The Azeris have just cleaned the Armenians' clock. A month or so ago the frozen conflict thawed out and the perennial adversaries joined battle yet again in an Armenian enclave situated within Azerbaijan. The latter won, in no small measure thanks to Turkey, Israel, and the United States, but also because of dysfunctionality of post-Soviet Armenia itself.
The enemies do not even agree on the name of the place where they fought, which, historically, is rather usual in ethnically contested areas. The original ancient Armenian designation of the region is Artsakh. For the Azeris it is Nagorno Karabakh. That means "the Black Garden" with a Russian descriptive "Upper" or "Mountainous."
Surrounded by Azerbaijan, Artsakh has been a contested area from times immemorial. However, the Armenians have had a strong claim to the place for demographic and historical reasons. They have lived there for at least two millenia, including after the destruction of the last independent Armenian principality by the Muslims. Nonetheless, they survived without their state until the 20th century.
When free Armenia finally arose from the ashes of the Russian Empire in 1918, it wrangled over the enclave with the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, which also emerged as an independent entity at that time. At the time, the Armenians faced extermination in the Ottoman Empire, and, driven by pan-Turkism, the specter of death menaced the Armenian Republic, including Arsakh. The Soviet army invaded, however, and enslaved both the Armenians and Azeris. The former preferred Communist slavery to Turkish death.
In 1923, the Bolsheviks designated the disputed region as the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous District and the status quo remained unchallenged until 1991, when the local Armenians held a referendum in favor of sovereignty. Almost immediately a war broke out against Azerbaijan with atrocities and ethnic cleansing on both sides (1991-1994).
The Armenians prevailed at that time. The enclave became even more uniformly Armenian and Christian, now at over 99%. It proclaimed itself the Republic of Artsakh. With a bi-cameral parliament and a president, it is a democracy governed out of Stepanakert. For all purposes, Artsakh functions virtually as an integral part of Armenia, which maintains a narrow land corridor to the enclave. Yerevan is also virtually the only capital that recognizes the entity diplomatically.
Periodically, after 1994, fighting would break out between the adversaries but the hostilities tended to be brief and Artsakh invariably managed to maintain the status quo. This changed in the current war which lasted from September 27 to November 10, 2020. The Armenians lost. They were outmatched and outgunned. They agreed to cede much adjacent land to the Azeris except for the Nagorno Karabakh proper.
There were many reasons for the defeat. First, Armenia is poor, and Arsakh is even poorer. Neither can afford to maintain a top of the line, technologically advanced military unlike oil-rich Azerbaijan.
Second, it appears that the professional Armenian army's assistance to Arsakh was half-hearted at best. Reportedly, in addition to a rather negligible local military, it was mostly volunteers who flocked to the colors. For them it was a Christian crusade. But they were not enough to stem the tide. It was not only because Armenian volunteers were successfully countered by the Syrian and other jihadis imported by Azerbaijan.
All this, to an extent, reminds one of the developments in eastern Ukraine, following the Russian invasion in 2014. The Ukrainian volunteer regiments fought courageously; regular Ukrainian army tended to avoid armed engagements whenever it could and performed poorly. The opposite, secessionist side also consisted of volunteers, including foreign fighters, but they were under an overall Russian command, including, tactically, military intelligence officers. Most heavy weapons were Russian. However, in the current struggle in Nagorno Karabakh, professional Azeri military was paramount, and the jihadi volunteers served as adjuncts.
Although, unlike in Ukraine, there were no widespread defections to the enemy in Artsakh, there have been nonetheless complaints that the Armenian brass failed to acquit itself with distinction. Further, rumors of treason at the top have swirled wildly. At least one colonel was arrested for allegedly supplying the enemy with intelligence. One hears about summary executions of alleged high ranking traitors.
More seriously, the people have accused their elected civilian leaders of sedition. In Yerevan vicious riots broke out. Politicians were assaulted and beaten up. The crowd invaded the national parliament. The riot police and military had a tough time quelling the unrest.
The spirit at the Armenian grass roots is strong. The leadership is flaccid. Truthfully, the Armenians do not have much to choose from. It is either monumentally corrupt post-Communist oligarchs who fawn before Moscow or predictably spineless post-Communist liberals who defer to Brussels.
Putin shocked the Armenians for he refused to help them to victory but, instead, coerced them to accept a disastrous peace settlement. The folks are also disappointed that Iran did not move (except for reinforcing its military along the border with Azerbaijan) and that France was largely absent throughout the fighting.
Of course, as their default, the Armenians uniformly blame Turkey for all their travails, always fearing another genocide. But this time, the popular ire also includes the United States and Israel. Our State Department apparently OK'd the arms sales to Baku and the Israelis provided technologically advanced weapon systems, including drones, which the Azeris credit for their triumph. That assistance proved so valuable on the battlefield that during the post-victory celebrations a few in the crowds openly waved Israeli flags. Naturally, there was a sea of Turkish banners displayed prominently. Pan-Turkism galore.
As they evacuate, the Armenians leave scorched earth behind them, burning buildings, implements, orchards, and fields. They only leave their churches standing. Some of them are historical gems and pleas go out to the Russians to save them from the Azeri wrath.
As most weak people tend to, the Armenians believe that they fell victim to a plot. But there was no plot. The mighty are usually pretty brazen about their intentions. In this instance, Russia gets to insert its troops back into Azerbaijan; Turkey augments its influence in the region; and its Azeri sidekick acquires land and encourages former Muslim residents of Nagorno Karabakh to return. The U.S. is understandably happy that the killing stopped and it has convinced itself that it has secured Georgia's independence once again. France will be able to talk big about its garrulous leadership that made things better.
The international community accepts the assurances that we are only dealing with small border corrections. There probably will be no more enclave. The "corrected" Artsakh will abut Armenia proper, so the frozen conflict will be no more and peace will reign.
And thus everyone is happy. Except the poor Armenians.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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