By: Krishnendu R, Research Analyst, GSDN
The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia was started as a long-standing territorial dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. This dispute has deep roots in history. Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh is a mountainous region in the southern Caucasus Mountain. The region was internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but it was predominantly occupied by ethnic Armenians.
Karabakh had its own government, which is close to Armenia, but it has not been recognised internationally or by other countries. This region is vital for both Azerbaijan and Armenia because their historical ties lie in the region where Armenia is a Christian majority, where they have occupied this region. Azerbaijanians, a predominantly dominated Muslim majority who originally were from Turkey, Persia and Russia, also have historical sentiments with this region.
The dispute was centred around the political, social and cultural future of the area. On September 19-20, 2023, war broke out in the mountainous region of Nagorno Karabakh, where Azerbaijani forces conquered the territory held by the defenders in a short military operation. The history of the clash between the two nations began in 1905, and it continued after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the two states becoming independent.
In 1988-1994 war broke out between Armenia and their Azeri neighbours, ending up in control of Nagorno Karabakh by the Armenians. This became the First Karabakh war. In 2020, Azerbaijan started military operations with the use of weapons and drones from Turkey and Israel, which was cited as the main reason for Azerbaijan’s victory. This war lasted up to 44 days and ended up in taking back the seven districts and the control over Nagorno Karabakh. About 6500 people were killed in this war.
Background of the Conflict
The history behind the conflict started in 1905 when the first significant clash occurred between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the city of Baku. After the First World War, both countries became independent, and the complex demography of Transcaucasia made it challenging to separate them into ethnic homogenous states. Later, the conflict shifted to Nagorno-Karabakh. At the time, Armenians were the predominant majority in the area, having migrated from Turkey and Iran.
After the soviet rule was established, the new government decided to place Nagorno Karabakh under the Armenian administration. In 1921, they changed this decision and placed Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijan. In 1923, Nagorno Karabakh became Nagorno Karabakh Oblast (NKAO) of Azerbaijan SSR. The reasons for this change were unclear, but maybe because of the influence of Turkish relations with the Soviet Union. This decision completely dissatisfied the Armenians.
Armenians made several attempts to make Nagorno-Karabakh a part of it in the 1960s and 1970s. They made several appeals to Moscow, but they didn’t get any positive response. In the 1980s, the Armenians met senior party officials several times to discuss the status of NKAO. However, Azerbaijan showed that they would not agree to their demands regarding NKAO.
On 26 February 1988, around one million people gathered on the streets of Yerevan. Gorbachev promised to listen to the concerns of Armenian activists, and he promised that a solution would take after one month. Armenians stopped their protests for a while, but in Azerbaijan, violence occurred in Sumgait.
By the end of March 1988, the authorities decided not to change the status of NKAO. To avoid further disturbances, Armenians were arrested and taken into custody. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1999, both states became independent and formed into new states, which led again to the fighting for Nagorno-Karabakh, which ended up conquering Armenia, the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was ruled by a separatist government which is closely connected with Armenia.
In 2020, war again erupted in the borders. In this period, Azerbaijan gained military assistance from Turkey and Ankara, and after 44 days of war, Azerbaijan gained its victory by recapturing Nagorno Karabakh and seven neighbouring districts.
What Happened Recently
Last week, Azerbaijan launched an anti-terror campaign in Nagorno Karabakh, protesting against the illegal mining in the area, which caused the death of six Azerbaijanians. Azerbaijani activists occupied the Lachin corridor and blocked the national highway except for Red Cross and Russian convoys. Russian peacekeepers were unable to reopen the highway, resulting in the shortage of supply of food and medicine to Nagorno Karabakh coming from Yerevan. This was seen as genocide making the people hungry, and whenever they opened the highway, people had to flee from their place. Then, they started a checkpoint to deter the military shipments from Armenia, and later, they ended the protests, claiming that the true objective of the government was to block the Armenian passage. Armenian leaders stated that Azerbaijan is trying to isolate the ethnic Armenians in Karabakh.
Peace talks were initiated by Russia, the US, and the European Union to rebuild peace in the borders and protect ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno Karabakh, where the Armenian President Pashinyan accepted the victory of Azerbaijan.
Again, Azerbaijan tightened the tensions by closing the Lachin corridor, where Red Cross convoys were also prohibited. Medical evacuations were suspended, and several people, including children, died when this humanitarian crisis turned critical. Azerbaijan offered medical help, but the regional administration rejected it by saying that we do not need help from the ones who are responsible for this crisis.
After a few days, the Lachin corridor reopened, which gave hope to regain the peace in the borders. Azerbaijan gained complete power over Nagorno Karabakh while protests started in the streets of Yerevan against the government, accusing it of failing to protect the ethnic Armenians and demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Around 12000 people live in the disputed territory. Thousands of people migrated from there because of the fear of persecution. The administrators demanded the protection of the people who remained there.
Diplomacy and Involvement of International Actors
Azerbaijan and Armenia, a part of the Soviet Union, have close connections with Russia. The deployment of Russian troops at the borders was a move Russia took to ease the tensions near the borders. However, the invasion of Russia into Ukraine in 2022 made it unable to control both countries going into a conflict.
Other countries like Turkey, Iran and Israel took this as a chance to fuel up the conflict for implementing their agendas in this region.
Both countries are important for Russia as Russia is the arms supplier of both nations. Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, and Azerbaijan is a significant market for Russian arms exports.
Turkey is also involved in the conflict by supporting Azerbaijan through providing military assistance. It also has the support of Ankara, where its close partners are Pakistan and Qatar. Moscow and Ankara tried to keep the Western involvement minimal in the Karabakh conflict. They found a way around in the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Iran, Russia and the US, which was established in the 1990s to find a peaceful solution to Nagorno Karabakh.
Another regional actor was Iran, where 15 to 19 million Azeris live in Iran as compared to 10 million in Azerbaijan. Tehran was afraid of the possible overflow of Azeris in Iran. They were also concerned about Baku’s ambition to build an overland transport corridor in Armenia that connects Azerbaijan to the Nakhichevan enclave, which would cut off Iran’s access to Yerevan. Hence Iran maintained a neutral position between the two conflicting parties, though with a slight tilt towards Armenia.
Iran’s leaning towards Armenia was why Israel was backing Azerbaijan, and it is the major arms supplier to Baku, including drone ammunition and Barak 8 missiles.
With a long bitter dispute spanning over a hundred years finally coming to an end, one hopes that peace and prosperity reigns supreme in the region and no more bloodshed or destruction of property is witnessed in the times ahead.