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The First Anniversary of Azerbaijan’s Liberation of Karabakh

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Taras Kuzio

26 September 2021

On the first anniversary of the liberation of the Azerbaijani territory of Karabakh from nearly three decades of Armenian occupation we should both analyse why it took place and what this portends for the future. Azerbaijan’s victory in the second Karabakh War was welcomed by Turkey and Baku’s allies in the Greater Middle East and the Non-Aligned Movement. In the former Soviet Union, the three Baltic states and Georgia supported Azerbaijan. The same is true of eastern European members of NATO such as Poland.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, all Ukrainian political forces and the Ukrainian media were jubilant at Azerbaijan’s victory. Armenia, alongside Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, has always voted at the UN against resolutions denouncing the occupation of Crimea and Russian military aggression against Ukraine.
Azerbaijan’s turn to military action came after the failure of Western diplomacy through the Minsk OSCE group. Co-chair France was completely biased towards Armenia, the occupying country, and never acted impartially to attempt to secure a military withdrawal and peace agreement. The US was also heavily influenced by its large domestic Armenian lobby. Importantly, both France and the US were largely passive from the Minsk group in the decade prior to the Second Karabakh War which allowed Russia to move into the vacuum.
There are four factors which assisted in the liberation of Azerbaijani territory.

The first factor is Azerbaijan waited patiently until it had accumulated the financial and energy resources and military equipment and had in place external allies which together gave it self-confidence in victory. Without these factors an earlier attempt might have ended in failure. One has to only look at Georgia where in 2008 President Mikhail Saakashvili attempted to liberate the occupied region of South Ossetia leading to Russia’s military invasion and Moscow’s recognition of the regions ‘independence.’
The second factor is strong Turkish diplomatic support which Russia had to take into account. This was cemented in a strategic partnership outlined in the June 2021 “Shusha Declaration” signed by Turkey and Azerbaijan’s presidents.

In addition, Azerbaijan’s 21st century armed forces were able to use their modern equipment to defeat a 20th century army still using outdated Russian equipment and training. Turkey’s sale of military equipment to Azerbaijan complimented that purchased from Israel and other countries. Turkish and Israeli drones were both used during the war. The Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile system brought down Russia’s best missile, the Iskander, fired from Armenia. Turkish military colleges had also trained many Azerbaijani officers and special forces to NATO standards.

We should not ignore the importance of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s role. While all Turkish presidents had supported Azerbaijan’s right to re-take its sovereign territory only Erdoğan put “muscle” behind this commitment. Unlike earlier Turkish presidents, Erdoğan was willing to go the whole way and support, even using military means, Azerbaijan’s liberation of its occupied lands.
The third factor is Armenian national identity which – following its victory in the First Karabakh War – was supremely confident in indefinitely maintaining its occupation of Karabakh and the surrounding Azerbaijani provinces. One can only assume that Armenian intelligence services had taken a long vacation and somehow missed, including from open sources, the modernisation of Azerbaijan’s military with the purchase of hi-tech equipment from Turkey, Israel, and elsewhere.

In addition, Armenian nationalism has never been reconciled with the borders it inherited from the USSR and, with strong influence from the diaspora, has supported the concept of a United (Greater) Armenia. This Armenian irredentism defined western Azerbaijan as the so-called recovered territory of ‘Eastern Armenia’ which Yerevan vowed to never give up. This was why Armenia never participated seriously in Minsk group negotiations for a peace agreement as this would have required a withdrawal from what they wrongly believe is ‘Eastern Armenia.’
The fourth factor is fortuitous timing. The 2018 colour revolution in Armenia had brought to power what the Kremlin viewed as ‘pro-Western’ Nikol Pashinyan. Russia has always viewed colour revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Armenia as Western-backed conspiracies intruding into its Eurasian sphere of influence. Therefore, Russia was never in a rush to support Pashinyan in the Second Karabakh War because they never trusted him.

Of course, there was always a potential danger that any military action by Azerbaijan could have led to Russia’s intervention. In 2008, Saakashvili misjudged to what degree the US would support him and never believed Russia would invade Georgia.
The ceasefire agreement signed following the liberation of Karabakh and surrounding occupied lands included the basing of a 2,000 Russian ‘peacekeeping’ force. Russia’s so-called ‘peacekeeping forces have never in the last three decades attempted to resolve conflicts anywhere in the former USSR where they have been based because this has never been their purpose. The Kremlin has always viewed its so-called ‘peacekeeping’ forces as a permanent forward military base in Eurasia, a region they have always viewed as their exclusive sphere of influence.
Therefore, there is a looming contradiction in the next five years of the ‘peacekeeping’ mandate between two military powers in the region – Russia and Turkey. On the one hand, Russia has no intention of implementing the ceasefire agreement by, for example, overseeing the demilitarisation of Armenian forces in Karabakh. Meanwhile, Turkey does support the implementation of the ceasefire agreement, return of full Azerbaijani sovereignty over all of the territory of Karabakh and its demilitarisation. Russia’s and Turkey’s goals in Azerbaijan are therefore incompatible when the ‘peacekeeping’ mandate comes up for renewal in 2025.

Azerbaijan’s liberation of its occupied territory was both an act of historic justice and the implementation of international law and the UN Charter. Turkey, and other countries who welcomed the liberation, will support the final stage in the liberation of Karabakh through the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. We should be though wary of Russia which has no intention to do so and every intention to support the continuation of an Armenian enclave in Karabakh and thereby its indefinite ‘peacekeeping’ presence.

Taras Kuzio Professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and author of Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War published by Routledge in January 2022

The opinions expressed in this article represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Circle Foundation

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