I don’t think it should be left just to Russia. There should be enough sovereignty left to say: okay, let’s see what happened - and let’s see what the best we can do is, establishing contacts that will build something new on the basis of what was lost on the Armenian side.

TDW: Well, I would say there are some quite good reasons to be pessimistic.

Gerard has mentioned some of them. I mean, one thing to mention is, for years, Azerbaijanis have been imagining these lost territories - but not really seeing them. Now with the right to return, they're going back and they're seeing complete destruction. The town of Aghdam used to have 30,000 people and there’s just a single mosque standing there today. Everything has been levelled. It was captured intact in the 1990s by Armenian forces, and then it was levelled and looted and stripped - and to see that is a very bitter experience for Azerbaijanis returning to these regions.

We’re also seeing cases in which graveyards have disappeared, which is obviously very important to anyone. So I think, unfortunately, levels of bitterness are going to stay the same, if not rise. The casualty levels for this six-week war were extremely high: 2,500 young Armenians soldiers dying in six weeks for such a small society - and for the Azerbaijani side probably a much bigger figure. Plus the state ideologies continue - Armenia as the anti-Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan as the anti-Armenia. I think that will continue until there's a full normalisation of relations, and I don't see that happening.

What could mitigate this? In Karabakh itself, maybe there will be some reasons to cooperate. Stepanakert and Shusha are close, I’m sure trade will resume on some level. Armenians and Azerbaijanis already trade in Georgia. And I'm sure that if people find opportunities to do business with one another, they will take them, particularly the older generation who maybe still know each other's language. So I think there will be these opportunities. Another example is that access to Kelbajar region is much better from the south, across the Lachin corridor.

Those of us on the outside talking to local players should be trying to look for those moments of cooperation. These points of cooperation can, if not contribute to a full normalisation of relations - which I think is very difficult - at least mitigate the possibilities of a new conflict. Maybe they can facilitate some kind of local rapprochement, which I think is eminently possible within these two societies if they’re left to themselves. But unfortunately, these big voices from the outside, these megaphone nationalists, sitting often thousands of miles away, are giving the opposite message.

I think there's a lot of work to be done, and I’m not very optimistic - but I think I don't think all is lost. I think a salvage operation of some kind is possible. And the fact that there is now going to be more international access to Karabakh by UN agencies and so on is an opening to de-isolate that society slightly, to try bring a bit more of the outside world in there, which I think would be positive, both for the Armenians of Karabakh and the Azerbaijanis of Karabakh.

Could we think of some kind of projects? Well, possibly. The town of Shushi/Shusha has great meaning for both sides. It has mosques and churches. There will be Azerbaijanis in Shusha, and there's still an Armenian church there: any project in that town that could see Armenians coming back on Sundays to worship in that cathedral is a start. I've written a lot about the hidden reservoirs of mutual understanding and cooperation that still exist, but I don't underestimate the challenge of it. What we can say for certain is that we're in a much more volatile, fluid and dynamic situation, which has many dangers in it, but perhaps a few opportunities as well.

GL: We may need a separate session to discuss the destruction that was committed on both sides. It takes a lot of emotional and mental effort to look for things that could be realistically achieved - to see where something could be salvaged. And that is a very important formulation for Karabakh: a salvage operation.

Interview by Thomas Rowley.

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