1991: Internal conflict becomes international
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has a complex nature with elements of ethnicity, identity, and historical narratives closely interconnected with the territorial claims. This article is far from being an attempt to provide a detailed historical account of the conflict. An extensive literature exists on this topic. It should be mentioned though that the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan triggered by the Armenian claims to the Nagorny Karabakh region of Azerbaijan was left simmering throughout the Soviet period only to erupt with renewed intensity in 1988, when Moscow’s central authority over the periphery of the U.S.S.R. decreased and gave new impetus to the Armenian separatist tendencies in the Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) of the then-Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) of Azerbaijan. These tendencies quickly materialized into the secessionist movement, which was actively supported by the neighboring Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia, with the first instances of sporadic violence at the end of 1987. The unilateral attempts of the local authorities in NKAO to secede from Azerbaijan in contravention of the national and the Union legislation prompted the authorities of Azerbaijan to abolish the autonomy of the Nagorny Karabakh region.
The critical dates of the conflict are September 21 and October 18, 1991, when the Armenian SSR and the Azerbaijani SSR declared their independence, respectively. Since then, what in pure legal terms could be regarded as an internal conflict between Union Republics (when the two Republics were formally an integral part of the Soviet Union) turned into an armed conflict between the two sovereign neighboring states. By the end of 1991 tensions spiraled gradually into the military phase, when isolated armed attacks by the Armenian informal paramilitary groups across the border into Azerbaijan and in the former NKAO took the form of planned combat operations. With the creation of both the State Defense Committee in Armenia (1991) and then the Armenian Ministry of Defense in January 1992, the separate armed detachments of Armenia transformed into national army units, which coordinated their combat activities with the illegal Armenian paramilitary forces within the former NKAO.
Since February 1992 the number of the armed attacks from the territory of Armenia on the border villages in Azerbaijan, as well as artillery bombardments from Armenian territory along the perimeter of the international border, increased drastically. The notorious attack on the town of Khojaly on February 25-26 was the first instance of overt involvement of the regular Armenian forces together with the 366th infantry regiment of the former Soviet Army stationed in the area, as a result of which hundreds of civilians were dead and many more were wounded. Another critical date in the escalation of conflict was May 17, 1992, when the Lachin district of Azerbaijan bordering Armenia was attacked and subsequently occupied. The seizure of this district was crucial for the Armenian armed forces, as the strategic road passing through this district was the only way in which military personnel, as well as arms and military equipment – which were reportedly air-lifted to Armenia from Beirut and elsewhere – could be transported into the Nagorny Karabakh region. From now on, the conflict quickly escalated into a full-fledged war.
Appearing on the radar screen of the U.N. Security Council
The conflict officially appeared on the radar screen of the U.N. Security Council only after both Armenia and Azerbaijan formally became members of the United Nations. Since May 1992 the members of the Security Council, amid the reports coming from the region indicating the escalation of the conflict between the two neighboring countries, engaged in series of consultations followed by the statements of the President of the Council (which are ranked second in importance after the Security Council Resolutions). In these carefully drafted statements the members of the Security Council expressed concern over the deterioration of the situation, called upon the parties to take all steps to bring the violence to an end, and to help to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance. The members of the Security Council supported the efforts undertaken within the framework of the CSCE, aimed at assisting the parties in arriving at a peaceful settlement of the dispute, and decided to “consider further the role of the United Nations in Nagorny Karabakh at an appropriate time in the light of the development of the situation in the area.”
In their first statement on the conflict (May 12, 1992) the members of the Security Council found it necessary to recall the statements on the admission of Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively, to the United Nations made on their behalf by the President of the Council, in particular the reference to the Charter principles relating to the peaceful settlement of disputes and the non-use of force. Such a reference seems to indicate that the Security Council was aware of the involvement of the two neighboring states in the conflict, and sought to remind these states of their relevant obligations under the U.N. Charter.
The most important decision at this stage was that of the U.N. Secretary-General to send a fact-finding mission in March 1992 to assess the situation on the ground.
The Security Council’s decision to act in the aftermath of the armed attack of April 1993
Perhaps the critical point for the Security Council in regard to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was the invasion of the Kelbadjar district of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Since the outbreak of the conflict, Armenia alleged that it was not involved in the conflict with Azerbaijan, referring to the Armenians in the Nagorny Karabakh region. However, after the armed attack and subsequent invasion on April 2, 1993, of the Kelbadjar district, which is located outside of the administrative line of former NKAO, the international community began expressing serious doubts about Armenia’s claims of non-involvement.
Overt military invasion from Armenia and violation of the international border prompted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan to register a strong protest with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia. The evidence made available to the Security Council by Azerbaijan confirmed that Kelbadjar district was invaded from at least two directions: from the territory of Vardenis district of Armenia bordering Azerbaijan, and from within the former NKAO.
The well-documented direct evidence (including military ID cards of Armenian servicemen, call-up papers to active service, passports, vacation cards, discharge tickets, petitions to confer regular military ranks and other documents) captured by the Azerbaijani Army units in the course of military actions from December 1993 to February 1994, as well as the testimonies of the Armenian soldiers from the 555th separate motor rifle regiment (military unit No. 59016) of the Armed Forces of Armenia captured during the combat operations, not only proved the supply of ammunitions and deployment of troops of the Republic of Armenia into the territory of Azerbaijan to engage in combat activities, but also indicated that the invasion of Kelbadjar and other districts of Azerbaijan was a pre-planned armed attack aimed at acquiring the territory of another sovereign state. That the hostilities in and around the Nagorny Karabakh region were attacks was also obvious to the Security Council, which in its statement (August 18, 1993) demanded “a stop to all attacks and an immediate cessation of the hostilities and bombardments, which endanger peace and security in the region […].” The Chairman of the Minsk Conference of the CSCE in his report addressed to the President of the Security Council also confirmed the fact of “armed attacks” on the city of Agdam, while underlining that the military situation was such that Agdam posed no serious military threat.
Of particular importance are the military maps captured by the Azerbaijani Army units during military operations, since they can serve as evidence of the planning, control, and direction of the combat operation by Armenia in the territories of Azerbaijan. The operational map of the commander of third motor-rifle battalion of the third separate motor-rifle brigade of the Armed Forces of Armenia Maj. Barsegyan, had superscriptions of combat orders to seize the Kelbadjar district of Azerbaijan on April 1, 1993. Another map signed by the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia, Lt. Gen. Adresyan, contained a written operation order addressed to the commander of the 555th separate motor rifle regiment to retain captured territories.
Western news agencies reporting on the Kelbadjar offensive also reported on the direct involvement of Armenia. The Independent wrote on April 8 that “it is Armenia that invaded Azerbaijani territory.” The Times wrote on April 14 that “one thing is certain: the Kelbadjar region was attacked from Armenia itself, to the west, as well as from Nagorno-Karabakh to the east.” The Washington Post came to the same conclusion stating on April 28 that “the war involving the former Soviet Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan has moved into a dangerous new phase […]”, while the Agence France Presse wired on 22 April 22 that “Azerbaijan has suffered a series of setbacks in the war after Armenia carried out a major offensive early this month […].” These press reports indicate that the events received wide coverage in the world press and hence constitute a matter of public knowledge, which contribute to corroborating the existence of the facts on the ground.
The direct evidence and the news reports from the ground, the assessment of the situation by the Chairman of the CSCE Minsk Conference in his report and the statement dated July 27, 1993, as well as the subsequent similar statement by the European Community, refuted the Armenian Government’s argument that the military activities conducted by the Armenian forces were exclusively countermeasures carried out in self-defense.
On April 3, 1993, Turkey urgently requested the Security Council to consider the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, citing reports of a large-scale offensive by Armenian armed forces on Kelbadjar district of Azerbaijan. The Council convened on April 6, and following consultations with the members of the Council, the President issued a statement. If before the Kelbadjar offensive the Security Council was rather cautious in its statements on the matter referring to “all the parties and others concerned” while appealing for an immediate cease-fire, in the aftermath of the attack on Kelbadjar, the Council was unequivocal in its statement and expressed serious concern at the “deterioration of relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan.”
Pursuant to the request by the Security Council made in the above-mentioned statement to ascertain facts, the UN Secretary-General submitted a report to the Council containing an assessment of the situation on the ground. The report was particularly significant, because for the first time it indicated that the scale of the conflict exceeds an internal ethnic conflict. It observed, inter alia, that “reports of the use of heavy weaponry, such as T-72 tanks, Mi-24 helicopter gunships, and advanced fixed-wing aircraft, are particularly disturbing, and would seem to indicate the involvement of more than local ethnic forces.”
The Security Council decided to remain seized of the matter and already on April 30, 1993, having considered the report of the Secretary-General and the letters submitted by the Permanent Representatives of Azerbaijan and Armenia as well as Denmark and Turkey, the Council unanimously adopted its first resolution 822.