In a recent Foreign Policy article, Robert M. Cutler argued Azerbaijan’s military assault on Nagorno-Karabakh last year achieved what the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group couldn’t achieve after decades of ill-fated negotiations. Although Cutler is right to critique the Minsk Group’s inability to produce results, to suggest Azerbaijan’s so-called “military solution” has improved the prospects of long-term peace is a disturbing and dishonest proposition.
For the Armenian people, Azerbaijan’s military victory last November merely marked a new phase of suffering and persecution. Up to 100,000 Armenians were displaced as a result of fighting that saw Azerbaijan target civilian infrastructure, including homes, schools, hospitals, and cultural sites. Hundreds of prisoners of war and civilian captives still remain in illegal detention, where they have been subjected to torture, and an ongoing state-sanctioned campaign of cultural destruction has placed ancient Armenian heritage at risk.
This was the very outcome multilateral diplomacy sought to avoid—and the reason why Cutler’s expectation that “real peace and reconciliation” can proceed from this point is entirely unrealistic.
Although Cutler perversely attributes the failure of the OSCE Minsk Group to Armenia’s intransigence, its real weakness was its inability to compel Azerbaijan to address the root of the conflict: the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Cutler dismisses the issue by endorsing Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s claim that Azerbaijan’s military victory has made a status determination process for Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians redundant. In doing so, not only does Cutler legitimize Baku’s recourse to ethnic cleansing as a means of “resolving” the issue of status, but he grossly mischaracterizes the nature of the conflict.
The status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been contested since the time of the Armenian genocide, when the leaders of the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic collaborated with their Ottoman patrons in the annihilation of the region’s Armenian population, including in Baku, Shushi, and Nakhchivan. When the Bolsheviks eventually subjugated the region in 1921, they inherited a powder keg.
To secure Armenian support for Soviet rule amid fierce resistance, Nagorno-Karabakh was granted autonomous oblast status: an administrative division designated for small nations within the jurisdiction of a constituent Soviet Republic. However, despite assurances the majority-Armenian region would be placed under Armenian administrative control, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was handed to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) by a decision from the People’s Commissariat of Nationalities, then-headed by soon-to-be Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
This fateful decision, designed to win the favor of then-Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the support of his fledgling country, set into motion decades of political, economic, and cultural repression against Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population—laying the foundations of the contemporary conflict.
In an effort to remedy the injustice, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians began to call for reunification with the Armenian SSR as early as 1945. Attempts to petition the Supreme Soviet were often met with crackdowns. But in later years, with the reforms of glasnost and perestroika, a popular movement for self-determination started to gain significant traction in early 1988, when the NKAO’s National Assembly voted to reunify with Armenia and a subsequent referendum for reunification passed with overwhelming support among the region’s Armenian community, which constituted approximately 80 percent of the region’s population at the time.
These pleas would once again be ignored by the Kremlin. Betrayed by the promise of reform, by the end of February 1988, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were gathering in a series of unprecedented demonstrations that shook the Soviet Union to its core.
Azerbaijan’s authorities responded almost immediately by inciting pogroms against Armenians across Azerbaijan, including in Sumgait (February to March 1988), Kirovabad (November 1988), and Baku (January to February 1990), resulting in the destruction of homes and businesses, horrific abuses against civilians, and hundreds of people dead.
Most of the 400,000 Armenians living in Azerbaijan were forcibly displaced or fled as a result while those who remained became the victims of a ruthless campaign of ethnic cleansing known as Operation Ring. In response to worsening violence, the NKAO’s authorities conducted a second referendum on Dec. 10, 1991, in which a majority supported self-governance. This triggered a full-scale war that would end with Nagorno-Karabakh securing its de facto independence following a cease-fire mediated by Russia in 1994.
Although it was widely recognized that Armenians faced severe repression under Azerbaijani rule, the question of status always proved elusive during the OSCE’s negotiations—with Azerbaijan vehemently opposing any measure it saw as legitimizing the de facto independence of Nagorno-Karabakh.
For Azerbaijan, a fixation on “territorial integrity” was central to its objection of the OSCE’s status-determination efforts, as it repeatedly sought to advance the counterfactual assertion that the region’s indigenous Armenian population were so-called “occupying” their own ancestral lands. To that end, as Cutler does, Azerbaijan would routinely draw reference to four United Nations Security Council resolutions that took on an almost mythological status in Azerbaijan’s discourse surrounding the conflict.
Although Azerbaijan has sought to get as much mileage as possible from these resolutions, it’s not the smoking gun Baku would like to have the world believe. While the resolutions called for the withdrawal of ethnic Armenian forces from regions captured in the conflict, they never charged Armenia with occupation—nor contested the right of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians to self-determination.
Additionally, the provisions of the resolutions applied as much to Baku as to local Armenian self-defense forces, including its calls for all parties to respect international law, cease attacks on civilians, and ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance to affected civilian populations. As such, Azerbaijan’s siege of Stepanakert as well as its widely documented restriction of water, electricity, gas, and humanitarian relief to besieged civilian populations were all clear violations of the U.N. resolutions.
Azerbaijan and Turkey tried to get a U.N. General Assembly resolution passed in 2008 to reaffirm the language of “occupation” and preservation of “territorial integrity” that appeared in the security council resolutions. While it passed with 39 votes (with 100 states abstaining), Azerbaijan’s efforts were repudiated by the OSCE Minsk Group’s co-chairs Russia, France, and the United States, which all opposed the resolution and remarked in a statement that they viewed the measure as “selectively propagating only certain of those principles to the exclusion of others, without considering the Co-Chairs’ proposal in its balanced entirety.”
All U.N. Security Council resolutions urged the conflict parties to adhere to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (CSCE)—now the OSCE—conflict resolution efforts. Azerbaijan’s reluctance to cite this crucial aspect of the U.N. resolutions is likely explained by the fact the CSCE at the time explicitly called for the inclusion of Nagorno-Karabakh’s elected authorities in negotiations and was prefaced on an adherence to the CSCE’s founding principles—of which self-determination was paramount.
In fact, the principle of self-determination was enshrined in international law to resolve the very predicament Nagorno-Karabakh finds itself in today—included in the U.N. Charter and backed by a corpus of customary international law (including the Geneva Conventions) that has repeatedly reaffirmed the right to self-determination as preceding territorial integrity in cases where fundamental rights have been violated. This was best demonstrated in practice when the United States recognized Kosovo’s independence as the “only viable option to promote stability” in light of Serbia’s assault on the Kosovar people and its history of ethnic cleansing.
Azerbaijan’s refusal to accept anything less than full sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh made it impossible for the OSCE to fulfill its basic mission. Proposals to implement basic confidence and security-building measures necessary to facilitate peace were routinely rejected by Baku, including the installation of peacekeepers and cease-fire monitors, which it saw as consolidating Armenia’s alleged occupation.
In turn, Azerbaijan’s refusal to commit to a status-determination process—a central feature of every OSCE Minsk Group proposal—was a non-starter for Armenia, which feared what anything less than full self-determination would mean for Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian majority given the history of genocidal violence and persecution that has characterized the conflict for more than a century.
In the background of negotiations, Azerbaijan’s cultural genocide of up to 28,000 historic Armenian monuments in the region of Nakhchivan—which was almost entirely ethnically cleansed of Armenians in the 1920s—the honoring of an Azerbaijani officer convicted of beheading an Armenian soldier during a NATO training seminar, and institutionalized dehumanization of Armenians throughout all levels of society only reinforced the point that nothing short of status determination for Nagorno-Karabakh could ensure the safety of the region’s Armenian population.
That remains true to this day, as Azerbaijan’s rhetoric belies its claim that this war was merely about the restoration of “territorial integrity.” Praise of Enver Pasha—one of the architects of the Armenian genocide—at a victory parade in Baku, the issuing of a postage stamp depicting Nagorno-Karabakh being chemically cleansed, and the opening of a “war trophy park” featuring grotesque dioramas of Armenians being killed and taken hostage exemplifies the Aliyev regime’s unwavering commitment to racial antagonism.
Similarly, “cultural restoration” projects in regions that have fallen under Azerbaijan’s occupation have seen the erasure of Armenian inscriptions and cultural markers from centuries-old churches in an effort to deny the indigeneity of Armenians to the region, a point Cutler seems to affirm by characterizing Armenians as a “population occupying Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Azerbaijan has used this narrative war to not only justify its territorial claims over Nagorno-Karabakh but Armenia itself. More than six months after the November 2020 cease-fire agreement, Azerbaijani troops encroached into the southern provinces of Armenia, where up to 1,000 soldiers remain entrenched. Despite calls from the United States, European Union, and Russia to withdraw its forces, Azerbaijan has doubled down—claiming the Armenian region of Syunik to be its “ancestral land.” The inflammatory rhetoric recently drew a sharp rebuke from the European Parliament in a statement condemning a cease-fire violation by Azerbaijan that left three Armenian soldiers dead.
If one thing has been made abundantly clear in the aftermath of the war, it’s Azerbaijan is neither able nor willing to guarantee the rights of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population nor engage in good-faith negotiations over the future of the region, especially while Aliyev stands to gain from stoking enmity and mobilizing nationalist sentiment to consolidate his tyrannical rule. And with the conflict also serving as an impetus for deepening political and military ties between Baku and Ankara, it’s hard to see how a bilateral peace is remotely achievable—especially if that peace is on Azerbaijan’s terms.
Although status determination may seem a distant prospect in the current environment, abandoning hope for a comprehensive settlement would only ensure this bitter conflict drags on for years to come.
While Cutler insists Azerbaijan’s capture of the seven adjacent regions surrounding the former NKAO renders the OSCE’s status-determination mandate moot, in reality, Azerbaijan’s objection to any status-determination process for the portion of Nagorno-Karabakh now under the security umbrella of Russian peacekeepers suggests Baku never intended to honor the OSCE’s “concessions for status” proposal—proving Armenia and the diaspora’s concerns over the Madrid Principles to be well founded.
As has become clear in recent weeks and months, Azerbaijan’s ongoing aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians—which recently led Russia, for the first time, to explicitly accuse Azerbaijan of violating the cease-fire—and attempts to move the zone of conflict to the internationally recognized border with Armenia will persist so long as the question of status remains unresolved and Azerbaijan remains convinced of its ability to advance its territorial claims by force.
This makes Cutler’s advocacy for the Turkey-led “six-way regional cooperation platform” even more perplexing. Turkey and Armenia have no diplomatic relations, with the latter enforcing a border blockade against Armenia in concert with Azerbaijan. Efforts to normalize ties have been repeatedly spoiled by Turkey over its denial of the Armenian genocide and its overt support for Azerbaijan—a relationship that is often characterized as “one nation, two states.”
In light of Turkey’s provision of logistical, military, and political support to Azerbaijan during the war, including the supply of drones and Syrian mercenaries, it’s difficult to imagine how Ankara’s involvement would be conducive to peacebuilding, particularly in the context of its aggressive posturing elsewhere in the region.
Outside the moral and legal imperative for an internationally mediated status determination to ensure the security of the region’s at-risk Armenian community, there is a strategic imperative for multilateral diplomacy too. Normalizing territorial conquest and ethnic cleansing as a method of conflict resolution sets a dangerous precedent, particularly in a volatile region where one of the leading actors, Turkey, has made a habit of the practice in Cyprus, northern Syria, and—increasingly—Iraq.
Additionally, conceding regional influence to Russia and Turkey by allowing these revisionist powers to monopolize the terms of any conflict resolution process would strike a blow to the United States’ credibility and its purported commitment to human rights as the central pillar of its foreign policy—the impact of which would be felt far beyond the borders of the South Caucasus.
Although reducing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to a “territorial dispute” may be convenient, it is a fundamental misdiagnosis of the problem. Moreover, dismissing the Armenian people’s right to self-determination in the face of persecution and legitimizing Azerbaijan’s attempts to advance its position through ethnic cleansing is morally bankrupt.
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