Second Karabakh. Why it began and ended like that – RBK

Two interlocutors of RBC, familiar with the content of the negotiations, it is argued that this was due to the fact that Moscow has tightened its rhetoric in negotiations with Baku. In one of the last days of the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin had a “tough” conversation with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, RBC’s interlocutors say. The Armenian diplomat who participated in negotiations with Russia during the war also heard that Russia made to Azerbaijan “an offer that it could not refuse”. Press secretary of the Russian President Dmitry Peskov, when asked by RBC whether Putin threatened Aliyev with force, replied: “No. This is complete nonsense. “

At the same time, a few hours before the declaration of an armistice, under unclear circumstances, the Azerbaijanis near the border with Nakhichevan on Armenian territory shot down Russian helicopter Mi-24, two pilots were killed. According to official information, the helicopter accompanied the convoy of the 102nd military base, which was moving in the direction of Nagorno-Karabakh. President Aliyev apologized for this, he promised to punish those responsible, but the results of the investigation were never announced.

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According to an Azerbaijani diplomatic source, the war ended with the capture of Shushi, because Baku fulfilled its assigned tasks – it occupied this strategic height over Stepanakert, moreover, according to the agreements, Baku received three regions in addition to those that were captured during the battles.

Moscow also conducted an active information campaign. Russian officials, including foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin, claimed last October that mercenary fighters from terrorist organizations, including the Jabhat al-Nusra, banned in Russia, were gathering in Karabakh. “However, we cannot but worry that Transcaucasia is capable of becoming a new springboard for international terrorist organizations, from where militants can subsequently infiltrate into states adjacent to Azerbaijan and Armenia, including Russia,” – said Naryshkin October 6. In addition, in his words, “for the first time Turkey has so openly and unambiguously stood on the side of Azerbaijan”.

The first draft of the final document that ended the war appeared on November 7, the day of the fall of Shushi, RBC’s interlocutors say. On the night of November 9-10, the terms of the armistice were announced – the leaders of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan simultaneously signed it online. Armenia lost all seven regions of the “security belt”, as well as Gadrut and Shushi, cities of the former NKAO, and a number of other villages. The parties agreed to deploy nearly 2,000 peacekeepers along the new line of contact for a period of five years. In the next few days, equipment and Russian peacekeepers arrived at the Erebuni airfield. The parties tried to agree on their mandate, but any discussion of it rested on the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku insists on the recognition of territorial integrity and wants to discuss the parameters of the peacekeeping mission only with Moscow, without the participation of Armenia, says a Russian diplomatic source.

What preceded the war

Back in July, it became clear that everything was heading for a large-scale conflict – after the “Tavush clashes”, says a source to RBC, who participated in the meetings of the Security Council of Armenia before and after the start of the war. July, 12 a fight ensued on the border of the Tavush region of Armenia and the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan. It lasted for several days, several Armenian and Azeri servicemen were killed. The conflict itself was provoked by chance, but had far-reaching consequences, the interlocutor of RBC is sure. On the night of July 14-15, a march was held in Baku in memory of the martyrs – Azerbaijani soldiers who died in battles on the border. Tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis who participated in it demanded that the government start a war for Nagorno-Karabakh. The demonstrators broke into parliament, the demonstration ended in clashes with the police. After the rally, the issue of war became for Aliyev a matter of retaining power, the Armenian diplomat said. The fact that this episode was important was noted in a conversation with RBC and the interlocutor in Azerbaijan. At the same time, although in recent years Baku has officially indicated the need to resolve the problem through diplomacy, it did not hide its readiness to resolve the issue by force, he says, – the country was actively re-arming, buying weapons for several billion dollars, including for $ 5 billion from Russia

The “Tavush clashes” were preceded by a rather active negotiation process in 2019-2020. The parties discussed specific proposals for a peaceful settlement “on paper”. About it spoke in April 2020 and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In May, the sides were preparing to begin substantively discussing each other’s ideas, an Armenian diplomatic source claims. One of the fresh proposals of Yerevan, for example, was the rejection of the old division of the “security belt” into seven districts – instead, it was proposed to draw a new border of the NKR by coordinates. Such that it would be convenient for the Armenians to defend it in the event of an escalation. This approach would compensate Armenia for Azerbaijan’s unwillingness to immediately recognize the independence of the NKR. “Safety in exchange for status,” the RBC interlocutor characterizes the approach. However, due to the pandemic, all negotiations were paused.

History of the conflict

The active confrontation over Nagorno-Karabakh has been going on between Yerevan and Baku for almost 30 years. This region, whose population is predominantly Armenian, declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1991. In 1992-1994, immediately after the collapse of the USSR, there was a war for it, in which the Armenians eventually won. In addition to the territory of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Okrug, Armenian formations also captured several regions of Azerbaijan: completely Kelbajar and Lachin, Kubatly, Jebrail and Zangelan and partially Aghdam and Fizuli.

How the war began

The day and time of the beginning of the second Karabakh war came as a surprise for Yerevan, says RBC’s interlocutor in the Armenian government. This was confirmed by RBC and an interlocutor in the government of the unrecognized republic. According to him, the troops were brought to full combat readiness a day or two before the first shots – the NKR defense army is, in fact, an army unit within the republican army and is subordinate to it, the interlocutors in Yerevan and Stepanakert confirmed to RBC. Military service is in force in Armenia, and many conscripts served in the ranks of the defense army before the war (although de jure the NKR and its institutions are independent from Armenia). Now this practice has stopped, the interlocutors of RBC say.

In Moscow – at least at the diplomatic level – at first they did not perceive the outbreak of the conflict as capable of changing the status quo in the region, says a Russian diplomatic source to RBC. According to Baku, the Armenians were the first to attack and in response Azerbaijan launched an offensive. A year later, no evidence was presented that the war was started by Armenia or the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Yerevan believes that this was a planned attack operation from the very beginning.

What countries won after the war in Karabakh

At the end of September, thousands of women, old people and children left Nagorno-Karabakh – leaving the unrecognized republic for Karabakh men capable of holding weapons was closed. From the front-line cities and villages – Martuni, Hadrut and others – the mass exodus took place in a hurry, people took only the essentials, even left their pets, because they thought that the conflict would last no longer than a few days, as it was in April 2016. At the exit from the unrecognized republic, a traffic jam of many kilometers was formed. Stepanakert was also quickly deserted, which was hit by Azerbaijani artillery from the very first days. A few days after the start of the war, there were mostly military personnel on the streets of the NKR capital, and the few civilians who remained in the city spent the night in bomb shelters. Before the war, more than 150 thousand Armenians lived in the region, now, according to peacekeepers, only 53 thousand have returned, a Russian diplomatic source told RBC.

Azerbaijan advanced in two main directions: in the northeast on Martakert, in the south on Fuzuli and Jebrail. Several Armenian privates and junior officers who held the defense in the north, in a conversation with RBC, expressed the opinion that this was an auxiliary direction, there were no such fierce battles as in the south, but Azerbaijan constantly created tension to prevent the transfer of Armenian forces to south, where the main blow fell. The main targets of the Azerbaijani artillery and aviation in the first days of the war were air defense systems. After the war, Secretary of the NKR Security Council Samvel Babayan statedthat in the very first minutes of the conflict, the army lost about half of all air defense weapons.

For the first two weeks, the Armenian army quite confidently held back the offensive of the Azerbaijani army. The fiercest battles at that time took place in the south, in the Jebrail direction – the flat part of Nagorno-Karabakh and the only place where the use of heavy military equipment, in particular tanks, was possible. It was from the breakthrough that the front of the Nagorno-Karabakh defense army fell down.

On October 4, Ilham Aliyev announced the capture of Jebrail. This was the first major success of the Azerbaijani army in the south. On October 15, the Azerbaijani army occupied Hadrut, the first Armenian city of the former NKAO, and two days later, Fizuli. From that moment on, the situation at the front became disastrous for the Armenians. After the fall of Hadrut, signs of panic appeared in the leadership of Armenia, it became clear that assessments of the situation and forecasts were very different from reality, recalls the interlocutor of RBC, who worked in the government of the country at that time. On October 22, Aliyev announced the establishment of control over the entire border of NKR and Iran along the Araks River – the cannonade was heard in Goris, the first large city in Armenia on the outskirts of Karabakh.

How the parties tried to agree

Throughout the conflict, there were active negotiations on the cessation of hostilities. The first chance to stop the war appeared on October 7 – on that day, Putin’s telephone conversations with Pashinyan and Aliyev took place. Two days later, on October 9, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan flew to Moscow, Russia acted as an intermediary. The negotiations began at 4 pm and lasted 11 hours. As a result, the parties managed to agree on a truce. An additional condition was the deployment of several dozen observers in the region from each side along the line of contact – at that time, the Armenian forces left only Jebrail, an Armenian diplomat who participated in the negotiations told RBC. However, the ceasefire announced on October 10 was thwarted in the very first hours. Twice more the sides announced a ceasefire on October 17 and 25, already with the mediation of France and the United States (the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairing countries), but each time everything was disrupted in the very first hours.

Armenia and Azerbaijan clarified losses after exacerbation of conflict

Photo: Reuters

A week after the end of the war, Vladimir Putin said that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh could have ended in October, but the Armenian side refused to accept the ceasefire proposal, which was beneficial to it. On October 19-20, the Russian president had a series of telephone conversations with Aliyev and Pashinyan. And, according to Putin, he managed to convince Aliyev that the hostilities can be stopped. In exchange for the transfer of five regions of the “security belt”, Baku agreed to stop the offensive and deploy Russian peacekeepers along the line of contact, a source familiar with the content of the talks said. An additional condition was the return of Azerbaijani refugees to Shusha, who lived in the city before the start of the first Karabakh war (until 1992, Azerbaijanis made up about 90% of the city’s population). However, Pashinyan ultimately turned down the offer. Putin said that it was “unexpected” for him that Yerevan refused to offer to end the war on these terms, because “then the Azerbaijani armed forces regained control over an insignificant part, the southern part of Karabakh.”

This proposal differed from the final agreement in that Armenia would have retained two of the seven regions of the “security belt”, Kelbajar and Lachin, plus Shusha with Azerbaijani refugees in it, says the interlocutor of RBC. And now it would be “a completely different situation” in terms of security, he says. A border conflict like the one that took place in mid-November this year simply would not have happened, since such a section of the interstate border would not have arisen, he adds.

The Armenian side questions this interpretation of the negotiations. According to the interlocutor of RBC in Yerevan, no unequivocal agreement was received from Baku on these conditions. True, he makes a reservation, if such consent was given, it was only in a personal conversation between the leaders of the countries, and this may explain why he does not know about it.

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