Tag Archives: Forgotten Wars

The “Mariupol Standoff”, or the developement of new relashionship between East and West

“You can say things which cannot be done. This is elementary. The trick is to keep attention focused on what is said and not on what can be done.”

(Frank Herbert, from “Whippinng Star”, 1969)

A map of the situation in the eastern region of Ukraine, by Business Insider Intelligence

Welcome back to Unpredictable Past,

some time has passed since the last writing, but, as it is natural that it is, and as I often repeat, some events need the right time to be looked at and analyzed: and this is what I intend to do in this writing, whose processing time went into looking at things as they are, minimizing guesswork and finding as many facts as possible to support my claim.

In this paper I would like to start from the latest episodes that took place on the eastern border of Ukraine and then get to analyze with you the new course that the global geopolitical situation seems to have taken since the beginning of 2021. The event I am talking about has been defined as “Maripol Crisis”, from the city in the Donetsk Oblast, on the shores of the Black Sea, close to the borders of the Occupied Territories (or Separatists, depending on the point of view), which is generally referred to by the acronym ORDLO (Okremi Raioni Donetchkoi ta Lughanskoi Oblastei) and which has recently been the subject of clashes between separatists forces (ie the Russian army) and loyalists of the Ukrainian army, causing fear of a new escalation of violence in the region in the near future.

The “frozen” conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for eight years, and dates the last escalation of this importance back to 2015, when, following the Ukrainian Revolution of the previous year and the beginning of the internal conflict with the separatists in the southeast of the country (in the regions of Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk and Donbass), the Russian armed forces “disguised” as civilian personnel carrying humanitarian aid invaded the country, occupying, in whole or in part, the aforementioned territories. On March 26 of this year, the tension begins to rise again: four soldiers of the Ukrainian Army were killed in Shumy, a village in the Mariupol area, very close to the border of the Occupied Territories, in which, in the meantime, as pointed out by Kirill Budanov, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, the troops of the Russian Federation have massed for a total of about 110,000 effectives. Budanov asserted that these movements of the armed forces have a specific purpose: “[Its] goal is to keep Ukraine in the sphere of [Russia’s] geopolitical influence, force it to abandon Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and resolve the issue of the occupied territories [in the Donbass] on Moscow’s terms“.

On April 12, the Russian government takes a further step, and through the spokesman of President Vladimir Putin, Dmitri Peskov declares that: “[Moscow] will not remain indifferent to the fate of Russian speakers who live in the southeastern regions of Ukraine“. A clear reference (typical of the rhetoric of recent years, which used the term “Russophone” instead of “Russian” to pursue territorial claims without bringing up ethnic issues that could sound like the “reasons” adducted by Adolf Hitler during the Anschluss of the territories with a population of German origin into the Third Reich), to the policy begun two years ago by the Russian Federation regarding the granting of a “facilitated” passport to residents of the Occupied Territories who had requested it (to date there are about 400,000, out of 3 million of residents) for “humanitarian reasons”, behind which obviously lies the veiled threat of being able to have an easy casus belli should an armed intervention needs to be justified.

In response to this veiled threat, the following day April 13 at a meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba confirmed the importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries. Both Ukrainian and American diplomats agreed that they needed to take action in order to “demotivate Moscow from further escalation“; the same day, US President Biden called his counterpart Putin to propose a meeting in which to discuss the issue in its entirety, but , when Moscow seemed to have achieved a “normalization” of the situation, the expulsions of diplomats and the implementation of new economic sanctions on the Sovereign Funds of the Russian Federation began in the US (officially relating to the case of Alexey Navaly and his treatment in detention), but which in my opinion had more the flavor of an appropriate response: “you-are-not-the-only-ones-able-to-use-humanitarian-pretexts-for-other-purposes“.

A declaration of intent absolutely not misunderstood, which has aroused a series of diplomatic reactions on both sides, as well as, obviously, within the European Union. The question arose spontaneously: “is it really a new line or is it just a way of pointing out a heavy question of internal politics?“. As we know, the four years of the Trump presidency were characterized by suspicion of interference by Moscow into the internal politics of the United States, a suspicion fueled by the “benevolent” attitude held by the former president regarding the relations between the two countries. I have often said it, but it is good to reiterate it: the Russian elites, out of conviction or opportunism, continue to feed the mythology of the Cold War, in the hope of being able to return to the table of the Great Powers and at the same time preserve their position of power, showing themselves to the eyes of the public opinion in their country as the only way to avoid falling prey to alleged “Western conspiracies”.

But let’s start from the beginning, since this situation is one of the results of other events that have occurred in recent months. The first and foremost is certainly the change of administration in the United States, with the beginning of Joe Biden’s mandate at the White House: shortly after taking office, the President, and his entourage, overturned the line of laxity towards the Russia: in February, at the Munich Security Conference, the American President peremptorily stated: “America is back“, making it clear that Russian interference (from propaganda to cyberwarfare) in the West would no longer be tolerated, reiterating then the concept in an interview with ABC, calling his counterpart Vladimir Putin “a killer”. Following that, the combined efforts of the Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Secretary of the National Security Council Oleksiy Danilov, leads to Ukraine’s “new approach” towards Russia, and managed to “give a shake” to the President Volodimir Zelensky, who, due to inexperience and lack of external support, left Russians do essentially what they wanted, using the Minsk Agreements as a lever to move Ukraine’s internal politics at will.

Here, in the West, if the global pandemic hadn’t made us deaf and blind, we’d be talking about front page stuff. Despite those facts, fortunately, a military escalation seems unlikely at present, for several reasons.

At first glance, disparity of forces in the field is evident, clearly in favor of Russia, and this fact alone could immediately make one think of the worst. But, as several military analysts have rightly pointed out, this deployment of forces does not necessarily have to be the prelude to a large-scale offensive. It could be configured, for example, as a “response” by the Russian Federation (together with Belarus) to the large military exercise carried out by NATO since the beginning of March, under the evocative name of “Defender-Europe 2021“, in which 27 Countries took part, including Ukraine, representing the largest coordination maneuver in 25 years, with a similar maneuver named “Zapad-2021” scheduled for September. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defence Minister, stated the following: “a sudden check of the combat readiness of the troops of the Western and Southern military districts was carried out as part of [Russia’s] control measures and exercises during the winter period of training.

Second, an attempt at normalization has been carried out both in Europe, which began on April 16th, with France, Germany and Ukraine on the one hand and Russia (not represented at the summit, but nevertheless present) on the other, and, of course, by the United States, with Biden’s proposal to Putin of a meeting aimed at discussing the Ukrainian situation “on a broad spectrum“. Although these negotiations are currently at a standstill, the very fact that they exist implies that the military option is considered, even in the Kremlin, as something to be used as a threat but to be avoided at all costs. Further proof of this attitude, especially on the Russian side, is an apparently banal but interesting episode: in an interview with Rossiya24, a “government” broadcaster, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that Russia was ready to “break relations with the European Union “on the Ukraine question. These statements were immediately followed by a quick denial by Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, who denied the Minister and backtracked very quickly, citing justifications of circumstance. Taking into account that Lavrov is certainly not a minor character or just any politician, the fact that he was so abruptly denied from above is indicative.

Is it all a matter of “flexing muscles” then? Not exactly, in my opinion.

A map of the Northern Crimean Canal as reported by BBC.com

Indeed, there is a goal that a possible offensive could aim at: the Northern Crimean Canal, recently closed by the Ukrainian government and source of supply of 80% of the country’s drinking water, which has caused many problems for the regions under control. Russian. The question is whether the Kremlin is ready to take this risk: if on the one hand the superiority of means could make a “blitzkrieg” conceivable, on the other hand this could turn out to be a move with decidedly catastrophic consequences, compared to a possible “gain” in territorial and resource terms. In fact, it would be necessary to fight on Ukrainian territory, where now there are about 300,000 veterans of the Donbass, motivated, benefited by the knowledge of the territory but who above all would be immediately supported by the West. Making the decision to attack to “send a signal” could prove to be the most counterproductive the Russian government has done in recent years.

Two problems face the Kremlin. First of all, as I have explained several times, the image is everything for the elite of the Russian Federation: how would the regime be able to explain the enormous cost in human lives, or a possible military failure (the army is still one of the few institutions in which the population trusts) in the context of that confrontation / clash that propaganda has been carrying out for years? The second problem concerns the economic repercussions that the decision to force the hand would have on the country: if on the one hand Europe must limit itself to warnings, the United States is planning a series of very heavy economic sanctions, for now stopped in Congress because the result of a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats whose internal tensions have not yet subsided after the electoral defeat of Donald Trump, but which in the eventuality of armed aggression would immediately come into being (who would risk, after the scandals of the previous four years, to support the soft line with Russia?), and that would be a very hard blow for the whole country. Also in this case, maintaining the image of “prosperity” would be very complex, and probably it will not be enough to “pull out nationalism when you run out of money” to get out of it, also because this would seriously risk triggering a further chain reaction. from which it would be impossible for the central power to escape unscathed.

At that point, the possible scenarios would be two: withdrawing and losing face, trying not to arouse excessive media hype and finding a way to justify the “setback” with public opinion (changing the game and reporting external problems within the country , downloading them, for example, on the non-organic political opposition to the system, such as that of Navalny for example), or to go straight and decide to tighten even more clearly the relations with the only other ally of weight on which Russia can count: the People’s Republic of China. This last hypothesis, in spite of those who have spoken for years of a common front between the two countries with an anti-Western function, is actually the result of a reasoning that was firm at the time of the Cold War, which seeks to replicate patterns known, making up for the inability to explain reality.

In fact, as I happened to underline on other occasions, the most concrete (but never manifested) danger that the Russian elites absolutely want to avoid running into is precisely an increasingly close relationship with China. The reason is obvious: if it is true that the export of raw materials to Chinese factories is among the most important components of the Russian economy, on the other hand, those in charge are clear that the more the country moves to the East, the more it risks becoming an appendage of Chinese power. With the exception of the military sector (of reduced size only by Beijing’s choice) all the cards are in favor of the Asian giant, which in recent years has extended its influence even on those countries that Russia normally considers “its own” (yes think of Central Asia, or, lately, some Balkan countries that have opened up to the Chinese vaccine market, but that’s another story), without anyone in Moscow being able to do anything about it or daring to risk criticism of any kind.

This time the situation seems to be decidedly more serious, even if some other events, apparently distant, can offer the explanation of the escalation.

And it is at this point that it is necessary to take a step back, and take a closer look at the foreign policy undertaken by the new American administration: as mentioned, if on the one hand it has all the appearance of a provocation against Russia, a retaliation for the precedents years of interference in American politics, it is not necessary to forget that the objective of the United States has long been another one. In fact, further east, precisely in the Pacific, a game is being played that the United States considers much more important than any confrontation with Russia, namely to contain the influence of the People’s Republic of China on the region. For years, the overwelming US military supremacy has kept the Asian giant’s ambitions in what it considers “rightfully” its own zone of influence at bay, but lately things have changed and Chinese naval forces have begun to accompany the economic expansion of the country in the Indo-Pacific area. It is no coincidence that one of Joe Biden’s first acts as president was to preside over the first meeting of QUAD, an alliance of the four democratic countries that have interests in the Pacific Ocean (India, Australia, Japan and United States) and who do not look favorably on China’s expansion to their detriment, that, as already reported on this site, could sign the beginning of significant changes in the area.

All those facts leads me to ask: what if these maneuvers, apparently aimed at striking Russia, were instead a way to put the country’s leadership in front of a choice between West and East?

That Joe Biden’s “provocative” statements serve this purpose? And that the “outstretched hand” of Europe, specifically of French President Emmanuel Macron, is not a simple sign of surrender, but rather a counterweight in a “carrot and stick” strategy, intended to go and see the bluff carried out. for decades now from the upper echelons of the Kremlin? In this situation, two key points of the ideology of the facade of the Russian Federation seem to begin to fail, namely that of its “peculiar identity”, neither Western nor Eastern, together with that of the Cold War which sees the country as the main pole of anti-atlantist, an idea that loses credibility even in the eyes of the Russians themselves with each passing year. That somewhere in Washington they have understood that the program of responding to Russian propaganda with other propaganda, the one centered on embezzlement by members of Putin’s “inner circle” is a fallacious and useless strategy, as demonstrated by the Navalny affair , and that perhaps the real breaking point will be to confront Russian public opinion with something far more significant? Such as “what shall we do with our lives?”

In a possible future confrontation (whose lines have already been “drawn”) to balance the relationship between West and East, there is no doubt that the side on which Russia will take sides will be fundamental, not only for geopolitical issues, but also for the future of Russian citizens themselves: to let autocratic power preserve itself, becoming more and more enveloped in a decadent spiral that will inevitably lead to a sort of vassalage condition with respect to China, or to deny itself, its image and all the propaganda rhetoric put in place to hold together the “pieces” of the country and gradually groped a rapprochement with the much-maligned West?

As Andrei Piontkovsky stated in an interview with Olga Khvostunovna on the Institute for Modern Russia website: “To ensure that Russian changes its foreign policy, the battle for the minds of Russian citizens has to be won“. And perhaps, I think as a European, it is not the only battle that must be fought and won, if we really want the future of all of us to be different, but that’s another story.

Is there anything to be learned from the Nagorno-Karabakh War?

“The war which is coming
Is not the first one. There were
Other wars before it.
When the last one came to an end
There were conquerors and conquered.
Among the conquered the common people
Starved. Among the conquerors
The common people starved too.”

(Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956)

Gunduz Agayev, Azerbaijani satirical cartoonist vignette about the 2020 conflict, for Meydan.tv

Welcome back to Unpredictablepast.com,

In this article we will return to talk about the events inherent in the Nagorno-Karabakh area, about two months after the end of the armed conflict. I recently read this article about the “Military Lessons We Can Learn From the Nagorno-Karabakh War“, and it got me thinking:

Is there really anything we can learn from the Nagorno-Karabakh War?

Obviously I am referring to something other, that does not specifically concern the military aspect itself. But, since this is precisely the question that attracted my attention, it could be a good starting point: the elapsed time interval will allow us to look at the events in perspective, and verify whether some of the assumptions that had been discussed in the previous articles were correct or not.

Before we start, a brief summary of the facts could be useful: the conflict, which began on September 27, 2020 when the Azerbaijan Army launched the Iron Fist operation (in original, Dəmir Yumruq əməliyyatı) against the Republic of Artsakh, created after the war of 1988 – 1994 and de facto territory of the Republic of Armenia, although officially recognized as Azerbaijani territory, ended after about a month and two weeks of fighting, which saw an unstoppable Azerbaijani offensive recapture many of the territories of Karabakh, including the city of Shusha, until a trilateral agreement for an end to hostilities, ratified on 10 November between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, which sent a contingent of 2000 men to the scene with the function of “PeaceKeeping”.

As for the war events themselves, and in particular that described by the article, personally, more than a science fiction war scenario, reminds me of an old French saying: l’argent est le nerf de la guerre. Azerbaijan has behaved no differently from many other petro-states we know: the enormous proceeds of natural resources are directly reinvested in the army and security apparatuses, which does not displease the arms producing countries (most of the which are part of the West) only to be indignant because the weapons sold are actually used. Armenia, which does not possess the same kind of resources, was doomed to succumb even in a more “conventional” war.

The second issue that comes to mind is that we can learn not to make predictions about events of this kind: for example, the fact that the conflict has not escalated, thing of which many were apparently sure, assuming a new “Syrian” scenario in the Caucasus. This was not the case, as I stated at the time, mainly for two reasons, related to each other: the first is that the area is surrounded by “relatively” stable territorial powers, even if some of these, such as the Turkey, they played a leading role in the unfolding of the conflict; the second reason is linked to that adjective “relatively” which describes the stability of the surrounding countries: if everyone had an interest in “flexing their muscles” within the war scenario, no one had the intention of entering directly into the conflict, which it would have done nothing but undermine the precarious internal stability that lies beneath the bombastic and warlike facade.

We could learn from what happened that not all situations are similar just because they appear to us so: often the emotional component that accompanies the analysis misleads us, reflecting more our fears or hopes than an accurate study of the current situation and of it’s surroundings. This often leads many towards a catastrophic tendency not supported by any evidence or concrete fact, which, paradoxically, often makes them look away when the war events are over, without understanding that the real scenario to keep an eye on. in the case of these “frozen conflicts” it is precisely what lies in the middle of the actual confrontations. But the former end up (for better or worse) in the newspapers, the latter do not.

Protests in Yerevan against the 2020 ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo by Garik Avakian

The third thing we can learn is not to turn away from a war scenario as soon as they stop shooting.

For example, it seems that people have largely forgotten what is happening in Armenia after the ceasefire agreement, which, it should be remembered, cedes the “occupied territories” of Artsak back to Azerbaijan, was signed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan: thousands of people took to the streets, and hundreds stormed the Parliament buildings in the capital Yerevan. The protests continued throughout the month of November, with demonstrations in Yerevan and other cities demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, who just two years ago was the hero of the Velvet Revolution.

Now the whole Armenian society has found its own scapegoat (everyone, from former president Levor Ter-Petrosian to both catholicoi of the Armenian Apostolic Church Karekin II and Aram I, have asked for his resignation); National Assembly President Ararat Mirzoyan was nearly lynched by the angry mob and demonstrators came to his home to threaten his daughter. On November 11, other demonstrators invaded the Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe station in Yerevan attacking journalists, shouting “Turks” at them, and inviting them to leave the country; same fate befell the headquarters of the Open Society foundation. On the other hand, the government reacted lifting the limitation imposed by martial law and with arrests and releases of the main opposition leaders, clearly for intimidation purposes.

But this is only the beginning: the cession of the territories occupied by Azerbaijan means the beginning of a mass exodus from those regions of the Armenian population, who have decided to make “scorched earth” of their cities rather than leave them in the hands of the Azerbaijanis, and to even take the bodies of their relatives with them from cemeteries (along with the obvious vandalization and looting of some Muslim places of worship, particularly in the larger cities). When these displaced people arrive, in all likelihood, in Armenia, the situation will only worsen, as the protests do not seem to stop, probably waiting for that very moment to obtain the dismissal of the government.

There is no need to be a fortune-teller to imagine that the next Armenian government will focus as much as possible on revanchism to secure a long period of power.

In particular, what remains to cause more concern is the Lachin Corridor area: it too should, in theory, be returned to Azerbaijan, last in the timeline, and I do not think it is a coincidence that there installed the “Peacekeeping” force of the Russian Federation. For those who have not read the history of the conflict, the Lachin Corridor is a strategic area that connects Armenia to “mountainous” Karabakh, the part of the region that was not taken over by the Azerbaijani army and what remains of the Republic of Artsak, and from which the war of 1988 – 94 started. Yes, because, militarily speaking, if it is “relatively” easy to fight in the flat areas around the mountains, it is quite another thing to take the entrenched areas in the mountains, where the “sci-fi “Turkish Azerbaijani offensive has in fact stopped. Therefore, whoever controls the mountainous part of Karabakh is in fact in a dominant position, although it may be in the minority. As we have seen, Russia has not moved much in favor of Armenia and its Prime Minister “not approved” by the Kremlin, but it is not certain that this situation will not be reversed in the years to come.

A map of the cheasefire agreement: the parts in blue / light blue are those that will pass through Azerbaijan, the one in light orange represents mountainous Karabakh and the one marked with red stripes is the Lachin Corridor area

Thus, while the troops parade in Baku, the seeds of the next war have already been sown. And this can lead us to the third “lesson” that we can learn from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is the stabilizing function of the conflict itself in certain areas of the world.

This time it was the case of Azerbaijan, which, backed by Turkey, decided to take its internal problems outside, trying to carve out a prominent role within the region: it is always about the winners, and the transformation of Caucasian country in another petro-state that uses the income derived from raw materials to invest them in militarization and regimentation of society has been accomplished. As stated above, a not dissimilar future is likely to await Armenia once the transition phase becomes a fact, and especially once Russia has resolved its internal problems.

As long as the “threat” situation persists, the citizens of both countries have seen their rights dissolve and nationalist fanaticism rising like a tide, as we have previously seen with regard to Armenia: a situation that takes a lot of trouble from regimes. authoritarians like Azerbaijan, and which soon makes one forget the reasoning of losses in terms of human lives and civil liberties to follow the emotion and hysteria of “victory”. At least for now.

Here, I believe that these are the “possible” lessons that we can learn from a conflict like that of Nagorno-Karabakh, while Western newspapers, if and when they talk about it, delight in the interesting dissertation on which were the best “drones”, if those of Erdogan or Nethanyau, without asking who and why moved them, using pseudo-intellectual terms such as Neo-Ottomanism or “Hybrid War”, or even pulled out of some from books by William Gibson (with all due respect), such as “Cyberwarfare” to disguise one’s own guilty disinterest.

The last lesson we can learn is perhaps this: our guilty disinterest. Of course, we are all focused on a global pandemic that has affected our lives in one way or another, but beyond this it seems that foreign events, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh war, attracted our attention for a short time, a a bit like fireworks: we watch them until they make noise and sparkle, and then turn our gaze to something else that glitters somewhere else.

I hope these lines may have provided you with some interesting reflections and that they were not too “abstract”. I thank you for coming to the end and I’ll see you next week.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The New “Great Game” Chessboard?

“By giving certain Karabakh territories to Azerbaijan, the Karabakh conflict would have been resolved in 1997, a peace agreement would have been concluded and a status for Nagorno-Karabakh would have been determined”

(Levon Ter-Petrosian, former President of Armenia, in an interview with BBC, 2011)

Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

Welcome to the last part of this discussion on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict,

Exactly as said for the question of Belarus, this does not mean that we will stop writing about it, but only that we have reached the present day and have analyzed past events as much as possible, so to be able to better understand what is happening today.

It was a long journey, which started at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was essential: in our time the public is generally “gorged” with news of which they understand little or nothing, it is up to us to take back the Time of History and look with others eyes what happens. Nagorno-Karabakh is no different, potentially, from hundreds of other situations, which are not just lines on a map, a bulletin of deaths, or something to put a bet on, but instead they are the flesh and blood of those who have lived, and are still living, in a scenario of perpetual war. Moreover, knowing the context, we can move better in understanding the real geopolitical situation, the one beyond the handshakes and warlike declarations of politicians.

The last time we left at the end of what is historically referred to as the Nagorno-Karabakh War, although, as we have seen, the conflict in the region dates back to the Armenian-Azerbaijani War of 1918 – 1922, and remained in the background throughout the Soviet period, since 1988. We also talked about the “Frozen Conflict“, and with good reason: the years from 1996 onwards saw a succession of peace treaties, UN resolutions and skirmishes between the two countries.

During the following years several United Nations resolutions (in particular 62/243, but also UN Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884) asked Armenia to withdraw from the occupied Azerbaijani territories, while others, such as that of the European Council , tried to find a mediation so that the displaced could return to their land in peaceful conditions, criticizing the “large-scale ethnic expulsion and the creation of mono-ethnic areas”. In 2008, the “Moscow Defense Brief” published an analysis in which it reported an arms race by Azerbaijan, paid for with oil revenues, and a possible resumption of hostilities. Which happened on March 4th of that same year.

Since February, the Republic of Armenia was experiencing a profound political turmoil, which pitted the supporters of the President of the time Robert Sedrak Kocharyan against those of the former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan; meanwhile, following the Kosovo Declaration of Independence, which according to President Ilham Alyev (son of Heydar Aliyev, and, like him, accused of taking power by electoral fraud) “encouraged the Armenian separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh”, Azerbaijan withdrew its armed contingents from the Peacekeeping mission and put them on the armenian border.

The clashes in Mardakert, as will be recalled, from the name of the place on the Contact Line where the clashes took place, will be the most serious violation of the ceasefire since ’96, with the two sides accusing each other of having started hostilities first: these clashes left the situation at the border essentially unchanged.

NKR, Mardakert, and the line of contact

The second, and most important, violation of the ceasefire occurs 8 years later, in 2016. Azerbaijan had long been building an army to prepare for this confrontation, and President Alyev (still in office) had often made statements regarding the recovery. hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, with the specific intention of recovering the region and rejecting the international mediation envisaged by the Madrid Principles.

The so-called “April War” or “Four Day War” broke out in the night between the 1st and 2nd of April, and the clashes focused mainly around the cities of Aghdara, Tartar, Agdam, Khojavend, and Fuzuli. As usual, the reconstructions accuse the other side of having started the hostilities first. The war rekindled xenophobic sentiments on both sides: Armenian President Kocharian said that Azerbaijanis and Armenians were “ethnically incompatible”, and even in Azerbaijan the discrimination against the Armenian population exceeded the warning levels. The clashes did not lead to any change in the state of things. Independent Armenian journalist Tatul Hakobyan, who visited the fighting scene during the clashes, remarked that the death of scores of soldiers of both sides was “senseless” as no real change occurred. He stated: “Azerbaijan did not win and Armenia did not lose”. Several observers noted how the hostilities had been de facto calculated to not fully escalate, in particular from Azerbaijan, and that they had no long-term goal, but only to put the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict back on the international agenda, putting pressure on Armenia.

Territorial changes after 2016 Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes.

Thus, after thirty years of more or less great violations of the ceasefire, UN resolutions and confrontations between the great international powers, we come to the present day. Hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh resumed on 27 September 2020, apparently started from Azerbaijan (as it probably was in the previous cases: after all, Armenia would have less motivation to start a conflict, being in possession of Nagorno-Karabakh from ’94 -96), the clash was fought mainly through use of air forces (drones in particular) and mutual bombing towards the cities of Stepanakert and Ganja. Moscow attempted to negotiate a ceasefire, failing twice on October 17 and the following 26.

So what is there to expect this time?

Stepanakert, the capital city of the Republic of Artsakh, has been heavily damaged by shelling during the conflict.

“War is always the main desire of a powerful government, which wants to become even more powerful. I don’t need to tell you that it is precisely during the war that … the government covers its thievery and mistakes with an impenetrable veil. Instead, I will talk to you about what most directly affects our interests. It is during the war that the executive power displays its terrible energy and exercises a kind of dictatorship, which terrifies freedom. It is during the war that the people forget the deliberations concerning their civil and political rights.”

(Maximilien De Robespierre, December 18, 1791 from “Oevres de Maximilien Robespierre“, Phénix Éditions, Ivry, 2000.)

When the news began to appear in the Western media, the reaction of those who had more or less the notion of what was happening was to evoke a “Syrian” scenario even in the Caucasus, when not directly a Russo-Turkish war. Unfortunately it is the poisoned fruit of the last few decades: every news must be seasoned with suppositions, “ifs”, “buts”, and provided with apocalyptic predictions made on unknown basis. For now, we do not know how the situation will evolve, and, as I have often reiterated, I gladly leave the predictions of the future to the astrologers.

But we can use what we know to get a clearer picture: for example, examining post-1996 conflicts, including the current one, and finding commonalities could be a good starting point. To this, we can add a look at the international and internal situation of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

First of all, all those conflict were uselessness. It is not a rhetorical statement about the futility of war (even if the whole story could well represent a metaphor) but an objective observation: the clashes have never led to a decisive change in the region, but have generally been limited to a series of targeted aggressions, skirmishes and small portions of territory that pass from one side to the other. Nothing that could barely be compared with the 1988-94 war.

But if “War is the continuation of politics by other Means”, then we can begin to see its usefulness. In particular, Azerbaijan, transformed into a petro-state after the Nagorno-Karabakh War, is continuously subject to fluctuating economic crises (just happened in 2008, 2016 and 2020) and also has a monolithic and consolidated political system around the Alyev family, which is accused by many of being at the center of the country’s political and economic corruption. In the country there are continuous and systematic violations of human rights, indiscriminate arrests and systematic application of torture. The perpetual military mobilization around the unresolved issue of Nagorno-Karabakh has certainly proved to be an excellent way to keep political and economic power safe from internal crises during the last decades.

Although Armenia is a country in some respects in better condition, the same argument can be valid. The continuing political crises, including the “Velvet Revolution” of 2018, reveal a “hybrid” political system (moreover not “blessed” by Moscow): very fragile and prey to the internal struggles of different power groups. Furthermore, the Armenian economy largely depends on Diaspora Organizations around the world and also suffers from continuosly ups and downs. The constant threat of Azerbaijan has certainly helped some of the Armenian power circles to remain intact without excessive effort.

Secondly, there is obviously the geopolitical question, in which the clash is used to “prove” one’s own strength and political relations. Although both countries have had good relations with both NATO and the CIS, the main confrontation has been between Russia and Turkey (as a NATO member), since the time of the collapse of their respective empires. This is an established fact, as we have seen in the previous article, since the early days of the fighting, with threats from the former Soviet countries regarding a possible intervention by Turkey in the conflict. Once again we have a proxy war of this type, even though Turkey is essentially acting unilaterally, without the formal support of NATO. As we know, the main battleground with Russia is now in Syria, but also with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh, both factions support their respective proteges: Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia, Armenia.

This time, however, there is an unexpected element. The same countries that are fighting each other by proxy are in turn in severe crisis: both Turkey and Russia have isolated themselves internationally and are suffering deep crises, at an economic and social level. It is therefore they this time who find themselves with a precarious internal position, to be stabilized “on the outside”.

This could lead to two completely opposite scenarios: a rapid escalation followed, however, by an equally rapid collapse (Turkey does not have NATO behind it, and does not have the economic means it boasts to support so-called Neo-Ottoman ambitions, and Russia at the same time. way barely manages to support the Syrian war effort, as well as being hit very hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, although officially denying problems of this type), or to a scenario that deflates very quickly, also taking into account that much of the war is fought on the propaganda front, as previously said to “put the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict back on the international agenda” with belligerant proclamations, which in the West generally have a certain hold on the news.

Unfortunately, now the attention of Western Countries is now focused on a much more serious threat for their own stability, with the citizens of the European countries and those of the United States having far more serious problems on their agenda than Nagorno-Karabakh and the hypotesis of an escalating conflict (we no longer even talk about Libya or Syria, a sign of how, as long as this health emergency is not mitigated, we will have no serious developments in addition to Presidents who insult each other).

The third issue concerns precisely the global pandemic that afflicts all the countries of the world: Armenia has been hit quite hard, not a good start for the government of Nikol Vovayi Pashinyan, leader of the aforementioned protests in 2018; while Azerbaijan was striken less, “thanks” to the possibility of implementing draconian measures (and to the lack of media transparency) , but it has certainly suffered from the lower demand for fuel due to the cessation of industrial activities which lasted several months, and considering that its survival is based on those revenues, it is not difficult to imagine a certain discontent.

Could this umpteenth clash be the way to shift problems that instead concern the internal situation of the two countries into Foreign Policies?

is there a possibility that the confrontation has become so endemic that it has become a stabilizing factor in the region, rather than the other way around? At the beginning of the writing, a quote from the former Armenian president Lev-Petrosian leads us to reflect: what is the reason why a possible resolution of the conflict is a priori discarded? Perhaps the main reason is to be found within the dynamics between the two countries, rather than outside, and in their political, social and economic dynamics, which seem to be the dominant factor in the outbreak of what have been micro-conflicts. occurred since ’96.

Maybe this “inverted view” can be taken as a starting point for new research on the subject. In the meantime, i will thank you all for reading these lines and those that preceded them, help me by letting me know what you think where you prefer.

That’s it for this time, see you next week.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The Black Garden of Caucasus

“War and peace are not separate compartments. Peace depends on threats and force; often peace is the crystallisation of past force.”

(Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 1973)

I welcome you back once again,

In this part we will deal with what is properly called the Nagorno-Karabakh War, even if as we have seen, at this point the clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been going on with more or less intensity for about 70 years. However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union will open a new chapter within the Caucasian scenario, differentiating this clash from those that occurred previously in the area.

First, the absence of the Soviet “gendarme” sparked the arms race in the region. From this point of view, Azerbaijan was in an advantageous position, since, in the defensive programs of the Soviet Union, the resistance to a possible attack by Turkey (a member of NATO) would be concentrated, while the Armenia was destined to be a “Combat Zone”: therefore the Azerbaijani military forces were more numerous, prepared, and supported by the aviation. In addition to this, the divisions sent to the Caucasus by the MVD (МВД, Министерство внутренних дел – the Ministry of Internal Affairs) were made up of poor conscripts from other regions of the Soviet Union, who quickly inaugurated a black market of all equipment in their possession, in order to be able to leave the Caucasus. Weapons also arrived in large quantities from abroad: Turkey, Israel, Arab countries and from members and organizations of the Armenian Diaspora, especially those in the United States.

The ranks of the two armies also began to swell, following the Operation “Ring”, volunteers and mercenaries lined up on one and the other front: in Armenia, in addition to the compulsory conscription, there were many volunteers who, inspired by the guerrillas of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of the beginning of the century, they formed autonomous squads called jokats, even if unlike the fedayi these men were mostly interested in the looting and profit they could make by reselling what they stole on the black market. A great many women also joined the Nagorno Karabakh army, both as fighters and as auxiliaries. Anatoly Zinevich, a former Soviet general, remain in the region and served on the armenian side for five years, becaming the Chief of Staff of the Republic of Artsakh armed forces.

As mentioned earlier, the Azerbaijani army was slightly better organized, with 30,000 regulars in addition to around 10,000 paramilitaries from the OMON militias and several hundred volunteers from the Popular Front. They were joined by the ultra-nationalist Pan-Turkish groups of the Gray Wolves, commanded by Isgandar Hamidov, and many mercenaries paid with the income that Azerbaijan obtained from the exploitation of its gas fields in the Caspian Sea. The Azerbaijani military was also assisted by Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, at the time leader of the Mujahideen and future Prime Minister of his country.

On December 31, 1991, with the official dissolution of the URRS, nothing could prevent Armenia and Azerbaijan from engaging in a large-scale war.

It will be the Azerbaijani troops to open hostilities after their government tried to cancel the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh in November 1991, obtaining in response a referendum from the local authorities in which the Armenian population overwhelmingly votes for the independence (later officially declared on January 6, 1992). Just in the winter of 1991-92 the army besieged Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, starting to bombard it with artillery and air force for several months, indiscriminately hitting military and civilian targets, such as hospitals and homes. , even in the areas surrounding the city. On some days as many as 400 GRAD missiles rained down on Armenian citizen.

“Anyone could just get up with a hangover, after drinking the night before, sit behind the Grad and fire, fire, fire at Stepanakert without any aim, without any coordinates.”

 Azerbaijani soldier Aiaz Kerimov, as reported in the book “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War” by Thomas De Waal, NYU Press, 2003

The newborn Republic of Armenia began to feel the stranglehold around its territory, despite having joined the Commonwealth of Independent States created after the dissolution of the USSR, it was still at the mercy of the embargo operated by Azerbaijan and feared that from the West before or then the attack by Turkey would come, which openly supported the Azerbaijani cause.

he counterattack of the Armenian Forces focused on the only strip of land that connected the region to Karabakh, the “Lachin corridor”, and which could only be reached by helicopters. The Azerbaijani town of Khojaly was first targeted: firstly it was one of the artillery positions from which Stepanaket was daily bombed, and secondly it had the only airport in the region. On February 26, assisted by a contingent of the CIS, the Armenian Army stormed the city, conquering it and at the same time attacking the fleeing civilian population of Azerbaijani ethnicity, killing at least 161 people (an episode that became known as the “Massacre of Khojaly “).

The scent of impending war had led much of the Azerbaijani population to take refuge in the fortress-city of Shusha: from there, the Azerbaijani army organized attacks on surrounding Armenian villages and prepared the ground for a heavier offensive on Stepanakert, whose population lived now in the bunkers and undergrounds of the city. The resistance of the Armenian militias around Shusha prevented the Azeris from organizing an offensive: on the contrary, the military leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh took advantage of the situation to attack the last Azerbaijani outpost in the region.

On May 8, 1992, the Armenian Army attempted an assault on the city and, despite being outnumbered and outgunned compared to the Azerbaijani forces, their greater military preparation allowed them to take the city on the 9th, after a day of bloody street fighting, forced their enemies to retreat and abandon the city.

A small parenthesis: as we have said, the Azerbaijani armed forces were larger and better equipped, but, due to strong discrimination within the Soviet army, they had never fought a real war; the Armenian army of Karabakh, on the other hand, was made up for over half by veterans of the terrible Soviet-Afghan War. The only professional soldiers Azerbaijan could count on were the Chechen militiamen commanded by Shamil Basayev, trained by the Russians to fight in Abkhazia against Georgia, who will remember that as their “only defeat” and will soon begin to desert the fighting in as in their vision they had a “too nationalist and not very religious” connotation.

The capture of Shusha forced the Azerbaijani President Mutalibov to resign (just the time to find a scapegoat for the failure and be reinstated on May 15th), and worsened the relations of the Armenian Republic with Turkey, slightly improved in the period following independence from the Soviet Union. Although the then Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel said he was in favor of an intervention in favor of Azerbaijan, this never happened due to the tensions still present between NATO and the CIS: leading exponents of the former Soviet armed forces clearly stated that the intervention by a NATO country in the Caucasus would have brought everyone “to the brink of World War III” (curiously, the same situation will recur with the Civil War in Yugoslavia, but at that time the threats of the former Eastern Bloc could appear much more concrete compared to just a few years later).

On May 18, the Armenian army took the city of Lachin, thus achieving the goal it had set itself: obtaining a safe corridor to reconnect the Republic of Armenia with Karabakh. This put an end to the Mutalibov regime, which was overthrown by a coup organized by the members of the Popular Front, who elected their own President, Abulfaz Elchibey, and took control of parliament, with a view to distancing themselves from Russia and approach to Turkey.

With the cessation of internal conflicts, the Azerbaijani army organized its own counterattack: Operation “Goranboy” (named after a region in northern Karabakh) should have represented, in the minds of its creators, the one that would have sanctioned the final victory. about the Armenians. On June 12, 1992, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale offensive in the direction of the Askeran region, in the center of Nagorno-Karabakh, managing to take control of several important settlements, and then marching towards the Goranboy region, defended by handful detachments of Armenian militias, which resisted until July 4, 1992, when the Azeris took Mardakert, the main city in the region.

The Armenian forces only had to retreat south towards Stepanakert, along with 30,000 Armenian civilians. On June 18, a state of emergency was declared throughout the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a call to arms of all those fit for combat, reunited together with the various militias in a single structure, the Defense Army of the Nagorno Republic -Karabakh.

The offensive of the Azerbaijani army was stopped by the Russian air force, which, given the pro-Turkish tendencies of the Azerbaijani government, decided to take sides, even if it never officially declared it, on the Armenian side, providing weapons in addition to the support of the airborne divisions . This gave the Armenian Army time to reorganize and launch a counter-offensive against the Azeris, whose “blitzkrieg” had run out of office and whose soldiers were exhausted: their general, Suret Huseynov, preferred to abandon the most precarious positions and retreat to Ganja, allowing the RNK Defense Army to reverse the situation by regaining lost ground, beginning to regain territories from February-March 1993.

Azeri tanks abandoned in Nagorno-Karabakh, photo by Nicholas Babaian

In the midst of all this, there were several attempts to broker some kind of peace: the first was Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsnjani, who convinced the two sides to sign an agreement known as the “Tehran Communiqué” on May 7, 1992: needless to say, the capture of Shusha and the Lachin ovvensive made the whole thing void in less than two weeks. Attempts were also made by the CSCE (the organization that would later become the OSCE) to try to bring NATO and the CIS to a table, with the idea of ​​creating a peacekeeping force that would include both and that could to intervene as a “Peace Force” also in Moldavia, Chechnya, Ossetia, Abkhazia and above all in the Yugoslav Civil War. Of course, none of this was accomplished, particularly due to strong opposition from Russia, which saw the intrusion of European countries as an attempt by NATO to enter the country’s affairs through the “Back Door”.

Despite the easing of hostilities during the winter of 1992 – 93, the material losses and the embargo caused great suffering in the Armenian population, both that of the Republic and that of Nagorno-Karabakh: the economy was collapsing and the he single pipeline was reduced to a minimum due to the renewed clashes in Georgia against the Ossetian and Abkhaz separatists. Numerous families even ran out of hot water. The country was helped by the organizations of the Armenian Diaspora, the European Union and Iran, the latter definitively antagonizing Azerbaijan. The latter was certainly not faring better: full of internal and external refugees living in desperate conditions, and also with a collapsing economy, due to the failure in an attempt to revive its oil industry, given that no company he intended to invest in a country in constant conflict.

“No wars are unintended or ‘accidental’. What is often unintended is the length and bloodiness of the war.” (Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 1973)

The winter sufferings, however, did not seem to be able to calm the spirits of the parties involved: despite the attempts carried out by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and American President George H. W. Bush, hostilities in the region began to grow again. Russia itself, which on the one hand tried to mediate peace, on the other hand financed the Armenian army with armaments for a billion USD, which allowed them to occupy again the Karabakh villages lost the year before and still in their hands. to the Azeris, who, for their part, were experiencing a troubled political moment: the military insisted that Azerbaijan also ask for support from Russia, but President Elchibey was immovable and the Azerbaijani generals were removed from their post.

To secure the northern border of Karabakh and prevent it from being used to install artillery positions, between 2 and 3 April the Armenian army attacked the neighboring region of Kalbajar, mostly Azero-Kurdish, wiping out the few and evil armed troops in his defense and taking possession of the region, as well as numerous armored vehicles in use by the Azerbaijani army. The conquest of Kalbajar was marked by indiscriminate violence, killings and the mass exodus of civilians from the area. President Elchibey could not help but declare a state of emergency and order the universal conscription, but on July 18 he was overthrown by a coup d’etat hatched by General Huseynov, who on July 1 was appointed Prime Minister, while the office as President it passed to the MP Heydar Aliyev.

Azerbaijani refugees from Kalbajar, photo by Ilgar Jafarov, 1993

Obviously the Armenians took advantage of the political chaos inside the Azerbaijan republic to launch a series of offensives during the summer of 1993: the Karabakh front was open and defenseless, and it was not difficult for the Armenian army to advance rapidly in the region. while the Azerbaijani army retreated without even fighting. At the end of June, the Azeris were driven out of Mardakert, thus losing their last settlement in the region. Given the right moment, the Armenians decided to continue the advance to the Agdam region, just outside Nagorno-Karabakh, with the intention of making it a “barrier zone” that would protect their cities from artillery fire. Azerbaijani. When the bombing began on the 4th of July, civilians and military began to evacuate Agadam, and President Aliyev, faced with political and military collapse, decided to turn to the international community for help, while the Armenians were preparing the offensive against the regions south of Karabakh, the Fizuli and the Jebrail.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Tansu Çiller, tried to threaten the Armenians, demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops from the territories of Azerbaijan and sending the army to the border with the Republic of Armenia. Her plan foresaw that, with the victory of the coup leaders during the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis, the troops deployed on the border with Armenia would be withdrawn: in particular, it seems that she had made an agreement with one of the leaders of the revolt against Yeltsin, Ruslan. Khasbulatov, who, once he gained power, would have allowed Turkish forces to make raids in Armenia and northern Iraq, under the pretext of prosecuting Kurdish PKK guerrillas. But the coup failed and the Turkish army did not move, fearful of the confrontation with the 20,000 Russian soldiers stationed on the Armenian border.

At the beginning of September, the Azerbaijani military forces were in disarray, abandoning weapons and military means on the field that went to strengthen the counterpart. President Aliyev was so desperate that he recruited between 1000 and 1500 Afghans and Arabs Mujahadeen, while large foreign oil companies, such as MEGA-OIL, required the support of armed contingents of the US Army as a clause to continue their work in the Azeri oil fields.

In October, Aliyev, now formally elected President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, strove to restore order and organize the counter-offensive, managing to achieve some small successes: in January 1994, the Azerbaijani army, with the help of the Afghan guerrillas, recaptured some of the neighboring regions of Karabakh, but the offensive quickly died out in the face of the intervention of the Armenian Army. Moreover, it had a tremendous cost in terms of human lives: boys aged sixteen and up, without any training, werw recruited for completely ineffective “human wave” attacks. The small victories of the winter campaign cost the lives of 5,000 Azerbaijani soldiers. Likewise, the attempt to recapture the Kalbajar district proved to be a disaster: the initial success turned into carnage, with Azerbaijani divisions isolated and surrounded by Armenians, killing more than 1,500 in a single fight. From that point on, the Azerbaijani forces lost any desire to fight again.

In his 1997 book, On Ruins of Empire, Russian professor Georgiy I. Mirsky try to explain the lack of purpose and commitment to fighting the war by the Azerbaijan population, stating that “Karabakh does not matter to Azerbaijanis as much as it does to Armenians. Probably, this is why young volunteers from Armenia proper have been much more eager to fight and die for Karabakh than the Azerbaijanis have” and also the physicist and Nobel laureate Andrej Sakarov remarked that “For Azerbaijan, the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life or death.”

And so, after six years of war, both sides agreed on a ceasefire. Azerbaijan in particular, short of men and aware that the Armenians had a clear path to march directly on Baku, asked for the intervention of the OSCE or Russia (having also entered the CIS) to broker an agreement. On May 5, 1994, with Russia in the role of mediator, the parties agreed on a truce to be triggered starting at midnight on the 12 of the same month, signed by the respective defense ministers of the three principal warring parties: Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Republic of Artsakh.

The final borders of the conflict after the 1994 ceasefire was signed. Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh currently control almost 9% of Azerbaijan’s territory outside the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, while Azerbaijani forces control Shahumyan and the eastern parts of Martakert and Martuni.

Unfortunately, like other times, this too was only an “apparent” end to the conflict, which in fact remained as one of the many “frozen” high-tension situations in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and the Caucasus in particular. In addition to the enormous cost in human lives, and to a number of refugees of about one million people, the war (this one in particular, but it can be valid in general) has fueled an irrational and rooted hatred among the opposing sides, which has manifested in sporadic successive clashes but above all in the interethnic hatred still strongly found both in Armenia and in Azerbaijan.

But we will talk more about this in the last part, the one that will take us to the present day and the reasons that have, once again, rekindled the conflict in the region.

Thank you for reading this writing, and, hoping that beyond the story of a war it has also made you reflect, I greet you and I make an appointment with you next time. As usual, if you have any questions, you just have to write to me.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The end of the “Pax Sovietica”.

Revenge, at first though sweet,

Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667; 1674), Book IX, lines 171-172

Emblem of the TSFSR 1930-1936. The only difference compared to version 1924-1930 is that the azeri text is in latin script.

Welcome back to this excursus through the history of Nagorno-Karabakh, and, more generally, of the countries of the Caucasian area.

But before we begin, I have to admit a mistake: it was my initial intention to divide the story into three parts, but while writing, I realized that this is impossible, so a fourth will be added: if the goal of these articles is understanding, I don’t feel like leaving out some episodes for the sake of synthesis, otherwise it will be impossible for you who read me to understand how things went and how deep are the roots of modern events. As a historian, it is my job to ensure that history is simple to understand, but not simplified.

That said, we can proceed.

Last week we left in a very specific historical moment: the end of hostilities between Turkey and the Soviet Union, with the Kars Treaty of 1921, while the 11th Red Army occupied Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia without too many problems.

On March 12 of the following year, on the proposal of Vladimir Lenin, the new Soviet Republics proclaimed in the three states were reunited into the Federative Union of Socialist Soviet Republics of Transcaucasia, which on December 13 of that same year became a single federal state, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. the All-Caucasian Congress of Soviet, whose intention should have been to maintain formal autonomy for the three republics, adopted a common constitution, appointed the Central Executive Committee (the highest legislative body) and the Council of Commissioners of the People (who exercised executive power, and was therefore the government). Mamia Orakhelashvili, one of the leaders of the Bolsheviks, of Georgian origin, became the first President of the TSFRS, whose capital was established in Tbilisi.

In 1936, the Transcaucasian SFRS was again divided into three autonomous republics (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia), with the formation of several autonomous Oblasts (Regions): Adijeian, Karachai-Cerkess, South Ossetia (in Georgian territory), Nakhichevan (under Azerbaijani protectorate), and Nagorno-Karabakh (in the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR).

Soviet Caucasus: from 1957 to 1991

It was the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities or Narkomnaz (from russian Народный комиссариат по делам национальностей, Нар.ком.нац.) chaired (among others) by Josif Stalin, that dealt with the issue of peacekeeping in the Caucasus. The hypotheses concerning the conception of such an administrative structure vary: some scholars believe that the Soviets have played, as in the episode of the Baku Soviet, “Divide and Impera” (ancient Latin expression meaning “Divide and Command”), pitting the local ethnic groups against each other, so that they would not fight against the Soviets: Nagorno-Karaback, in particular, was placed under the control of the Azerbaijan SSR, while retaining 94% of the Armenian population. The same can be said of the Nakhichevan exclave, separated from Azerbaijan by a “corridor” of Armenian territory.

It is a plausible and coherent explanation, also taking into account the historical precedent of the Baku Soviet, which, as we saw last time, was an active part on behalf of the Soviets, in fomenting the First Armenian-Azerrbaijan War. But there would be another: the idea that Stalin, subsequently head of the Soviet Union, had of the relationship between national identities and Soviet communist identity. I have already mentioned this issue and I apologize for postponing it each time, but it is a complex issue that had affect the entire USSR, and which deserves to be treated separately, with with due consideration.

Despite the desire for unification between Armenia and Karabakh remained in question throughout the Soviet period, the control exercised by the Eastern Bloc Superpower kept the situation substantially stable, mainly through its own military strength. It will be with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and with the implementation of the “glasnost” (openness or transparency) policy that the Nagorno-Karabakh question forcefully made itself felt again: the Armenians of Karabakh now free to express a certain level of dissent, began to demand reunification with the Armenian SSR, accusing the local government of trying to culturally “Azerify” the region, finding support both in Russia and in the international community.

Despite Gorbachev’s attempts at mediation, and unfortunately for Armenians, the Soviet constitution contained a sort of “Comma 22”, which relegated the situation to a perpetual stalemate: while Article 70 of the so called “Brezhnev Constitution” of 1977 states that “the USSR is an integral , federal, multinational State formed on the principle of socialist federalism” and also that “the USSR is the result of the free self-determination of nations and the voluntary association of equal Soviet Socialist Republics” and Article 72 recalls that “each republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR“, Article 78 otherwise states that “The territory of a Union Republic may not be altered without its consent. The boundaries between Union Republics may be altered by mutual agreement of the Republics concerned, subject to ratification by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics“.

The question of the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union was the great problem of its entire history, so great, that even after its dissolution the Russian Federation had to take it upon itself (always think of the Caucasus: Georgia, Chechnya, Ossetia) and it always reacted in the same way: with violence. A possible explanation can be found in the geography of the country itself: if the countries of the Caucasus had begun to become autonomous, Russia would have risked losing its “bridgehead” towards the Middle and Far East and towards the Black Sea, and with it is the continuous flow of resources, especially raw materials, to and from abroad.

Thus, the situation was left unresolved. But “Dum Romae consulitur, Saguntum expugnatur” (from Latin: “While Rome discusses, Sagunto is conquered”): says a bitter comment that can be found in book 21o of the work “Ab Urbe Condita ” written by the Roman historian Titus Livius.

It is a reference to those who waste a lot of time in continuous consultations without deciding, in a context that would require quick decisions. And this is precisely our case: from 1985 to 1987 the tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijans in Nagorno-Karabakh continued to grow, while the the Soviet government had forgotten about the issue (or rather, it had a problem of general collapse to deal with, and the affairs of the small Caucasian Oblast were certainly not at the top of the list).

Television images showing burnt automobiles and marauding rioters on the streets of the city of Sumgait during the pogrom in February 1988.

“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. You cannot subjugate a nation forcibly unless you wipe out every man, woman, and child. Unless you wish to use such drastic measures, you must find a way of settling your disputes without resort to arms.”

(A. Einstein, in a speech to the New History Society, 14 December 1930)

On February 22, 1988, after several months of small clashes and forced displacement on both sides, there was the first real skirmish between Azeri and Armenians in Karabakh, in the city of Askeran: two days earlier, two Azerbaijani trainee female students denounced being raped by Armenians and two other young Azeri died in clashes with the police.

But this was only the prelude: during a demonstration in Sumgait, in support of Azeri refugees driven out of their villages from Karabakh, anger over news of “murders and atrocities” committed by Armenians rose to the point of unleashing a real pogrom against the Armenian community, resulting in 26 deaths. Armenians were beaten, raped, mutilated and killed both on the streets of Sumgait and inside their apartments during three days of violence, with no intervention from the police, that only subsided when Soviet armed forces entered the city and quelled much of the rioting on 1 March. Nearly all of Sumgait’s Armenian population left the city after the pogrom.

On March 23, 1988, the Supreme Soviet refused for the umpteenth time the request for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, sending the army to Yerevan to face any protests. The Armenians of Karabakh were now convinced that they would face the same fate of those of the Nakhichevan exclave, in which the Armenian population had gone from 40% before absorption into the Soviet Union to total disappearance in the late 1980s.

No one seemed to realize it, but The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War had begun.

The parties in dispute then began a harsh diplomatic confrontation, and neither of them (Armenia in particular) trusted more in Gorbachev’s mediation. The years between 1988 and 1990 were characterized by the exponential growth of inter-ethnic tensions: in addition to the episodes of violence on both sides, just think that, in that period, fear led to a massive exodus from one country to the other, in which Armenia and Azerbaijan “exchanged” large sections of the population. From Armenia alone, in the period 88-89, more than 200,000 people left, including Azeri and Kurds of Muslim religion. The latter, despite not having taken part in the conflict, preferred to leave the villages where they lived because located in a “potentially hostile” territory.

In 1990 the situation worsened further: Armenia imposed an embargo on the Nakhichevan ASSR, while the newly formed Azerbaijan Popular Front first organized sabotages on the Armenian railway network bound for the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and then attempted a “risky move” to break away from the dissolving Soviet Union anytime soon: the wrong “timing” led the Soviet authorities to declare a state of emergency in the region (also due to the pogroms unleashed against the Armenian population of Sumgait, Kirovabad and Baku) and, in what comes Known as “Black January“, 26,000 Soviet Army soldiers brought an end to the uprising by force, shooting at protesters and causing more than 90 deaths.

Victims of Black January in Martyrs’ Lane, Baku.

The Soviets also tried to keep this intervention secret, destroying the lines of communication to and from Baku: despite this, the journalist Mizra Kazar and the staff of Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe, managed to send a daily bulletin outside the occupied zone.

At that point the Armenian army and paramilitary militias decided to fight back: several Azerbaijani exclaves in Armenian territory, or near its border, were attacked by paramilitary troops and even bombed with artillery during a series of night raids. that lasted from March to August, until once again the intervention of the Soviet army drove back the aggressors and temporarily put an end to the massacres, with more violence.

On March 17, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev held the famous “Referendum on the future of the Soviet Union“, also known as the “Union Treaty“, which was to decide whether the republics of the USSR should remain together. With the success of the Referendum, the structure of the Union was changed, allowing even non-communist leaders to compete for the presidency of the republics, which brought to power, for example, Boris Yelstin in Russia and Ayaz Mutalibov in Azerbaijan, while Gorbachev remained in office as President of the Soviet Union.

Voting bulletin for the “Union Treaty”, March 17, 1991

The Armenians boycotted the referendum (in fact they declared themselves independent on August 23, 1990) while the Azeris voted in favor. The prediction of new clashes led to an arms race in Nagorno-Karabakh on both sides, but this time the newly elected Azerbaijani president Mutalibov decided to exploit the post-reorganization situation to his advantage: he thus convinced Gorbachev to organize a pre-emptive strike to disarm the ‘Armenia and make it desist from its proposal of reunification with the Karabakh region.

Thus, on April 30, the Soviet and Azerbaijani forces launched Operation “Ring”, which resulted in the deportation of all Armenian inhabitants of the Shahumyan region, a process which was joined by indiscriminate violence, kidnapping, looting, murder, rape and torture. and that forced 17,000 people to exodus, until July 4th Gorbachev announced the end of the Operation as the area had been “pacified”. Obviously, everything turned out to be counterproductive: from that moment on, the thought became clear in the minds of the Armenians that the only solution for reunification with Karabakh was armed resistance against the Soviets and the war against the Azerbaijans.

In September 1991, there was a first attempt to mediate a peace, promoted by the Russian President Boris Yeltsin and by the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev: after a series of talks, between 20 and 23 September the Železnovodsk Communiquè was signed, in which the parties undertook to respect mutual territorial integrity, national sovereignty and respect for human rights. But they were just nice words on a sheet of paper.

While Yeltsin, Nazarbayev, Mutalibov and Armenian President Ter-Petrosian signed the agreement, the Azerbaijani OMON forces continued to bomb Armenian towns and villages, such as Stepanakert and Chapar. The Armenians, for their part, certainly did not stand and watch: at the end of 1991 an offensive was launched in which the militias broke the siege of the bombed areas, and then concentrated on the destruction of the Azerbaijani villages, considered as hidden posts for the artillery, again with an escalation of violence and ever greater rancor, which involved numerous civilians who had little to do with the bombing done by Azerbaijani troops.

Finally, when the Soviet Union imploded, the Ministry of the Interior ordered the withdrawal of troops from the region, completed between 19 and 27 December 1991. With the end of the Soviet military presence, the situation in the region literally went out of control.

So here ends the second part of our story, e story of an only apparent “peace”, guaranteed by the heavy shadow of the Soviet Union, which at the same time created the basis for the actual conflict: by feeding a local nationalism in the hope of a future “Soviet Nationalism” it left the field free to violence, pogroms and reciprocal feuds, which in addition to a high number of deaths, continued to stifle the embers that would later flare up in the fire of war.

In the next writing, we will deal with the military clash that broke out in the years following 1991, I hope that so far the explanation has been clear and stimulating, as usual, for any question you can contact me.

Thanks to all those who have had the patience to read these lines.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – A Hundred years of Hatred

“For never can true reconcilement grow,

Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.”

(John Milton, Paradise Lost – 1667; 1674, Book IV, line 98)

Welcome back to our weekly appointment,

This week I wanted to tell you about another problematic place once linked to the USSR, and which has recently returned to talk about itself, unfortunately: I am referring to the region of Central Asia known as Nagorno – Karabakh.

Before starting, I would like to make a small premise: I was very undecided whether to address (and how) this topic. If, as I told you when talking about Belarus, the issues concerning the former Soviet Union countries are never as simple as they are seen from the outside, that of Nagorno-Karabaka is certainly one of the most intricate and obscure to foreigners observers.

So why talk about it? For the same reasons why I didn’t want to do it: because it is intricate and obscure, difficult for a foreign observer to understand. After all, it is the goal I set myself when I started writing, and I intend to keep it: in the pages that follow, I will try to make you understand a war that has been going on for more than a hundred years in the remote recesses of the Asian mountains.

Furthermore, this is a story that can make us better understand how exasperated nationalism contains within itself the germs of hatred by its very nature, and is capable of causing disasters that cannot be ended even after hundreds of years. As we did for Belarus, we will reserve the right to divide this complex story into several parts: one concerning the period of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, one following the collapse of the Soviet Union and finally one that will tell the events today.

The Situation during the WWI and before the First Armenian-Azerbaijan War

The history of the conflict has centuries-old roots, and begins in the period of the dissolution of the great empires immediately after the end of the First World War. In that period the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the civil war within what was the Russian Empire, will lead to the formation of several independent republics: among them, the First Republic of Azerbaijan and the First Armenian Republic, both emerged from a period of uninterrupted conflict (in which the Armenians suffered a real Genocide, planned by the forces of the Ottoman Empire). We will not go further into the chaotic period tha preceded WWI, as we run the risk of muddying the waters, but it is not certain that the topic will not be treated more extensively in the future.

As has always happened in these situations, the new republics were fueled by a strong national sentiment: the Azerbaijani party of Müsavat (equality / parity) supported positions close to pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism; in Armenia, on the other hand, the Revolutionary Federation had succeeded in establishing the first independent government since the Middle Ages. Despite that, these entities were tied to the Russian Rvolution (February Revolution) and represented togheter in the Sejm, better known as the Transcaucasian Commissariat, of socialist inspiration but opposed to Bolshevism, and determined to separate from the nascent Soviet Russia.

After the October Revolution, the troops of the Red Army began to withdraw from the various war fronts to conduct the war within the territory of the former Russian Empire: this obviously included the Central Asian regions. Thus, between 10 and 24 February 1918 the Sejm declared independence and the birth of the Transcaucasian Federative Democratic Republic, and prepared to face the Bolshevik forces militarily. The problems began with the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 3, 1918, which formalized Russia’s exit from World War I: the independence, at least formal, of the Transcaucasian Federation worried the Soviet leaders, due to the oil produced in the region 7 million tons per year, (15% of world production at the time) so much so that it seems that Vladimir Lenin himself asserted that “Russia will not survive without Baku oil”.

To prevent the opening of a new front, the Bolsheviks and the Social Revolutionaries present there, under the leadership of Stepan Shahumyan, proclaimed the Soviet of Baku, and took control of the Governorate of the region.

The Soviet led by Shahumyan, to maintain the control of those precious resources, begins to be involved in the internal disputes of the region, playing at putting one faction against the other, fueling suspicion and hatred: they used the “bogeyman” of the presence of an huge Armenian contingent, who had fought the Ottomans in the region, (and which the Russians should have demobilized after the war, which obviously they did not), to scare the Azerbaijans, which were convinced to turn to the veterans of the Caucasian Native Cavalry Division (rus. Кавказская туземная конная дивизия) better known as the “Savage Division” (rus. Дикая дивизия), made up of mostly Caucasian Muslim volounteers and anti-Bolsheviks) for eventual aid.

When such strong nationalist sentiments arise in territories that until recently considered themselves part of a single state entity, disaster is only a matter of time.

And the disaster occurred in the days between March 30 and April 2, 1918, better known as “March Days“, when Bolsheviks, Armenians, Azeris and members of the Savage Division all met together in Baku. The American historian of Azerbaijani origins Firuz Kazemzadeh, claims that, despite Shahumyan having the possibility to mediate the situation, the powder keg was allowed to explode: it is not known who was to open the hostilities, but after the tensions of March 30, the 1 of April Baku had turned into a Battlefield.

The Armenian forces did not take part in the conflict initially, and indeed the Musravat Party proposed that they support the revolt of the Muslims against the Soviets, but received a refusal. When Shahumyan then declared a state of siege, the Dashnaktsutyun (the armed forces of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, often abbreviated to Dashnak) intervened in the conflict with brutal ferocity, indiscriminately massacring military and civilians in the city and its surroundings. The Soviet leader himself was shaken, and in a letter stated: “The participation of the latter lent the civil war, to some extent, the character of an ethnic massacre, however, it was impossible to avoid it. We were going for it deliberately. The Muslim poor suffered severely, however they are now rallying around the Bolsheviks and the Soviet “.

On April 3, the clashes had ceased, causing more than 12,000 deaths among the Muslim population of Baku, also forced into a forced exodus, and 2,500 deaths between Armenians and Soviets. Always Firuz Kazemzadeh said: “The brutalities continued for weeks. No quarter was given by either side: neither age nor sex was respected. Enormous crowds roamed the streets, burning houses, killing every pass-by who was identified as an enemy, many innocent persons suffering death at the hands of both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. The struggle which had begun as a political contest between Musavat and the Soviet assumed the character of a gigantic race riot“.

Despite the violence mainly concentrated on the Muslim population, and Azerbaijani in particular, this episode did not, in my opinion, have an ethnic character, but a political one: on the one hand, the Dashnak only came to the aid of the Soviet when a state was declared there. siege, on the other hand, in the subsequently self-proclaimed Commune of Baku (13 April 1918) many socialists of Azerbaijani origin played important roles. Nevertheless, in the Azeri psyche, the Baku Commune symbolized the Bolshevik – Armenian collusion born out of the March Days bloodbath

But the “March Days” were only the beginning.

What is called the first Armenian-Azerbaijani war actually begins with the Baku massacre: the Azerian leaders in fact, after that episode, radically changed their political vision: they decided to abandon the ideals of the Revolution and to focus exclusively on their independence from Russia. When the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was proclaimed on May 28, 1918, they took care to immediately send embassies to Istanbul with requests for support for the young state entity from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman “triumvir” Enver Pasha decided to intervene, and instructed his brother to form a military unit, the Caucasus Army of Islam, and to go in support of Azerbaijan.

In July 1918, the Azerbaijani-Ottoman army defeated the patched-up “Red Army of Baku” in several key battles and, under internal pressure from Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, Dashnak, and British agents infiltrating the city (the British Empire had taken the nationalization of oil very badly) the power of the Bolsheviks began to collapse. On August 1, 1918, the Commune of Baku was replaced by the Centrocaspian Dictatorship, which for help the aid had to turn to a British contingent commanded by General Lionel Dunsterville, but to no avail: the Azero-Ottoman forces were too numerous and on September 15 they entered victorious in Baku. They were the terrible “September Days“, during which between 10,000 and 20,000 Armenians were killed as revenge for what happened in the “March Days”. The Bolshevik Commissioners of the Trans-Caspian government were intercepted while attempting to flee and shot on September 20, 1918. Days later, the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan was moved from Ganja to Baku.

However, after the Armistice of Mudros of 30 October 1918, which sanctioned the end of hostilities between the United Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish troops stationed in Baku were replaced by a contingent of the Triple Entente, under the command of the British, who assumed control of Baku by imposing martial law on it. This gave the Armenian forces the opportunity to reorganize and plan the counterattack: first the so-called “Mountainous Republic of Armenia” was created and from there, under the leadership of Andranik Ozanian, the Armenian militias (fedayi) began to take control of the Karabakh during 1919, advancing towards the main city of the region, Shusha. The British attempted mediation, assuring Ozarian that the territorial question between Armenia and Azerbaijan would be resolved at the Paris Conference. Ozanian trusted and backed down, while the British entrusted the provisional government of the region to Khosrov bey Sultanov, a fervent nationalist of pan-Turkish ideas, who increased the Azerbaijani military presence in the region and attacked numerous Armenian villages, in order to cut connections direct from Armenia to the Karabakh.

The assignment of the governorship to Sultanov sparked the indignation of the Armenians, who gathered in the “Armenian National Council of Karabach“, a sort of Provisional Government of the Region, established between 1919 and 1920, refused to recognize the authority of the new governor (and Azerbaijan) on the region. At their second meeting in the city of Shusha, a detachment of the Azerbaijani army surrounded the Armenian quarter and demanded their unconditional surrender. The mediation of the British and the acceptance of the surrender by the Armenian National Council did not spare a series of pogroms against the Armenian population that were unleashed throughout the month of June, especially by the irregular Azerbaijani militias.

On February 19, 1920, Sultanov imposed an ultimatum on the Armenian National Council, which once again refused to recognize Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh. The Armenian population of the region had no choice but to prepare for the insurrection, trying to take control of the city of Shusha by surprise with a night assault. But the attempt failed miserably, and the anger of the Azerbaijani troops and population spilled over the Armenians who inhabited the city: entire neighborhoods were set on fire, in a spiral of increasingly brutal violence, which went on for six days with Khosrov bey Sultanov’s consent, who urged not to spare anyone, including women and children. The victims of the Shusha Massacre were 20,000, and in fact the Armenian community of the city was uprooted.

Ruins of the Armenian part of Shusha after the 1920 pogrom. In back is the church of the Holy Mother of God (Kanach Zham).

To make the hostilities “cease” was the return of Soviet Russia to the game: defeated the resistance of General Denikin and with the forces of the White Army in disarray, Moscow returned to focus its attention on the Caucasus. On April 27, 1920, the Azerbaijani government, already in serious trouble on the domestic front, received the news that the Red Army was preparing to invade the country and surrendered without practically a fight, leading to the creation of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Armenian army and militias used the chaos to take control of the western territories of Azerbaijan, including Shusha and the Karabakh and Nakhchivan area. This lasted very little: in May 1920 the 11th Red Army conquered Karabackh, and placed it under the jurisdiction of Soviet Azerbaijan and then made it an autonomous region (the Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Region, NKAO) in 1923, direct order of Stalin. Then on November 20, the Red Army used a pretext to wage war on the Armenian Republic itself, invading its territory: the Armenian army, weakened by years of interrupted conflicts, did not offer resistance exactly like the Azerbaijani one, and on December 4, 1920 the 11th Red Army entered Yerevan, followed by the Armenian and Azerbaijani revolutionaries on the 5th and by the Dzerzhinsky political police, the Cheka, on the 6th. After a last anti-Soviet gasp on February 18th 1921, the formation of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was officially declared.

The location of the Nagorno – Karabakh Autonoumos Oblast during the Soviet Period

The 1921 Treaty of Kars between Turkey and the Soviet Union put an end to the violence in the Transcaucasian area, in which, as a sign of peace, the Nachivan area was declared an Azerbaijani protectorate, and Turkey returned the city of Alexandroupolis to Armenia and Batumi to Georgia.

However, it will be a peace imposed by an imperial power like the Soviet Union, which, paradoxically, had fomented ethnic divisions in the area to avoid losing control over it. Something that from the beginning was destined to recur at the slightest sign of yielding of the hegemonic force in those territories. Exactly as it had begun, the question will rise up again with the collapse of the USSR, indeed, perhaps even anticipating it, as we will see in the next article.

Thank you for reading this long story, lost in time and in the Caucasus mountains: two more appointments await us, to be able to better understand what is happening today.

Thanks for your attention and see you next time.