BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
President Vladimir Putin of Russia made several important comments in his response to journalists on Nov. 17, regarding the recent Artsakh War ceasefire that he brokered between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Russian leader started by providing the background of the Artsakh conflict: “It all started in the already remote year of 1988, when ethnic clashes took place in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. Armenian civilians fell victim to these events, and later it spread to Nagorno-Karabakh. And since Soviet Union’s leaders did not react duly to these events… let me say it again: these are sensitive issues, and I do not want to side with anyone or decide who was right or wrong. It is no longer possible to determine this now, but it was necessary to put things in order and protect civilians, and this was not done. At that point, the Armenians themselves took up arms, and this protracted conflict, a conflict building for many years broke out.
Eventually, it led to a declaration of independence, sovereignty and self-reliance by Karabakh in 1991. The Bishkek agreements were signed in 1994 and this Bishkek memorandum stopped the hostilities at that time. What happened as a result? Karabakh declared independence, as I have said, and another seven adjacent regions came under the control of Armenians, that is, Armenia.”
In response to a journalist’s comment that “no one recognized Karabagh’s status,” Putin stated: “That is true: no one recognized it then or later. By the way, Armenia itself did not recognize it. …With regard to recognizing or not recognizing Karabakh as an independent state, there may be different approaches, but this undoubtedly was a significant factor, including in the course of the bloody conflict that I hope has ended. Because the very fact of the non-recognition of Karabakh, including by Armenia, has left a deep imprint on the course of events and the way it is perceived. To put it bluntly, after the former Georgian leaders’ undoubtedly criminal moves, I mean the attacks against our peacekeepers in South Ossetia, Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We recognized the expression of the will of the people living in Crimea to reunite with Russia as just, and we met the people halfway, we did so openly. Some people may like it, others may not like it, but we did it in the interests of the people who live there and in the interests of Russia, and we are not ashamed to speak about it openly. This did not happen with Karabakh, and this, of course, has significantly influenced the developments there.” Later in the interview, Putin added: “Armenia did not recognize the independence and sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh. In terms of international law, it meant that Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjoining districts were an inalienable part of the Republic of Azerbaijan.”
This is an important declaration by President Putin. Armenia has been reluctant to recognize Artsakh’s independence out of a concern of a backlash from the international community. It was feared that such a move would have disrupted the peaceful negotiations and could have possibly resulted in war or at least rejection and sanctions against Armenia by the United Nations.
Armenia’s leaders, up until Putin’s above comments, had no idea that not recognizing Artsakh’s independence was viewed by the Russian leader as a mistake, negatively affecting Russia’s support. During the past decades of negotiations with the Minsk Group of mediators, including Russia, one wonders if any of Armenia’s leaders ever asked Putin or his predecessors for their reaction to Armenia’s possible recognition of Artsakh. If Armenia’s leaders did not raise this issue, it was a major mistake. Had Armenia known that Russia would have welcomed its recognition of Artsakh, the subsequent events, including the recent war, would have turned out much different. Some Armenians had suggested that if Artsakh had been united with Armenia, that would have compelled Russia to defend Artsakh from any foreign attacks based on the mutual defense treaty between Russia and Armenia. As I suggested previously, maybe at this late stage, Armenia would finally listen to Putin’s advice and recognize Artsakh’s independence or unify it with Armenia in order to have a bargaining chip in the negotiations with Azerbaijan.
In response to another question regarding the status of Artsakh, Putin stated: “Yes, there is this problem since Karabakh’s final status has not been settled. We have agreed to maintain the status quo. What happens next will be decided eventually by future leaders and future participants in this process. I think if proper conditions are created for normal life and relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, between people in everyday life, especially in the conflict zone, are restored, it will create an environment for determining Karabakh’s status.” This response provides a ray of hope that with time, Artsakh may be able to attain its goal of securing an independent status. Interestingly, President Putin left such a decision to “future leaders and future participants in this process.”
Another question was regarding the territories surrounding Artsakh and the status of Shushi prior to its occupation by Azerbaijan. President Putin explained that the return of the territories surrounding Artsakh to Azerbaijan was first suggested by Russia in 2013 and supported by France and the United States. He said that this would have preserved Artsakh’s status quo “as an unrecognized state,” and its final status to be resolved in the future. Putin stated that there would have been no war if Armenia had agreed to the return of refugees of both sides to their previous homes.
Regarding the City of Shushi, Putin confirmed that its transfer to Azerbaijan was never raised. Putin recalled that 20 days before the end of the war, while Azerbaijan had only conquered “an insignificant part” of Artsakh, he had managed to convince President Aliyev to end the hostilities on condition that Azeri refugees would be able to return to Shushi, under Armenian control in the presence of Russian peacekeepers. However, Prime Minister Pashinyan told Putin that this condition is unacceptable to Armenia and continued the fighting, resulting in the loss of Shushi. President Putin added that there was no “treason” on the part of Pashinyan.
President Putin also made several important deferential remarks regarding Turkey. The Russian leader acknowledged that “Azerbaijan is an independent sovereign state, and has every right to choose allies as it deems fit. Who can deny it this right? This is my first point. Second, as I have already mentioned, nobody has recognized Karabakh’s independence, [not] even Armenia. What does this mean in terms of international law? It means that Azerbaijan sought to recover territories which Azerbaijan and the entire international community view as Azerbaijani territory. In this context, it had the right to choose any ally who could assist it in this endeavor…. You can assess Turkey’s actions any way you want, but it can hardly be accused of violating international law.”
It is noteworthy that Putin did not mention Turkey’s violations of international law by recruiting terrorists from Northern Syria and transporting them to Azerbaijan to fight against Artsakh. Given Russia’s multiple interests in cooperating with Turkey, it is not surprising that he ignored Turkey’s crimes.
President Putin gave an unexpected reason for blocking Turkish peacekeepers from joining Russians in Artsakh. He stated that it was because of “the bitter legacy of the past, the tragic and bloody events that took place during the First World War, the genocide. This is a factor that can be recognized or rejected; some people do and others don’t recognize it. This is not a problem for Russia; we have long recognized it. But why provoke the Armenian side by the presence of Turkish military personnel on the contact line? I believe that President Erdogan was and is fully aware of this.”
Finally, President Putin justified Prime Minister Pashinyan’s agreement to cease the hostilities. He added that any rejection of the signed agreement would be “suicidal” for Armenia…. “It would be a huge mistake.” Putin also acknowledged that even though he had good relations with Armenia’s previous leaders, Russia’s relationship with Armenia did not change after Pashinyan came to power. This statement could be explained by the fact that since the Armenian opposition is critical of Pashinyan signing the ceasefire agreement, Putin is reluctant to criticize him because his opponents, should they come to power, would reject the agreement which could possibly restart the war with Azerbaijan.