In an interview with Russian state television, Putin said on Tuesday that the Armenian side would have specifically retained control of Shushi (Shusha), Karabakh’s second largest town overlooking the capital Stepanakert.
Shushi’s capture by the Azerbaijani army precipitated a Russian-mediated ceasefire that stopped the six-week war on November 10. Azerbaijan agreed to halt its military operations in return for an Armenian pledge to withdraw by the end of this month from three districts around Karabakh.
Baku regained control over four other districts, which had been occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces in the early 1990s, during the latest war. Its troops also captured Karabakh’s southern Hadrut district as well as Shushi.
Speaking to the Rossiya-24 TV channel, Putin said: “On October 19–20, I had a series of telephone conversations with [Azerbaijani] President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinian. At that time, the armed forces of Azerbaijan regained control over an insignificant part of Nagorno-Karabakh, namely, its southern section.
“On the whole, I managed to convince President Aliyev that it was possible to end hostilities, but the return of [Azerbaijani] refugees, including to Shusha, was a mandatory condition on his part. Unexpectedly for me, the position of our Armenian partners was that they perceived this as something unacceptable.”
“Prime Minister Pashinian told me openly that he viewed this as a threat to the interests of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh,” Putin went on. “I do not quite understand the essence of this hypothetical threat. I mean, it was about the return of civilians to their homes, while the Armenian side was to have retained control over this section of Nagorno-Karabakh, including Shusha.”
“At that point, the prime minister told me that his country could not agree to this, and that it will keep fighting,” added the Russian president.
The Armenian government has not yet officially reacted to Putin’s claims. Armenian opposition leaders have portrayed them as further proof of Pashinian’s incompetence and mishandling of the war.
Two senior lawmakers representing Pashinian’s My Step bloc confirmed that a truce accord cited by Putin was offered to Armenia last month. But they both insisted that its acceptance by Yerevan and the resulting return of refugees to Shushi’s would have also restored Azerbaijani control over the strategically important town.
“It meant surrendering Shushi,” claimed deputy parliament speaker Lena Nazarian. She said that at that point Armenia’s and Karabakh’s leaders still hoped to achieve a “turnaround” in the war.
“If Armenia and Artsakh had agreed on October 19-20 to the return of Azerbaijani refugees to Shushi we would have been accused now of surrendering Shushi,” Nazarian told a joint news conference with the other pro-government lawmaker, Arman Yeghoyan.
“Shushi’s [next] mayor would be an Azerbaijani because Azerbaijanis would make up at least 80 percent of the town’s population,” Yeghoyan claimed for his part.
Edmon Marukian, the leader of the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK), shrugged off these explanations.
“Shushi would not have an Azerbaijani mayor,” Marukian told reporters. “The issue of refugees was discussed but whether or not Azerbaijani refuges would go there was an open question.”
The LHK and the second opposition party represented in the parliament, Prosperous Armenia, have repeatedly demanded Pashinian’s resignation since the announcement of the ceasefire agreement denounced by them as a sellout. The prime minister and his political allies reject these demands.