The Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, explained

One of the world’s longest-standing frozen conflicts has thawed into a hot war, leading to over 350 deaths and potentially encouraging world powers to enter the fray — which could make a lethal situation even worse.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have reignited their 32-year struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory of 150,000 people about the size of Delaware. The territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it’s claimed and governed by ethnic Armenians. The two sides haven’t reached a lasting diplomatic resolution to the dispute since a war that killed 30,000 people or more ended in a 1994 ceasefire, leaving open the possibility of renewed deadly fighting.

That worst-case scenario proved a reality last week after the former Soviet territories accused each other of unprovoked attacks. On September 27, Armenia said Azerbaijan’s military bombed civilian settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh, including the regional capital of Stepanakert. In response, Armenia’s defense ministry claimed it downed two Azerbaijani helicopters and three drones. Azerbaijan didn’t take that lightly, with its defense ministry saying it launched a “counteroffensive” with tanks, war planes, artillery missiles, and drones.

Past skirmishes typically lasted no more than a few days, but this one has only continued and intensified. Stepanakert, a city of over 50,000 people, has experienced heavy artillery fire from Azerbaijan since October 2, while Azerbaijan says Armenia has shelled the country’s second-largest city, Ganja, and other missiles elsewhere — each assault putting civilians in grave danger.

These and other actions have made the past 10 days the most violent, bloody, and deadly since the 1994 ceasefire. “They’re already calling it the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War,” said Roya Talibova, an Azerbaijani who was internally displaced by the violence of the first war and is now a PhD student at the University of Michigan. “What I’m seeing now reminds me of what I saw in the 1990s.”

Turkey, a NATO member, is only making matters worse. It has fully backed Azerbaijan, with observers alleging it has sent at least 1,000 Syrian fighters to help and providing the country’s forces with weapons and training. That’s provocative, experts say, as it not only fans the flames of war, but also threatens the control and calming influence Russia has had over the conflict.

There’s a worry among experts that Moscow could also decide to intervene as well, a decision many think would escalate the situation by pitting a NATO ally against Russia either directly or by proxy. But so far Russia, which oversees the sputtering diplomatic process over the area along with France and the United States, has called for restraint alongside its counterparts.

All three countries “condemn in the strongest terms the unprecedented and dangerous escalation of violence in and outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh zone,” their top diplomats said in a joint statement on Monday, adding that “the disproportionate nature of such attacks constitute an unacceptable threat to the stability of the region.”

Such calls might not work this time, though. Most experts I spoke to fear the fighting won’t end until either Armenia deals Azerbaijan a militarily decisive blow, or Azerbaijan reclaims much or all of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding regions. When I mentioned that concern to Zareh Sinanyan, Armenia’s high commissioner for diaspora affairs, he said bluntly: “That is true.”

“If we stop fighting for one second, they’re going to come all the way to Yerevan,” Armenia’s capital, he continued. But Sinanyan also didn’t deny that Armenia might send its military into Baku if deemed necessary. “We will do whatever we have to do to ensure the safety of our people,” adding, “we’re going to defend ourselves to the last bullet.”

However, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has said his country was ready for “mutual concessions” with Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan’s government didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, isn’t showing signs of standing down thus far. “Nagorno-Karabakh is our land,” he said in a televised address on Sunday. “This is the end. We showed them who we are. We are chasing them like dogs.”

While many hope the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict freezes up again, as recent history suggests it could, it’s becoming more and more likely every day that this is a wholly different and ruinous flareup with no end in sight.

“Don’t discount the possibility of this turning into something much larger,” said Kevork Oskanian, an expert on the dispute at the University of Birmingham in the UK. “Once a conflict like this kicks off, it has a dynamic of its own and you don’t know where it will go.”

Smoke rises behind houses after shelling in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region’s main city of Stepanakert on October 7, during the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region.
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

How the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict got so bad, briefly explained

The first person to blame for the current conflict is former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. In 1921, he gave Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, only to turn it into an autonomous region two years later. That change would inevitably prove problematic, as Nagorno-Karabakh’s population was over 90 percent Armenian. On top of this, most Armenians are Christian, while Azerbaijan is majority Muslim; thus, Stalin’s decision effectively turned the territory into a Christian-majority enclave in a Muslim-majority nation.

Despite some spats, the situation never turned extremely violent. It was only as the Soviet Union began to dissolve in the 1980s that nationalist forces on both sides made Nagorno-Karabakh an explosive issue. In 1988, the area’s legislature passed a resolution stating it officially wanted to join Armenia despite its location inside Azerbaijan. Three years later, the breakaway territory declared itself independent.

By that point, Armenia and Azerbaijan were no longer part of the Soviet Union but rather sovereign states, giving them the ability to fight over Nagorno-Karabakh without Moscow’s direct influence. The war that erupted in 1991 was destructive, leading to more than 30,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees. When it ended in 1994, Armenia had forced Azerbaijan’s troops out of Nagorno-Karabakh and had taken over roughly 20 percent of the surrounding territory.

The Russia-brokered ceasefire has remained in place ever since, but both countries still see Nagorno-Karabakh as territory worth fighting over.

Map of Armenia and Azerbaijan, near Turkey and Georgia Tim Ryan Williams/Vox

For Armenia, Azerbaijan is an existential threat to the thousands of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and potentially to the country itself. For Azerbaijan, having the mountainous enclave back into its fold is integral to the idea of Azerbaijan as a country, and is also a deeply personal issue for the thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) scattered throughout the nation.

Talibova, the University of Michigan doctoral candidate, had grandparents who died while in homes made for IDPs in Azerbaijan and still has aunts who reside in such housing. “It’s a very unfortunate situation to live in,” she told me. Her family and others escaped the violence with only the clothes on their back and whatever money fit in their pockets. “You lose hope that you’ll ever see the land you’re attached to again.”

This is why experts typically say Armenia is more satisfied with the status quo than Azerbaijan. Ethnic Armenians still run the place and it serves as a buffer of sorts and high ground in case of an Azerbaijani ground attack. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, wants to reclaim the territory and send thousands of disgruntled, displaced people back to their homes.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the intergovernmental body, is charged with finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict by tackling the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the return of IDPs, and more. It formed the Minsk Group in 1992, placing Russia, France, and the US as its co-chairs. Despite their power, they’ve so far struggled to broker a deal.

Soldiers in the Nagorno-Karabakh War in the early 1990s.
TASS via Getty Images

Much of that, experts say, has to do with the politics in both countries: The populations in both countries want their governments to stop at nothing to control Nagorno-Karabakh. “They look at the past with a telescope and the future with a microscope,” said Daniel Baer, America’s OSCE ambassador from 2013 to 2017.

That helps explain why two major diplomatic pushes failed.

In 1997, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a step-by-step approach in which Armenia would first partially withdraw from territories around Nagorno-Karabakh. The separatist region’s leaders rejected the proposal, but Armenia’s then-president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, fully backed it. His support led to a major revolt within his government, and he resigned due to the pressure in 1998.

Three years later, the Minsk Group organized a summit in Key West, Florida. What they agreed to is still officially unknown, but the general belief is Azerbaijan promised to hold a referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh. When Azerbaijan’s President Heydar Aliyev — the current president’s father — arrived back in Baku, he was told going through with it would lead to a popular uprising. He then walked away from the deal.

Almost no progress has been made since, and the Minsk Group co-chairs diverted their attention elsewhere, leaving the open wound to fester. However, James Warlick, the US co-chair of the Minsk Group from 2013 to 2016, said talks have had a moderating effect. “In some ways, the diplomatic route has worked,” he told me. “We’ve avoided a wider war and kept a lid on hostilities.”

It’s a fair point. The greatest outbreak in violence since the ceasefire came in April 2016 in what is now known as the “Four Day War.” About 350 people, including civilians, died in the fight before another Russia-brokered ceasefire. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan claimed victory in the aftermath, each saying they successfully pushed the other’s forces back from where they started.

The small hope in that truce: The two countries had resolved their immediate differences before the situation spiraled out of control. “Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan want a wider war,” Warlick said.

The problem is the current fight isn’t following that playbook. Instead, the crisis is only getting worse and worse.

Turkey is placing its own interests above the safety of Armenians and Azerbaijanis

The conflict that erupted last week actually began back in mid-July. During days of border fighting, Armenia killed seven Azerbaijani service members, including a top, popular Army general. “Armenia’s political and military leadership will bear the entire responsibility for the provocation,” Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, vowed at the time.

Later that month, Turkey joined Azerbaijan for two weeks of military drills featuring armored vehicles, artillery, and mortars. It was billed as an annual exercise, but the message was clear: Azerbaijan was preparing for a real fight and Turkey had its back. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made that point explicitly last Friday.

“As Turkey, with all our means and with all our heart, we stand with fellow and brother Azerbaijan and we will continue to stand with it,” he said. “God willing, until Nagorno-Karabakh is liberated from invasion, this struggle will continue.”

The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, arrives to give a press conference after a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey, on September 21.
Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

It seems Erdoğan wasn’t bluffing. Azerbaijan has been using Turkish-provided drones to strike Nagorno-Karabakh, the same kind Turkey has deployed against Russia in Syria and Libya. However, human rights monitors and other governments — including France — allege Turkey is purposefully sending foreign fighters into the conflict on Azerbaijan’s behalf. (Azerbaijan has also bought advanced missiles from Israel that it’s using in the conflict.)

Experts say Turkey seriously got involved for three main reasons.

First, it’s always been a major supporter of Azerbaijan and an enemy of Armenia. Turkey has strong ethnic, linguistic, and religious kinship with Azerbaijan. And in 1915, Turkey — then the Ottoman Empire — killed about 1.5 million Armenians in a genocide. It’s no surprise, then, that Turkey sides with Azerbaijan in the dispute. The closeness between the two sides has led many Armenians to call Azerbaijanis “Turks,” analysts told me.

Second, Azerbaijan has become a major gas exporter to Turkey. That’s beneficial for Ankara, as it provides the country with needed energy, and the money Azerbaijan gets from the sales usually comes back to Turkey through weapons purchases. (It’s also helped Azerbaijan fund improvements to its armed forces.)

Third, Turkey wants to play a greater role in the region, even if that comes at the expense of Russia. “Turkey has thrown down the gauntlet,” said Laurence Broers, the Caucasus program director at the Chatham House think tank in London.

The lesson Erdoğan learned from involving his country in conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Iraq is that by doing so, Turkey can win a greater say in diplomatic negotiations later on, said Vahram Ter-Matevosyan, an expert on Turkish foreign policy at the American University of Armenia. Plus, it also allows Erdoğan to stick it to Russia after Moscow made Ankara’s life harder in Syria and Libya. “What Turkey is doing is undermining the politics and security architecture of this region,” he continued.

Turkey’s all-in involvement, as evidenced by the foreign minister traveling to Baku this week, has convinced Azerbaijan’s Aliyev that he can push harder than his country ever has in this conflict. For example, this week Azerbaijan’s forces continued to bomb Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, even as Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan was in the city.

“The situation is still the same as on September 27,” said Robert Avetisyan, the permanent representative for Nagorno-Karabakh in the US, who is currently in Stepanakert. “Today we had rockets drop for a while, but it was less than yesterday,” he told me on Wednesday.

However, experts note Azerbaijan has been careful not to attack civilian areas in Armenia proper. Doing so might trigger a defense treaty Russia has with Armenia requiring Moscow to come to Yerevan’s defense militarily.

That hasn’t stopped Nagorno-Karabakh forces from hitting Azerbaijani territory, though, with leaders from the separatist region calling this the “last battle.”

The defense ministry in Baku says Nagorno-Karbakh’s forces shot long-range missiles at Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city located about 62 miles outside the frontline near Nagorno-Karabakh. Avetisyan told me his government doesn’t deny attacks on locations where Azerbaijan launches strikes on the separatist territory, but he denies any assaults on civilian areas.

Azerbaijan also says Armenia is shelling the industrial town of Mingachevir along with the smaller ones of Tartar, Barda, and Beylagan.

Hundreds of civilians have suffered through the fighting, many forced from their destroyed homes and now living under constant threat of injury or death. “People are afraid,” Ruzanna Avagyana, a 53-year-old social worker who lives in Stepanakert, told the New York Times on Monday. “I heard whistling this way and that,” she said about incoming artillery. “I couldn’t understand where they were falling. And then I heard a boom.”

The question now is how all this ends. Experts have some ideas, but few have much immediate hope.

Expect the Armenia-Azerbaijan war to last longer

Chatham House’s Broers said there are three potential outcomes for how the fighting might play out — and the scariest scenario is unfortunately the most likely at the moment.

1) Diplomacy wins out: unlikely

The first is Russia diplomatically intervenes, like it has in past squabbles, and gets both sides to calm down. Experts say neither side wants to unilaterally deescalate, but they could use the excuse of Moscow forcing them to pull back as a way out of this war.

After seeing just how bad things have gotten, Russia could choose to revitalize the Minsk Group-led peace process, hopefully putting all sides on the path toward a diplomatic solution.

But even Broers admits that’s unlikely at the moment. “The soaring rhetoric of each side has left no space for a climb down,” he told me. Indeed, the language used this time around is far more severe than in the past, and Azerbaijan clearly looks more serious about making real gains.

“This all isn’t just to make a point. It’s to change the conditions on the ground and the balance of power,” Nina Caspersen, an expert on the conflict at the University of York in the UK, said about Azerbaijan’s plans. “It’s unfortunately difficult to see anything that would stop it.”

It doesn’t help that experts say Russia isn’t as invested in tamping down tensions as it once was. Part of that is because Moscow’s attention is diverted elsewhere — namely Syria, Ukraine, and Libya — and also because the Kremlin just didn’t see any of this coming.

“This is a major intelligence failure by Russia for underestimating the scale of all this,” said the University of Birmingham’s Oskanian.

2) A ceasefire that makes Turkey a major regional player: moderately possible

Another scenario is that Russia pushes Armenia to back off while Turkey convinces Azerbaijan to do the same. That would mostly follow the trajectory of past skirmishes that ended in a shaky ceasefire. It wouldn’t solve all the underlying problems, but it would stop the bloodshed for the time being — providing relief for the many civilians in harm’s way.

This is likely the outcome Turkey most wants. If Ankara proves instrumental in a new ceasefire, it will have solidified its place as a major player in the Caucasus that must be consulted any time Nagorno-Karabakh issues pop up. Such a development would erode Russia’s preeminent status as the regional power broker, thereby dealing Erdoğan a win.

If that’s what happens, no one should lose sight of the deadly gamble the Turkish leader took to gain influence. “The regional powers have an incentive to refreeze this, but Erdoğan is playing with fire,” said Warlick, the former American OSCE diplomat.

But so far, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan are far apart on a resolution, and Turkey hasn’t shown any signs of backing down. There are even reports Turkey shot down an Armenian warplane last week, a charge Ankara denies.

A woman shelters in a basement in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region’s main city of Stepanakert on October 6, during the ongoing fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, said on Tuesday that “Nagorno-Karabakh is ready, and Armenia is ready, to mirror the concessions that Azerbaijan is ready to make.” But Azerbaijan’s Aliyev doesn’t want to make concessions — he just wants Armenia to surrender. “Azerbaijan has one condition, and that is the liberation of its territories,” he said on Sunday.

If no one is willing to ratchet tensions down, then the fighting proceeds.

3) Heavy fighting — and potentially even ethnic cleansing — until one side “wins”: most likely

The sad reality is that, for the time being, the most likely outcome is that Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to fight. That means potentially hundreds more troops and civilians will die. “I could see major cities being attacked if things escalate into a full-scale war,” Caspersen told me.

In this scenario, Armenia would fight until it decimates Azerbaijan’s forces to the point that they must fall back and regroup. Azerbaijan’s goal would be to forcibly take back areas of Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby Armenian-controlled territory.

Trying to achieve such victories would no doubt lead to takeovers of civilian areas currently in one country by the other side. That, experts say, is a horrifying prospect. “At no point has any side in this conflict gained territory without ethnic cleansing,” said Oskanian.

Such scenes might entice Turkey and Russia to step in militarily by backing Azerbaijan and Armenia, respectively. That’s dangerous, as it would effectively place Turkey, a NATO member allied with the United States, in direct combat against Russia, possibly drawing other allies into the fight. At a minimum, such decisions would further exacerbate the fighting for more months and potentially years — an outcome few actually want.

Still, the risk of that happening is why this conflict is so fraught and why experts hope it will ultimately be resolved once and for all, preferably by diplomacy. Otherwise, a growing war will plague the region.

“Frozen conflicts don’t stay frozen forever,” the University of Michigan’s Talibova said. “They thaw at some point.”

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