A graveyard damaged by Azerbaijani shelling in Jermuk. Picture: © Hugh Bohane
Last month, in the early morning of September 13, Azerbaijan’s forces launched an unprecedented offensive on southern border cities (Jermuk, Sotk and Goris) inside Armenia’s territory. Azerbaijani and Armenian officials accused each other over the latest provocation.
According to Armenia’s Ministry of Defense, over 200 Armenian soldiers were killed. Azerbaijan reported losing 80 of its servicemen. The fighting was the worst the two countries have engaged in since the 44-day Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020.
The Nagorno-Karabakh (“Artsakh” as it is referred to by many Armenians) region has been fought over for generations. It is internationally recognized by the United Nations as part of Azerbaijan, however, the majority of its population are Armenian and claim to be part of Armenia (during the Soviet era, from 1920 until 1991) and independent since 1994, and wish to be autonomous under international law.
A building’s window with a bullet hole in Jermuk. Picture: © Hugh Bohane
For the past four weeks, there have been smaller-scale, on-off military skirmishes in various border towns which have put a further strain on the already fragile ceasefire.
In the past, Russia’s Kremlin, a traditional “ally” of Armenia by necessity, has taken on the role of maintaining peace between both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia’s military ties with Russia can be described as being caught between a rock and a hard place. Despite this, Russia did claim to have brokered a shaky ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the bout of unrest last September.
Still today, Armenia and Russia are both parts of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance consisting of six post-Soviet states which don’t include Azerbaijan as a member. There was some discussion led by Azerbaijani MP, Ali Huseynli, back in 2018 to consider Azerbaijan’s participation in the CSTO, however, that has yet to materialize.
An Azerbaijani mortar shell sticking out of a road in Jermuk. Picture: © Hugh Bohane
The historic diplomacy visit to Armenia on September 17 by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have signalled a new era of U.S. support for Armenia. In her address at the National Assembly in Yerevan, she condemned the “illegal and deadly attacks by Azerbaijan” on Armenia. This was later rebuffed as “Armenian propaganda” by Azerbaijan. She called for an “immediate ceasefire” and praised Armenia for “maintaining its democracy ever since the 2018 Velvet Revolution” that paved the way for Nikol Pashinyan to become Armenia’s current prime minister.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaking at the National Assembly in Yerevan. Picture: © Hugh Bohane
It is not surprising that the U.S. would choose to take democratic Armenia’s side at this time, especially in light of the current events in Ukraine, over supporting an authoritarian country such as Azerbaijan.
Speaker Pelosi is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Armenia in over 30 years and in August this year made a similarly whirlwind visit to Taiwan. The significance of her meeting with Armenian officials had many observers wondering if it might have the potential to undo Armenia’s centuries-long cooperation with Russia.
An Armenian citizen waves an American flag in Yerevan. Picture: © Hugh Bohane
The arrival of Speaker Pelosi saw thousands of people take to the streets in Yerevan, some of whom were seen waving American, Armenian and Ukrainian flags and chanting, “Thank you, Nancy.” Other protest cries that were heard were about ending Armenia’s alliances with Russia.
Erna Rohlandtian holds a sign saying: “We need international peacekeeping!” Picture: © Hugh Bohane
Amid the crowd, I vox-popped Armenian-Australian Erna Rohlandtian, a linguistics teacher, who shared her views on the current state of affairs inside Armenia.
“This is a crucial day for us because it means we have some hope of survival… our fight is merely for existence… we are not fighting for any land, we are fighting for freedom and democracy. We don’t want to be backwards like Russia and we don’t want to be a Russian colony. Russia is too powerful and we are only their hostage,” Rohlandtian says.
Rohlandtian went on to mention that in the past, “Armenia has lost many of its people and land” to Russian, Turkish and Azerbaijani “interests.” Moreover, she expressed her concerns about a proposed sovereign “Zangezur Corridor” linking two parts of Azerbaijan to Turkey (an Azerbaijani ally) and which would pass through Armenia’s southern region of Syunik.
Furthermore, Rohlandtian said that “Russia is supporting Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia” and that she would like to see Russia’s some 2,000 peace-keepers, who are currently in parts of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, replaced with international peacekeepers.
“Another thing I would like… are sanctions put on Azerbaijan and Turkey and to stop Israel from giving cluster bombs to the Azerbaijani military,” she said.
A hotel in Jermuk that was shelled by Azerbaijani mortars in September 2022. Picture: © Hugh Bohane
In the days following this year’s September attacks, videos on Telegram started to circulate of Armenian soldiers who had been tortured by Azerbaijani soldiers. One, in particular, was that of a female Armenian soldier who had been raped, had her eyeballs cut out… replaced with stones, and a severed finger put inside her mouth. Armenian netizens took to the internet to express their outrage on social media, pleading with international leaders to act and open a war crimes investigation.
In related news, Azerbaijan said it had recently uncovered what is claimed to be a mass grave of its executed troops allegedly by Armenian forces during the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war.
After high-level talks in Prague, on October 6, between Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and European Council President Charles Michel, an agreement to have a civilian EU mission alongside the border of Azerbaijan and Armenia for two months was reached.
On October 13, Armenia’s National Security chief announced that there is a peace treaty being discussed with Azerbaijan to finish the demarcation of the two country’s borders. The signing of the agreement is due to happen before the end of the year.
Hugh Bohane is an Australian multimedia freelance journalist who covers conflict and is currently based in Yerevan.