Remarks by APRI Armenia President Lara Setrakian
September 21, 2023
I’m very grateful to the Candid Foundation for hosting us today and for the chance to meet Mr. Alili of the Caucasus Policy Analysis Center.
I wish everyone here a Happy International Day of Peace.
To quote what mediation expert Laurence Broers told me two weeks ago, every outstanding issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan had a potential solution. The key missing step was a genuine and peaceful dialogue between Baku and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.
And now here we are, with a new record of violence against that population.
Azerbaijan skipped over the opportunity to make a true peace with the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, to engage in talks that develop trust and lead to a meaningful model of peaceful coexistence. Before the military escalation on September 19 the local authorities had climbed down from their demands for independence. Another path was possible.
Azerbaijan now has a choice to make: to take steps toward establishing long-term stability in the region, or to perpetuate the cycle of violence and animosity, making the South Caucasus an area of wars and immense human suffering. So far, President Aliyev has chosen the second path.
Azerbaijan is dangling existential threat and actual human misery over roughly 120,000 people as a way to quickly extract political concessions. And that approach seems to be working. After one day of shelling and nine months of food deprivation, Armenians have capitulated on the issues we expected to see at the negotiating table.
This is coming at a tremendous human cost, with civilians as the bargaining chips. When children went to sleep underground bunkers on Tuesday night, they went down there very, very hungry. When casualties mounted there were very few medical supplies. The entire blockade, it turned out, was softening the target, so the military offensive was an easy win.
Now, taking over Nagorno-Karabakh has been a goal of President Ilham Aliyev and his father before him pretty much since their family came to power in 1969. That’s a lot of time to plan for this operation.
As Laurence Broers, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, put it earlier this week, “Azerbaijan has a very strong commitment to coercive tactics. And it has been itching to do this for some time.”
Since the start of Azerbaijan’s military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, eyewitness accounts have described civilian casualties, strikes on civilian infrastructure, and widescale electricity cuts. Right now, thousands of people who want to evacuate are apparently stuck at Stepanakert Airport with no food or water. It is, quite frankly, a hellscape. It’s fairly clear at this point that an attempt at ethnic cleansing is underway. Life has been made unbearable for the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. They face hunger and bombardment if they stay in their ancestral homes, the only homes they’ve ever known. And a government in Baku that is talking about integrating them under its rule is the one doing it.
We expect to see many people flee as soon as they can. They weren’t rushing to leave before this operation began or before the blockade on December 12. So it would be, by definition, a coerced departure.
Whether the goal is to depopulate the region of its Armenians or leave a small, compliant group as a showpiece for international observers—both the means and the ends are a far cry from peaceful diplomacy.
At the think tank where I work, we don’t take a position on what the end result of the political or diplomatic process should be—only that it should be. We strongly believe that Armenians and Azerbaijanis should have a dynamic that is set by dialogue, genuine diplomacy, and real negotiations. Not the constant threat of force and the regular use thereof, with one party constantly threatening to eat the other for lunch.
Otherwise, that legitimizes and rewards the use of force. As one Azerbaijani expert said to my colleague, “Armenia will sign the deal that we want, with or without a bloody nose.” That is the definition of bullying. It is mafia tactics—the threat of force as a negotiating strategy.
It puts the region on track for continued turmoil. There is no way to get to a sustainable peace on this path. It also begs the question: what does Azerbaijan want? A stable South Caucasus, living by a rules-based international order, or a situation in which Azerbaijan uses its military and resource advantage to pulverize Armenia, or threaten to do so, every time Baku makes a new demand? The version where Azerbaijan constantly pulverizes Armenia will create a level of desperation, instability, and conflict, with Russia happy to continue as the referee.
So where do we go from here? How do we make the best of a bottomed-out situation? First, we need to understand what this week has wrought. Second, we need to be aware of what’s likely ahead. And third, we need to understand the role of Europe—the thesis of Europe’s participation, and Germany’s, in the South Caucasus. What is the meaningful, achievable path to stability in the region?
First, let’s understand what this week has wrought, the fallout of Azerbaijan’s military operation against Nagorno-Karabakh. Since the end of the 2020 War Baku has been able to use its military advantage to change facts on the ground while negotiating—or instead of negotiating—through diplomatic channels. It has regularly chosen to break away from negotiations or violate agreements when it loses patience or wants to escalate its demands. That set a dangerous precedent that has now become a clear pattern.
It has also shattered the sense that there is a good-faith negotiating partner in Baku. I feel very sad to say that—I hope there is room for genuine diplomacy. But for the time being Baku’s calculation is that it is better off waging war to get whatever it wants, then signing a ceasefire deal that codifies their gains. It’s a strategy of constant escalation and it is working. What message, what lesson does that send to other countries who have the power to overpower their neighbor?
Azerbaijan has also set a pattern of completely ignoring the norms and expectations of international mediators. Just five days before Azerbaijan began its military operation against Nagorno-Karabakh Yuri Kim, the US Deputy Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, said, “the United States will not countenance any action or effort to ethnically cleanse or commit other atrocities against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh … we have also made it abundantly clear that the use of force is not acceptable.” But it did, indeed, happen.
Domestically, Armenians are in a state of shock and disarray. The past week has weakened Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and created a real risk of political turmoil. Pashinyan had invested a great deal in the peace process with Turkey and Azerbaijan, trying to convince the Armenian people that it would work. He also clearly put a good deal of faith in the November 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan—the first point of which was a cessation of hostilities around Nagorno-Karabakh. To the Armenian population that now seems like folly.
The 2020 ceasefire agreement has now been stripped of its power, effectively shredded by Tuesday’s military offensive. That leaves a security vacuum. It pushes other parts of the deal, such as the opening of transit and economic links between Azerbaijan and Armenia, completely off the table. It also cancels the clause about connectivity links across Armenia, a land bridge that is commonly called the “Zangezur corridor” connecting Azerbaijan and Turkey—a long-held dream for those two countries. But that was all part of one comprehensive peace agreement that has been negated by Azerbaijan. Is Armenia still going to be expected to deliver the Zangezur corridor when both Azerbaijan and Turkey have backed the use of force, shredding the text and spirit of the 2020 ceasefire? Or is it going to be a pretext for additional military action by Azerbaijan?
Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan have established a dark pattern of geopolitical collaboration, at Armenia’s expense. Just after the start of Tuesday’s assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev posted an odd statement, saying that Armenia would effectively be punished for its growing collaboration with the West, and implying the loss of territory and even sovereignty as the price that Armenia would pay.
It is a strange and dark September in the South Caucasus. But this is where we are.
Moving on to the second frame we need to examine what’s likely ahead, which will be a vital test of how Germany, the European Union and the United States establish their readiness to support stability, human rights and democratic values in this region.
We are extremely likely to see more humanitarian upheaval. It could be a medium-sized crisis, if the situation immediately settles down and a massive amount of aid arrives to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. Or it could be a large-sized crisis, if the fallout from the military operation prevents people from getting food and water, or if there is a crush of refugees who want to leave and cross the border to Armenia, or if the offensive resumes. Or it could be a combination of those things. Some eyewitnesses say shelling continued even after Armenians agreed to meet the terms Baku had set. People living in Nagorno-Karabakh have no confidence that violence will subside, until life as they know it is completely erased.
Based on current trends from Baku we are also likely to see an expansion of the conflict in the near-to-medium term, spreading across the border into Armenia. As former US Ambassador John Heffern told me in a recent interview, “the 2020 war whetted Azerbaijan's appetite … that appetite is about more than Nagorno-Karabakh, it’s about encroachment into Southern Armenia.”
By that current calculus, there is no reason for the military escalations to end, because they work. And because Baku wants a land bridge to Nakhichevan and Turkey, as well as other gains.
Another dimension of what likely comes next, unfortunately, is the continued use of Armenia and Armenians as a convenient, common enemy in Azerbaijan—a domestic, nationalistic talking point. As Broers put it, “Azerbaijani society has been built around this axis of conflict with Armenia. How do they move on from Armenia as the bogeyman?”
Rather than preparing populations for peace, President Aliyev has planted much of that rhetoric at the state level, saying among other things that Armenians should be “driven out like dogs.” It is propagandistic dehumanization and it is very dangerous. That is going to have to change from the top down. The hatred against Armenians is so thick and so pointed in Azerbaijan that colleagues of mine in civil society, in Armenia—the peacebuilders—receive death threats and rape threats and are victims of cyberattacks from across the border, including cyberattacks using sophisticated software that’s generally purchased by autocratic governments around the world.
This is what the current situation is creating. And it makes it tremendously difficult for civil society to find common ground. It doesn’t give people the chance to even imagine coexistence.
President Aliyev can create a turnaround. He can act as the peace-seeking statesman and pillar of tolerance he portrays himself to be in international circles. He can take the hate speech against Armenians out of the media, the school textbooks and the state institutions. If not, we see what seeds are being planted for the next few generations: a cycle of escalating conflict and instability.
Finally, the third frame we should examine is the role of Germany and the EU. The EU needs to have a theory of itself in this neighborhood. European diplomacy matters here. Germany and France, as the leaders of Europe, have a vital role to play and there are concrete things they can do:
Safeguard to the greatest extent possible the security and basic human rights of the people living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Create mechanisms for international humanitarian access and an assessment mission on the ground, possibly even a peacekeeping mission on the ground. There are many precedents for this and there are many options if there is political will.
Give the ICRC and UN agencies the resources they are going to need to handle the humanitarian fallout. It’s already chilly in Nagorno-Karabakh and it’s going to get colder with the passing weeks.
Use all means available to deter Azerbaijan from further military action. If this offensive succeeds for Azerbaijan without a diplomatic or economic cost then it will most likely happen again.
Expand support for civil society. You have in Armenia a democratic country that has made good-faith efforts to forge a peace with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Don’t let the light go out, just because Azerbaijan opened fire on the peace process.
Put a more substantial presence in Armenia, extending the EU Civilian Monitoring Mission beyond 2025 and expanding its capacities. Though it hasn’t prevented the military assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, it has changed the climate in Southern Armenia and created much more confidence in the stability of that region.
Make investments in infrastructure and capacity-building. That can be as simple as investments in roads, emergency management, or green, off-grid energy—because every time a catastrophe strikes the basic subsistence of many people goes up in flames.
Also, as a rhetorical point the European Union should not be calling Azerbaijan a “reliable partner” in energy when it violates human rights to an unfathomable degree. That’s an embarrassment to your own values and emboldens Azerbaijan to believe that those values don’t matter. That’s not the kind of partnership that proves advantageous in the long run. You want a reasonable partner in Azerbaijan that follows international norms and doesn’t become a menace to its neighbors.
What Europe does now matters. More diplomatic engagement leads to less danger in the South Caucasus. Less diplomatic engagement leads to more danger in the South Caucasus. There needs to be diplomatic and economic pushback against Azerbaijan for pressing its advantage by force, repeatedly and consistently.
Let’s close the chapter. Let’s figure out how to make it rational or even appealing for everyone involved to see peace through genuine diplomatic engagement as the best option of the day. The patterns of behavior are not currently set in that direction. But with real commitment from the mediators and a lot more committed action we can find a peaceful way forward.