Armenia's prime minister calls for Russian peacekeepers to halt war in Nagorno Karabakh

Ed Ram
·5-min read
Armenia's prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan - UNTV
Armenia's prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan - UNTV

Armenia's prime minister has said that he will accept Russian peacekeepers in the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh if it ends his country's increasingly costly war with Azerbaijan.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Nikol Pashinyan said that a neutral force of Russian troops was now the "optimal solution" to the conflict, which appears to be tilting decisively in Azerbaijan's favour.

His willingness to hand Moscow such a key role in Nagorno Karabakh's future may be seen as a tacit sign of desperation by Armenia, which has lost more than 1,000 troops and at least 100 tanks in just one month of fighting.

Azerbaijan, which has superior drone weaponry and military backing from Turkey, has already retaken large tracts of Armenian-controlled land and appears intent on recapturing the entire territory. While Azerbaijan has already rejected the idea of Russian peacekeepers, Armenia now sees them as the only way of preventing further losses of land and lives.

"I am in favour of deployment of Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone," said Mr Pashinyan in an interview in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. "But the problem is that deployment of Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone needs to be acceptable to all sides of the conflict."

An Armenian soldier fires artillery on the front line on October 25, 2020, during the ongoing fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani - AFP
An Armenian soldier fires artillery on the front line on October 25, 2020, during the ongoing fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani - AFP

Russia, which has good relations with both countries and sees itself as the regional powerbroker, said earlier this month that it would be willing to send a peacekeeping force to end the fighting. But Azerbaijan has so far rejected the idea, pointing out that as Nagorno Karabakh is still legally part of Azerbaijan, it has no obligation to accept third party troops there. Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliev, said that foreign peacekeepers could only be considered once Armenian troops had withdrawn from the territory. Armenia has ruled that out altogether.

Russia already has military bases in Armenia proper, and has long been seen as the ultimate guarantor of the former Soviet republic's security. But giving Moscow a peacekeeping role in Nagorno Karabakh would greatly increase Russia's political foothold in Armenia, at a time when the two countries appear to be on divergent political paths.

Mr Pashinyan, a 45-year-old ex-journalist, was swept to power two years ago after a "Velvet Revolution" led by widespread street protests against corrupt government. While he has been careful to maintain cordial relations with the Kremlin, his enthusiasm for democratic reform has put him at odds with Vladimir Putin's more authoritarian style.

"Armenia has now accepted the idea of Russian peacekeepers, reflecting the desperate situation that they face around Karabakh," said Dr Neil Melvin, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute. "They would like to use these forces to freeze the situation and build a new status quo around the territory they still control."

The fighting is the fiercest the region has seen since Armenian-dominated Nagorno Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.  Nagorno-Karabakh officials say that 1,119 of their troops and 39 civilians have been killed. Azerbaijani authorities have refused to disclose military losses, but claim that 90 civilians have died. Both sides have accused each other of indiscriminate shelling, and of violating two Russian-brokered ceasefires.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev has so far ruled out the prospect of Russian peacekeepers - Reuters
Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev has so far ruled out the prospect of Russian peacekeepers - Reuters

Azerbaijan, however, is widely regarded to have gained the upper hand in the conflict, thanks to Turkish and Israeli-supplied drones that have overcome Armenia's Soviet-era defences in Nagorno Karabakh's mountains. Azeri forces are now on the brink of cutting off the Lachin Corridor, the main supply route linking Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia proper. Military analysts believe that President Aliev plans to a full-scale military advance on Nagorno Karabakh's main cities before winter weather makes fighting too difficult.

With that prospect in mind, Christian Armenia is also appealing to the West to help end the conflict.  Mr Pashinyan said Europe should do more to stop President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey - a Nato member - from backing Azerbaijan. Mr Erdogan's backing for Azerbaijan, he said, was part of a new "imperialistic policy" designed to restore Turkey's Ottoman empire across Europe, the Middle East and the Caucuses.

"What is happening here is the continuation of the policy that Turkey is carrying out in the Mediterranean Sea against Greece and Cyprus and in Libya, in Syria in Iraq," he said. "The South Caucasus Armenians are the last obstacle on Turkey's path of continued imperialistic policies towards the northeast and the southeast."

Portraying Mr Erdogan as a common enemy for both Armenia and Europe, he also brought up Mr Erdogan's recent broadside against the French President, Emmanuel Macron, over the latter's response to the beheading of a French schoolteacher for showing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Mr Erdogan said that Mr Macron must be suffering from mental health difficulties after the French leader vowed to end Islamic"separatism" in France in the wake of the murder.

"Could you ever conceive of any country's official representative  possibly saying about the President of France in that tone?" Mr Pashinyan asked. "Who could conceive that 15 years ago?"

Describing Mr Erdogan's comments as a declaration of war, Mr Pashinyan said the Turkish leader was effectively lending sanction to attacks such as the beheading.  "We are seeing the centre of energy from which all of this is being encouraged," he added.

Additional reporting by Colin Freeman in London