EU Council President Charles Michel’s hastily-arranged visit to Azerbaijan and Armenia produced unexpectedly pro-EU sentiments by the leaders of both countries, which fly in the face of their years of cosmetic kowtowing to the Kremlin.
Yet skirmishes continued around the still undefined border, now more than eight months after Azerbaijan reversed three decades of humiliation by retaking long-occupied areas. The de-occupied districts were destroyed, looted down to bricks and wires, and rendered largely uninhabitable by mind-boggling amounts of landmine sowing by Armenian forces. More than 600,000 Azerbaijanis were ethnically cleansed.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said Armenian forces had fired on its positions all along the frontier. Armenia said its troops were shot at near border areas.
Though the two countries have never formally agreed on where exactly the border runs, the reality lies in some cases in disagreements over a few metres or a kilometre or two at the most. Azerbaijan has reported no military deaths and just a few injuries, while Armenia says one of its soldiers died in an accident involving the mishandling of firearms.
EU HIGH VISIT PRODUCES WORDS BUT LITTLE SUBSTANCE
Michel made his second visit to the countries in just a few months. This is a rarity and an indication of just how serious the bloc takes the fact that despite what was an unquestioned Azerbaijani victory late in 2020, the instability is dangerous and unpredictable.
Both Armenian Premier Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev feted the senior EU official and expressed a desire for closer ties, but the bloc was largely a non-factor during the three-decade war. Platitudes were many, details few.
“In fact, I would like to thank you for your commitment, when even before this visit, a few weeks ago, we had several telephone conversations to exchange views on the analysis of the regional situation,” Michel told Aliyev during a press conference in Baku. “At the same time, we had the opportunity to discuss in detail the remaining issues in order to reach certain solutions, and these options must be sustainable,” he continued.
Aliyev beamed about the EU becoming a strategic partner in the energy field, and his desire to see Azerbaijan become a key supplier of natural gas to Europe. This would essentially mean competing with Russia in terms of natural gas exports. A natural gas pipeline reaching Italy was completed at the end of 2020.
“An important part of our agenda, of course, is related to energy security. And here we can only note major successes, I would say, historical achievements, in particular, the completion of the Southern Gas Corridor project. On the last day of last year, an event took place that has truly historic meaning – the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, the last and fourth segment of the Southern Gas Corridor, was put into operation. From January 1 to the present, more than 3 billion cubic meters of natural gas have been exported from Azerbaijan to the member states of the European Union, in particular Italy, Greece and Bulgaria. Of course, the volume of natural gas exported to the European market will grow,” Aliyev said.
He went on to detail the scale of destruction in the now de-occupied territories of Azerbaijan from Armenian occupation.
In the Armenian capital, where Michel made his first stop, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said ties with the bloc had never been better.
‘’I would like to emphasize that the European Union is one of Armenia’s key partners in bringing this ambitious reform agenda to life. Armenia is ready to continue active cooperation with the EU and the EU member states, focusing on the implementation of institutional reforms, the establishment of the rule of law and the strengthening of democratic institutions’’, Pashinyan said.
Last week, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said its troops came under sustained fire from large calibre weapons in the Kalbajar district, which Armenian troops occupied for almost 27 years. Armenia was forced to relinquish the district in November 2020 after its forces were routed by Azerbaijani forces in other long occupied areas of Azerbaijan. Kalbajar is a stunningly beautiful mountain area and was home to 60,000 Azerbaijanis who were forced out. It was one of the subjects of unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding the Armenians leave, but they ignored the ultimatums.
Armenia said the claims on the part of Azerbaijan were part of a “disinformation campaign”. Its separatist proxies left in what remains of the former Soviet Autonomous District of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh said they had been fired upon in a different area. The separatists cling to only a small portion of the former autonomous district – accessible only via Azerbaijan – and the remaining population is estimated at 25,000-40,000 people. It has little economic potential or prospects and has lived on handouts from Yerevan or the international Armenian diaspora for years. Baku says it has no status and does not exist formally.
Baku said Shusha, Azerbaijan’s “cultural capital” and a historic mountainside city known for producing writers and scholars, and the crown jewel recovered by Azerbaijan after the years of Armenian occupation, came under attack from illegal Armenian armed groups using machine guns and automatic rifles, according to the defence ministry. It reported no casualties. In a separate incident, Azerbaijan also reported its forces came under fire along the edges of its exclave of Nakhchivan. It says one soldier was wounded and evacuated for medical attention.
Azerbaijani President Aliyev warned although Baku has already retaken most of the occupied lands, it might have to resort to more force to bring a full conclusion to the war in light of the latest events.
“We should be ready for war at any time,” he said. “But I am getting information that there is more talk that the conflict is not settled. This is a very mistaken and risky path,” he said during a meeting with war veterans in Baku.
He repeated his call for border delimitation and a full peace agreement.
“The sides should acknowledge each other’s territorial integrity, borders and give a start to the delimitation work,” Aliyev continued. International organisations are also giving positive signals on delimitation. If Armenia does not want that, it’s their deal. But they should think really hard about what will come after,” he said.
On Thursday, Aliyev went further, suggesting Azerbaijan was ready to use force to open a corridor – a rail and road route between the Azerbaijani Nakhchivan exclave and the rest of the country via a 40-km strip of Armenia – because Yerevan had refused to adhere to agreements to open it.
Moscow has 2,000 peacekeepers spread over a vast area. It has done little other than engage in platitudes about wanting to help the two sides officially demarcate their border.
The Kremlin is not fully trusted by either side, and this has been apparent in recent days and weeks.
Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, still in an acting role since he decisively won a snap parliamentary poll in June, took perhaps his biggest stab at Moscow yet by appointing a new foreign minister on Thursday who holds openly sceptical views of the Kremlin. He has no previous diplomatic experience.
NATO member Ankara and Moscow operate a joint “monitoring centre” in the looted, destroyed city of Agdam, which the Armenians systematically dismantled. Turkey was not explicitly mentioned in the formal November 10 armistice, raising speculation that the Kremlin only reluctantly accepted the Turkish NATO presence.
Turkey helped Azerbaijan build its army virtually from scratch over 25 years after it had lost many districts to the Armenians. And the final six weeks of the war was a total rout, with Azerbaijan using sophisticated “suicide drones” and a deft military strategy to decimate the Armenians, who, as members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Cooperation Organisation (CSTO), were using outdated World War Two style trenches and old-style tactics.
Armenia did hand over some important maps of areas it had heavily sown with landmines during its long occupation, though the layout of other areas is still a matter of contention. And still, others may have been hastily booby-trapped in such a way that no one may know where the death traps are. This greatly impedes the return of more than 600,000 Azerbaijanis to the now de-occupied territories.
While few analysts believe the ongoing tensions could erupt into a new full-scale war, the lack of a full peace agreement and the failure to establish diplomatic relations are destabilising. They prevent a full-scale peace agreement and the establishment of diplomatic relations.
No serious military analyst believes Armenia has any chance of re-occupying the Azerbaijani territories it was forced out of. It is not therefore clear what Yerevan’s objectives are. Officials in both Yerevan and Baku have for many years privately complained Moscow wants the conflict to continue in order to maintain its hold over the region through destabilisation.
Armenia PM Pashinyan’s win was attributed to war fatigue, economic ruin, and isolation. The 46-year-old writer and journalist said Armenia had no choice but to seek peace.
He long argued Armenia had no chance of holding the devastated lands and accused detractors, who never volunteered to fight, of hypocrisy.
Since Pashinyan won elections in 2018 during a “velvet revolution”, several high-level military officers have been arrested for massive corruption, down to hoarding stashed army rations meant for front-line, mostly young soldiers.
Pashinyan’s handover of landmine maps includes 300,000 disclosures of hidden anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in the areas of the former front-line areas of Agdam, Fizuli, and Zangelan have evoked threats against him of being a “traitor”. Experts say the mines, in addition to unexploded bombs, could take up to 15 years to clear. Armenia says Azerbaijan is still holding several scores of “prisoners”.
“These were the first steps,” EU Council President Michel noted. “In this case, on the one hand, the availability of mine maps is an important issue, and on the other hand, the problem of prisoners. At the first stage, this was resolved. We hope that other stages related to this issue will take place in the near future,” he continued.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) led a largely ineffective three-decade mediation effort. Still, it was scoffed at for being ineffectual, costly, and in the end, failed to halt hostilities. Armenia ignored four U.N. Security Council resolutions from the early 1990s to stop occupying Azerbaijani territory and argues it simply had no choice but to implement them by force.