28 October 2020
The month-old war between Azerbaijan and Armenia is so low on everybody else’s list of concerns that when Azerbaijan won the war last Monday morning, hardly anybody in the media elsewhere even noticed.
Shortly after 8am local time on Monday, Azeri troops gained control of the road through the Lachin Pass. That is the sole land route between Armenia proper and Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave inside the borders of Azerbaijan that the whole war is about.
A new road further to the north, offering a quicker link between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, was opened in 2017, but it has been closed since 1 October, shortly after the war started, “for the safety of civilians (i.e. because of shelling from Azerbaijani territory).
Until Monday the Lachin road was crowded with Armenian refugees fleeing west to safety and Armenian troops and military supplies heading east to the war. Apart from one or two big strikes by Israeli-made LORA quasiballistic missiles (hypersonic, 400-km. range, GPS and television terminal guidance), the road was fairly safe.
But now there are Azerbaijani armoured vehicles across the Lachin road, and all of Nagorno-Karabakh is cut off: no more reinforcements, and more than half the Armenian civilian population of 146,000 people still there, trapped under constant shellfire and drone attacks. At least 2,000 people, most of them Armenians, have been killed in the fighting.
The outcome of the war was inevitable once it became clear that Russia was not going to intervene militarily to help Armenia, despite the fact that both countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Azerbaijan is clearly the aggressor in this round of fighting, but it is a CSTO member too, so Russia had to make a choice.
Azerbaijan has three times Armenia’s population and a great deal of oil, and Armenia is of no great strategic value, so Russia restricted itself to mediating futile ceasefires. The Azeris signed each time, but they knew they were winning and they never stopped their advance.
The most recent (third) ceasefire was actually negotiated with the help of the United States, and was supposed to come into effect at 8 am on Monday morning, but the Azeris broke that one too. As usual, they blamed the Armenians for having broken it within five minutes of its coming into effect (that is, at 8.05 am) – but they tweeted their protest at 5 am, which rather undermined its plausibility.
The Azeris did not commit to an all-out offensive until about ten days ago, confining themselves to probing attacks and random shelling until they were certain that the Russians would stay out. Then they sent an armoured column west along the Iranian border through territory that had been emptied of its Azeri inhabitants in the 1994 war.
The Armenians, outnumbered, overstretched and outgunned, did what they could, but by 22 October the Azeris had reached the Hakari river valley. There they turned right and headed north up the valley – and on the 26th they took Lachin. End of game.
It was a move that they would never have risked against a more mobile and better equipped enemy. The Hakari runs through the narrow strip of territory that separates Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia proper, so they had Armenian-held territory on both sides of them, and a 100-km supply line behind them that was overlooked by Armenian troops on the right-hand side all the way.
Fortune favours the bold, but it’s easier to be bold when you have total air superiority – Armenia has nothing to match Azerbaijan’s Turkish-built drones and Israeli-supplied missiles – and massive firepower on the ground. So now Azerbaijan holds the Lachin Pass, and all that remains is for Armenia to negotiate the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to its legal Azeri rulers (probably minus its Armenian residents).
That will be very painful for Armenians after a quarter-century of holding the territory, but they have no way of taking it back. They were bound to lose it in the end unless they could more or less match Azerbaijan’s military spending, and they couldn’t; the Azeri military budget was at least five times bigger, maybe more.
Like the Balkan wars of the early 20th century, nobody is in the right in the various wars that have been waged in the Caucasus since the old Soviet Union collapsed. The ethnic groups were already numerous and hopelessly intertwined, and Soviet policy deliberately made the situation even more complex.
The Armenians drove over half a million Azeris out of the territory of Nagorno- Karabakh and large adjacent entirely Azeri provinces in the 1992-94 war. Now the Azeri refugees will go home and 150,000 Armenians will have to seek new homes in Armenia proper. None of it is fair, but that’s how it still works in much of the world.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“A new…territory”; and “The most…plausibility”)