Nine months after Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a Moscow-brokered cease-fire deal to end six weeks of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh mostly on Baku’s terms, simmering tensions continue along the un-demarcated borders between the two former Soviet republics, with Russia, which now deploys around 2,000 peacekeepers in the region, apparently seeking to reinforce its presence in the region.
RFE/RL Armenian Service Director Harry Tamrazian spoke last week to Carnegie Europe’s Caucasus expert, Thomas de Waal, about the latest developments in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the role of Russia in the postwar period.
De Waal, in particular, believes that if there is some kind of agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan that guarantees the maintenance of Russian forces in the region, then Russia will embrace that agreement. “But I don’t think Russia is in a hurry to have an [Armenian-Azerbaijani] peace agreement. What they really want is a kind of period of stabilization of the status quo and the consolidation of the Russian presence,” he says.
Below is the transcript of the interview in which the British expert talks about this and other aspects of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun): Our exclusive guest today from London is Thomas de Waal. Tom, thanks for the interview. We see that after the end of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh hostilities didn’t end. The military confrontation has now a new geography. I can say that it has moved from the former Nagorno-Karabakh frontlines to the Soviet-era borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Now the confrontation and military standoff are even getting worse and worse, and we see that it is very intense in the Syunik region [of Armenia]. What is happening and why the Azerbaijanis are so aggressive in the Syunik region? By the way, not only Armenians are reporting violations of their borders in the Gegharkunik and Syunik region, but also I have some independent accounts, independent sources proving that Azerbaijanis indeed violated the Armenian border and penetrated into the Armenian territory a couple of miles. Please your comment.
Thomas de Waal: First of all, very good to talk to you, Harry, and to Radio Liberty as always. Yes, it seems that the big fighting was over last year, but the conflict certainly continues at a lower level unfortunately. And as you rightly said, the geography of fighting has changed. We are still seeing exchanges of fire on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in Syunik and Gegharkunik and also around Yeraskh between Yerevan and Nakhchivan, which, of course, those of us with longer memories recall was the scene of fighting back in January 1990. So, yes. And what’s going on? Well, I think what we’ve seen from the Azerbaijani side is an attempt to kind of enforce their vision of a new peace, enforced peace on Azerbaijani terms, which means putting pressure on the Armenian side as much as they can, until they meet resistance. They meet a bit of resistance from the Armenian forces, but they continue to enforce what they see as their vision of a peace, which involves their vision that the corridor between western Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan should run via Meghri or Syunik region, that they must get back their exclaves that they lost at the end of the Soviet period in Armenia, and probably most importantly they want to force the Armenian side to give up its claims to Nagorno-Karabakh itself. So, this offer basically is: ‘if we recognize your territorial integrity, if we stop and recognize the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, then the Armenian side must give up its claims for Artsakh or Karabakh and recognize the internationally recognized territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. I think this is the Azerbaijani strategy as we see it.
Azatutyun: We will talk about that a bit later. Now how would you possibly interpret [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev’s statements on taking back, as he claims, historical lands of Azerbaijan. In these claims he includes even Zangezur (Syunik), Lake Sevan as well as Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, which he calls Irevan. What’s your take on this? Why is he doing this?
De Waal: I find this a bit hard to interpret because obviously this contradicts what I was just saying about territorial integrity. So, I see this probably also as a kind of bargaining tactic by the Azerbaijani president. On the one hand, he is putting pressure on Armenia by these kinds of statements, on the other hand, he is also satisfying a domestic audience, particularly, the so-cold Yeraz group in Azerbaijan, which is quite powerful people who are the descendants of those Azerbaijanis who were born in Armenia. But certainly the intensity of these statements is something a bit new. I would need to remind you that Heydar Aliyev, the current president’s father and former president, was always talking about Azerbaijan within its recognized borders. There was no indication there of talking about expanding either into Iran as Abulfaz Elchibey, his predecessor, did, or making these claims on Armenian Zangezur. So, it’s a little strange how to interpret this. I don’t really take it seriously. But, of course, these statements continue. So, I see it more as a kind of rather tough pressure on the Armenian side.
Azatutyun: I guess, Tom, he [Aliyev] is a little bit obsessed with his military superiority over the Armenian military and on every occasion, wherever he goes, during visits to the territories that he took back, he always says something extraordinary. What do you think about it?
De Waal: Well, certainly no one can deny that President Aliyev scored a major political and military victory last year obviously with the support of Turkey. And this is his legacy. He has been in power since 2003, and 17 years later he for the first time achieved something quite remarkable. So, this is, I think, the source of his legitimacy in Azerbaijan. There are other problems in Azerbaijan, particularly economy is very fragile, very vulnerable to oil shocks. If the price of oil goes down, as we know, 60 percent of the budget is relying basically on oil and gas revenues… Certainly that’s a big shock for Azerbaijan. So, this victory over the Armenians is the source of his legitimacy. So, he is not going to give that up easily, he is not going to stop the pressure on the Armenians until he gets significant resistance to this idea, to this vision of what he wants to see as the kind of post-conflict settlement in the region.
Azatutyun: Tom, one thing is talking about taking back the territories that were part of your country, but now he starts threatening Armenia that he will take back what he claims were once Azerbaijani lands. It will meet with international condemnation. Do you think he realizes all this or he doesn’t care about it and is just posturing as a hero, taking pictures with his wife wearing camouflage? How could you explain these things? I think he is wise enough to understand that these claims are just ridiculous.
De Waal: Well, I think President Aliyev is very self-confident. He sees that people repeatedly told him not to go to war, he ignored that advice, and now he has certainly achieved what many thought was quite impossible last year. So, he is very self-confident. He has the support of Turkey. And Russia sometimes pushes back and sometimes doesn’t. As we know, Russia is doing this balancing act in the South Caucasus. I think it’s safe to say that Russia is using the situation not so much to protect Armenia but to improve its own presence and position in the region. So, I think Mr. Aliyev will keep on pressing, keep on trying until either he fails or gets what he wants.
Azatutyun: Why tensions are rising on the border with Nakhchivan, at the Yeraskh section? What’s the reason? This is a completely different geography. Is it possible that Turks are also involved there? As we know, they are very much integrated with Turkish security and military forces. Is there any Turkish element involved there or do you think it’s just another border tension?
De Waal: It is difficult to say. The Turks are certainly present in Nakhchivan. There is also the exclave, a very sensitive point of Tigranashen, or Kyarki, as the Azerbaijanis calls it, which is just north of Nakhchivan on the main road there. And this was always a crossroads, and as I just mentioned, Yeraskh was a location of fighting back in January 1990. So, there is nothing new here. I guess the question really is more – and which I ask myself – is the United States, in particular, going to exert its role, play its role as a significant partner for both countries and also as a co-chair of the Minsk Group and be more vocal. But so far we’ve seen very little of that. Maybe only if there is a greater escalation we will see more significant intervention by the Western powers, unfortunately.
Azatutyun: What do you think are the Azerbaijani intentions? It seems to me that they want a corridor connecting Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan through the Syunik region, while Armenia is suggesting that the Azerbaijanis be given the right to cross through the existing railroads and highways on the Armenian territory as Armenians should get the right to cross the Azerbaijani territory through highways and railways. And we don't know what the Russians want on the so-called Zangezur corridor. I guess the Russians would want to control the roads as well by deploying security forces along the road, along the highway, creating checkpoints. What do you think?
De Waal: Well, this is again I think a mystery. We had this trilateral government commission begun in January with the deputy prime ministers on this issue of transport connectivity. As we know, the Azerbaijani vision is that there is a corridor across Syunik/Zangezur, maybe across Meghri, the shortest possible distance. We know the Armenian vision, which is that it should go north – from Ijevan to Kazakh, it should be more on Armenian territory to bring greater benefits for the Armenian side. But what the Russian position is, I think it’s still not clear. Again I think as long as they have significant economic investment there, as long as it can be used as a north-south corridor for Russia which connects Russia to Armenia, Russia to Turkey and Iran, not via Georgia, but via Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Russians will be happy. But I don’t think that we are seeing a clear message from the Russians there, which I think is one reason why there is a lot of tension, because we don’t know what the Russians have decided.
Azatutyun: And what do you think about the Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh? Are they there to stay? Also, as we see more Russian troops will be deployed along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in the Gegharkunik region. What is happening here? Is Russia expanding its military might in the region preparing for something or it’s just interesting for Russia to expand its military base in the region?
De Waal: Again, I find it hard to say. Clearly Russia wants to be the arbiter, it wants to be there on the ground, it wants to have its forces on the ground. It is happy to see the Western countries marginalized. As for what is the future of the peacekeeping force in Karabakh, clearly the Russians would like to stay. Azerbaijan formally, as we know, has a veto power on the extension of that mission in 2025, so it is in four years’ time. On this there will be a lot of bargaining between Moscow and Baku. I am sure Russia will come up with lots of convincing arguments why it should stay. But as we know, that mission is also unpopular in Azerbaijan. So, I think it’s just too early to say what will happen. But unfortunately for the Armenians of Karabakh, this is basically something beyond their control.
Azatutyun: And Aliyev praised Russia’s role in making it possible for them to take back territories. They don’t hide it that Russian actions during the war were very helpful for Baku. But now they are expressing a concern that Russia might start arming Armenia again. In his last week’s [August 14] interview to CNN Turk television Aliyev said that he is concerned about statements of [Russian Defense Minister] Sergey Shoygu on starting the process of arming Armenia, modernizing the Armenian army. What would you say about this?
De Waal: Well, I think again this is everything we’ve been talking about, the balancing role of Russia – it’s a bit with Armenia, a bit with Azerbaijan. It balances between them and neither country is fully happy with Russia. There is this bargaining process which will go on and has been going on for years and will continue. And it is now particularly intense between Moscow and Baku about the presence of Russian troops in Karabakh. Every interview, every statement has a little bit of this, a little bit about how we support the Russians, but we’re not happy with them. I guess the same is true on the Armenian side. They see Russia as a stabilizing force, but they are also unhappy with many of the other actions from Russia. And so long as Russia is the only country which is prepared to be strong to intervene, to send troops, I’m afraid this is what the politics of this region will be for the next few years.
Azatutyun: Russia is still not interested in a peace deal between the two countries. It was long thought that Russia is not interested in getting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolved. Now suddenly some experts believe that Russia wants to solve this conflict. But it’s hard to believe that this could happen so quickly. And if that happens, Russia will lose all kinds of leverages over Azerbaijan and Armenia. What’s your analysis on that?
De Waal: … I think that Russia is playing a long game here. It wants to see stability obviously, it doesn’t want to see another war. Russia wants to reinforce the Russian presence there. If there is some kind of agreement which guarantees the maintenance of Russian forces in the region, then Russia will embrace that agreement. But I don’t think Russia is in a hurry to have a [Armenian-Azerbaijani] peace agreement. What they really want is a kind of period of stabilization of the status quo and the consolidation of the Russian presence.
Azatutyun: Now Aliyev wants Pashinyan to recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity after which he said Azerbaijan will sign a peace agreement with Armenia. But recognizing Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity means to recognize Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] as part of Azerbaijan’s territory, which Pashinian can’t do. He is asking Pashinyan for something knowing that it won’t be possible to do. What is the end game here? What is Aliyev trying to achieve?
De Waal: Well, I guess the Azerbaijani side is trying to slowly weaken the Armenian influence over Karabakh. And by putting pressure on Armenia itself he is encouraging Mr. Pashinian to focus on Armenia and less on Karabakh. I think that strategy is perhaps being successful. While there these problems with Syunik and Gegharkunik, Mr. Pashinian is not really thinking so much about Karabakh. Maybe that’s the tactics to keep up the pressure. I don’t think he expects Armenia to give up on the claims on Karabakh, but maybe Armenia will make weaker claims for Karabakh to talk less about independence, maybe start talking a bit more about autonomy and self-determination and less about independence. Maybe this is the strategy.
Azatutyun: Tom, don’t you think that recognizing Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity with Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] is impossible to ask from any Armenian leader? Perhaps it could be done only after the Minsk Group is able to bring the parties to the negotiating table to address the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
De Waal: Obviously, it is impossible for an Armenian leader to give up on decades of aspirations for the people of Karabakh. That will not happen. It might be possible in the future to talk about some kind of territorial autonomy for the Karabakh Armenians inside Azerbaijan, but Baku is no longer talking about that. So, again we have these completely contradictory positions. We have the Minsk Group still officially negotiating, but basically not able to do anything. And we have the Russians on the ground – a kind of short-term stabilization. It’s a very unsatisfactory situation I guess to anyone who wants to see this conflict peacefully resolved.
Azatutyun: Why do you think people voted for Nikol Pashinian? What his electoral victory means for the region, for the country?
De Waal: Why people voted for Pashinian? It’s hard for me to say, but from Armenians I’ve spoken to [I learned] they were choosing from what they called the lesser of two evils. They were voting for a government which had delivered some freedoms to open the country up. They were voting for a possibility of future free elections. And they were voting against Mr. Kocharian [former Armenian president and current opposition leader] and what they remembered from that era when a small group of people monopolized Armenia and businesses were all owned by a small group of people, and ordinary businesses had to pay big protection racket. I think they were choosing between an unsatisfactory present and an even worse past. That’s my view of what most Armenian voters were thinking about.
Azatutyun: And also, Tom, the Azerbaijani leader said that it’s unthinkable that any government that lost a war would be reelected by their people. He is like teasing Pashinian. You would hear the same line from the Armenian opposition. Kocharian and others would say the same thing almost in unison. What’s your take on that? Do you know any leader who was reelected after losing a war?
De Waal: No, but I guess there are also examples – most famously Britain in 1945 – when a leader lost an election after winning a war. So, maybe sometimes voters have other things on their mind. Maybe they blamed Pashinian for the defeat. He takes responsibility for that. But maybe some responsibility on the Armenian side also lies with previous governments for their military strategy or maybe failure of their military strategy. So, I think Armenian voters obviously took that into account. But they also looked at other factors – particularly about the economy and democracy.
Azatutyun: Do you believe that the war was lost also because of the failure of the previous governments to build up a strong army? What’s your take on that?
De Waal: Sure. Obviously, on the military side there was a failure which lasted many years in the previous administrations. The Armenian side was using 20th-century defenses against a 21st-century army, which had learned new technology. Clearly on the military side that was a big failure. And I guess also one could say – and I think this blame is shared between Yerevan and Baku – that there were many years when there were no serious negotiations, when both sides could have worked much harder at peaceful negotiations and considered serious compromises. But that never happened.
Azatutyun: Do you think the Minsk Group co-chairs will be able to convince the parties to come to the negotiating table? Will Azerbaijan accept the mediation of France, Russia and the United States? Also, now we are seeing that another international crisis is emerging on a full scale, the crisis in Afghanistan. I think this will take all international attention and the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict again will be forgotten. And it is very good for Aliyev.
De Waal: Well, I think this has always been the case. The Karabakh conflict has never been a first-order priority internationally. I mean it hasn’t been at the bottom of the list, but it has never been a first-order priority. There has always been something more important – Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, there have always been problems with China and Russia. I think it is not reasonable to expect that there could be a lot of international attention. But I guess the one thing to say is that I think it is clear to anyone that this conflict is not resolved. There is a deadline coming in 2025, which is about the renewal or non-renewal of the Russian peacekeeping mission. No one can pretend that this conflict is now over. I don’t think anyone expects the Karabakh Armenians to want to live peacefully inside Azerbaijan. There is a lot of unfinished business here. There is also the business on the Azerbaijani side of how those territories can be resettled and reconstructed. So, there is a lot of unfinished business. Maybe not today, but I think fairly soon the Minsk Group countries again will be forced to look at this issue and try to negotiate more seriously than now at this moment.
Azatutyun: Tom, do you foresee any military confrontation on a larger scale in the near future? What’s your prediction?
De Waal: Who knows what could happen in two or three years’ time or in 2025, as I’ve been talking about? At the moment, with all clashes here and there, ceasefire violations, while the border demarcation is not clear, this obviously can give occasions for fighting and for shooting, and unfortunately for people to get killed. But I don’t think we are talking about a large-scale conflict. I don’t think that it is going to happen at the moment. But certainly there is unfortunately a prospect for more serious fighting in two or three years’ time if not before.
Azatutyun: What do you think about the possibility of destabilization of Central Asian republics if the Taliban is able to penetrate and trigger civil wars in these countries? In that sense it would divert Russia’s attention from the Caucasus to Central Asia. Even Ukrainians are hoping that Russia will be very busy with trying to prevent this scenario in Central Asia, deploying more troops there. What’s your take on that?
De Waal: Well, I think it is certainly true that the Caucasus is not a top priority for Russia. I think last year President Putin felt compelled to act only to preserve the Russian prestige and some Russian interests in the region. But certainly the Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia – is not a major Russian priority. I don’t believe that President Putin thinks about it every day. I think he does probably think every day about the United States, about Ukraine, about Belarus. And as you say, there are growing security threats now in Central Asia, which I think indeed would push the Caucasus even further down the Russian list of priorities. That doesn’t mean that Russia will abandon the Caucasus. But I think it does mean that some of the people on the ground, the Russian generals in Karabakh, for example, will have more responsibility to take action.