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Under the Fog of Crisis: The 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict Explained

by | Jul 25, 2020 | Essay

Grigor Nemet is an activist and photographer based in Oakland. He runs a family-operated wine company called Kareen.

“Oh, Armenian people, your only salvation lies in the power of your unity.” – Yeghishe Charents

As the world navigates the uncertainty of a global pandemic, authoritarian power structures worldwide are using the fog of a crisis to strike at vulnerable targets, as they tend to do. Reports within the last month have shown the worsening treatment of Uighur Muslims in China, violent tensions escalating in Libya, and Putin’s 12-year leadership extension , which cumulatively highlight that global powers are taking clearly advantage of a pandemic to further their political—and harmful—agendas.

Such is the case of the recent attack on Armenian border villages by the Azerbaijani   regime. In the aftermath of several days of cross-border fighting, the situation remains tense, threatening to bring the region into full-scale war. After effectively defending its border, Armenia is again ready to assert its right to exist. At the same time, many global powers stand idle and unwilling to restrain Azerbaijan and its Turkish backers.

Cross-border skirmishes over the territory of Artsakh, or Nagorno Karabakh, are not a new occurrence. In 1988, when both Azerbaijan and Armenia were a part of the Soviet Union, Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh, or Artsakh, held a legal, Moscow-sanctioned referendum to peacefully exit the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic and enter the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, using Gorbachev’s newly reformed constitution. Since then, the two countries have effectively been at war over control of the region. Although Russia brokered a ceasefire agreement between the countries in 1994, bloody clashes have increased in frequency in the last decade and no peace agreements, which would allegedly be carried out by the multinational and poorly-organized OSCE Minsk Group, have been made.

Backed by the interests of British Petroleum, the oil-rich Azeri regime resembles a dictatorship within its borders, regularly violating human rights laws while facing no impunity from European countries. At the same time, the country probes Armenia’s military vulnerability in the porous borderlands of Artsakh, and now, regions in Armenia proper. Bolstered by the absence of a peacekeeping mission and a powerful regional ally like Turkey, Azerbaijan is empowered to ongoingly violate the 1994 ceasefire agreement, often by attacking Armenia’s military and civilian posts along the border.

Of the 170 countries that were signatories of the United Nations’ ceasefire endorsement in light of the global pandemic, Azerbaijan was not one of them. While much of the world was distracted by a deadly pandemic in July 2020, by which Armenia was among those most negatively affected in the region, Azerbaijan deployed its elite Azerbaijani Special Forces, otherwise known as “Yashma”, to stage a cross-border provocation.

On July 12th at roughly 12:30PM, an Azeri military vehicle crossed the Armenian border and proceeded to drive further into Armenian territory. Met with Armenian warning shots, the vehicle came to a halt, and four Azeri soldiers exited the vehicle. The situation intensified as Azeri elite units launched attacks on Armenian positions on the border in Armenia’s Tavush region.

As Armenian forces retaliated in defense, heavier equipment was used by Azerbaijan to shell the uncontested Armenian border villages of Chinari, Tavush, Movses, and Aygepar. In the few days that saw the heaviest fighting, Azerbaijan deployed highly advanced war equipment, including large-caliber mortars, heavy cannons, tanks, and drones made in Turkey and Israel. Among the targets struck by Azeri forces were a kindergarten, a PPE factory, a bakery, and civilian homes. In the aftermath of these tense days, news of casualties emerged. Despite the imbalance, a far smaller and vastly outnumbered Armenian military was able to thwart the attacks.

As heavy fighting continued from July 12th to July 16th, a wide-reaching, diplomatic, and anti-Armenian media  campaign was launched, seemingly aimed at confusing the international community. Azerbaijani news outlets have a history of spreading false information and of being heavily policed by authorities. These news outlets sent out a propaganda blitz pointing fingers at Armenian aggression, claiming that Armenia provoked the conflict.

On the night of July 15th, a massive protest took place with an estimated 50,000 people in the streets of Baku, shouting pro-war and anti-Armenian slogans, demanding that the Azeri regime escalate the situation to a full-scale war.

Baku’s threats further culminated in the heinous promise that Azerbaijan is willing and able to launch a missile attack on Armenia’s Metsamor nuclear power plant, triggering a region-wide nuclear disaster. Western media outlets only then took notice, and reports of this threat were reported by high profile news outlets like Bloomberg and The New York Times. By this time, foreign leaders started to voice their concerns in traditional neoliberal fashion: by asking both sides to exercise restraint.

Again, Armenia faces an all too familiar global response of being asked to put down its weapons when its right to exist peacefully in its native lands is being threatened.

Meanwhile, Turkey, a member of NATO and Azerbaijan’s regional ally, has added fuel to the fire by backing Baku and making military threats towards Armenia. On July 17th, reports emerged that Ankara was actively recruiting Islamist militants from Afrin’s occupied Syrian territory, in hopes of paying them a monthly bounty of $2,500 and transporting them to Azerbaijan join the fight against Armenia. Earlier this week, Erdogan also released an alarming statement asserting that Turkey “will continue to fulfill the mission [their] grandfathers have carried out for centuries in the Caucasus.”

The EU continues to show its incompetence at weighing in on a rather grim and escalating matter, echoing to the world that it too can’t make up its mind on which side to support. The OSCE Minsk Group, the governing body, entrusted to guide these two countries to a peaceful resolution, is clearly unable to carry out its assigned and primary role, as demonstrated by decades of ongoing war.

Both Russia and Iran, Armenia’s regional supporters, have been tepid in their responses to the escalating situation, with Russia moving away from Armenia due mostly to its democratic revolution and a desire to get closer to the West. On the other hand, Iran is understandably irked by Armenia’s ill-conceived decision to open an Armenian embassy in Israel this year.

Within the past several days, cross-border skirmishes have slowed down, but tensions of the conflict have spilled into the broader diaspora. Reports of protests at Azerbaijani embassies and consulates in London, Washington, Los Angeles, and Paris have seen gatherings of hundreds of people on both sides that, at times, led to unfortunate physical altercations. Armenian schools and cafes are being vandalized. While Armenians are shouting to the world to listen and stop Azeri aggression, Azeri demonstrators utilize these protests to launch profanities at Armenians, including extreme threats of bodily harm towards female Armenian protesters.

In Russia, this tension took on another form. Moscow’s largest produce market, owned by Azerbaijani oligarchs, denied entry of 65 Armenian trucks for delivery of perishable Armenian apricots, a fruit that symbolizes the Armenian identity, to Russian markets. In a truly grassroots effort, the Russian-Armenian diaspora took to social media and organized locations around Moscow and other large Russian cities. These trucks were able to park and sell to local Armenians who were eager to buy from them. Within days, locals had purchased a majority of the apricots.

While successfully selling apricots was a small victory for the Armenia community, this demonstration of generosity ultimately shows us what we can do if we organize and come together. We must continue to do so. While the so-called leaders of the world stand idle in the face of yet another incursion on Armenian sovereignty by our neighbor, we must understand that only a collective Armenian response will send a lasting message to our aggressors that we are ready to defend our ancestral lands and fight for our right to exist. To quote our martyred national writer Yeghishe Charents, “Oh, Armenian people, your only salvation lies in the power of your unity.”

Grigor Nemet
Grigor Nemet is an activist and photographer based in Oakland. He runs a family-operated wine company called Kareen.