Along the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, billboards were erected by the Russian peacekeeping mission: “Where there are Russians, there is peace”. “The Russian peacekeeping contingent keeps the peace.”
But after the recent escalation of tensions here, many Karabakh Armenians doubt those promises.
An outbreak of violence in early August left two Armenian soldiers killed, at least 19 injured, and allowed Azerbaijan to take a strategic height just north of this road.
The escalation has led to an unprecedented level of criticism of the peacekeeping mission, which after the defeat of the Armenians in the 2020 war against Azerbaijan is the only force preventing Baku from continuing its assault.
“The Armenians have returned [after fleeing in the 2020 war] because the Russians guaranteed them safety. But if they are here, they have to fulfill all their obligations,” Stepanakert resident Gayane Arstamyan told Eurasianet. “Their main job is to protect our lives in our homes, which they don’t do. If they don’t, let other international peacekeepers come to Karabakh; we’ll be okay as long as they actually protect and secure us.
At a cabinet meeting straight after the violence this month, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan recalled several other episodes in which Russian peacekeepers stood aside as Azerbaijan violated the ceasefire, and delivered a stronger rebuke to the peacekeeping mission than he had ever done before.
“On December 11, 2020, capture of the villages of Khtsaberd and Hin Tagher and Armenian soldiers by Azerbaijan in the presence and connivance of Russian blue helmets, on March 24, 2022, capture of the village of Parukh in Nagorno-Karabakh again in the presence of Russian peacekeepers, the constant and growing violations of the ceasefire along the line of contact, the cases of physical and psychological terror against the Armenians of Artsakh in the presence of peacekeepers are simply unacceptable,” said Pashinyan , using another name for Karabakh.
After the outbreak, the Russian Foreign Ministry said peacekeepers were “making every effort to stabilize the situation”.
But many were not convinced.
Most of the Armenian soldiers injured in the recent violence were injured by drone attacks, Karabakh de facto government officials said, and for many this has called into question Russia’s promises to control airspace over Karabakh.
A resident of Stepanakert, Hasmik Arushanyan, wrote on Facebook: “I am addressing [commander of the peacekeeping contingent Major General Andrey] Volkov personally. At one of your checkpoints, you [the peacekeepers] hung one attach: “Clear skies over Karabakh.” Do drone strikes fall from clear skies? How can I believe and trust you after this?”
The day after the spike in violence, Volkov met with several Karabakh political leaders and activists to discuss the situation, in an apparent admission of local public sensitivity. The meeting was not public but afterwards some of the Karabashi participants told the media that they were not satisfied with the Russians’ assurances that the incidents would not be repeated.
The Russians explained that they did not have enough resources and power to resist the Azerbaijani attacks, said one participant, Arthur Osipyan, the leader of the Revolutionary Party of Artsakh. The following day, a group of Karabashis, including some of those present at the meeting, staged a protest outside the de facto government headquarters in Stepanakert. They carried banners reading “Peacekeepers, where is the peace you promised?”, “Stop Azerbaijani aggression” and “Return Parukh and Khtsaberd”.
Most Karabashis have little contact with peacekeepers, except for the checkpoints the Russians have set up on the Lachin Corridor, the only road linking Karabakh to the outside world.
“I don’t understand what peacekeepers are supposed to do,” said Stepanakert resident Arstamyan. “I only see how they stop us at every checkpoint to see our documents on the way back. I, a 60-year-old woman, have to show my passport five times to be able to go home. That is certainly not what they were deployed for.
Many in Karabakh welcomed the peacekeepers when they deployed immediately after the 2020 war with Azerbaijan. The Russians provided various services to the Armenian residents of Karabakh: distribution of aid, support for the reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure, assistance in securing agricultural land in areas near the line of contact with Azerbaijani forces and assistance in negotiation the return of livestock that strayed into the territory controlled by Azerbaijan. areas.
But the effectiveness of the Russians seems to have diminished after the start of the war in Ukraine, some say.
“Everyone understands that Russia is weaker than ever on the international stage,” a de facto government official told a researcher at the Crisis Group think tank.
“With the increased importance of Baku for Russia, Azerbaijan feels more confident and understands that its borders are now wider than before the Russian-Ukrainian conflict,” Tigran Grigoryan, a Karabakh political analyst, said in a statement. a recent interview with RFE/RL. “And we can say that Azerbaijan is also probing some ‘red lines’ from the Russian side, wants to understand when Russia will seriously react to the issue.”
But even if the peacekeepers fail to prevent Azerbaijan from repeatedly taking small slivers of territory, others say that only the presence of the peacekeepers prevents a wider Azerbaijani offensive.
The presence of a 2,000-member Russian peacekeeping mission was stipulated in the ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 war. Another provision is the withdrawal of Russia’s own armed forces. Armenia, and although the Armenian side has recently given mixed messages on this subject, this withdrawal is either entirely or almost complete.
“The Russians and the Armenians have a common interest in this situation – we need them as a guarantee of security, and they need us to maintain their forces in the Caucasus,” said cafe owner Kristina Balayan. in the main town of the territory, Stepanakert. and ran for the de facto presidency in 2020, Eurasianet told Eurasianet. “If they don’t protect our security and the Armenian residents leave, they [the Russians] will also leave. We must cooperate to protect our common interests.