A September 1991 cable signed by then U.S. charge d’affaires James Collins and recently declassified captures the mood around the Karabakh conflict as measured from the U.S. embassy in Moscow shortly after the declarations of independence by Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh, and days before Armenia’s referendum on independence.
“Now that the Soviet leash is disappearing, the two republics are sniffing each other warily,” Collins wrote and warned that “dogs let off their leads sometimes get into real fights.”
The death toll from Armenian-Azerbaijani violence that began in February 1988 had by then climbed into hundreds. Throughout September 1991, low-intensity fighting was taking place in the very north and south of Nagorno Karabakh, in Shahumyan and Hadrut districts, respectively, where Armenian volunteers fought against Azerbaijani police forces that until August putsch attempt in Moscow were backed by Soviet internal security forces and the army. Stepanakert remained under control of the Soviet security forces and Armenian self-defense was operating largely underground.
“On September 2, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and the predominantly Armenian Shaumanovskiy (sic) region of Azerbaydzhan (sic) together proclaimed a “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” independent of Azerbaydzhan,” Collins wrote. “The move was clearly coordinated with Armenia – president Ter-Petrossian called for republic status for autonomous regions at the Congress of People’s Deputies in Moscow the same day.”
At the same time, “members of the Armenian Supreme Soviet, in Moscow for the Congress, told us September 4 they actually welcome Azerbaydzhan’s declaration of independence, and hope it will be a force for stability and responsible behavior…”
Collins’ own assessment was pessimistic. Noting the precarious political position of then Azerbaijani president Ayaz Mutalibov, the U.S. diplomat predicted that he “may now try to stoke up [the anti-Armenian] hatred to shore up his own internal position.”
Indeed, the Azerbaijani forces, at the time in control of high ground and effectively encircling Stepanakert, began launching artillery attacks the town soon after the independence declaration. Subsequent and ultimately successful Armenian efforts to break the siege of Stepanakert led to expansion in fighting and full-scale war from 1992 to 1994.
Rather than securing his position, the escalation and associated military setbacks forced Mutalibov to resign in March 1992. Curiously, Collins also suggested that both Turkey and Armenia would prefer to see Heydar Aliyev and “Nakhichevani element” return to power in Azerbaijan. This materialized in June 1993.