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  • Andrew Andersen


Updated: Dec 11, 2020

October 25, 2020


Today we are witnessing another escalation of the "Mountainous Karabakh" conflict, which has been dragging on with interruptions for at least a hundred years (yes, it started much earlier than Gorbachev's "perestroika” in the Soviet Union). The current escalation of the conflict though differs from the previous ones at least in the following two aspects:

(А) The current phase of the conflict has been marked by active involvement of Turkey and, in particular, of Turkish elite special forces, experienced in successful fight against Kurdish rebels.

(B) It has also been marked by quite unexpected position of Russia: with its reputation of a traditional ally and patron of Armenia, these days Moscow clearly distances itself from Erevan. Not only has Russia this time refrained from providing any significant military assistance to Armenia, but the pro-Kremlin Russian media clearly supported Azerbaijan.

As for Turkey, it’s position towards the territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan is quite straightforward and clear. Turkey has traditionally had negative attitude towards the very fact of the existence of Armenians both within her borders (before the genocide of 1915-1918) and at its “back yard”. In fact, such an attitude on behalf of a considerable part of the Turks extends to all the remnants of the autochthonous population of the territory of present-day Turkey, who had been dominant there until the great migration of Seljuk Turks from Central Asia in the 11th century. However, since the early 1990s, and until recently, the pro-Western ruling circles of Turkey tended to turn a blind eye to both Armenia and her military successes in Karabakh, despite their support of Azerbaijan in various spheres. As of nowadays though, against the background of neo-imperialist political ambitions of Erdogan’s administration, the situation around Armenia has become much more dangerous.

As far as Russia is concerned, its position looks much more complicated. if at the previous phases of the Karabakh conflict Moscow tended to support Armenia, these days the Russian government has denied Armenia support and assistance within the framework of the CSTO, and the main Kremlin propagandists unequivocally place the blame for the Karabakh conflict on the Armenian side, claiming that Azerbaijan started this campaign "only "to liberate its own territory". At the same time, experienced manipulators of public opinion appeal to ... the principle of Uti possidetis (a principle in international law in according to which officially recognized borders are inviolable, unless otherwise provided for by a treaty). Such rhetoric on the part of the Kremlin's mouthpieces sounds quite unanticipated, if not shocking, given how the Russian Federation over the past thirty years "respected" the internationally recognized borders of the former "union republics" of the USSR while unleashing wars against Georgia and Ukraine, recognizing “independence” of occupied Georgian territories (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), annexing the Ukrainian Crimea and creating pseudo-sovereign bandit enclaves in Ukrainian Donbass.

What could have caused such a 180-degree turn in the policy of the Russian Federation towards its former ally? Most likely, there are two main reasons that could explain such transformation.

The first likely reason is that, despite the claims of Russia to the "superpower" status, her rulers are fully aware of their real capabilities and weaknesses. Therefore, the Kremlinites willingly attack a weak neighbor that does not have decent military power, cannot count on significant international support and, what is even more important, does not have enough political will to deter an external threat, but at the same time, they are reluctant to run the risk of entering into a conflict with a strong adversary who is able to inflict on them significant damage in retaliation. Accordingly, the rulers of Russia are not enthusiastic about clashing with present-day Turkey, which can boast a sufficiently powerful armed forces (well-armed, well-trained and having a high morale), as well as more than sufficient, if not to say - aggressive political will of her leadership. Indeed, quite recently, the Turks have demonstrated quite vividly both their military capabilities and their political will in Libya and Syria, discouraging the Kremlin from testing their might at the Caucasian battlefields.

The second reason has to do with the fact that over the past 100 years, Russia (both Tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet) has been using Armenians and Armenia as pawns in her ambitious geopolitical games. And pawns are constantly sacrificed on geopolitical chessboard, just like they are in a regular chess game. For a better understanding of the current situation around Karabakh, we would suggest to take a look into the recent history of Armenia and of Russian-Armenian relations.


The First World War and the tragedy of Armenian people (1914-1918)

During the First World War, the territory of historical Armenia became the arena of military operations. Willing to use the traditional and just desire of a significant part of the Armenian people to liberate Western (Turkish) Armenia from the Muslim yoke in their strategic interests, the ruling circles of the Russian Empire and of her Western allies made a number of vocal statements promising Armenians a "brilliant future" in the event of their active participation in the defeat of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

However, while willingly using Armenian soldiers at the battlefields and accepting financial donations from wealthy Armenian diasporas, the rulers of the Russian Empire (as well as their Western counterparts) had no plans to restore Armenian statehood which had been lost in the Middle Ages. That was all amply proven by the secret Sazonov-Sykes-Picot agreement on the eventual partition of the Ottoman Empire signed in London on May 16,1916. According to the above agreement, most of the historical Armenian lands were to be annexed by Russia, while a smaller part of historical Armenia (Cilicia) was to be incorporated into the future Middle Eastern colonies of France. Moreover, a number of high-ranking military and civilian officials of Russia were reported to comment behind closed doors that Russia needed Turkish Armenia without Armenians. During the same period of time, a plan was developed for the settlement of future Western Armenian possessions of the empire with Cossacks and other colonists.

While the First World War was ravaging Europe and the Middle East, including the Caucasus, the Armenians were paying a high price for their support of the war efforts of the Entente Powers. That price included not only the bloody sacrifices of officers and soldiers of Armenian nationality at all war fronts, but also mass murders of hundreds thousands civilians known as the Armenian genocide in Turkey and the Turkish-occupied regions of Iran. Although the killings of Turkish Armenians (regardless of gender and age) by Ottoman soldiers and militias were taking place as early as in March 1915, a massive and systematic genocide started just a few hours (!) after the signing of the Sazonov-Sykes-Picot agreement, the secrecy of which had been obviously violated and the conditions of which became known in Istanbul. As a result, more than one and a half million Armenians died, and hundreds of thousands lost all their property and became refugees.

Armenia and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918 г.)

After the Bolshevik coup occurred in the fall of 1917 in Russia, the new rulers of the former Russian Empire hastened to conclude a separate peace with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey in order to preserve their power. Under the provisions of the treaty signed on March 3, 1918 in Brest-Litovsk, Soviet Russia not only dropped all claims to Western (Turkish) Armenia, which had been conquered by force of arms, but also ceded to Turkey approximately half of the pre-war Russian Armenia (Kars territory).

The Armenian people and, above all, the Armenian political and military leaders rejected the terms of the Brest-Litovsk treaty and attempted to repel the Turkish expansion, hoping for the active help on behalf of the Entente Powers. Accordingly, the hostilities at the Caucasus Front went on, but since the Armenians did not receive any real help from those whom they believed to be their Western allies, the result was the conquest by the Turks of almost all of historical Armenia accompanied by the continuation of the genocide with new hundreds of thousands of murdered and expelled Armenian civilians. In fact, only the end of the World War and the surrender of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) on October 30, 1918 prevented the "final solution of the Armenian question" as well as complete disappearance of Armenians from their historical lands.

Armenia, Great Britain and “White” Russia (1919-1920)

As soon as the First World War was over, Armenia, which had proclaimed her independence back in May 1918, was prepared to embrace the "brilliant future” that had been promised to her by the victorious Entente Powers in 1914. Cherishing optimistic but rather unrealistic expectations, politically inexperienced leadership of the newborn Armenian state came out with excessive territorial claims to Turkey, the old enemy that now seemed defeated and powerless.

Those territorial claims, presented by Armenian delegation at Paris Peace Conference in 1919, included vast territory in eastern and central Turkey, most of which could hardly be considered "primordially Armenian". Moreover, following the wartime ethnic cleansing, there was practically no Armenian population left in the Turkish provinces claimed by the Armenian Republic. As a result, the Entente Powers, that willingly used the human and other resources of the Armenian people in wartime, began to view Armenia which was small and poor in natural resources, as an annoying source of problems that could not be easily solved. The makers of the post-war world were in no hurry not only to satisfy territorial claims of the newborn Armenian state, but even to recognize its de-facto independence.

It was only at the end of August 1920, shortly before the fall of the First Armenian Republic, that the victorious Allies considered the interests of Armenia when signing the Sevres Peace Treaty with Turkey (10 August 1920). Under the terms of the Treaty of Sevres, a significant part of the territory of the former Ottoman Empire was to be transferred to Armenia, but those provisions remained only on paper. In Turkey, this treaty was not recognized by either the Kemalist or the Sultan government, and at the same time, none of the Entente Powers showed a desire to use military force in order to assist Armenia in taking over the territories assigned to her. As a result, the Armenian government had little choice but to make an attempt to achieve that goal on its own. That attempt led to a new Armenian-Turkish war and the complete collapse of the First Armenian Republic.

The political naivety of the leadership of the First Armenian Republic clearly manifested itself in the development of relations between Armenia and her South Caucasian neighbors, namely Georgia and Azerbaijan, whose independence had also been proclaimed in May 1918. Here the government in Erivan (now Yerevan) believed that the new territorial conflicts that had arisen between the three “sister republics” in the Caucasus would also be resolved by the Great Powers in favor of Armenia in gratitude for the Armenian efforts during the war. Accordingly, Armenian leaders refused to address the unresolved territorial and border issues through negotiations with the neighbors. As a result of such an approach, the South Caucasus saw an armed conflict between Armenia and Georgia which broke out at the end of 1918 and caused significant damage to both countries. At the same time, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan degenerated into a long "hybrid" war for the possession of the disputed territory which included Karabakh, Zanghezur and Nakhichevan. That war accompanied by severe ethnic cleansing, was interrupted (for 60 years) only with the fall of both republics. At the beginning of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the British Command in Constantinople which was entrusted control over the Eastern Mediterranean (former possessions of the Ottoman Empire, the Caucasus and the Northern Black Sea Region) by the U.K. government, assumed the role of an "objective and honest mediator” but eventually sided with oil-rich Azerbaijan assigning Karabakh to the latter.

In the years 1919 to 1920 Great Britain was, definitely, the dominant player in the Caucasus. Nevertheless, Russia despite being torn apart by the civil war, also kept interfering in the South Caucasian affairs. In particular, the command of the anti-Bolshevik Armed Forces of Southern Russia (also known less formally as “Denikin's White Army”), which for some time established full control over the North Caucasus, continued to play the "Armenian card" to the south of the Main Caucasus Range. While refusing to recognize the independence of the new South Caucasian states (including Armenia), the command of the Armed Forces of Southern Russia declaratively expressed sympathy for the Armenian people but, at the same time, acted quite machiavellianly using Armenian minority of Abkhazia and the District of Sochi in its armed conflict with Georgia over the mentioned territories. Between December 1918 and February 1920, General Denikin’s agents working in unison with the emissaries from Armenia were provoking the inhabitants of Armenian villages in the districts of Sukhumi and Sochi, providing them with weapons and encouraging them to rebel against Georgian administration. The result was the creation of toxic inter-ethnic tension in the above territory which has not been overcome to this day.

As a result of all of the above, the small Armenian state in the South Caucasus found itself surrounded by hostile neighbors and almost completely isolated until the end of 1920, when it collapsed under the blows of its new enemies, Kemalist Turkey and Soviet Russia.

Mountainous Karabakh (Artsakh): Historical and Geographical Background

A German map published in the mid-19th century showing the Armenian Kingdom in the 1st century A.D., which included the territory of contemporary Karabakh

While historians and ethnographers have not yet come to a common opinion regarding the ethnic origin of the Karabakh Armenians, the fact remains that at least since the adoption of Christianity in the 4th century A.D., all Karabakh Christians belonging to Armenian Apostolic Church have been unconditionally considering themselves Armenians, just as they do today.

As for the historical ownership of the territory of Mountainous Karabakh, it has been well documented that, with short interruptions, it was part of various Armenian states during the period from at least the 2nd century B.C. and up until the fall of the centralized Armenian statehood in the 11th century A.D. It is also important to note here that no Azerbaijani state has ever existed before 1918.

From 1124 and until to the end of the 1220s, Mountainous Karabakh formed an integral part of the Armenian possessions of Georgia, that constituted a special administrative unit within the mediaeval Georgian kingdom. In the map below, the brown line indicates the limits of the Georgian kingdom for the above period, where the Armenian possessions of Georgia are colored in orange.

After the conquest of most of the South Caucasus by the Mongols (end of the 13th century) and later by the Muslim Turks (early 15th century), the Armenian principality of Khachen emerged on the territory of Karabakh. Being dependency of conquerors Khachen retained internal self-government and was considered one of the centers of Armenian religious and cultural life.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the territory of Mountainous Karabakh, together with a significant part of the South Caucasus, became part of the Safavid Persia (Iran) and since then remained part of the Persian Empire until the conquest by the Russian Empire in 1805. However, during the period of Persian rule, the territory of Karabakh was the home of 5 Armenian melikdoms (principalities) - Gulistan. Jraberd, Khachen, Verand and Dizak. Those miniature states existed under the suzerainty of Persian shahs from the beginning of the 17th century and until the end of the 1750s being, in fact, the last remnants of Armenian statehood.

As far the ethnic composition of Mountainous Karabakh is concerned, it would hardly be an exaggeration to mention that ethnic Armenians have been constituting the majority of its population from ancient times to the present day. Thus, basing on the above, it is not surprising that after the restoration of Armenian statehood in 1918, the majority of local residents of the Karabakh highlands gravitated towards Armenia and wished to be part of it.

Medieval Armenian monastery in Mountainous Karabakh

Armenia and Soviet Russia (1920-1921)

The end of March, 1920, saw the devastating defeat of Denikin’s Armed Forces of Southern Russia. Their retreat turned into a debacle that culminated in the Novorossiysk disaster (March 17-27, 1920) which signaled the end of an organized anti-Bolshevik struggle in the North Caucasus. Soon after the fall of Novorossiysk, the Red Army reached the borders of the South Caucasian states and on April 27 invaded Azerbaijan. In 19 hours after the start of the invasion, the independent Azerbaijan Democratic Republic fell, and Azerbaijan became another "Soviet republic", under the protectorate and full control of Soviet Russia. The lightning-fast fall of Azerbaijan was largely caused by the fact that at the beginning of the Russian aggression the bulk of its armed forces were in Karabakh, where a "hybrid" war with the Armenians was going on, and the remaining army units that could resist the invasion, were completely blocked by the Turkish officers attached to them who, in turn, received appropriate instructions from the Kemalist leadership, which at that time was an ally of the Kremlin. At the beginning of May, while most of Azerbaijan was under Soviet occupation, a significant part of Mountainous Karabakh was under the control of local Armenian militias supported by a few units of regular Armenian army.

However, having taken over most of Azerbaijan, the Soviets were not going to stop until they establish a common border with Kemalist Turkey, which they regarded as their "anti-imperialist' ally. Accordingly, Armenia was to become the next object of Soviet Russian expansion, either military or "peaceful". The first attempt to Sovietize Armenia manifested itself in the orchestration of a Bolshevik coup with the support of Muslim minority residing in that country. Тhe Bolshevik rebellion started on May 10, 1920, to be suppressed four days later by the Armenian troops four days later. After that failure the Kremlin attempted to try the "peaceful" path.

An attempt of a "peaceful" resolution was made by the Kremlin during the lengthy Russian-Armenian negotiations that were taking place in Moscow from May 28 to June 29, 1920. In the course of the talks, where Soviet Russia was represented by the People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs Chicherin and his deputy Karakhan, the Armenian delegation was assured of the Kremlin's unwillingness to establish a Soviet regime in Armenia and even offered Soviet mediation in the settlement of Armenia's territorial dispute with Turkey. Chicherin also guaranteed that the Soviet troops stationed in Azerbaijan would not enter Zanghezur and Nakhichevan and promised to resolve the issue of Karabakh through plebiscite. But most of all, the Armenian delegates were impressed by the map unfolded in front of them by Karakhan which showed some additional territories offered to Armenia by Soviet Russia under the condition of dropping most of Armenia's claims against Kremlin-friendly Kemalist Turkey.

Those additional territories included most of the county of Borchalo, the counties of Akhalkalak and Akhaltsikh (despite the fact that Armenia never laid claims on Akhaltsikh), as well as the “Chorokh-Imerkhevsky Corridor” to the Black Sea through Adjaria (the districts of Batum and Artvin), i.e. the territories that had just been recognized by Russia as “indisputably Georgian” as per the Article IV of the Soviet-Georgian Treaty that was signed in the same month and in the same place. That way the government of Soviet Russia was planning to absorb Armenia into the Soviet sphere of influence in exchange for more than generous territorial gifts. Self-explanatory, the next step would have been the "creeping Sovietization" of that country. Nevertheless, despite some attractiveness of the Kremlin's proposals, the Armenian delegation rejected the deal, and in the end the negotiations fell through. The failure of the Soviet-Armenian negotiations, in turn, immediately led to the new Soviet attempt to resolve the Armenian question by military means.

However, even while the Russian-Armenian negotiations were going on in Moscow, the Red Army units continued combat operations against Armenian forces in Karabakh coordinating their actions with the Turkish troops in Northern Iran and punching the needed "corridor" from Soviet Azerbaijan to Turkey. At the same time, the command of the Red Army did not disdain to temporarily use some Armenian Karabakh partisan groups to suppress the Muslim anti-Soviet uprising in Gyanja.

At the same time in June of the same year, a group of Kemalist representatives arrived to Moscow. That group met with Chicherin and discussed with him plans for joint military actions against Armenia and Georgia. Soon after that meeting which coincided with the failure of the above-mentioned negotiations with the Armenians, the communication style of Russian People's Commissariat for Foreign Affairs towards the government of Armenia dramatically changed from friendly to aggressive.

By the end of June 1920, the Red Army gained control of most of Karabakh with the exception of a few enclaves held by Armenian partisans. on July 5 its units entered Zanghezur, and on July 17 launched an offensive on Nakhichevan in coordination with the Turkish troops, which were simultaneously advancing through Northern Iran to Nakhichevan, Julfa and Ordubad. After a series of fierce battles that were going on from July 28 to July 31, 1920, Nakhichevan was taken by the Soviet-Turkish forces, who met north of the River Aras and greeted each other as partners. On the same day, the "Nakhichevan Soviet Republic" was proclaimed under a joint Soviet-Turkish protectorate. On August 10, 1920 in Erivan (Yerevan), plenipotentiaries of Soviet Russia and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement, which left Armenia without most of the disputed territories, but temporarily stopped major hostilities on the Soviet-Armenian front line. In accordance with that agreement, the Red Army was occupying Karabakh, as well as most of the Zanghezur and Nakhichevan districts. in reality though, that agreement gave Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey a common border through which the flow of weapons and gold could now run from Russia to Turkey in order to support the Kemalist war efforts against Greece and other European "imperialists".

After August 10, fighting continued in Zanghezur, where some Armenian troops together with local partisans under the command of General Nzhdeh did not recognize the August agreement and refused to evacuate, maintaining formal loyalty to the Republic of Armenia. It should be noted here that during the period from August to November 1920, the aforementioned Armenian forces conducted a series of successful operations in Zanghezur against superior numbers of Soviet Russian and Turkish formations. Those local victories, however, could not prevent the fall of independent Armenia.

The beginning of September 1920, saw the breakout of the Armenian-Turkish war which has already been mentioned above. The war ended with the complete defeat of the Armenian armed forces, the capture of half of the pre-war Armenian territory by the Kemalist Turkey and the continuation of Armenian genocide. On November 18, in view of a complete military catastrophe, the Armenian government requested an armistice and began negotiations with the Turks, culminating in the signing of the Alexandropol Peace Treaty, according to which the new Armenian-Turkish border, more or less corresponding with the current one, was established.

In the meantime, the units of the Red Army, in breach of the ceasefire agreement of August 10, entered the territory of Armenia and moved to Yerevan. Defeated and morally broken Armenia could no longer withstand a new invasion. As a result, on December 2, 1920, the First Armenian Republic fell. The power passed to the impromptu "Revolutionary Committee", and Armenia was proclaimed a Soviet republic.

Sovietization of Armenia marked another 180-degree turn in the Kremlin's attitude towards her territorial dispute with Azerbaijan. It manifested itself even in the document on the transfer of power to the "Revolutionary Committee", drawn up on December 2, 1920 and published in 1928 in Moscow and Paris. That document contained paragraph 3, which defined the territory of Sovietized Armenia, recognized by the Soviet government of Russia. According to the aforementioned paragraph, Soviet Armenia included the entire Erivan (Yerevan) province with Surmala, Sharur-Daralaghez and Nakhichevan districts, the entire Zanghezur district of the Elizavetpol province and part of Kazakh district. Despite the fact that the boundaries of the indicated territory were not precisely defined, it should be said that neither the last government of independent Armenia, nor the first Soviet administration in Yerevan could boast an effective control even over half of the above territory. However, the named document is important as a confirmation of serious territorial concessions that the Kremlin was ready to offer Armenia at the very first stage of her Sovietization.

However, at that point the Kremlin's concessions to the territorial ambitions of Armenia were not limited to the above ones. As early as December 1, 1920, a few hours before the transfer of power in Yerevan and the proclamation of official Sovietization of Armenia by the "Revolutionary Committee", the Soviet government of Azerbaijan (also known as "Azrevkom") sent greetings to its Armenian communist comrades and announced that Soviet Azerbaijan was giving up the disputed territories of Karabakh, Zanghezur and Nakhichevan in favor of Soviet Armenia. A little later, the leadership of Soviet Azerbaijan took that statement back, as will be described below, but at that particular moment it was effectively used by Soviet propaganda to create a myth that the Bolsheviks with their "communist internationalism" were the only force in the world capable of resolving the long and bloody conflict between Armenia. and Azerbaijan.

A few months after the events described saw another sharp turn in the attitude of Soviet Russian government to what was left of Armenia. That turn was caused by the anti-Soviet uprising that started in Armenia on February 13, 1921. That uprising was largely a result of shock and indignation caused among the broad masses of Armenian population by the Soviet policy of the “red terror”, which manifested itself in mass murders of real and imaginary opponents of the Soviet regime, including extrajudicial executions of popular heroes of Armenian-Turkish wars.

Due to the fact that by the beginning of the uprising the main forces of the Red Army stationed in the South Caucasus were involved in the Soviet-Georgian war, unleashed by the Kremlin on February 11, 1921, the Armenian rebels managed to take temporary control of a significant part of the territory of Sovietized Armenia, but in mid-April of the same year, the rebels were defeated, Yerevan was once again taken by the Red Army, and the remnants of rebel forces retreated to the mountainous Zanghezur, where they managed to hold out for another 4 months. It was the February uprising in Armenia that led the rulers of Soviet Russia to the conclusion that the Armenians were unreliable and, accordingly, the territory of forcibly Sovietized Armenia needed to be significantly reduced.

This change in the attitude of the Kremlin owners to Armenia clearly manifested itself in the provisions of the Treaty of Moscow (03.16.1921) and the Treaty of Kars (10.13.1921) in accordance with which Kemalist Turkey was assigned the Territory of Kars and Surmala District with the national symbol of Armenia, Mount Ararat, while the expanded territory of "Nakhichevan Soviet Republic" was given to Soviet Azerbaijan. It also manifested itself in the fact that Mountainous Karabakh was not transferred to Armenia but remained within Azerbaijan in the form of a territorially curtailed "autonomy".

In any case, as was mentioned by Armenian general Garegin Nzhdeh, who found refuge in the West after the defeat of the 1921 uprising, the borders of Soviet Armenia were drawn so as to completely exclude the possibility of its normal independent existence.

It should be also mentioned that on November 6, 1921, Soviet Armenia was assigned a part of the District of Borchalo that had been earlier included into Georgia, as a small "compensation" for the loss of Nakhichevan and Karabakh. The above piece of disputed territory though was also a reward for the participation of Armenian Bolshevik units in the Soviet-Georgian war of February-March 1921.

Armenia within the USSR (1922-1991)

During most of the Soviet period when Armenia was part of the USSR, the Kremlin had no need to use her for any geopolitical projects, since the "Armenian SSR" was almost completely devoid of sovereignty, being an integral part of the new - now "Soviet" empire.

Only once, though, did the Kremlin attempt to play the "Armenian card on the 'Grand Chessboard". That happened during the last months of World War II, when the government of the USSR, through the mouth of its "People's Commissar" (later - Minister) of Foreign Affairs Molotov, presented territorial claims to Turkey demanding to revise the provisions of the 1921 Treaty of Kars, to restore the Russian-Turkish border for 1878-1914 and return to Soviet Armenia the former Territory of Kars and Surmalo District. After the Turkish government refused to consider that issue, the "People's Commissar" for Foreign Affairs of the "Armenian SSR" was instructed to make a demand to "return" to Armenia additionally all the territories that had been occupied by the armies of the Russian Empire during the First World War. Self-explanatory, those claims were rejected as well, as they went even beyond the territories assigned to Armenia under the provisions of the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920, which by that time had long lost its relevance.

In fact, the leadership of the USSR did not wish and did not even plan to annex any near-Caucasian territories belonging to Turkey, but used the above claims exclusively to force Turkey to agree to the construction of Soviet naval bases in the Black Sea straits zone with the deployment of Soviet military contingent there as an "alternative" to the restoration of the border of 1878-1914. However, that project of the Kremlin project turned into a complete failure: the Turkish government showed firmness, rejecting all Soviet claims and appealing for support from the United States and Great Britain. As a result, in 1952 Turkey joined NATO, and the following year the USSR dropped all its claims to Turkish territory.

At the same time, the conflict over Mountainous Karabakh remained in a frozen state until the beginning of the collapse of the USSR, being one of many "time bombs" planted by the Kremlin's masters of provocation under a number of "union republics" in order to prevent their possible attempts to secede from the USSR. Eventually, some of those "bombs" were "blown up" during the last years of the Soviet empire.

The Karabakh "bomb" detonated in 1987 - just 4 years before the fall of the USSR. That happened in February 1988, when the Provincial Council of People's Deputies, using the results of the referendum held in the Mountainous Karabakh Autonomous Province as a background, made a decision to secede from Azerbaijan and reunite with Armenia (in fact, that was not the first attempt of self-determination of Karabakh Armenians if we count from 1918-1920). Soon thereafter, the "unfrozen" conflict entered a "hot" phase with armed clashes and human casualties. The price of the "unfreezing" of the Karabakh conflict was almost total destruction of Armenian communities in Azerbaijan. That included mass pogroms in Sumgait (February 1988) and in Baku (January 1990), as well as the "cleansing" of a number of other enclaves of Armenian settlement. As a result, by the end of 1990, literally the entire Armenian population had fled from Azerbaijan, excluding the territory of Mountainous Karabakh proper.

In the summer of 1989, another "time bomb" was “blown up” in the South Caucasus involving local Armenian communities, this time in Abkhazia, where an anti-Georgian movement was organized by Soviet secret service agents with the goal to secede Abkhazia from Georgia. The escalation of that conflict was also accompanied by human casualties.

As of today, quite a few historians, political scientists as well as a number of competent participants of the two above-mentioned conflicts, agree that both conflicts were planned and orchestrated by the secret services of the Soviet Union (USSR) in order to prevent the creation of a united anti-Soviet front of the peoples of the South Caucasus. If we accept that point of view, then it should be admitted that the described project of the Kremlin happened to be quite successful.

It should also be mentioned that at the end of the 1980s, the Kremlin was planning (and is still planning) to launch a third conflict with the participation of ethnic Armenians, this time in the Georgian province of Javakheti where, as a result of certain historical events, Armenians have become the overwhelming majority of population. Fortunately for both Armenian and Georgian people, as well as for the entire South Caucasus region, that "time bomb" has not yet detonated.

Armenia and Russian Federation after 1991

Immediately after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, a full-scale war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia in and around Mountainous Karabakh. The war lasted until early May 1994, when the conflict was "frozen" once again. As a result of the war, most of the former Mountainous Karabakh Autonomous Province together with several other districts of the former "Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic" were taken over by Armenian forces, "cleansed" of Azeri and Kurdish population and formed the self-proclaimed "Republic of Artsakh" (also known as the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic"). The "Republic of Artsakh" has not been recognized by any of the UN member states and is actually a part of Armenia. Several attempts to "unfreeze" and escalate the Karabakh conflict by Azerbaijan were made in 2014 and 2016 but they ended with little or no success. Another attempt to resume the war is being made by Azerbaijan at the present time, in the fall of 2020.

During the Karabakh war of 1991-1994, the ruling circles of Russian Federation were supporting both sides of the conflict. However, Armenia was receiving more substantial support than Azerbaijan, which largely contributed to the military success of Armenia.

Armenia together with the "Republic of Artsakh" in 1994-2020

During the first decade after the collapse of the USSR, another war took place in the South Caucasus. Here we mean the war in Abkhazia

which took place in 1992-1993. Just like the conflict for Abkhazia in 1919, the war of 1992-1993, which in fact was the first "hybrid" war launched by Russian Federation against a neighbor country, was marked by the involvement of the Armenian minority residing in that autonomous province of Georgia. The result of that war was the occupation of a considerable part of Abkhazia by the Russian troops (the rest of Abkhazia was occupied during the second Russian-Georgian war which took place in 2008) and the proclamation of the "Republic of Abkhazia", which has not been recognized by any of the UN member-states , except Russia, Nicaragua, Nauru, Venezuela and Syria. In the course of the aforementioned war, a battalion known as the "Baghramyan Battalion", numbering about 1,500 men, was formed under the patronage of Russian secret service. The personnel of that battalion consisted predominantly of the Armenians living in Abkhazia. Besides participation in combat actions against Georgian troops, the "Baghramyan Battalion" reportedly also took part in the massacres of Georgian civilian population. At the same time, it should be noted here that during the war of 1992-1993, quite a few ethnic Armenians from Abkhazia were fighting on Georgian side as well.

The wars of the first half of the 1990s in Mountainous Karabakh and Abkhazia, in which Moscow, once again, used Armenia and ethnic Armenians outside Armenia as pawns in their geopolitical "chess games", had two major goals:

(1) Putting pressure on the governments of Azerbaijan and Georgia, which took steps towards leaving the sphere of Russian influence, and forcing them to "change the foreign policy vector" towards the Kremlin.

(2) Destabilization (“Somalization”) of the entire South Caucasus region, in order to prevent the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the existence of which runs counter to the financial interests of Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom. Since the controlling stake in Gazprom belongs to the Russian government, then, accordingly, the existence of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was and still is in sharp conflict with the financial interests of the Kremlin.

In general, it can be said that none of the two above-mentioned goals of the Kremlin has been achieved. The foreign policy vector of Azerbaijan and Georgia as a whole remained unchanged, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was opened in July 2006 and has been functioning smoothly since then, putting Gazprom on the brink of bankruptcy. However, both wars significantly complicated the international position of Armenia, which remained in the Russian sphere of influence.

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline depicted on postage stamps of Azerbaijan and Georgia


In September 2020, the territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia re-entered hot phase, and, as has been noted at the beginning of this essay, Russia's position in relation to this conflict has significantly changed, becoming demonstratively anti-Armenian. The reason for this change is easy to explain if one admits that it is closely connected with the attempt of the Pashinyan government to withdraw Armenia from Russian sphere of influence and take a course towards integration with the West, since, according to Pashinyan and his supporters, the current level of Armenia’s integration into the so-called “Eurasian” structures created by the Russian Federation poses a serious threat to national security and sovereignty of Armenia.

Thus, the current strategy of the Kremlin is based on the assumption that with comprehensive assistance from Turkey, Azerbaijan inflicts a military defeat on Armenia and restores its sovereignty over Mountainous Karabakh and the "security zone" around it. In the event of such a development, it is quite possible that the Pashinyan government will be forced to step down, and Armenia, having suffered severe material and moral damage, will move back into Putin's “Russian world” with the old mantra: "There is no way for us to survive without Russia!”

So, what are the prospects for the nearest development in the zone of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict? Most likely, one of two options is to be considered:

Variant 1

Armenia succeeds in maintaining its control over Mountainous Karabakh and its surrounding zone, or at least over most of the territory of the so-called "Republic of Artsakh". In this case, the status quo will likely be restored in the region. In the event of such an ending, there is a possibility that in some distant future, some kind of a compromise might be found to resolve the Karabakh problem to the relative satisfaction of both sides of the conflict.

Variant 2

Armenia suffers military defeat and leaves Mountainous Karabakh and all the territories it has been occupying within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan since 1994 . If, as a result of such development, the Pashinyan government falls (which is not necessary, but possible), then Russia might partially "compensate" for the losses of Armenia, redirecting the disappointment and bitterness of defeat of the Armenian society towards another neighbor - Georgia (just like Soviet Russia did in 1921). In this case, the Kremlin may once again try to ignite a conflict in Javakheti, the predominantly Armenian-populated border province of Georgia. Until now, this has not happened, but if it does happen, then Russia will provide Armenia with comprehensive support in all spheres including military, propaganda and diplomatic ones. Unlike Turkey, contemporary Georgia, from the Kremlin's view, does not pose any significant danger to the Putin regime, since it has neither military power nor allies. The consequences of such a development of events are hardly predictable, but, in any case, it would further complicate the international position of Armenia, and such a conflict would almost certainly go far beyond the boundaries of the South Caucasus region.

Postscript: a few words about the legal aspect of the Karabakh Problem

Regardless of whether the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan and Armenia are "fair" or "unfair" in the opinion of one or the other side of the conflict, it should be mentioned that in terms of contemporary international law, as well as in accordance with the principle of territorial integrity enshrined in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, the territory of the former Mountainous Karabakh Autonomous Province (now part of the self-proclaimed "Republic of Artsakh"), is unequivocally a part of the legitimate territory of Azerbaijan, since the above principle as well as the one of inviolability of state borders, have been have been comprising one of the basic norms of international law since the early 1970s. Such undoubtedly important facts as the historical belonging and ethnic composition of a disputed territory, from the point of view of the above principles, cannot serve as a reason for revising state borders without the consent of the state whose borders are being questioned. However, if one looks into the past, one can easily see that the mankind has more than once attempted to elevate the principle of inviolability of borders to the rank of international law (the last time such an attempt was made in Europe by the countries that signed the Munster and Osnabrück Peace Agreements in 1648, nowadays known collectively as the Peace of Westphalia). However, every time there was coming a moment when that principle ceased to work.

The last time this happened was at the beginning of the 21st century when on October 08, 2008, United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) under the strong pressure of Germany, France and the USA adopted a resolution which empowered the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to define whether the unilateral declaration of independence of Serbian autonomous province of Kosovo and Metohiya had any legal basis. Meanwhile, even before the ICJ decision, the independence of Kosovo was recognized by the United States and most of the EU member states, as well as by Canada, Australia and Japan. On July 22, 2010, the International Court of Justice declared that the declaration of independence of Kosovo did not violate any norms and principles of international law. But even nine years before that, the actual initiator of the recognition of Kosovo's independence was U.S. President Bill Clinton, who declared in 1999, during the bombing of Yugoslavia, that Serbia (by that time Yugoslavia diminished to Serbia and Montenegro only) lost moral right to Kosovo due to an attempt to "cleanse" the province from ethnic Albanians. By analogy, some modern Western political scientists believe that Azerbaijan also lost moral right to Karabakh due to the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in that country in 1988-1990.

Self explanatory, the concept of "moral right" is quite shaky and relative, at least if applied to international politics. However, one way or another, the recognition of Kosovo's independence by a significant number of UN member states opened "Pandora's box" having severely undermined the principles of territorial integrity and inviolability of state borders and proven that there can be double interpretation of both of them. Nevertheless, both principles. at least officially, still remain fundamental in the international law discourse.

However, besides the principles of inviolability of borders and territorial integrity , the international law also knows the principle of self-determination of peoples, first declared in January 1918 by the then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. After the Second World War, this principle was confirmed in paragraph 2 of Art. 1 of the UN Charter, as well as in other documents of the United Nations. Nevertheless, the principle of self-determination of peoples has not always been implemented in practice, since its implementation almost entirely depended and still depends on the agreements and deals concluded between the leading world powers. Not to mention that, in the case of Mountainous Karabakh, it is hardly applicable at all, since the principle of self-determination of peoples (nations) does not imply self-determination of a part of an existing nation or part of the territory of an existing state, while the Armenians of Karabakh are not a separate people (or nation) but a part of the Armenian nation, which three decades ago successfully "determined itself" by creating its own internationally recognized sovereign state.

All of the above only underlines the intractable nature of both the Karabakh problem and the relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan in general. But in any case, sooner or later, this problem must be resolved, and that can become possible only in a situation when Armenian political leaders come to the conclusion that it is necessary for them to act first and foremost in the interests of their own country rather than getting stuck in the "chess games" of Russia or any other state.

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