War in Nagorno-Karabakh

nagornoA Russian brokered agreement affirms central role of Moscow in securing peace on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Peace deal

On 9 November the Presidents of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia and the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) signed a peace deal to end hostilities in the area from 10 November. Serious clashes had broken out since 27 September, when Azerbaijan (with the support of Turkish and Israeli military equipment and bolstered by mercenaries redeployed from Syria) launched a ferocious bombardment directed towards the liquidation of the Republic of Artsakh and the occupation of the entire area by the Azeri military forces and their mercenaries.

Though Nagorno-Karabakh has suffered greatly (evidence has emerged of Azerbaijani troops beheading Armenians and desecrating the dead), the agreement presents better prospects for future peace than previously. Why is this so? Amongst the various aspects of the agreement there are a few that are of exceptional interest and can be celebrated by anti-imperialists. These are:

1. 2,000 troops from Russia will now be deployed in the region (including along the Lachin corridor which connects Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia). The surest guarantee of peace will be the presence of Russian troops, a huge victory for Russia which will now secure a presence in the area, deter the encroachment of Turkey and mercenary forces into the region and act as a deterrent for any future scheme of blitzkrieg.

2. The Russian troops under the agreement are to be stationed for five years, with a five-year extension, unless one party objects, with a minimum of six months’ notice. It is to be hoped that perpetual renewal of a Russian military presence can protect the Nagorno-Karabakh civilians and ensure a strategic position for Russian diplomacy in the Caucasus.

For Armenians, many of whom had looked to build closer ties to the West in recent years, the war was a harsh reminder that Russia remains critical to their security. Because Azerbaijan’s main ally, Turkey, posed what many Armenians considered to be an existential threat, Armenians have come back “to our default position: the reflexive perception of Russia as the savior,” said Richard Giragosian, a political analyst based in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia (see Anton Troianovski and Carlotta Gall, ‘In Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal, Putin applied a deft new touch’, New York Times, 1 December 2020).

3. A construction plan will be determined within three years for the construction of a new route through the Lachin pass to connect with Armenia. The development of transport links (no doubt engineered so as to be well defended in any future conflict) will provide Stepanakert with a well defended supply line to Armenian territory. The development of peaceful trade and exchange, should lead to a normalisation of sorts in the relations between the various peoples of the region, reducing the threat of atrocities and murder.

4. The border service of the FSB of Russia will exercise control of transport communication and oversee new infrastructure linking Azerbaijan with the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region (an area separated from Azerbaijan by Armenian territory).

The presence of Russian troops in the control of transport in the area is of great significance. It ensures peaceful exchange between the warring parties, it assigns a strategic intermediary role to Russia in the internal affairs and interchange of people, goods and services between two former Soviet states, and in so doing it reduces the potential influence of Turkey or US imperialism in any similar endeavour and creates a common ground for the mutual cooperation of the three former Soviet countries. This result must be considered a great victory for Russian diplomacy.

Great victory for Russia

The words of Azad Isazade, an Azeri nationalist and former member of the Defence Ministry in the 1990s, should cheer the hearts of progressive people. Asked about the outcome of the peace deal he said “I don’t know how it will end this time, because there is no good example of Russian peacekeepers in the Caucasus… I am worried how it will end.”

Mr Isazade is quite correct in recognising that the presence of Russian peacekeepers is bad news for Azeri nationalism. If the Azerbaijanis had hoped to score a crushing victory, they have merely lifted a rock to drop it on their own feet. Having secured a handful of long-abandoned and neglected hillside towns, most in a state of complete dilapidation and decay, Azeri nationalism has now guaranteed the presence of Russian military forces in the region, a role they should have adopted in previous conflicts, particularly in the 1990s, but were too weak to fulfil. Their arrival is both a celebration of Russian military strength and a guarantee that the aggressive Azeri national project will never now be realised.

Peace deal unfolds

The New York Times carried the following report of the events immediately leading up to the peace deal:

In early November, Azerbaijani troops wrested the mountaintop citadel of Shusha from Armenian control, scaling the wooded slopes and fighting hand-to-hand in close combat through the streets. By Nov. 9, they were pummelling Armenian soldiers along the road to nearby Stepanakert, home to a peacetime population of some 50,000 ethnic Armenians, and an even bigger battle appeared imminent. Then Mr Putin, who earlier had tried to broker a cease-fire, stepped in. Azerbaijan that night accidentally shot down a Russian helicopter, potentially giving Moscow a reason to intervene. The Russian president delivered an ultimatum to Mr Aliyev of Azerbaijan, according to several people briefed on the matter in the country’s capital, Baku: If Azerbaijan did not cease its operations after capturing Shusha, the Russian military would intervene. The same night, a missile of unknown provenance hit an open area in Baku, without causing any injuries, according to Azerbaijani sources. Some suspected it was a signal from Russia that it was prepared to get involved and had the capacity to inflict significant damage. Hours later, Mr Putin announced a peace deal, and Mr Aliyev went on television to announce that all military operations would stop. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia said he had no choice but to go along, facing the prospect of even more bloodshed on the battlefield” (ibid.).

In an interview reported by TASS news agency, the role of President Putin was stressed by spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Good and constructive relations based on mutual respect with Baku and Yerevan helped Putin to mediate this settlement [of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh]”, Peskov said. In order to stabilise the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Putin spent ‘many and many days with a phone in his hand’ and personally controlled the developments, he noted. Putin also held talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“’In 2020, active combat actions in Europe right near our borders are something that certainly the world community must not allow to happen. In this case Putin’s responsible position, his efforts to stop this are certainly worth a lot and it’s hard to overestimate them’, Peskov stressed” (see, ‘Putin’s good ties with Baku and Yerevan help to settle Nagorno-Karabakh crisis – Kremlin’, TASS, 27 December 2020).

War crimes

Amnesty International and other imperialist hand-wringing raggle-taggle mercenary organisations are now starting to report on the videos of Azerbaijani troops circulated during the conflict. These videos were circulated in an effort to inspire fear and terrorise the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. As in Syria, civilians were beheaded and bodies mutilated. In a bid to cover up these crimes Amnesty equate them with those of the Armenians, conflating the bestial crimes of the aggressor with the violence of those attacked. In its headlines Amnesty obscures the fact that beadings and such like were committed by Azerbaijani troops and mercenaries whilst Armenians merely went in for murder. All these brutal acts, whether Azeri or Armenian have their origin in the aggression of Azerbaijan.

One video from the first incident shows a group of men in Azerbaijani military uniforms holding down a struggling man, while another soldier decapitates him with a knife. The executioner is identifiable as an Azerbaijani soldier based upon the type of camouflage of his uniform, the Azerbaijani flag on his shoulder and a patch with his blood type listed on his sleeve, as is standard among Azerbaijani soldiers. The victim is shirtless, and is wearing only his underwear and trousers. After the decapitation, the crowd claps and cheers loudly. In the second video of the first incident, the victim’s head has been placed on the nearby carcass of a pig. The men speak in Azerbaijani, and the camera’s microphone captures them addressing the victim with comments such as, ‘You have no honour, this is how we take revenge for the blood of our martyrs’ and, ‘This is how we get revenge – by cutting heads’. Sources have confirmed to Amnesty International that the victim was an Armenian civilian.

"A video from the second incident shows two men wearing uniforms consistent with the Azerbaijani military, including a clear Azerbaijani flag on one man’s right shoulder and a ‘cutaway’ helmet that is normally reserved for special operations forces. The victim is an older man in civilian clothes, who is pinned to the ground. He is filmed begging for mercy, repeatedly saying: ‘For the sake of Allah, I beg you.

"While the man speaks in Azerbaijani, he does not have an Azerbaijani accent. Amnesty International believes he was most likely an Armenian resident of Nagorno-Karabakh. One of the men is heard to say, ‘Take this one’ and hands a knife over to the other man, who begins to brutally cut the older man’s throat before the video abruptly ends.” (‘Armenia/Azerbaijan: Decapitation and war crimes in gruesome videos must be urgently investigated’, Amnesty International, 10 December 2020).

Use of weapons tested in Syria

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Alexey Malashenko, a Moscow-based political oracle, said the war was “a technological victory,” Whilst some of Malashenko’s commentary would fall short under scrutiny, he does give an interesting summary of the weapons involved.

Azerbaijan placed its bets on sophisticated, pricey weapons and new tactics battle-tested in the Middle East, while their foes relied on old Russian-made arms and obsolete stratagems they mastered in the 1990s, analysts say.

“Armenia-backed troops moved around in large groups or in trucks, their trenches were wide, but not deep, their artillery was barely disguised and stayed put for days, becoming an easy target for air raids.

“Their weapons were hopelessly dated, their fighter jets did not fly a single sortie, and their Russian-made Osa and Strela anti-aircraft missile systems were powerless against Baku’s most lethal battlefield upgrade – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones…

“Their technical and tactical disadvantages were obvious from dozens of videos the Azerbaijani military shot from drones that targeted these large groups, jam-packed trucks, shallow trenches and exposed artillery.

“The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone carry laser-guided bombs and have been battle- tested in Syria and Lybia; Israeli reconnaissance and patrol Heron and Hermes UAVs, and, lastly, ‘kamikaze’ Orbiter drones also made in Israel.

“Reconnaissance drones helped aim artillery fire that forced the Armenians to retreat” (Mansur Mirovalev, ‘Nagorno-Karabakh: How did Azerbaijan triumph over Armenia?’, Al-Jazeera, 22 December 2020).

Significance of Russian troops brought out in question to Zakharova

In a press briefing in December Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Zakharova responded to a telling question. The response was typically tactful and will not be quoted here (as it says nothing) but the quoted outburst from the Azeri parliament vice-speaker gives readers an insight into the real results of the peace deal and the practical changes resulting from the presence of Russian troops.

Vice-Speaker of the Azerbaijani Parliament Adil Aliyev said the Russian peacekeepers had no right to protect the villages that Turkish-Azerbaijani troops had tried to seize the day before. ‘Russia has no right to interfere with the Azeri special services’ antiterrorist operation in Nagorno-Karabakh and will suffer significant losses together with Armenia,’ he posted on his Facebook account. Can you comment on these statements?” (Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, Moscow, December 16, 2020).

With Russian troops on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh the Azerbaijani forces will have to play a much more careful game.

Armenia and Azerbaijan before 1917

The Russian empire before the Soviet revolution was a veritable prison house of nations. National minorities were unable to conduct their business in their own languages and the rights of the minorities were trampled underfoot. The Kirghiz poet Ali Tokombayev said,

Our language was covered with wormwood,

"With the darkness of ages, invasions and wars.

"Our language and people were prisoned”

This was the situation the proletarian revolution of 1917 inherited.

National discrimination” said the Bolshevik Congress in 1921 “rested up to now on the economic discrimination which was the product of history. This discrimination expressed itself primarily in the fact that these outlying sections of Russia, being in the position of colonies and semi-colonies, were forcibly maintained in the role of purveyors of raw materials of all sorts to the industrial centres of the country”.

This economic underdevelopment meant that the people were also deprived of cultural development. The development of a local intelligentsia was hampered, there was no literature save what the autocracy permitted, and the only schooling was in the seminaries. Not only were large sections of the people illiterate, before the Bolsheviks came to power a great many nationalities did not even possess a written form of their alphabet. The triumph of Bolshevism uprooted economic and cultural backwardness and discrimination. Transcaucasia, like Soviet central Asia, was transformed economically. These countries passed from colonial agrarian backwardness to agro-industrial technically advanced industry on a socialist economic basis in a matter of a few years. With this development came the great cultural development of the people.

Under Tsardom the national sentiments amongst the oppressed people could be used by the socialists in a progressive way in the struggle against Russian imperialism, the autocracy and the remnants of feudalism, but these sentiments were also used by the autocracy (and later on the bourgeois nationalists) to sow hatred, ferment pogroms and strife amongst the people. A desire to modernise Russia, to bring her social and political systems into line with the developing economic forces of modern capitalism animated discussions amongst bourgeois nationalists from the 1870s onwards. In Transcaucasia (modern day Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia) national groups sprang up in this period. One such group, the Meory Dassy, was a Georgian nationalist group that produced many adherents who went on to become prominent Mensheviks, collaborators with British imperialism and the Ottoman empire. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 these Mensheviks, in collaboration with imperialism and various other nationalist forces (Mussavatists in Azerbaijan and Dashnaks in Armenia), led anti-Soviet resistance in attempts to keep Transcaucasia divided and out of the socialist camp. These nationalists squabbled over resources, provoked pogroms and pitted one group against another in an attempt to hold onto power.

It was from this cauldron of contradictions that Leninism developed its national policy and the greatest contribution to Marxism on this question was made by the Georgian JV Stalin in his book Marxism and the National Question. Stalin and other prominent Bolsheviks from Transcaucasia waged a fierce struggle against the bourgeois nationalists and managed to forge unity amongst the oppressed peoples of Transcaucasia. This eventually resulted in the formation of Soviet Republics (Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia) and the existence of Autonomous Oblasts (Regions), such as North and South Ossetia and Abkhazia inside the Georgian and Russian republics, and Nagorno-Karabakh inside the Azerbaijan SSR. The Soviet approach to solving the national question, which guaranteed the rights of minorities and established autonomous regions within the republics, ensured that the Soviet Union was largely free of the internecine warfare that has ravaged large parts of the former Soviet Union and eastern bloc ever since the collapse of the USSR. A great strength of the Bolshevik party was that the national minorities trusted the Bolsheviks and provided the party with their best sons and daughters. Enjoying full participation in Soviet life in the Stalin epoch, many of the outstanding Bolshevik leaders, true proletarian internationalists, were from amongst the minorities of Transcaucasia.

Future prospects

In the last issue of LALKAR we said that “a peace keeping force made up of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries would be preferable to both the ongoing bombardment of Stepanakert, the prospect, no matter how dim, of a UN peace keeping force or the ongoing paralysis of the OSCE Minsk group (Russian, France and the USA). When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991 the CIS charter established a Council of Ministers of Defence that was later replaced by a ‘CIS Military Cooperation Coordination Headquarters’ based in Moscow. That body, if it still exists, is made up of the nine member states of the CIS, and must be considered the best placed political body to develop mutually beneficial proposals for avoiding armed conflict on the territory of the former USSR, and in particular the development of measures to prevent aggressive external encroachment into the former Soviet territories. Closer union of the peoples of the former USSR, even upon the basis of capitalist economic relations, is their surest hope for preserving their independence and avoiding the real prospect of a major conflagration with a hostile neighbour. Such a conflict would be used by US imperialism to undermine and destabilise the main political state in today’s world which poses a serious challenge to the total global dominance of US imperialism.”

The peace agreement reached in November presents a much brighter prospect than any that has emerged since 1991 because it is founded upon a central role for Russia. Russia as a mediator, Russian diplomacy, Russia as a link between former Soviet states, Russian military power as a deterrent to pogroms and nationalist blitzkrieg by aggressors and their imperialist backers. Closer cooperation and interplay between former Soviet states is to their mutual benefit, it is a guarantee of their territorial integrity, peace amongst their people, mutual benefit from economic cooperation and restriction of foreign capital in their respective economies.

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