For over a century, Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh among Armenians, has remained a contentious area marked by longstanding disagreements between Christian Armenians and Turkic Muslim Azeris. The roots of this conflict extend back to the early 20th century, a time when both groups asserted historical and cultural connections to this rugged territory. The situation was further complicated during the eras of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, when administrative boundaries were established with little regard for the ethnic makeup of the local populace. In 1923, Nagorno-Karabakh was designated as an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan, despite having a predominantly Armenian population.
As the Soviet Union faced its collapse in the late 1980s, nationalist sentiments gained momentum in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, with calls for greater self-governance and independence. In February 1988, the parliament in Nagorno-Karabakh made a significant decision: they passed a resolution to break away from Azerbaijan and unite with Armenia. This move set off widespread demonstrations and unrest in both regions. Despite attempts by Soviet authorities to mediate the situation, they were unable to avert the eruption of inter-ethnic conflicts, leading to hundreds of casualties and the displacement of thousands of people on both sides of the divide.
In 1991, both Armenia and Azerbaijan asserted their independence from the Soviet Union, yet the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh remained unresolved. Karabakh Armenians, supported by Armenia, proclaimed the establishment of their own republic, Artsakh, but this declaration received no international recognition. Azerbaijan refused to acknowledge this secession and initiated a military operation aimed at regaining control over the region. Armenia intervened to back their fellow Armenians, resulting in a full-fledged war that endured until 1994. This devastating conflict claimed the lives of tens of thousands and uprooted over a million individuals, primarily Azerbaijanis who were compelled to flee the Armenian-held territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh.
In May of 1994, a ceasefire accord was inked with the assistance of Russia, putting an end to the active fighting, although it did not address the fundamental issues at the heart of the conflict. Negotiations persisted under the guidance of the OSCE Minsk Group, jointly led by Russia, France, and the United States, yet they were unable to forge a sustainable peace agreement. The ceasefire was often breached by sporadic clashes and border disputes, resulting in casualties on both sides.
In September 2020, a significant escalation unfolded when Azerbaijan launched a large-scale offensive, with Turkish support, spanning the entire contact line with Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. This intense conflict endured for 44 days, marked by the use of heavy artillery, drones, rockets, and missiles. Ultimately, the war concluded with a trilateral agreement signed on November 10, 2020, involving Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. This agreement mandated a complete ceasefire and the deployment of Russian peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Per the terms of the agreement, Armenia committed to withdrawing its troops from most of the territories it had occupied since 1994, while Azerbaijan agreed to cease its advance and maintain the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh. The war resulted in a tragic toll, with over 7,000 lives lost and tens of thousands of people displaced on both sides of the conflict.
The conflict in 2020 brought about substantial shifts in power and the geopolitical landscape of the region. Azerbaijan successfully regained control over a significant portion of its internationally recognized territory and bolstered its strategic alliance with Turkey.
Meanwhile, Armenia’s rapport with Russia has become strained, particularly since Nikol Pashinyan took office as Armenia’s prime minister after leading extensive anti-government protests in 2018. More recently, Pashinyan has expressed his belief that Armenia’s exclusive reliance on Russia for security was a “strategic mistake.” He has also raised questions about the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the conflict-affected area.
We should take note of the discreet engagement of Western nations with the current Armenian administration. There are signs suggesting the possibility of a Western-supported effort that is critical of both Turkey and Russia. This could present a noteworthy challenge, not only to regional players like Turkey and Russia but also to the broader Central Asian area. This behind-the-scenes involvement and its potential outcomes add an extra layer of intricacy to the ongoing situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, further complicating the geopolitical dynamics.
Nevertheless, Moscow, with strong connections to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, had its attention diverted by its military involvement in Ukraine and its ongoing standoff with NATO in 2023. Consequently, it aimed to harmonize its interests in the South Caucasus by reinforcing economic and political ties with Azerbaijan and its partner Turkey, all the while upholding its security obligations to Armenia. Consequently, Moscow abstained from intervening when, earlier this year, Azerbaijan closed off the Lachin Corridor, which serves as the sole route linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh declared a ceasefire, with Russian mediation, on September 20, 2023, effectively putting an end to 24 hours of intense combat that posed a serious risk of rekindling a full-blown war. The ceasefire agreement specified the comprehensive disarming and dissolution of local Armenian forces. Consequently, Armenians are now making their way to Armenia, where they are seeking refuge and safety. Armenia has responded by opening its borders and extending a warm welcome to thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh refugees. However, this move has brought about economic and political challenges for Armenia, compounded by pressure from Russia to acknowledge the conflict’s outcome.
The ongoing situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is a direct result of unsuccessful and insincere diplomatic efforts by both regional and global powers. Their incapacity to effectively address the issue has worsened the crisis, causing a large number of people to leave the region. Additionally, the growing polarization, both regionally and globally, has played a significant role in shaping the current mass migration scenario. This polarization, characterized by sharp divisions and disputes, has added another layer of complexity to the situation, making it increasingly challenging for displaced individuals to find safety and stability. It’s evident that the actions, or lack thereof, by these powers have had a profound impact on the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Written by Rajeev Ahmed
Geopolitical Analyst, Strategic Thinker and Editor at geopolits.com