The convulsions of the Cold War in Azerbaijan

Has the Cold War been ever really fully over? Did the collapse of the Soviet Union put at least a temporary end to the ambitions of the Politburo?  Did the West really win?

Both  historical record and present day developments suggest otherwise.  Visiting Jojug Marjanly village in August 2018, rebuilt from scratch after being razed by the Armenian military following an attack on the Azerbaijani position and success in pushing the Azerbaijani forces from the strategic hills nearby, evidence of the fact that the conflict instigated and backed by Russia, was far from over. The 400 houses that are to be built in totality (with over 150 completed) are increasingly filled with families, the new schoolhouse, the golden corn pointing to the ongoing farming all spoke to the resilience of the community of former refugees as well as other Azerbaijanis looking to reclaim their land and return to normalcy after two decades of absence. At the same time, however, the first row of housing built by the Azerbaijani government, stood empty, bordering the zone separating Azerbaijan from the territory occupied by the Armenian forces.

Less than a hundred meters away, one could observe the movement of the Armenian snipers. The reason these brand new houses were abandoned was that  the conflict, once considered frozen, has never fully reached the level of a ceasefire. Attacks on the village continued on an almost daily basis;  the windows of the houses closest to the occupied land were shot out by the snipers so many times that it was no longer considered safe to live there and the occupants were moved elsewhere.  Villagers, hurt by the gunfire,  on a frequent basis would be taken to the nearby hospital; a new clinic had been built inside Jojug Marjanly, and and a bomb shelter, fully supplied, and still unused at the time of the author’s visit, pointed to the reasonable concern about another invasion.

As the author walked past the line separating the village from the occupied territory, the villagers and the official guide received a text message from the government warning to move out of sight of the snipers. Indeed, as everyone present quickly retreated, the shadows in the distant twilight appeared to be moving into position to launch a potential strike. Still, as the villagers explained, they were unlikely to take action when foreign visitors were around. Most of the shooting took place in the mornings, which is why the visit was delayed until late afternoon. There was the shooting the morning of the author’s arrival as well. The vehicle had to take a long detour to get past the security, which had warned the tour guide about the attack.

The conflict over Armenia’s invasion and occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh may receive little attention in the Western press, but remains on the minds of the Azerbaijanis every day.  Military casualties on both sides continue; civilian casualties, even fatalities on the Azerbaijan side generate outrage and grief but are hardly ever reported abroad.  While it may not be one of the better known or understood conflicts in the West, the occupation of nearly 20% of Azerbaijani territory remains a top priority for Azerbaijan’s government. And this occupation, as well as the ongoing attacks, show that the Cold War never really went away and was never supposed to.

In late February 2019, Jewish and Muslim organizations in New York commemorated the anniversary of the Khojaly massacre,  which took place in a  town in the vicinity of Jojug Marjanly on February 25-26 1992, when the growing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated into a full scale war, marked by pogroms, ethnic cleansing and an internal refugee crisis in Azerbaijan . The attack by the Russia-backed Armenian forces took the lives of as many as 613 civilians including up to 63 children. Many other civilians, particularly young men of recruitable age, have been taken away and are considered missing to this day. The attack, as noted by human rights organizations such as the Human Rights Watch, was aided by the military personnel of the 366 CIS regimen. Though a link to the orders of the command has not been established the attack follows a pattern of use of extreme violence and atrocities against civilians committed by the Armenian military since the conflict erupted.

The Khojaly massacre was not the first in the series of such events.  “Black January”, a violent attack by Soviet forces aimed at halting Azerbaijan’s vigorous movement for independence, which took place on January 19-20, 1990 was but one strategic use of coercion to keep the control of the republics by Moscow – after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  On the night of January 19-20, Soviet forces, without announcing a state of emergency, entered Azerbaijan, invading Baku and other regions. Hundreds of people, including civilians, were killed, wounded, and missing. Mikhail Gorbachev described the operation as an action against “Islamic fundamentalists”, though Azerbaijani population is largely secular or liberal, and some of the people killed by the Soviet military were Jewish and Christian.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, its political successor, Russia, remained close to some of its client states, such as Armenia, an impoverished country which Russia arguably weaponized to put pressure on less compliant former republics such as Azerbaijan. Russia’s interest in Azerbaijan included its oil rich land and access to the Caspian basin, but also retention of political influence through language, culture, imposition of ethnic Russians in government positions, and countering the cultural influence of the nearby Turkey, one of Russia’s geopolitical rivals, ethnically close to Azerbaijan.

However, Azerbaijan was far from the only country thus targeted by Moscow both during the Soviet period and long after. On January 13, 1991  the Soviet Union, in its continued crackdown on the independence movements in the Baltic republics, attacked over 1000 protesters gathered to demonstrate for freedom inside Lithuania’s capital Vilnius. The violent suppression led to deaths of 13 civilians, and njuries to 700 others by Soviet military. The attacks on the human shield, surrounding TV and radio stations were successful. At the time, Soviet troops broke through the protesters, and claimed victory.  However, the violence did not quelch the independent movement, but rather inflamed it.

Lithuania became the first country to declare independence from the Soviet Union. In 2016, Lithuania opened the trial against officers who took part in those events. The trial targeted 65 former military personnel, including the former Soviet defense minister Dmitry Yazov, who was 91 at the time of trial. Most of the officers did not return to Lithuania to face their accusers. The commemoration of these attacks has been an annual event, which includes vigils and bonfires. Lithuania, concerned about modern-day Russia’s regional aggression, has stepped up its military cooperation with U.S. and Germany, which includes temporary stationing of troops and joint training exercises.

Georgia’s domestic conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which led to the 2008 war and occupation of those territories by Russia, was likewise stoked by Soviet Union in the late 1980s.  The Soviet Union, concerned about its maintaining its hegemonic influence, maintained intergovernmental linkages and influences over friendly people and entities not only within the governments of the autonomous republics, which made up the state, but among various ethnic and geographic entities within those republics. Moscow stoked ethnic tensions in those territories, to maintain a state of volatility within Georgia. Part of its strategy also included relocation of ethnic Russian citizens into these territories. This sort of population management resulted in large numbers of ethnic Russians living in the Baltic states, Ukraine, Georgia, and other republics, ensuring ties to Moscow even after the Soviet Union fell apart.

Through the combination of ties to these Moscow-leaning groups, and subversive tactics including backing of terrorist attacks against Georgian targets, Moscow retained its influence even throughout the 90s, when Russia’s prestige and ambition seemed to have ebbed to its historic nadir, but resurgence occurred after Vladimir Putin came to power.  The 2008 war, which saw Russia invade and occupy Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the pretense of protecting the ethnic Russian populations living there lay foundation for similar strategy which resulted in the forced annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, exacerbating Russia’s tensions with the West, as well as West-leaning former republics, including Lithuania.  Russia did not stop there. Until this day, there are reports of “creeping occupation” in that Russia is reportedly moving territorial flagposts, incrementally entering further into undisputed Georgian territory.

Attacks on its former republics’ territorial integrity also manifested themselves on the cyberwarfare against Estonia, the creation of pseudoautonomous microstates, where Russia encouraged separatism in conjunction with local organized crime, Russian troops, and Russian intelligence in Donbass,  and ongoing low-grade yet bloody conflict inside Ukraine, and occupation of a portion of Moldova’s territory, known as Transnistria War, for which Kremlin refused to take responsibility or pay compensation. Russia’s lack of respect for national sovereignty of these independent states was a pattern inherent to its overall strategy of restoring hegemony and regaining international political respect; it likewise has been aggressive in regaining its foothold in the Middle East, Africa, and South America.

However, importantly, the seeds of its aggression against its former republics, including Azerbaijan were laid while the Soviet Union was still impact, and while the West was fully convinced it was winning the Cold War, that Russia would be reduced to size and no longer a threat to peaceful coexistence in its own vicinity or in other regions.  Nevertheless, given that no Soviet political or intelligence operative has ever been punished for the violence and aggression in Azerbaijan, Lithuania, or internal meddling in other states in the late 80s and 90s, it is no surprise that the impunity was taken as tacit acquiescence by the former KGB Lieutenant Colonel at the helm of the “new” Moscow, and who clearly saw his role as continuation of the past strategy developed by his former bosses. Today’s occupation of Azerbaijan territory is not a random conflict between two states with a border dispute. Armenia has violated four UN resolutions pertaining to the regulation of the conflict. It was not the Georgia war of 2008 that showed the extent of international indifference to Russia’s proxy as well as direct ambition but the events which took place in the early 1990s in Lithuania, Georgia, and Azerbaijan – which demonstrated the Soviet intentions.

The fall of the Soviet Union was on the horizon, and at least some of the Politburo was well aware of the future upheavals. Yet they did not abandon their strategy of trying to force the uncompromising republics into submission, even as it became increasingly obvious that their days in power were numbered. Was it simple denial? Or did they all along intend to pursue a continued course of action under a different name? The continuity of Moscow’s activity should alert historians to the fact that just because the West believed the Cold War to be over, its vanquished adversaries never fully admitted defeat.

That the West immediately switched attention to other matters, no longer concerned about Moscow’s aggression shows short-sightedness and essential misunderstanding of the last days of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, lauded as a hero in the West, could best be described as a brutal, repressive tyrant who sacrificed hundreds of civilian lives in his quest to preserve the Union. He would given in where he could no longer hold strong with respect to the Berlin wall, glasnost, and “perestroika”, but the increased openness to Western influences in no way erased the old Soviet quest for hegemony at home and abroad.  We see the Cold War blossoming not only in the occupied Azerbaijani territories, and the ignored UN resolutions, as well as the various violated human rights treaties but in Russia’s political, economic, and military presence around the world. Cold War was not over because Moscow never capitulated, never fully abandoned its ambitions, but rather continued its destabilizing activities under the radar and lived to fight another day, at first through proxy conflicts, and eventually taking back central stage.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.