Armenia and the Tragedy of Great Power Politics: An Interview with Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan

An in-depth interview examining the Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic cleansing in the context of the geopolitics of the South Caucasus region.

James W. Carden is a journalist and former advisor to the US State Department

Cross-posted from the American Committee for US-Russia Accord

Picture of Armenian protests in Martuni, Nagorno-Karabakh, 1988 (Armenian Museum of Photo and Video Material)

Last week in Yerevan, I sat down for a wide ranging discussion with Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan and Senior Research Fellow on Foreign Policy at the Applied Policy Research Institute (APRI) of Armenia.

We begin our talk by looking at the complex history of the region, the legacy of the Soviet era and the role energy policy played in Armenia’s deteriorating security situation. We also focus on several recent developments, including Azerbaijan’s revanchist foreign policy, its recent ethnic cleansing of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), the role of Israel and Turkey, and the possibility of a new war in the South Caucasus.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. – James W. Carden

JWC: Thank you for joining me today. Before we get to the most recent developments here, I was wondering if it might be useful to just quickly go through, for the non-expert, some of the history with regard to the Republic of Artsakh, also known more widely in the West as Nagorno-Karabakh. How did it go from being a frozen, fairly stable conflict in the 1990s and 2000s to what has happened over the past couple of years?

BP: In the early 20th century after the Russian Empire collapsed, Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence, and the two states engaged in skirmishes and wars for control of Nagorno-Karabakh in the period of 1918-1920.

Then the Soviet Union emerged, and in 1921, even before the official establishment of the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik party decided to grant Karabakh autonomy within Soviet Azerbaijan. Armenians were unable to oppose this because Soviet Russia was too powerful. But still, during the Soviet era, there were problems such as a deliberate policy to decrease the numbers of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and to artificially increase the number of Azerbaijans living there.

Several times, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh asked the Kremlin to allow the region to become part of Soviet Armenia – because this was Armenian land, after all, Armenians had lived there for thousands of years.

Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence as an independent republic. Then, after the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale war against the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. And, of course, Armenia supported the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

The war ended in 1994 with Armenia’s victory.

And as a result of the war, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, with Armenian support, controlled not only Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but also created a security zone around it: So starting from 1994, there was a de facto independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic with a territory of around 11,500 square kilometers.

Yet things began to change in the mid 2000s when Azerbaijan started to sell its oil and gas to Western markets, it lost interest in pursing a  peaceful resolution to the conflict because Azerbaijan saw that it could use its oil and gas revenues to purchase weapons and become stronger and stronger. All they had to do was wait for a good window of opportunity to take the Karabakh by force.

So starting from around 2008-2009 until 2020, Azerbaijan spent up to $32 billion on weapons, purchased mainly from Turkey, Israel and Russia.

Of course, Armenia also was spending some money on defense, but it couldn’t match Azerbaijan’s spending. That is why Armenia choose to become a strategic ally of Russia, it was hoping to use Russia as a counterbalance against Azerbaijan and Turkey, especially since the United States was supporting the establishment of the Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Georgia’s strategic partnership in order to facilitate the transit of Azerbaijani oil and gas via Georgia to Turkey and then onward to the world markets.

The situation rapidly started to change in 2015-2016.

First of all, Russia and Turkey’s relations started to change when Erdoğan decided to transform Turkey into an independent regional player. And this was good from the Russian standpoint, especially as relations between Russia and the West started to deteriorate around 2007.

The first harbinger of trouble was the four-day war in April 2016 that was launched by Azerbaijan. That war showed that the military balance was now hugely in favor of Azerbaijan. However, thanks to Russian mediation, the war was stopped. And then in 2018 we had the change of government in Armenia, the so-called Velvet Revolution, when Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist, former opposition member of parliament, came to power.

When Pashinyan came to power, there were concerns in Russia that this was another Western sponsored “color revolution”…

JWC: Do you think that that’s an accurate description of what happened?

BP: Frankly speaking, it’s very difficult to give a definitive answer to this. I’m not sure about Mr. Pashinyan himself, but there definitely were people who came to power with him who are critical of Russia, and these people are still close to Pashinyan, people who are part of the government or part of the ruling elite. 

These were people who were part of the NGOs and civil society, mostly Western-funded, and who, especially after 2014, criticized Russia and Mr. Putin for being an authoritarian, telling Armenia that we should decrease our connections with Russia.

They also wanted to make domestic reforms in Armenia, to modernize Armenia, to bring Armenia closer to Western standards of democracy, accountability, good governance, et cetera….

JWC: Does this perhaps also mean getting closer to NATO?

BP: Could be, but I think the general idea among people close to Pashinyan was that we should pull away from Russia as far as possible.

And there was also an understanding that you cannot do that without normalizing relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey – because it was very clear Armenia could never resist Turkey, which has the second strongest army in NATO. And the way to achieve normal relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey was to somehow solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Yet at first, for whatever reason, Pashinyan decided to pursue an even more hard line policy toward Nagorno-Karabakh than the previous government.

He went to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, in August 2019 and made a public declaration that Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia, period.

And Azerbaijan of course then used this as a justification for what they intended to do all along – they were simply waiting for what I have called their window of geopolitical opportunity.

And it came in the form of the pandemic in early 2020 which understandably distracted the world’s attention. At the same time, in the Spring of 2020, Armenia rejected a Russia-mediated plan to defuse the crisis.

So all this created a window of opportunity for Azerbaijan. And on September 27th, 2020 Azerbaijan launched a large-scale war which ended with a disastrous defeat of Armenian forces. At the end of the day, Armenia was forced to sign an agreement on November 10, 2020, which was much worse than the plan the Russian’s had just offered the previous Spring.

As a result of the 2020 war, Azerbaijan not only took all seven regions outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also 30% of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

JWC: So with that background in mind, maybe we could fast-forward slightly to the decision by Azerbaijan to implement the blockade in December of 2022. It was a nine-month long blockade that didn’t get a lot of attention in the West, but it clearly did a lot of damage to the civilian population there by preventing the supply of food, medical supplies, and fuel.

What prompted that decision? 

BP: After the 2020 war, Azerbaijan took 75% of Nagorno-Karabakh’s territory, and it was clear that Azerbaijan’s position was that the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic should be dissolved.

Azerbaijan was saying, okay, dissolve your republic, dissolve your state institutions, and anyone who would like to live as Azerbaijani citizen can live in Azerbaijan. If not, you can live in Armenia. Yet all the while they were waiting for some geopolitical window to finish off the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

When the Ukraine war started in February 2022, this created a situation where Russia was forced to shift its attention to Ukraine. As such, Russia was not able to play the same role in the South Caucasus as before.

So this was one of the things which made Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev balder, because prior to the Ukraine war, Russia’s position was very clear: Nagorno Karabakh’s de facto independence should continue under Russian control with Russian peacekeepers, and let’s wait until Armenian-Azerbaijan can reach to some compromise.

The other thing that happened as a result of the Ukraine war was that it completely ruined Russia’s relations with the West. And so, the West jumped into the Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiation process, pushing forward two additional formats, the Brussels format under European Union Council President Charles Michel, which tried to bring Aliyev and Pashynin together for talks, and the Washington format which brought the Armenian and Azerbaijan foreign ministers together.

And from the American perspective, the main idea was that, if a peace deal could be signed under Western auspices, this would decrease Russian influence in the south Caucasus.

But by October 2022, during European Political Community First Summit in Prague, Pashinyan signed an agreement recognizing Azerbaijan territorial integrity within the Soviet Azerbaijan borders, including Nagorno-Karabakh. He even said he no longer disputed the status of Nagano-Karabakh, he only wanted the rights of Armenians within the enclave to be guaranteed….

JWC: It seems pretty clear that that gave the go-ahead to Azerbaijan to move…

BP: I would agree – because when you agree that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, then the justification for there to be two states within one state evaporates.

So yes, the October 2022 statement cleared the way for Azerbaijan to demand the dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. And Azerbaijan’s logic was clear: If everyone, including Armenia, recognized that Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, then there can be no Nagorno-Karabakh Republic inside Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan then started to demand the dissolution of the state institutions of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and the dissolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh defense Army.

JWC: So two months later then the blockade starts…

BP: Yes, the blockade started in December 2022. Then, in April 2023, Azerbaijan established a checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor to make the blockade more comprehensive. And starting in mid-June, nothing entered Nagorno-Karabakh, zero. No medicine, food, basic staples, nothing.

Yet simultaneously, the West was pushing an Armenia-Azerbaijan peace agreement, the idea behind this being that, okay, if there is a peace agreement, then Armenia-Turkey normalization will be more tangible.

And Erdogan’s policy was that there could be no Armenia-Turkey normalization without an Armenia-Azerbaijani peace agreement.

So the West, while demanding from President Aliyev to lift the blockade, was still pursuing a peace agreement without mentioning the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Meanwhile, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians were saying, we’re not going to dissolve our republic and we’re not going to dissolve our defense army because without them we cannot live in Karabakh. We cannot live as Azerbaijani citizens.

And Azerbaijani decided that, okay, this is our window of opportunity to use force. And so they launched a so-called “anti-terrorist operation” against the Nagorno-Karabakh defense army on September 19, 2023.

Pashinyan’s response was to say that Armenia will not intervene militarily – it is up to Russia to protect the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

But the Russian position was, why should we start a war with Azerbaijan, if you yourselves no longer dispute the status of Nagorno-Karabakh? 

Russia was not going to start a war with Azerbaijan and ruin their relations with Turkey.

JWC: In other words, in their view, Pashinyan opened the door for this…

BP: Yes.

JWC: And it’s not our problem…

BP: This is especially true after the start of the Ukraine was in February 2022, when both Azerbaijan and Turkey became more important for Russia. After all, Turkey is very important to Russia in circumventing Western sanctions.

JWC: So in this particular war there were no regular units from Armenia. It was a war between Azerbaijan and the defense units…

BP:.. Armenia withdrew the last units of the Armenian army from Karabakh in early September 2022. So in September 2023, there was no Armenian military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh.

And remember, because there was a blockade for nine months, people were almost starving. And how do you field an army with starving soldiers? So everything favored Azerbaijan.

The military hostilities lasted 23 hours. And then Nagorno-Karabakh was forced to sign a capitalization. On September 28th, President Samvel Shahramanyan signed a decree to dissolve the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic by the end of 2023. And within eight or nine days, the entire population of Nagano-Karabakh left. By early October, only 30 or 40 Armenians remained in Karabakh out of a population of over 100,000.

Azerbaijan then arrested the leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh, including three former presidents. These people are now in Azerbaijani jails waiting for trial.

JWC: So what we have here then is a case of ethnic cleansing?

BP: Yes. This was de facto cleansing. I’m using the term de facto because I’m not a legal expert and I’m not an expert on international law, but yes, this was ethnic cleansing because within eight days over 100,000 people left their homeland where Armenians had lived for five or six centuries before Christ.

JWC: Since we’re on the topic of ethnic cleansing, right now we’re witnessing another case of it happening in Gaza. I’m interested in your view of the role that Israel has played helping Azerbaijan. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently editorialized that Israel has, in their words, “its fingerprints all over Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing in the Nagorno-Karabakh.” 

BP: Starting around 2009, Israel became one of the primary suppliers of advanced weapons to Azerbaijan. During the 2020 war, almost on a daily basis, Azerbaijani cargo planes were making flights to and from Israel. As late as September 2023, just before the most recent Azerbaijani attack, again, several cargo planes went to Israel and came back to Azerbaijan full of weapons. And there is even information that Israel continued to supply weapons to Azerbaijan even after October 7th.

Why is Israel doing this? 

Of course, Azerbaijan paid them several billion dollars, but I don’t think that the money was number one issue for Israel because Israel receives several billions dollars annually in aid from the United States. My understanding is that the number one issue for them is Azerbaijan’s agreement to allow Israel to use their territory for anti-Iranian activities. And we are speaking about covert activities, foreign intelligence, et cetera.

So Azerbaijan gave the green light to Israeli special services, especially its foreign intelligence service, to do whatever they want in Azerbaijan. Of course now they have access to that security zone around Nagorno-Karabakh, which borders Iran.

After the 2020 war Azerbaijan also constructed two airports in the territory it gained around Nagorno Karabakh. They are supposedly civilian airports, yet they are located very close to Azerbaijani-Iranian border – a distance of 30, 40 kilometers from the border. There are a lot of reports that Israeli military intelligence or foreign intelligence operatives are using these airports for operations against Iran.

JWC: There’s another discussion going on about the future of the Zangezur Corridor, located in the Armenian province of Syunik which borders Iran to the south, and would connect Azerbaijan to Turkey via the Nakhchivan enclave. If Azerbaijan decides to militarily force this corridor into existence, there’s a real possibility of a military response from Iran, is there not?

BP: Iran has stated many times that it’s absolutely against any change of borders. Iran conducted two large-scale military drills along the Iran-Azerbaijan border in October 2021, and also in October 2022, sending a signal to Azerbaijan that it’s opposed to the corridor being opened, especially if it is opened by force and part of Armenia becomes occupied by Azerbaijan. This would cut Iran off both from Armenia and from the Eurasian Economic Union.

And we know how much Iran is interested in developing relations with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The EEU and Iran had entered into an interim free trade agreement and negotiations are now taking place to make it  a permanent agreement.

JWC: So this has the potential then to really upset Russia.

BP: Yes.

JWC: Because the Eurasian Union has always been a special project of Vladimir Putin.

BP: Yes, there is that danger. 

JWC: So is there a sense now, and we’ll have to get into the events of the past couple of days, that things are looking ominous from an Armenian standpoint.

The rhetoric coming out of Azerbaijan in recent days indicates that they are perhaps laying the groundwork for a move into Armenia proper. Does it feel that it is almost inevitable that they’re going to launch an operation against Armenia proper in the near future?

BP: Azerbaijan was able to achieve its dream of not only taking territory but of ethnically cleansing it with zero consequences from anyone: Zero from Russia, from United States, from the European Union, or from any single European Union country.

And after receiving what seems like tacit agreement from the West with regard to its ethnic cleansing operation, Azerbaijan has apparently lost any interest in participating in any Western diplomatic platforms.

So now Azerbaijan has turned to Russia and Iran, telling both that the problems of the South Caucasus should be solved by the states in the region: Russia, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia. 

And simultaneously, Azerbaijan is sending signals to Iran and Russia saying that, look, we understand that you are not happy with the growing presence of the EU and US in the South Caucasus: It’s Armenia that is bringing them in, it’s Armenia that is doing everything to bring your adversaries and enemies to the region.

And I don’t exclude the possibility that by saying this, Azerbaijan is hoping to receive a green light from Russian and Iran to maybe punish Armenia once more.

JWC: So in this context, it seems somewhat unwise for the US and Armenia to be holding joint military exercises together during such a delicate time because it could provide, again, another pretext for Azerbaijan to attack, right?

BP: If Armenia continues to deliberately or inadvertently create a perception that Armenia wants to have more US and EU influence in the South Caucasus, something like trying to become the Georgia of Mikhail Saakashvilli, then Armenia will put itself against Russia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

And given that Azerbaijan is waiting for another window of opportunity to launch an attack against Armenia, then creating a perception that Armenia is putting itself against Russian and Iran, may provide this window opportunity for Azerbaijan somewhere in 2024.

And Russia might say to Armenia that, okay, legally I’m still your treaty ally. But you are now playing games with our enemies, you’re bringing more US and EU influence into the South Caucasus – so therefore you are acting against me. If Armenia acts against Russia, why should Russia protect Armenia? And Iran can say, okay, if you are saying that the US should be in South Caucasus, then you’re also acting against me, and in that case, why should I protect Armenia? Let your new friends in the US and European Union come and protect you.

And here, the big question is if Azerbaijan attacks Armenia, how can the US and EU protect us simply with economic sanctions?  And even if we do get the US to sanction Azerbaijan, will these really deter Azerbaijan? We don’t know what kind of sanctions Washington is considering. They are hinting that some package of sanctions are already prepared, but will they be effective?

Azerbaijan is not interested in peace negotiations sponsored by the West. And I don’t understand why Azerbaijan should now be interested in signing a peace agreement. Why bother? Karabakh is finished, the Armenians are kicked out. And as long as there is no peace agreement with Armenia, Azerbaijan can use this as a pretext or saying, okay, the situation is still volatile. It’s some sort of gray zone situation, especially on the border areas between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan could easily say: I’m not attacking Armenia. I’m simply taking my territories back. This is especially true when talking about the eight villages along the border that Aliyev is claiming are “occupied” by Armenia.

Right now they are saying, our patience is not endless. Armenia should return these territories peacefully or we will liberate our territories by force.

This is the same rhetoric which they used in the run up to the attack in September, creating the informational or psychological environment for justifying its attack and creating perceptions that what they are doing is not aggression against Armenia, but rather self-defense in order to liberate Azerbaijan territory.

JWC: Benyamin, thank you very much for your time and for taking us through these very tangled issues. There are a lot of moving parts and you’ve brought a lot of clarity to a very complicated situation. 

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