Russia rejects criticism of peacekeepers in Karabakh
Russian peacekeeping troops in Nagorno-Karabakh presided over the exodus of the entire population they were sent there to protect. Moscow says they've done a great job.
Russia's Foreign Ministry has angrily defended the performance of the country's peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In September last year the 2,000-strong peacekeeping contingent did not intervene as Baku launched a lightning offensive to retake the region, which resulted in near-complete emptying of its Armenian population.
And that came at the end of a nine-month blockade of the region during which the Russian troops were of limited help in getting supplies into Karabakh and transporting Karabakhis to Armenia for medical treatment.
A number of Armenian officials, most recently Security Council Secretary Armen Grigoryan, have complained publicly about what they saw as the peacekeepers' failure to protect the roughly 100,000 local Armenians.
"From September 19, ethnic cleansing started in NK. Until now, we haven't received any explanation of how the ethnic cleansing occurred in the presence of Russian peacekeepers. We haven't seen any explanations," Grigoryan said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stridently disagrees.
"We believe that these [accusations] are attempts to falsify the facts to avoid responsibility. There was no mass death of Nagorno-Karabakh civilians or significant damage to civilian facilities," she said at a briefing on January 12.
That is arguably true. Azerbaijani troops did not target Karabakhi civilians en masse, though there were sporadic reports of atrocities in villages. The exodus of the Armenians from Karabakh was nonetheless violent and chaotic. As locals were fleeing, over 200 people died in a fuel depot explosion and an estimated 64 died during the trek to Armenia, which saw days-long traffic jams. (An estimated 220 Karabakhi soldiers lost their lives trying to resist the onslaught.)
"No one has the right to insult the peacekeepers, and we will respond to those who insulted them," Zakharova added.
She also bristled at the use of the term "ethnic cleansing," which has been used by many other Armenian officials, including Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
"Regarding the claims of ethnic cleansing in Karabakh, I would like to be presented with any facts, any documents, or statements from any international organization that is considered authoritative in Yerevan, for example, the United Nations or another organization," she added.
The peacekeepers were stationed in Karabakh under a Russia-brokered ceasefire in November 2020 immediately after Azerbaijan's victory in the Second Karabakh War and seizure of lands in and around the region. The Russian troops operated amidst ambiguity, with no clearly defined mandate.
Questions about the efficacy of the peacekeeping effort arose early on. In December 2020, Russian peacekeepers were unable to prevent Azerbaijan from seizing two Karabakh villages in their purported zone of responsibility. Over the next three years, Azerbaijan continued incursions into Karabakh, capturing additional territories and putting civilians at risk along the border.
In December 2022, as Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin corridor, the sole route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the outside world, the peacekeepers were unable or unwilling to unblock it. The blockade continued for over nine months until Azerbaijan's decisive offensive in September that resulted in the dissolution of the de facto republic through another Russia-brokered ceasefire and the surrender of local defense forces. In the ensuing days, the entire population of Karabakh evacuated to Armenia, leaving the region empty save for a few dozen inhabitants, all while Russian peacekeepers looked on.
Russia said several of its troops were killed during Azerbaijan's offensive, including a senior officer, but did not reveal details of the incident nor the precise number killed.
After Azerbaijan established full control over the region, the Russians dismantled several observation posts. They now coordinate their peacekeeping activities exclusively with Azerbaijan. The peacekeepers' news bulletin keeps recording the absence of ceasefire violations and continuous interactions with Baku "to ensure the security of the civilian population."
Most recently, Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister signaled the possible withdrawal of peacekeepers in 2025, as the 2020 tripartite agreement initially stipulated.
Armenian officials have not commented on Zakharova's remarks.
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.