Filmmaker Vardan Hovahnnisyan spent 25 of the last 40 days of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh on the front lines, coming under fire from drones and artillery as he sought to keep the world informed about the human cost of the conflict in this Armenian enclave of Azerbaijan.
Day after day, Hovahnnisyan and his film crews ducked into basements to stay safe, returning above ground to visit the Armenian trenches or travel with soldiers cataloguing the course of the war. Many of the images the world has seen from the Armenian side of the conflict were captured by Hovahnnisyan and his team, including video commissioned by CBC News.
The number of soldiers and civilians killed is still unclear, but Russian estimates put the toll from both sides at more than 5,000.
Exhausted and emotionally devastated, Hovahnnisyan said he returned to his home in the Armenian capital of Yerevan three days ago knowing that his country was losing and that the end was not far off.
Two weeks ago, he said he could tell from the exhausted faces of young Armenian soldiers that the relentless air bombardment from Turkish-made drones — many equipped with Canadian-made targeting systems — was crushing his country’s ability to keep going.
“They sold us out,” Hovahnnisyan said bitterly of the western nations, including Canada, claiming they either failed to take meaningful steps to help Armenia or didn’t do enough to stop NATO ally Turkey from tipping the balance of power in favour of Azerbaijan.
“We were just screwed by the international community.”
Hovahnnisyan, 53, said he “lost hope” when it was evident that Azerbaijani troops were pushing deep into Armenian-held territory. He said he even considered putting down his video camera and picking up a machine gun to join the final days of the battle himself. He went as far as updating his will.
“I was ready to die,” Hovahnnisyan said of his passion to prevent an Armenian defeat, following the news early on Tuesday that both sides had agreed to a Russian-negotiated truce.
The deal, brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, forces Armenia to turn over most of the territory around Karabakh that it has occupied since the last war between the two neighbours 30 years ago. The boundaries of Karabakh itself will be reduced from what they were when fighting started at the end of September.
Western nations exerted little influence
Although it appears ethnic Armenians will remain in control of the enclave, their security will now be guaranteed by a contingent of Russian peacekeepers, not the Armenian army.
The almost 2,000 Russian troops, who were arriving by the planeload on Tuesday, will play a crucial role in keeping the two warring sides apart and preserving a safe transportation corridors between Armenia and Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh.
Hovahnnisyan’s assessment, shared by many Armenians, is that the war over the long-disputed territory — which Armenians call Artsakh — was a fight between a democratic Armenia and an Azerbaijani dictatorship backed by Turkey, as well as thousands of Islamist fighters that the Turks imported from Syria.
Azerbaijanis are equally passionate that this was a war of liberation, fought to reclaim lands that had been lost in fighting 30 years ago. That conflict saw tens of thousands of people displaced, many of whom had settled in border regions and now plan to return to their former towns and villages in what were traditional Azerbaijani areas around the disputed enclave.
Western nations, including France and the United States, were members of the Minsk Process set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to find a permanent settlement to the conflict. However, once the fighting began in September, neither the French nor the Americans were able to make a ceasefire stick.
They also weren’t able to exert much influence over their NATO partner Turkey, which threw its political and diplomatic weight behind helping Azerbaijan. During the U.S. election campaign, President Donald Trump said he would “straighten out” the conflict, but his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, accused Trump of being absent and allowing Russia to take leadership on the issue.
Observers say the Western alliance has been tarnished by the circumstances of the conflict.
“You saw a NATO ally [Turkey] provide support to an enemy of Armenia and all of NATO took a hit,” said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D,C. “The Canadians took a hit, and the Americans — because there were Turkish F16s in Azerbaijan — took a hit.”
However, Stronski argues Armenia’s government, led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, also overplayed its hand by refusing to engage in serious discussions through the Minsk process, and that Pashinyan’s fiery rhetoric contributed to escalation of the conflict.
“The Armenians are not completely blameless,” he said.
Cheers in Azerbaijan, fury in Armenia
The roots of the conflict go back to Soviet times, when ethnic-Armenian Karabakh was legally incorporated into Muslim-majority Azerbaijan. At the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over the enclave that killed more than 30,000 and left Armenia in control of Karabakh, as well as other Azerbaijani territories surrounding it.
Over the decades, diplomatic efforts to find a permanent solution to the territory’s status failed. Azerbaijan grew rich from oil revenues and built up its army until the military decided to strike with a full offensive almost six weeks ago.
News of the truce was greeted with jubilation across Azerbaijan, with night-long street celebrations and euphoria that historic lands would be coming back under their control. The truce spells out that tens of thousands of displaced Azerbaijani residents might finally be allowed to return to the region under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Shusha?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Shusha</a> celebrations in Baku 🎉🎊🎉<br>Happy <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Shusha?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Shusha</a> day <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Azerbaijan?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Azerbaijan</a> 💙❤️💚 <a href=”https://t.co/V7MjYqKPTz”>pic.twitter.com/V7MjYqKPTz</a>
In a televised address, the country’s president, Ilem Aliev, taunted the Armenian prime minister, saying Armenia “capitulated.”
“Your status has gone to hell. There is no status, and there will be no status [for Nagorno-Karabakh].”
In Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, there was fury at news of the deal, with protesters breaking into government offices and trashing furniture. The speaker of the parliament was beaten by the crowd.
A truce without the West
For Russia, the truce after six weeks of war, thousands of dead and wounded and two failed attempts by the Kremlin to negotiate ceasefires amounts to making the best of many poor possible outcomes.
Putin has attempted to maintain close relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, even though Russia is bound by a defence treaty to assist Armenia if its territory comes under direct attack. The Kremlin has insisted the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh did not compel Russia to join the conflict on the Armenian side.
Russian political scientist Alexey Malashenko said the fact that neither the U.S. nor Europe was involved in the eventual settlement means the Kremlin is probably satisfied with the result.
“The solutions to Nagorno-Karabakh could be solved in the context of relations between Moscow and Ankara. This is a new thing,” Malashenko said.
Whether Russia will use the truce to forge a more permanent settlement that can stop the cycle of war over the territory will be the key question going forward. Already, many Armenians are saying no.
Hovahnnisyan the filmmaker said he’s already looking ahead to when the deal with the Russian peacekeeping force expires in five years.
“I hope Armenia will become stronger. We will be more prepared and lead the next attack.”