Since the end of September 2020, the so-called “frozen conflict” between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh has dramatically reignited. The dispute pits oil rich, authoritarian Azerbaijan, with its population of 10 million, against the 3 million people of landlocked Armenia and their allies in the Karabakh’s unrecognised Republic of Artsakh. Azerbaijan claims the region as rightfully theirs, having inherited it from the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan and de jure at least the rest of the world agrees. However, ever since a ceasefire brought about the end of hostilities in the “first” Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994, the area – whose population is 95% ethnically Armenian – has been governed by a breakaway regime closely aligned with the Armenian government in Yerevan.
Tensions over Karabakh date back far longer than 1994. For many Armenians, the area is considered their homeland. Having been pushed out of their former strongholds across eastern Turkey and the Caucasus, they view Karabakh as the one region which has consistently remained Armenian. The modern iteration of the conflict over the region can be traced back to the chaos following WW1. Having survived a genocide in 1915 in which at least 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks, the Armenians sought to create their own ethno-state of which Karabakh would have been a key part. However, Azerbaijan in turn wanted to protect the Azeri minority in the region. With British support, they sought to annex the Karabakh themselves. This conflict soon devolved into violent ethnic cleansing. One of the most brutal atrocities was the March 1920 Shusha Massacre, in which the entire Armenian population in the city of Shusha, some 20,000 people, were murdered. By the end of that year though, Azerbaijan and Armenia had been brought under the influence of the Soviet Union. Seeking favour with Turkey, their only major international ally, they granted Karabakh to the Turkic-speaking Azeris in 1921. It has also been theorised that the transfer of the Armenian dominated Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan was part of a wider Soviet policy of “divide-and-rule”, by which the Soviet Union deliberately played upon ethnic tensions to weaken anti-Soviet opposition in its newly occupied territories.
For the better part of the next seven decades, the weight of Soviet repression kept the two sides at peace. However, this new status quo was built upon the threat posed by Moscow’s military power, and no real reconciliation was ever achieved. As the USSR fragmented in the late 1980s, these ethnic tensions from the better part of a century before re-emerged. In 1988, the legislature of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region declared it’s wish to join Armenia, as widespread violence once again gripped the region. In March 1988, at least 32 Armenians were killed by Azeris in the Sumgait Pogrom, with the Armenians responding in kind, murdering dozens of ethnic Azeris. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this escalated to all out war as the breakaway region, under the title of ‘the Armenian Republic of Araskh’, allied with the newly independent state of Armenia to secede from Azerbaijan. In this war, which “froze” in 1994 – with a ceasefire established but no permanent resolution achieved – at least 30,000 people were killed and the Karabakh region achieved de facto independence. However, it also resulted in the expulsion of up to 700,000 ethnic Azeris from Armenia and five Azeri-majority districts annexed by Artsakh, who became internally displaced within Azerbaijan. Ever since the country has continued to claim Karabakh as its own sovereign territory. They point to its location in the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic and emphasize the right of displaced Azeris to return. In contrast, the Republic of Artsakh and Armenia point to the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of Karabakh, who are 95% Armenian, to protect their own national identity. Many Armenians also fear the closeness of Azerbaijan to their neighbour Turkey, whose government still denies the 1915 genocide.
The current flare-up is a direct result of these long-running tensions, but was triggered by a surprise Azerbaijani invasion on the 27th of September. This came following a 2018 peaceful revolution in Armenia. The new government was elected after emphasising its rhetorical provocation of Azerbaijan as a way to sideline the nationalist opposition. Similarly, although Azerbaijan is a de facto dictatorship headed by President Aliyev, the President has also been pushed by opposition groups and the large internally displaced population of Azerbaijan to take offensive action to reclaim the territories. Interestingly, Aliyev himself has a personal stake in the conflict, as his family was one of those forced to flee Armenia during the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since the 1994 war, the disparity between the two sides has grown. Azerbaijan is newly rich after an oil bonanza. It is also closely aligned to Turkey and has been able to purchase modern weapons from the Turks and Israel. These include sophisticated drones, which have reportedly been used to great effect against Armenian troops in the past few weeks. While Armenia does have a mutual defence pact with Russia, this is only triggered if the core of Armenia is attacked, not Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow has also improved relations with Aliyev in recent years, selling weapons to both sides in the conflict. Whereas Azerbaijan has rearmed its military since 1994, the Armenians are still mostly stuck using inexpensive Soviet era weaponry and now find themselves heavily outgunned.
Since fighting resumed in September, it is estimated that at least 500 Armenian soldiers have died along with an unknown number of civilians and Azerbaijani troops. This fighting has been characterised by the use of long range artillery and missiles to target major population centres in each region. Seven people were killed and eleven wounded in one day of shelling against the Azerbaijani city of Ganja. Azerbaijan responded by shelling the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert, even as the Armenian president was visiting the city. Armenia has been able to draw on it’s huge diaspora population, with funds and volunteers coming into the country from across the globe. Azerbaijan meanwhile has the full backing of Turkey who have reportedly sent 1,000 mercenaries from the Syrian war to support its offensive. As a result of the past few weeks of fighting, 70,000 Armenians in Karabakh, over a third of the region’s population, have been forced to flee.
With Moscow distracted by unrest in Belarus and in the far-east, and America embroiled in a bitter election, it is difficult to see how the conflict will be resolved in the near term. A cease-fire brokered by Putin’s government has already collapsed with renewed attacks on civilians. It appears likely that Azerbaijan will continue its offensive until it re-captures the entire Karabakh, or when its losses become unsustainable in the face of stiff Armenian resistance and an on-coming winter. A long term solution seems even harder to find. The international community backs Azerbaijan’s claims to the region and the desires of Azeri refugees to return to their homes is painfully understandable. Yet, the Armenian majority in Karabakh will probably never accept a return of Azeri rule given the memories of genocide and ethnic violence, and thus their desire for self-determination will remain.
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