The larger part of our society is probably asking the following question: why did the 44-day war break out and why it was impossible to avoid it? The most direct answer to this question can be formulated as follows: the time had come when some developments were to take place in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. What is this statement based on?
Over the past ten years there have been several key milestones in the negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The first was the Kazan process, which envisaged that territories were to be handed over to Azerbaijan according to the 5+2 formula, Artsakh was to be given an interim status, and the final status was to be determined through a referendum after the return of refugees.
However, something unpredictable happened: On June 24, 2011, Ilham Aliyev refused to sign the Kazan document, which caused bewilderment to Serzh Sargsyan, who in an interview with the Rossiya TV channel on November 17, 2017 stated that Armenia was ready to transfer 7 regions to Azerbaijan, but Azerbaijan wanted more… It appears that Armenia was ready to transfer 7 regions in 2011, but Azerbaijan wanted more. What could be more? Without signing the Kazan document, Ilham Aliyev answered this question: first of all, the status of Karabakh, that is, ruling out any status of Karabakh outside of Azerbaijan. This was back in 2011. After that, Azerbaijan’s appetite was fueled even more, as evidenced by the unprecedented escalation of the situation on the contact line and on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border since 2013.
Tensions on the border increased in 2014 and 2015, and this occurred in a “favorable” geopolitical environment. Relations between Russia and the West were strained due to developments in Syria and Ukraine, and Russia found itself under sanctions. While before that the main hotspot for Russia was the South Caucasus, Crimea, Donbass and Syria became such hotspots in 2015. Russia’s responsibility has been growing in all of the aforementioned regions, and no matter how much of a superpower it may be, the fact is that Russia’s capabilities are not limitless.
Azerbaijan used this opportunity and declared more loudly its intentions to resolve the Karabakh conflict by military means. Under these conditions, Russia finds itself in rather a difficult situation, realizing the need to reconsider the instruments for maintaining stability in the South Caucasus. In 2013, the now well-known Russian proposals appeared and were finalized in 2015, which provided for the return of 7 regions to Azerbaijan according to the 5 + 2 formula, the return of refugees and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers.
The package of proposals has no mention of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, it bypasses this issue. The proposals were submitted to the Armenian side in January 2016. The Armenian side rejected them, and in April 2016 the Four-Day April War broke out. A few months later, Serzh Sargsyan publicly talked about weapons made in the 80s, and a year and a half later he publicly admitted that Armenia was prepared to give up those 7 regions in 2011, but Azerbaijan wanted more.
Formally, after 2016 the negotiation process continued on the basis of the Madrid principles or their configuration, but there were Russian proposals, they existed and their presence was seen everywhere, at least in the logic that by 2018 the transfer of 7 regions had been the main, if not the only negotiated topic.
As regards the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs had already accepted the logic that this issue was subject to discussion as much as it was acceptable for Azerbaijan. The Co-Chairs resigned themselves to this idea, and the Russian proposals in fact began to be considered as the proposals of the Co-Chairs.
Turkey was adding fuel to the fire, whose arms had become longer after the failure of football diplomacy, and it considered the transfer of 7 regions to be the only prerequisite for stability in the region. Azerbaijan, in turn, continued to declare that no status of Nagorno-Karabakh outside of Azerbaijan could be discussed, and after the appearance of the Russian proposals, Azerbaijan toughened its position: no status of Nagorno-Karabakh can be discussed at this stage. Let the next generations tackle the problem. We, in fact, inherited that very situation in the negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
Surrender or not?
Familiarization with the essence and nuances of the negotiation process on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in my capacity of Prime Minister led me to the following idea: the negotiation process had become a process of serious deviation from the point of signing the May 12, 1994 cease-fire document. This is a sad statement, but the Armenian side has not made any progress in the whole negotiation process, which is a long history of failures. There are several key moments in this story: firstly, it is the 1996 Lisbon summit, where it was recorded that we are alone in the world; then – the exclusion of the representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh from the negotiation process, which gradually placed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the logic of a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan; furthermore, the establishment of such a negotiating logic, according to which the handover of 7 regions to Azerbaijan was considered the main goal of the negotiation process; further, Azerbaijan’s refusal to discuss the status of Nagorno-Karabakh; and after that – the Russian proposals, the key problem of which is the exclusion of Artsakh’s status from the agenda of the negotiations.
Time was the only asset the Armenian side had all the way through the 23-year-long negotiation process, which of course would have led to significant achievements if it had been used in our favor. But the April 2016 war, when it was recorded that 22 years after the Victory, the Armenian Army was fighting with weaponry dating back to the 80s, put an end to the era of stalling for time. Not because of this fact, of course, but because, in the context of a worsening international situation, Russia had had enough of those accusations that it actually was not in favor of a settlement as it dragged out the issue.
Under such conditions, we faced a simple choice, namely to fit into the logic described above and proceed to the transfer of territories, which was conventionally called “substantive negotiations,” or try to change the logic of negotiations.
Since 2018, our actions have been aimed at solving this very problem, and this process reached its climax on March 12, 2019 at a joint meeting of the Security Councils of Armenia and Artsakh in Stepanakert, where I made a keynote speech agreed with the Artsakh authorities.
The theses of that speech were as follows: the issue of Artsakh representatives’ participation in the negotiation process must be on our agenda; the Madrid principles should be given a unified interpretation, because Azerbaijan interpreted them in its own way, Armenia in its own way, which made the process ineffective; the public on either side had to be prepared for peace and any solution of the Karabakh issue should be acceptable to the people of Armenia, the people of Artsakh, and the people of Azerbaijan.
The proposed agenda, however, was by no means a precondition for continuing the negotiation process, but an expression of our ideas on how to make it effective. All these points were of fundamental importance. The exclusion of Artsakh from the negotiation process and the transfer of negotiations to the Armenia-Azerbaijan plane posed a threat, first of all, to Armenia, since thereby Azerbaijan could well apply the label of an occupier on Armenia. Moreover, this format itself distorted the essence of the Karabakh issue, placing it in the logic of a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This was Armenia’s biggest and most catastrophic diplomatic mistake in the second half of the 1990s, which, incidentally, could have been avoided. At that time, yes, Armenia could refuse to negotiate without Karabakh, because Azerbaijan was not ready for war, had not recovered from the shock of defeat, and even the suspension of the negotiation process could not pose a serious threat to Armenia and Artsakh.
By driving out Nagorno-Karabakh’s representatives from the negotiation process, we did not even realize that we were reducing the chances of self-determination of Artsakh due to the fact that the self-determination of an “occupied territory” is nonsense a priori. This was also the reason why in the first half of the 2000s the negotiations culminated in the concept of “exchange of territories,” for example, Meghri in exchange for Karabakh…
No less important was the clarification of the Madrid principles. True, after the rejection of the Kazan format, Azerbaijan derailed the Madrid Principles but formally they still existed. Azerbaijan interpreted that the Madrid Principles implied that the Armenians of Artsakh could only self-determine within Azerbaijan. Armenia argued the opposite, which meant that the Madrid Principles were not a formula for solving the issue, but something incomprehensible. And then, in terms of public discourse, I put forward quite a constructive formula, publicly insisting that any solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict must also be acceptable to the people of Azerbaijan. The aim of all this was to take the negotiation process on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict out of the primitive logic of transferring territory. But there was a failure, because it turned out that the train of 2016 could not be stopped. Many now say that the train could have been stopped by pro-Russian steps and pro-Russian policies, and supposedly our government did exactly the opposite. However, the reality is completely different, and those who say so do not notice such a turning point as the decision made by the Armenian government in 2019 to send field engineers and doctors to Syria.
Presumption of Reasonableness
It is, of course, a matter of principle how reasonable it is to try to oppose a “moving” and gaining speed “train.” What was counterintuitive? Nasty would have been the surrender of territories in return for essentially nothing. Now, of course, in hindsight we can say that it would have been better than what we have now, at least we would have saved thousands of lives. But this is in retrospect.
In retrospect, we can say that the same could have been done in 1997, 2004, 2011, and finally in 2016. Yes, it could be done in 2020 as well. However, with what arguments would we convince ourselves? That we were going to lose the war? There was such an argument, indeed, but the July battles of 2020 influenced the assessment of the situation. True, the scale of hostilities was very small as compared to the war that followed: Azerbaijan’s elite units, Israeli drones were used in the July warfare. Nevertheless, we did not have a single loss on the battlefield. Instead, we had losses in the rear. The July battles, of course, played a negative role in the sense that Azerbaijan, realizing that it could not succeed militarily on its own, decided to involve Turkey and Syrian mercenaries. That was the decisive moment when we had to decide on unilateral concessions. Even before the July events, Azerbaijan’s ever-hardening rhetoric left no other option.
By the way, Azerbaijan’s anti-Armenian propaganda is the only factor that has existed over the past 15 years. Hatred of Armenians, unconditional recognition of Karabakh as Azerbaijan’s territory, incessant propaganda about resolving the issue by force had reached their climax by that time. Even against that backdrop, the negotiation process continued as far as the pandemic allowed. Our foreign minister was in close touch with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs. But, in fact, Azerbaijan did not enter into negotiations, clearly showing that its purpose in the negotiations was the transfer of territories without preconditions.
If we had said we agreed, of course war would have been averted. We could have stopped the war under such conditions as I stated on the first day of the war at a special meeting of the National Assembly as we declared martial law. But this option was not only unacceptable to me, but in those days I did not hear a single opinion that it should have been done.
Of course, there is a well-known counterargument to this: others, the public did not or could not have the information that the Prime Minister had, and, therefore, the Prime Minister had to make a decision based on the information he had. This is a correct argument, and the information that I had was that de-escalation of the situation or ending the war was impossible without catastrophic consequences for Artsakh and Armenia. And therefore, the decision was made to fight against such disastrous consequences. Maybe, the result is as much disastrous. However, now we can talk about the scale of that catastrophe only theoretically. Now we do not know what that other catastrophe would have been in practice, just as we did not know the practical parameters of this catastrophe back then. We only know that according to all possible scenarios there would definitely have been “lives” by the head of Shurnukh community, because the Kubatly region would be handed over to Azerbaijan according to all the scenarios described above, similarly there would be a border dispute over 20 houses in Shurnukh and Vorotan. But now we know that we fought for every inch of land before we reached the borders of Shurnukh.
Would we fight according to the scenario of a peaceful transfer? This means that the war should have started not at the approach to Horadiz, but at the approach to Shurnukh. According to this scenario, the war on the outskirts of Shurnukh is at least over, although now some are sparing no effort, doing everything possible and impossible for the war to start again on the outskirts of Shurnukh.
I know that this part of the article will give a fairly plausible argument in favor of the fact that in the case of a peaceful transfer of land through negotiations, our position in the negotiations would be much stronger, because we would act from the position of a winner and could get more. Well, we could have done so earlier, when Azerbaijan was much weaker in military terms. We had a winning position, but we have never used that winning position in the entire history of the negotiation process to ensure any concrete result.
There are other well-known “counterarguments” to the logic of the above part of the article. Some claim that they knew the scenario of successful continuation of negotiations and were going to implement this scenario in 2018 and beyond. This is the apogee of cynicism altogether. That is, Russia and the other Co-Chairs would refuse the plan proposed by them and the co-chairs would agree to recognize the independence of Karabakh, contrary to the position of Azerbaijan?
Again, if you could implement such a victorious plan, then you would implement it in Kazan? If you could implement such a victorious plan, then why did you not avert the Russian plan? If you could prevent the war, you should have prevented the war in April 2016, or would have implemented your plan for victorious negotiations before the 2018 revolution.
You may argue that you would have surrendered 5 regions, leaving two regions to tie in with the status of Nagorno-Karabakh? That is a logical argument. But why did Azerbaijan have to agree in 2018 or 2020 to what it categorically did not agree to in 2011, when in Kazan it refused to sign the document agreed at the level of the Foreign Ministers? Let me remind you that at that time Azerbaijan was less prepared for war.
Another sensational accusation has appeared of late; it says that with my statements I deprived Azerbaijan of all hope of achieving a result through negotiations, which made war inevitable. Please look at it more carefully. It turns out that the whole meaning and purpose of the negotiation process that people have been conducting for 20 years was to give Azerbaijan hope that it could achieve through negotiations what it wanted to achieve through war. This is what I am saying. I say that the purpose of the negotiations over the course of 20 years was to instill hope in Azerbaijan’s authorities, and in fact, I was the one to disappoint Azerbaijan against the background of said hopes. After all, which way and when would the strategy of instilling hope in Azerbaijan come to an end?
We instilled hopes in Azerbaijan, while it used to buy weapons and simultaneously recorded in various instances the “international discourse” on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the framework of its territorial integrity.
In fact, this part of the story treats of the reasons and factors behind the 44-day war. But, of course, it is also important to talk about the course of the war, the chances of victory and the reasons for the defeat, the signing of the statement of November 9, post-war events and, most importantly, the future of Armenia and Artsakh.
I will touch on these topics as needed. If it turns out that an article is still an acceptable genre for our society, perhaps I will do so in the form of articles. Time will tell.
I also realize that this article may be frustrating for anyone who is tired of discussing the past and wants to see the future. But conversations like this about the recent and not-so-close past are important to start an in-depth discussion about the future.
Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia