Op-ed: Who will step in for the people of Artsakh?

Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh (Photo: CivilNet/Ani Balayan)

By Karen Harutyunyan, Editor-In-Chief

In recent weeks, Azerbaijan has been using its information channels to prepare the ground for an attack on Artsakh. Azerbaijani media, public television, politicians and analysts are discussing a possible military operation against what they refer to as “illegal Armenian armed groups” in Karabakh (Artsakh).

It is difficult to say whether Azerbaijan will in fact attack Artsakh or not. But the danger is imminent.

If the attack does happen, it will lead to heavy human as well as territorial losses in the region.

At present, there is no real force or factor that can deter Azerbaijan if it resorts to aggression.

Russian influence and prestige in the region is on a downward slope as a result of the war in Ukraine, and especially after Yevgeni Prigozhin’s rebellion. The Russian peacekeepers stationed in Karabakh cannot even guarantee the delivery of basic foods and medicine to the region.

Despite Moscow’s and Baku’s contradictory stances on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Russian peacekeepers are unable or unwilling to mitigate violent incidents and provocations from Baku.

For example, the peacekeepers stood by on June 15 when Azerbaijanis attempted to hoist their flag on the Armenian side of the de facto border on the Hakari bridge. The incident was halted after Armenian forces fired warning shots. By standing aside, perhaps Russia is also trying to convey a message to the current Armenian government.

Russia is unable to organize a meeting between representatives of Karabakh Armenians and Baku, and at the same time, it continues to obstruct attempts at such meetings in a third country. Thus, while Moscow has lost its role as the main mediator, it has enough influence to disrupt other negotiation formats.

Washington is active in the negotiation process between Yerevan and Baku, but its goal – and in general the goal of the West – is the settlement of the Karabakh conflict, irrespective of the outcome or type of settlement.

This mediation cannot be effective when Russia, the only foreign power with a military presence in Karabakh, is out of the process. But it is also unlikely that Russia and the West will join in mediation as the two sides have conflicting interests in Karabakh.

Russia wants to freeze the conflict and keep Nagorno Karabakh under its oversight in order to retain military presence in the region. The west, too, wants a solution, but one that would eventually drive Russians out of the region, even if that means Armenians are ethnically cleansed from Artsakh. In case of such a scenario, the anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia will naturally deepen and may lead to the exodus of Russian military bases from Armenia in the long-run. This is in line with the interests of the West but bears great risks for Armenia.

The European Union sends observers to Armenia for border monitoring, carries out mediation, makes calls, but under no circumstances does it consider sanctions against Azerbaijan and is not likely to consider them in the future. Moreover, the importance of Azerbaijan for Brussels has increased during Europe’s recent energy crisis. The influence of the European Union is also limited by the fact that it cannot offer any sort of physical security mechanisms on the ground.

Armenia’s current government has put itself out of the equation when it comes to Karabakh. Yerevan provides financial assistance to the region, and expects Russia to provide security. But Russia is failing at this, making Armenia’s leadership reconsider its position when it comes to Russia’s presence. But the government doesn’t have a strategic plan for how it would ensure the security of Karabkah Armenians if there is in fact no Russian presence in the region.

There is widespread public backlash towards the government’s Karabakh policy, or the lack of it. But so far, this discontent has not manifested into public action.

The Artsakh government has found itself in a quandary with the impending danger of an unequal war, and the blockade’s consequences, which include food shortages, energy crisis and future uncertainties.

For more than two decades, the successive leaders of Nagorno Karabakh did not take into their own hands the responsibility for the future of the region. They passed that responsibility to Yerevan. Others were to think instead of them. They received money without conditions and without accountability. As a result, political thought has degraded over the years and has become incapable of tackling existential challenges.

The people of Artsakh are now completely on their own. Some people far away advise Artsakh Armenians to continue living without bread for the sake of national pride. Others recommend fighting and dying heroically.

As the situation heads towards war or a humanitarian catastrophe, who will step in to preserve the lives of the Armenians of Artsakh?

Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan has a heavy burden on his shoulders, and he should act with cold calculation.

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