A quick glance at the history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict shaping the fate of the Southern Caucasus.
The most recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that besieged and blocked the breakaway Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) is a continuation of more than a hundred-years old conflict unfolding on a blood-soaked Caucasian tapestry of ethnical and regional violence posing serious ramifications for the social, economic and security stability of not only the Caucasus region but the wider Eurasian continent. How come such a small region caused such a vitriol between the two nations?
Historical disputes between the present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan can be traced back to the twentieth century, particularly towards the end of the First World War. The Caucasus was a major theatre of war that saw fighting between the Russian and Ottoman empires. Following the breakup of the Russian Empire caused by a series of revolutions in 1917 posed a chance for the trio of nations inhabiting the Caucasus region, specifically the Georgians, the Armenians and the Azeris to ramp up their independence efforts which were solidified in creating the first independent union state of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, a short and “unique and fleeting display of political unity and federalism among the main Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian political factions” that existed from April 1918 until May 1918, when it was dissolved and replaced by independent nation-states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.1
However, the newly created states found themselves in territorial disputes that led to a series of conflicts. The most notorious one, at least for the purposes of this article, is the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of 1918 – 1920 which is also called the Karabakh war. The bilateral relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan were strained due to a number of territorial disputes and overlapping boundaries, that were not clearly defined. The primary focus of the newly brewing conflict was a region called Karabakh (today called the Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh by local Armenians). While the mountainous region of Karabakh was populated mainly by Armenians,2 it was the Azeris who controlled the territory following WWI (by the Paris Peace Conference) and after the declaration of independent states. Their control was supported by the British Empire that was “trying to persuade the leaders in Armenia and Karabakh to accept Azerbaijani rule over the region”3 as it would create a bulwark against the expansionist Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic that was eager to secure its southern Caucasian border, preventing the newly found secular Republic of Turkey and the fading Qajar Persia (soon to be replaced by the Pahlavi dynasty in 1921) to establish a strategic footprint in the Caucasus. However, the Russians invaded both countries in 1920 and firmly established themselves in the region, initiating the so-called “Sovietization” process and turned both independent nations into vassal Soviet republics with clear borders. The hostilities between the two countries ceased, however, the Karabakh region was handed to Azerbaijan by the Caucasus Bureau of the Communist Party of Russia in 1921 working under the auspices of Joseph Stalin. This fateful resolution has since had long-lasting ramifications for Karabakh which became a pawn in the grand game of the USSR and the British Empire that sought to prevail in their global and regional ambitions.
During the existence of the Soviet Union, Armenia unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Communist leadership to reincorporate Armenian-settled regions in Azerbaijan back into Armenia. The situation started to deteriorate towards the end of the Soviet Union with rising incidents of ethnic tensions. Armenians claimed that Azerbaijan restricts their autonomy and discriminates against them. However, the Soviet Union ignored this ethnic bickering and protests against the status quo.4 The brewing conflict erupted in 1988 when the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (part of Azerbaijan) declared to join the Republic of Armenia. Azerbaijan tried to crush the separatists in 1988 which only intensified clashes in the region, manifesting on the backdrop of the collapsing red giant of the Soviet Union which kept drastically declining until the signature of the Belovezha Accords in 1991, effectively ending its existence. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan regained their independence and statehood.
The region of Nagorno-Karabakh tried to exploit the turbulent Caucasian political scenery and declared independence which, in turn officially started the First Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988 – 1994) resulting in a brutal humanitarian toll with more than a million people becoming refugees and roughly thirty thousand casualties. By 1993, Armenia had gained territorial control over Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied around 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s geographic area. Russia, freshly awaken from its Soviet slumber tried to broker a ceasefire that was signed in the Bishkek Protocol. The war ended, the fighting stopped, and Nagorno-Karabakh became a de facto independent region with a self-proclaimed government in the city of Stepanakert. However, the region was heavily reliant on Armenia with close economic, political, and military ties.5 The Bishkek Protocol resulted in a demarcated, and over the years heavily militarized boundary (called the Line of Contact by the OSCE Minsk Group6) between the two hostile countries with palpable tensions looming under the pristine snow-capped Caucasus mountains.
By the turn of the Millennium both countries remained reluctant to engage in any major vis-à-vis clashes. However, the period of fragile peace was interrupted by two serious instances of violence. One was the 2008 clash in the Mardakert area of north-western Nagorno-Karabakh that resulted in few casualties. The second clash occurring in 2016 was more severe. Within four days, the number of casualties rose to hundreds, even several thousand according to certain (disputed) sources,7 becoming the deadliest conflict in the region since 1994. The official reasons behind the conflict remain cloaked as both sides claimed it was the opponent that started the attack. Nonetheless, Azerbaijan was the party more likely to initiate the conflict due to being held back in its territorial aspirations by the Minsk Group and its socio-economic difficulties driven by the decline of oil prices. However, the greatest beneficiary of the conflict was Russia, which became a principal conciliator and guarantor of the ceasefire that was signed in Moscow.8
After a few relatively peaceful years, the ambience of the Caucasian autumn was suddenly interrupted on September 27, 2020, when the territorial conflict, ethnic violence and border skirmishes erupted into a fully-fledged war, that has since become known as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war. It was preceded by several skirmishes along the border. The war saw the highest number of casualties since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. It was notorious for the use of heavy artillery, long-range missile systems, modern weapon platforms such as unmanned drones and the use of information and cyber warfare. Drones in particular have become an effective tactical weapon of choice for battlefield commanders. Azerbaijan utilized its more numerous aerial fleet of drones, supplied mainly by Turkey (Bayraktar TB2) and Israel (Haro, Skystriker) to attack Armenian tanks, fortified infantry positions and provided ample data and visual imagery to boost Azeri propaganda initiatives.9
The six weeks-long war was terminated on November 10, 2023, with Azerbaijan claiming victory and allowing Russia to mediate the negotiations and the ceasefire. Azerbaijan won back four of the seven territories surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh region previously controlled by Armenia, captured the culturally and strategically important town of Shusha, secured its border with Iran and allowed Russian “peacekeepers” to exercise control and provide security over transportation corridors, primarily over the critical supply corridor known as Lachin corridor, which has become the only road between Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh. The second corridor of importance was the 48-kilometer-long corridor through Armenia linking Azerbaijan to its enclave of Nakhichevan bordering Turkey.10 The ceasefire agreement stated that the protection of these corridors would be vested into the hands of the Russian peacekeeping forces, further entrenching the Russian foothold over the region. The legacy and impact of the conflict was further exacerbated by numerous claims of war crimes committed by both sides, such as their treatment of the POWs, missile attacks at civilian populations or the use of cluster munitions.
The second Nagorno-Karabakh war was not, in spite of the atrocities and the sustained damage, the last straw in this territorial feud. In May 2021, another series of cross-border clashes took shape over the Azerbaijani continuous incursions into the Armenian territories. In the meantime, Azerbaijan further mobilized and developed its arsenal and military resources and conducted large-scale exercises with Turkish forces. The situation further escalated on September 12, 2022, when Azerbaijan launched a major offensive against Armenia while claiming the casus belli was a saboteur-style subversion operations in several Azeri districts.11 Azerbaijan initiated the attack from inside the Armenian territory and within two days of fighting managed to exert claims over several territories in Armenia. The escalation was meant to cease at a quadrilateral meeting in Prague where the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev met Armenian Prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and representatives of the European Union, President of the European Council Charles Michel and French President Emmanuel Macron.12 Armenia and Azerbaijan confirmed they would recognize each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and agreed on the EU’s Mission to Armenia to monitor, patrol and report on activities on the border with the intention to normalize the relations between the two warring parties.13 The mission arrived in January 2023 and has been present in the area ever since, despite its original mandate of two months.
Nevertheless, despite the negotiations and vague promises, the Republic of Artsakh has been faced with land blockade from Azerbaijan since December 2022 together with a blockade of the Lachin corridor, the sole road connecting the two entities serving as a major and only transportation artery for goods and humanitarian aid. The corridor was reportedly blocked by Azeri activists protesting an “illegal mining of resources” in Nagorno-Karabakh. The protesters were seen as a critical instrument utilized by Azerbaijan to exert its influence on the disputed region. Moreover, it showcased the Armenian’s strategic failure relying solely on Russian peacekeeping forces that have been passive and failed to prevent any Azeri excursions into Armenia’s territory. The Russians issued several warnings and urged Azerbaijan to comply with the ceasefire agreement, however, to no avail. It should be noted that Russia finds itself in a precarious situation as it is concurrently waging a military invasion in Ukraine that put a heavy burden on Russian military forces and financial resources.
The blockade exerted significant stress on the local Artsakh population by diminishing vital supplies, such as fuel, food, medications, hygiene products and seriously affected a plethora of public services. Moreover, it put a strain on the region’s energy infrastructure by dramatically increasing the hydro energy usage from the Sarsang reservoir, the largest water reservoir in Nagorno-Karabakh, whose water levels have dropped to their lowest in 30 years.14
In February 2023, the International Court of Justice issued a binding order ensuring that Azerbaijan ends the blockage of the Lachin Corridor. The order states that the Republic of Azerbaijan shall take all measures at its disposal to ensure the unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions. However, Azerbaijan ignored the order and continued the blockade of the Lachin Corridor.15
On April 23, 2023 Azerbaijan pressed its blockade of the region by establishing road checkpoint on the Lachin corridor (on the Hakari bridge) stating that the Armenians have been shipping military equipment through the corridor and exploited the natural resources. The checkpoint was established in spite of the presence and assurances from the Russian forces who remained silent on the matter and issued only a timid statement that provisions of the previous ceasefire agreement should be maintained,16 which comes in sharp contrast to the usual bold and ostentatious Russian diplomatic statements. The so called “eco-protests” ended at the end of April 2023 following the establishment of the checkpoint but the view of Russia as the “Caucasian moderator and security guarantor” eroded significantly, further pushing Armenia to seek its security guarantees elsewhere.
In May and June 2023, a series of diplomatic talks were first hosted by the US where foreign ministers demonstrated the willingness to normalize their relations. It was followed by a trilateral meeting hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin without any agreement being made. In June, US-hosted talks showed a more sincere effort to solve the long-lasting dispute with both countries urging the other to recognize the territorial boundaries and sovereignty over the disputed regions. Despite the sincere tit for tat approach, both parties were unsuccessful in curtailing the hostilities and let the animosities to prevail. Azerbaijan continued to block vital aid and Red Cross workers to access the Nagorno-Karabakh region and prevented medical evacuations, further restraining access and escalating the infrastructural and humanitarian strain on the region, feeding the long-lasting feud, and enabling a new conflict to arise yet again.17
In September 2023, both countries accused each other of opening a small-arms cross-border fire. Despite of this, both countries announced that a compromise has been reached to reopen the Lachin Corridor and a humanitarian aid from the ICRC and the Russian Red Cross reached the enclave through Azerbaijan bringing in medical supplies and wheat.18 However, the recent border clashes and the accusations that Azerbaijan is building up its military forces near the border have further exacerbated tensions between the two nations.
These tensions ultimately manifested into an open conflict yet again on September 19, 2023, when the government of Ilham Aliyev in Baku launched the so-called “anti-terrorist operation”. Its purpose was to suppress local “terrorist” activities and prevent the shipment of weapons and aid from Armenia to the insurgents in Artsakh. The pretext for this attack was claimed by Azerbaijan to be caused by the death of at least six people in the Azeri Khojavend district due to landmines placed by Armenia’s security forces.19However, despite the posture of the Azeri Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was evident that the primary goal of this operation was to completely seize the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, disarm and repulse the Armenian defence forces, and neutralize local insurgents. Azerbaijan claimed that they would not cease the operation until all of its objectives were met and the region would be fully under its control.
Armenia’s reaction to this attack was that of a stunned hedgehog and was severely lacking in mounting any significant military response. It called on Russia and the UN to utilize the peacekeeper forces to intervene and stop the attack. Russia, however, only expressed their disbelief of the attack, claiming they have been warned about the attack only minutes before launch. The international response to the incident was tepid and cliché, calling for the end of all hostilities in the region and to replace them with a dialogue (as if that had worked before).
Azerbaijan stopped the military operation after the local defence forces agreed to a ceasefire. Under the provisions of the ceasefire, the Artsakh separatist forces would have to be disarmed and disbanded while all heavy military equipment would be seized by Azerbaijan and the Russian peacekeepers would provide overwatch and coordinate the ceasefire. 20
The swift and substantial victory of Azerbaijan will have a deeper impact on not only on the ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh but could also trickle down on the wider region. Iran has become adamant in securing its northern border with Armenia and insists that no changes to the border will be made. Iran amassed its forces near the border with Armenia and threatened Azerbaijan, Israel and Turkey (who are key military supporters of Azerbaijan) with a military action if its border with Armenia is to be compromised.21
In the unfortunate event of a new war in the Southern Caucasus, the belligerents of the conflict would not only seek to secure the territorial unity of either Armenia or Azerbaijan but rather to exert more influence and establish a greater strategic footing in a wider region. Azerbaijan would count on the support of Israel and Turkey while Armenia would look for Iranian support. The role and position of Russia remains enigmatic, as Russia historically supported both countries but in the recent years was more inclined to align itself with the Armenian side. However, its passive stance and non-responsiveness of its peacekeeping forces strained Armenian-Russian relations with the latest social media spat between the Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council and former president Dmitry Medvedev who accused the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan of “flirting with the NATO” and “losing the war”. Medvedev stated that Russia will not support any military operation conducted by Armenia.22
For Armenia, it seems that the cards are stacked against them on multiple fronts. On September 25, 2023, a mass exodus of ethnic Armenians occurred, with the prospect of as many as 120 000 Armenians possibly choosing to leave Artsakh for Armenia. The loss of Artsakh, the shameful defeat and a cowardly willingness to quickly negotiate the ceasefire have left ire in many Armenians aimed particularly towards the PM, Nikol Pashinyan who is facing mounting protests to resign.23 The exodus of thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh refugees fleeing from their ancestral home and the uncertain future for Armenia and its PM seemingly marks an end (at least for the time being) to a decades-long conflict where the victor takes all the spoils of war in his quest to create a Caucasian paradise in Nagorno-Karabakh.
1 The Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic of 1918 Federal Aspirations, Geopolitics and National Projects, edited by Adrian Brisku, Timothy K. Blauvelt, Copyright 202.
2 The Republic of Armenia: The first year, 1918-1919, Richard G. Hovannisian, University of California Press, 1971.
3 Regional Post: THE KARABAKH WAR OF 1918-1920, Tigran Zakaryan, April 30, 2021. https://regionalpost.org/en/articles/the-karabakh-war-of-1918-1920.html
4 National Geographic: How the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been shaped by past empires, Erin Blakemore, October 15, 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/how-nagorno-karabakh-conflict-shaped-by-past-empires
5 Council on Foreign Relations: Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, By the Center for Preventive Action Updated September 14, 2023. https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/nagorno-karabakh-conflict
6 The Minsk Group spearheads the OSCE’s efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation, and the United States.
7 International Crisis Group: VISUAL EXPLAINER. The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: A Visual Explainer. Updated September 16, 2023. https://www.crisisgroup.org/content/nagorno-karabakh-conflict-visual-explainer
8 Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW): The four-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Aleksandra Jarosiewicz, Maciej Falkowski. April 06, 2016. https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2016-04-06/four-day-war-nagorno-karabakh
9AlJazeera: The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is ushering in a new age of warfare, Alex Gatopoulos, October 11, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/10/11/nagorno-karabakh-conflict-ushering-in-new-age-of-warfare l
10 Brookings: After Russia’s Nagorno-Karabakh cea sefire, could Turkey step up next for a lasting peace?, Kemal Kirişci, Behlül Özkan, November 18, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/after-russias-nagorno-karabakh-ceasefire-could-turkey-step-up-next-for-a-lasting-peace/
11 AlJazeera: Armenia, Russia agree ‘joint steps to stabilise’ border, September 13, 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/9/13/deadly-clashes-erupt-between-armenia-azerbaijan
12 European Council: Statement following quadrilateral meeting between President Aliyev, Prime Minister Pashinyan, President Macron and President Michel, October 6, 2022. https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2022/10/07/statement-following-quadrilateral-meeting-between-president-aliyev-prime-minister-pashinyan-president-macron-and-president-michel-6-october-2022/
13 EUMA’s objectives. https://www.eeas.europa.eu/euma/about-european-union-mission-armenia_en?s=410283
14 OC Media: Energy crisis looms in Nagorno-Karabakh as reservoir levels fall, Ani Avetisyan, May 8, 2023. https://oc-media.org/energy-crisis-looms-in-nagorno-karabakh-as-reservoir-levels-fall/
15 Forbes: Lachin Corridor Blockade Starves Nagorno-Karabakh, Dr. Ewelina U. Ochab, August 8, 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2023/08/08/lachin-corridor-blockade-starves-nagorno-karabakh/?sh=bea46c33b6e9
16 EIC: Azerbaijan sets up checkpoints on the Lachin corridor, April 27, 2023. https://www.eiu.com/n/azerbaijan-sets-up-checkpoints-on-the-lachin-corridor/
17 Council on Foreign Relations: Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, By the Center for Preventive Action Updated September 14, 2023. https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/nagorno-karabakh-conflict
18 AlJazeera: Humanitarian aid enters Nagorno-Karabakh via Armenia, Azerbaijan , September 18, 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/9/18/humanitarian-aid-enters-karabakh-via-armenia-azerbaijan
19 AlJazeera: What we know about the Azerbaijan offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh, September 19, 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/9/19/explainer-what-we-know-about-the-azerbaijan-offensive-in-nagorno-karabakh
20 Reuters: Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh agree to disarm, September 20, 2023. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/armenians-nagorno-karabakh-agree-disarm-2023-09-20/
21 i24News: Iran issues threatening message to Azerbaijan, adds warning: Israel, beware, Avi Monakov, September 9, 2023. https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/analysis-opinion/1694275613-iran-behind-latest-escalation-between-armenia-azerbaijan
22 Atlas News: Russia’s Medvedev Signals that Russia Will Not Support Armenia Against Azerbaijan Offensive, September19, 2023. https://theatlasnews.co/conflict/2023/09/19/russias-medvedev-signals-that-russia-will-not-support-armenia-against-azerbaijan-offensive/
23 Reuters, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians start to leave en masse for Armenia, September 25, 2023. https://www.reuters.com/world/armenia-calls-un-mission-monitor-rights-nagorno-karabakh-2023-09-24/