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Fighting to survive: A view from Stepanakert

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A resident of Stepanakert (Photo: Armenian Unified Infocenter / David Ghahramanyan)

STEPANAKERE Early this morning, I woke up to distant noises, listening at regular intervals, as the capital of Artsakh once again felt the onslaught of Azerbaijani bombing raids. Fortunately, the attack was brief, but the message was sent once again: Azerbaijan and its powerful friends will not disappear soon. Not here.

As the war continues to erupt along the perimeter of Artsakh, Stepanakert has taken on the look and feel of a ghost town. Half of its population has been evacuated, while the other half spends its time either wandering from place to place, avoiding sunlight, or sinking into bunkers and underground cellars. Those who have stayed are mostly needy, elderly, or performing essential functions for our protection. And while othe behavior of the peoples is still harsh and resilient, it is softened by the realization that they were alone in this, without strong defenders or even mediators.

The city itself is quite untouched, but an extensive tour reveals plenty of damage, most of it well planned. Indeed, from day one it became clear that these airstrikes were not the usual issue of Azerbaijan. Significant services and infrastructure were hit, throwing our defense off balance. Important symbols like St. Ghazanchetsots and the Ministry of Defense were targeted, as if to tell us that nothing is safer. And intertwined were the regular bombings of civilian structures city streets, shop windows, apartment buildings in a visible attempt to intimidate us.

In general, the Armenian Armed Forces have performed heroically by resisting them blitzkrieg of the combined Azerbaijani, Turkish and mercenary forces, and holding our positions extremely well. But as I made a visit to various sites today, it became clear that the game changer has been Direct involvement of Turkey. The scale and accuracy of operations are an order of magnitude better than what we have seen in previous meetings. And the presence of sophisticated drones and air weapons is changing the rules of warfare, causing significant human losses unprecedented. Everyone here firmly believes that we can win an honest war, but it seems that this time the chances are skewed to get out of balance.

Is there a positive outcome on the horizon? It’s still not clear, unfortunately. At the moment, it seems that this fight for life a-death will continue with most of the world just by seeing, or at best offering lip service. The OSCE Minsk Group ostensibly in charge of a peace settlement has proved weak, temporary, and even powerless. Meanwhile, while international public opinion is recently aroused a weak counterweight to Turkey’s diligent progress.

But above all, there is the question often repeated sometimes shouted, sometimes whispered namely, Where are the Russians? Armenia’s traditional guarantor, Russia, has been remarkably cautious in its efforts to contain Turkey so far. Perhaps this is due to Russia’s weakened state after years of US sanctions, recession and attempts to maintain influence elsewhere on its periphery. Perhaps this is due to Russia’s reluctance to further complicate its ties with Turkey, with which it already has representative wars in Syria and Libya. In any case, it seems that Russia’s ability to manage the Karabakh issue is now in jeopardy. Instead of acting as a hegemonic power in a post-Soviet space, it now has to fight with a new, aggressive power Turkey that is ready to turn Karabakh into an interzonal conflict.

Fortunately, it seems that Moscow has started waking up… albeit late. Now you see that Karabakh is not the end, but in fact beginning of a new struggle for control of the Caucasus. As it consolidates this view, Moscow can indeed begin to show its teeth in the face of Turkey’s aggression. There are various signals that this could happen. But when?

In the meantime, the Armenians of Artsakh have no choice but to pursue it alone, waging a fierce survival war that is not of their creation. And while the front lines remain bright, Stepanakert will continue in a state of non-war, no peace, prolonging until better days finally emerge.

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Antranig Kasbarian is a former member of the ARF Central Committee, Eastern United States. For the past 20 years, he has been an educator, activist, and community leader; he has also worked regularly as a journalist, activist and researcher in Karabak. He is a former editor of Armenian Weekly and has a Ph.D. in geography from Rutgers University. He joined the Tufenkian Foundation in 2003, starting his program in Artsakh (Nago-Karabagh) and served as its Executive Director until 2015. He is currently the Tufenkian Foundation Development Director, pursuing a number of charitable / strategic projects in Armenia and Artsakh.

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