The Armenian President has conceded his nation squandered opportunities to negotiate from a stronger position in Nagorno-Karabakh, as Armenia readies to withdraw from areas it has occupied for three decades around the contested territory.
Overnight, Armenia signed up to a Russian deal to end the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, after confirmation the mountainous region’s second largest city of Shusha had been taken by Azerbaijani forces.
Shusha’s fall marked a major turning point in the conflict, delivering a strategic victory to Azerbaijan, also known as the Azeris, who have made significant military gains in Nagorno-Karabakh since launching an offensive against ethnic Armenian-held positions in September.
Upwards of 5,000 people have been killed since the conflict reignited, considered the heaviest fighting since the early nineties.
Both sides have accused each other of targeting civilians, genocide, war crimes, and ceasefire violations. But neither side has accepted any blame.
n an exclusive interview with SBS News hours before the peace deal was confirmed, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian was insistent that Azeri celebrations over the reported fall of Shusha were premature.
“I do understand that in Azerbaijan, that getting inside Shushi has been considered as the greatest victory, and they were celebrating that, (but) this is not going to be the end of the war, unfortunately,” Mr Sarkissian told SBS News.
“Taking over one city, or another village, doesn’t mean that the war is finished. In fact, all wars, they finish at the negotiating table. They don’t finish at battlefields.”
Within hours of Mr Sarkissian’s statement, the peace deal was announced.
A ‘painful deal’
The agreement, which has sparked widespread public fury in Armenia, was signed by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Russia, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who described the decision as “unspeakably painful for me … and for our people.”
Under the Russian-negotiated deal, Azerbaijan will hold on to the military gains it has made over the past six weeks, Armenia will withdraw from regions it has occupied since 1994, while Russian peacekeepers will be deployed along the so-called “line of contact”.
Azerbaijani refugees will also be allowed to return to the region, under the supervision of the United Nations.
“We presume that the agreements reached will set up necessary conditions for the lasting and full-format settling of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis on the base of justice and to the benefit of Armenian and Azerbaijan peoples,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said of the deal.
Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh according to the Armenians, lies on the Azeri side of the Azerbaijan-Armenian border. It is internationally recognised as Azerbaijan territory, but is largely occupied and controlled by ethnic Armenians with the support of Armenia’s government.
Armenia has occupied a buffer zone around the territory, in contravention of UN resolutions, since 1994, after a brutal and protracted war with Azerbaijan saw tens of thousands killed and scores more displaced.
Mr Sarkissian said his country lost the diplomatic battle in the ensuing years, with Armenia negotiating from a position of weakness due in part to regional power Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan.
“Maybe you are right. We misjudged,” he told SBS News.
“Maybe we misjudged believing that we were still living in the classical world that international law, the international community, that somebody from Washington would pick up the phone and call the President of Turkey … and put a restriction on them.
“Well it doesn’t work like that now. The world has changed.”
Russian ploy to ‘weaken’ Armenian PM
News of the deal was met with fury in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. Armenians broke into government buildings shortly after the Prime Minister confirmed acceptance of the deal.
Questions are also being raised over Russia’s role in the reduced stake Armenian will now have in the region.
Moscow has long-standing, and strong, economic and military ties with Yerevan, but stopped short of publicly supporting the Armenians after the conflict reignited.
Russian affairs analyst Dr Leonid Petrov, from the International College of Management in Sydney, said that while the peace deal would be considered “an acceptable solution” for Armenia as it would “stabilise the situation”, it also “weakens” Prime Minister Pashinyan.
“The relationship between Moscow and Yerovan (has been) complicated by the recent democratic revolution which happened in Armenia, and the Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was democratically elected, which is a nightmare for the authoritarian Kremlin,” Dr Petrov said.
“I think that President Putin waited for the last four weeks in order to make all efforts to stop the conflict, but at the same time being rather lukewarm in helping Armenia, because helping Prime Minister Pashinyan wouldn’t be in the best interests of Moscow politics in the region.
“Moscow decided to weaken Armenia as much as possible, but not lose it completely.”
Earlier, Mr Sarkissian stressed that it is Russia, and Russia alone, who should be leading the negotiations.
“It’s only Russia that has good relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia was never involved in the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said.
“Armenia and Russia are strategic partners, but only Republic of Armenia and Russian Federation. It was never about Nagorno-Karabakh. Now Nagorno-Karabakh people were fighting on their own, with the support of Armenians, volunteers from Armenia, from diaspora, from everywhere.
“But they were on their own. Russia was not a part of this conflict. Russia was never a patron of this process.
“And it makes Russia a sort of a mediator that both sides can trust. And that is why we can trust Russia.”
Dr Petrov says the deal will help “freeze” fighting, but said there was a strong chance the conflict would flare-up again in the months or years ahead.
“I think it is just an agreement of convenience. At the moment it’s the best possible solution,” he told SBS News.
“(The) Armenian side has preferred to use this treaty and this opportunity to freeze the conflict, but freezing does not mean resolving.
“I believe that the political forces in both Armenia and Azerbaijan are so adamant to continue their political game and they probably are irreconcilable in many ways so that the conflict, sooner or later, is going to conflagrate again.”