by Josh Lalonde 

A ceasefire agreement has been signed between Azerbaijan and Armenia, bringing an end to six weeks of fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. 

Now, to really understand how the fighting started, check out The Leveller‘s previous coverage of the conflict. But for now let’s simply say that… 

The fighting began on September 27 and has seen Azerbaijan recapture a large portion of the territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan originally lost this territory to ethnic Armenian separatists of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, also known as Republic of Artsakh, in an earlier round of fighting that ended in 1994. 

The ceasefire agreement was signed on November 9 and confirms Azerbaijan’s control over those territories. Armenia’s acceptance of the agreement amounts, then, to a conditional surrender to Azerbaijan. 

The reaction in the two nations — and their  corresponding communities in Canada — has been diametrically opposed, with Azerbaijanis celebrating the agreement as a victory and Armenians mourning it as a defeat.

Left: Mosque in Aghdam, formerly under Armenian control but handed over to Azerbaijan on November 20. Credit: Vahe Martirosyan/CC Right: Dadivank Monastery in Kalbajar, to be handed over to Azerbaijan under the ceasefire agreement. Credit: Sedrak Mkrtchyan/CC

An “Unbelievably Painful” Decision

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced the agreement on Facebook on the night of November 9, describing the decision as “unbelievably painful.” Arayik Harutyunyan, president of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, later announced his acceptance of the agreement as well. 

Both Pashinyan and Harutyunyan claimed to have been forced into accepting the agreement by the military situation. This situation hinged on the fact that, in the last days of fighting, Azerbaijan had captured the strategic town of Shushi (as it is known in Armenian) or Shusha (in Azeri). The town lies on a height above the capital of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Stepanakert. During the war in the 1990s, Shushi/a had a majority-Azeri population and was the source of intensive rocket bombardment of Stepanakert — until it was captured by Armenian forces and its Azeri population expelled. With Azerbaijan’s recapture of the town, the ethnic Armenian forces of the Artsakh Defence Army thus risked losing Stepanakert and the rest of the Nagorno-Karabakh region as well.

Azerbaijan’s military success was in large part due to its deployment of sophisticated combat drones — in particular the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and the Israeli-made IAI Harop loitering munition (“kamikaze drone”). The drones were able to destroy much of the Artsakh Defence Army’s heavy weaponry, including tanks, artillery, and anti-aircraft systems. Pro-Azerbaijan sources have claimed that as much as $1.9 billion (U.S.) worth of equipment was destroyed, and videos posted by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence showed the near-daily destruction of many pieces of equipment, although their exact value cannot be confirmed. 

The Artsakh Defence Army has listed the names of over 1,300 soldiers killed in action since September 27, with more being published since the fighting ended. The Armenian Ministry of Health has stated that it has examined the bodies of 2,317 soldiers, while an opposition politician and former diplomat has claimed that the true death toll is at least 4,750. At least one Armenian-Canadian, Kristapor Artin, was among those killed, after he volunteered to join the forces defending Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Azerbaijan also suffered heavy losses, but did not release names or numbers of soldiers killed. Russian president Vladimir Putin stated on October 22 that Russian sources estimated the total number killed on both sides as nearly 5,000, and intense fighting continued for several weeks after that. Dozens of civilians were killed on each side, as both militaries extensively bombed civilian settlements.

“While Canada and other international actors have expressed hope that the ceasefire can serve as the basis for negotiations towards a final settlement of the conflict, it seems more likely that it has served only to defer it.”

Content of the Agreement

Three previous attempts at a ceasefire failed over the course of the conflict, as each side accused the other of violating them within minutes of their coming into force. The key difference this time, however, is that this agreement provides for a Russian peacekeeping force to monitor the ceasefire. The mission is to consist of 1,960 soldiers and to last for five years, with an automatic extension of another five years unless one of the parties withdraws. 

Area of Peacekeeping Operations – As of November 20, 2020. Map derived from Russian Military of Defense map.

Other provisions of the agreement include the Artsakh Defence Army’s withdrawal from regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that they have held as a buffer zone since the war in the ’90s, with the exception of the Lachin corridor that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. A new road connecting Stepanakert to Armenia while avoiding Shushi/a, now under Azerbaijani control, is to be constructed. This corridor and road are also to be monitored by the Russian peacekeepers. 

A second corridor is to be set up through Armenia to connect the Nakhchevan Autonomous Republic, an Azerbaijani exclave, with the rest of Azerbaijan. This corridor would also provide the first road connection between the main body of Azerbaijan and its close ally Turkey.

The interpretation of one of the provisions, calling for the establishment of a “peacemaking centre” to “oversee the ceasefire,” has been disputed. Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev has stated that Turkish peacekeepers would be deployed under the agreement, which Russia has denied. On November 12, Turkish state-run media reported that a memorandum of understanding had been signed with Russia granting a Turkish presence in the territory newly under Azerbaijani control. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that same day that the Turkish presence would be limited to the “centre,” which would “be operating in a remote mode, using technical means of monitoring, such as drones,” rather than peacekeepers conducting on-the-ground patrols, according to the Russian state-run TASS news agency.

Reactions to the Ceasefire

Minutes after the announcement of the ceasefire, hundreds of people descended on Republic Square in the Armenian capital Yerevan to protest the agreement. They smashed windows on a government building and forced their way into the parliamentary chamber. Other protesters were said to be searching for Prime Minister Pashinyan. The National Security Service has arrested a group of former politicians and security officials it says were plotting to assassinate Pashinyan and seize power.

Seventeen opposition parties have called for Pashinyan’s resignation, and foreign minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan resigned a few days after the announcement. Pashinyan has accepted responsibility for the defeat but has so far refused to resign.

Meanwhile, in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, there were scenes of celebration with the national flag on prominent display. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris were displaced from their homes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh during the fighting in the ’90s, with many living in difficult conditions in refugee camps in Azerbaijan ever since. They now hope to be able to return to the areas recaptured by Azerbaijan.

Conversely, at least 100,000 ethnic Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh have fled the current round of fighting. It is unclear if they will be able to return to their homes now that the fighting has stopped.  Point 7 of the agreement does call for “internally displaced persons and refugees” to be returned to Nagorno-Karabakh, under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is unclear whether this refers to people displaced by the most recent round of fighting or to those displaced in the ’90s.

The international response to the agreement has so far generally been cautious. France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that the country was “analyzing” the deal, while the European Union’s Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said that he “welcomed the cessation of hostilities.” Turkey, however, which had backed Azerbaijan militarily throughout the conflict, congratulated Azerbaijan on its “sacred success.” 

Canada did not initially respond to the ceasefire. Two days after the signing, on November 11, Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne posted on Twitter that Canada “has taken note of the establishment of a ceasefire in #NagornoKarabakh. We’re working with our [international] partners to examine the terms and implications of this agreement. We continue to support the Armenian people with whom we share strong people to people ties.” 

The tweet also included an image containing a more detailed statement, which specifically called on Azerbaijan to fulfill its obligations under the ceasefire agreement and stated that “Turkey must remain outside of the conflict.”

With this statement, Canada has taken a more clearly pro-Armenian line than it had at the beginning of the conflict. This follows Minister Champagne’s decision to suspend export permits for optical equipment used on the Turkish-made TB2 drones that were so crucial to Azerbaijan’s victory. (For more on these drones and how Canada is the second-biggest supplier of arms to the Middle East, see the Leveller’s article “Canada & the Arms Trade.”)

The Azerbaijani and Armenian communities in Canada have markedly different responses to the ceasefire. The Network of Azerbaijani Canadians posted on Facebook on November 10 that it “welcomes the agreement”, as it “will also pave the way for the return of more than 750,000 internally displaced Azerbaijanis back to their homes, as well the Armenian community of Karabakh region of Azerbaijan back to their places of residence.” By contrast, the Armenian Youth Federation of Canada described the ceasefire as a “truly shameful agreement” and called the imminent handover of territory to Azerbaijan “the darkest days of modern Armenian history.”

Conflict Deferred

As of the time of writing, several hundred Russian peacekeepers had arrived in the area, and the Artsakh Defence Army had begun their withdrawal from the regions specified in the agreement. Some Armenian residents of areas to be handed over to Azerbaijan set fire to their houses before leaving. Others dug up the graves of family members to bring their remains with them. 

The handover of the Karvachar/Kalbajar district, scheduled for November 15, had to be delayed at the last minute until November 25, as the roads leading out of the area did not have enough capacity to carry all the Armenians leaving before it came under Azerbaijani control. The handover of the Aghdam region proceeded as scheduled on November 20.

An ancient Armenian monastery in the village of Dadivank in the Karvachar/Kalbajar district decided to send its bells and cross to Armenia, although it was later announced that the monastery would come under the control of Russian peacekeepers and remain open. Pictures have circulated on social media of another Armenian church, the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi/a, now under Azerbaijan’s control, spray painted with graffiti in Azeri.

While Canada and other international actors have expressed hope that the ceasefire can serve as the basis for negotiations towards a final settlement of the conflict, it seems more likely that it has served only to defer it. Many Armenians will want revenge for what they see as a humiliating defeat, and thousands of displaced Nagorno-Karabakh residents will want to recapture their homes. Azerbaijan has the upper hand for now, thanks to its sophisticated weaponry and alliance with Turkey, but should conditions change, the conflict could easily break out into open fighting again.

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