What’s Happening in Snowy Karabakh?
Last week, the heaviest snowfalls of a generation piled up across the eastern Caucasus, including northwestern Iran, the Talysh Mountains of Azerbaijan and across Armenia, where some areas reported drifts of over a metre deep. The conditions made life difficult for many residents across the region. The situation was particularly tough in Khankendi and other areas of former Nagorno Karabakh, which suffered from interrupted gas supplies following pipeline damage that caused a cut from March 22. The area, de jure within Azerbaijan, is politically sensitive with an ethnically Armenian population protected by Russian peacekeepers since the Second Karabakh War of 2020. Many locals were quick to believe that the cut in gas supplies was politically motivated, especially given that this was the second such cut this month. However, Azerbaijani sources contend that the cuts were themselves caused by the severe unseasonal weather, and that suggestions to the contrary are politicizing a situation of poor infrastructure maintenance.
The situation coincided with a significant uptick in skirmishes across the area supposedly guarded by Russian peacekeepers. In the most serious case, the Armenian side reported at least three deaths and 14 injuries in what was claimed to be an Azerbaijani advance around the villages of Pirler (Khramort in Armenian) and Farrukh (Parukh), northwest of Agdam. This, some Armenian commentators suggested, was part of a concerted effort from Baku towards the “complete expulsion of Armenians” from the region. The Armenian Foreign Ministry stated that the move by Azerbaijan “grossly violate[d] the Trilateral Statement of November 9, 2020” (which ended the 2nd Karabakh War). However, Armenian anger was directed not only against Baku for its purported territorial violations but also against Russian troops for not preventing the movements. The situation for Russian peacekeepers is complicated by the war in Ukraine, with some of the soldiers reportedly being transferred away from their monitoring duties to a more active conflict role in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry described Armenian reports as attempts to “mislead the international community,” insisting that its forces were simply “clarifying the location of positions” with “no reason for hysteria.” Clarifying any kind of location markers in such blizzards is hardly the easiest of tasks.
On March 26 and 27, statements from Russia’s Ministry of Defence accused Azerbaijan of “violating the provisions of the three-party declaration of the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia from November 9, 2020” by entering what it classified as "the zone of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping contingent of the Continental Armed Forces.”
Baku’s scathing responses rebuffed Russia’s claims and blamed the skirmishes on “members of illegal Armenian armed detachments attempted to sabotage the Azerbaijan Army Units.” A second Azerbaijani statement denied that their forces had changed their positions in Farrukh village, which, it underlined, was part of “the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan” while tauntingly noting the Russian statements’ misspelling of Farrukh as Furukh.
As of Monday, March 28, gas supplies to the Armenian-majority towns and villages in Karabakh have reportedly been reconnected, and calm appears to have been restored around Farrukh. But the twin issues have reminded all sides of the need for a sustainable peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia - something the parties have been working towards over the past several months. Only such a long-term solution can hope to eventually lessen the role of Russia in the region, aiding neighbourly coexistence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis both across their mutual border and within Azerbaijan. Recent events do indeed seem to be concentrating minds and a March 28 statement from Armenia’s security council invited Azerbaijan to “immediately start negotiations on a comprehensive peace agreement.”