The Conflicts of Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenia and Azerbaijan

by Nicholas Dawson, Forecast International.

Armenia–Azerbaijan Border. Image –

Historically, multiple regions, including Alsace-Lorraine between Germany and France and Kashmir Province between India and Pakistan, have been contested by regional powers. And a regional rivalry in Eurasia has led to multiple armed conflicts. As recently as 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan again engaged in a major conflict that culminated in an Azeri victory, with Armenian forces suffering heavy losses. In November, tensions between the two grew again as Azerbaijan began using its territorial gains from the 2020 conflict to create more outposts and checkpoints, impeding the transport of supplies and citizens. At the same time, Azeri soldiers have taken Armenian outposts while Armenian dissenters have attacked Azeri checkpoints and even used explosives against them.

To understand the current conflict, it is necessary to review how Nagorno-Karabakh became so important. Nagorno-Karabakh is located in southwestern Azerbaijan and is the home of both Armenians and Azeris. The region has long suffered from ethnic tensions between the two groups. The event that first triggered war between the two was the fall of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Specifically, the newly formed nations of the First Republic of Armenia and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic went to war in 1920.

The war started when Armenian secessionists tried to declare independence, which put the Azeri population on high alert. The Armenians would have the advantage throughout the war, but eventually, an intervention by the British would lead to negotiations on a potential agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The plan was to have an initial deal for a ceasefire, with continued negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference. The interim between the ceasefire and the negotiations led to the Shusha massacre against the Armenians, resulting in the deaths  of anywhere from  500 to 20,000. The attack occurred after the Armenian half of the police force killed the Azeri half during holiday celebrations. Then, the Soviet Army, which had beaten the White Army in Russia, marched down to Azerbaijan. Since the war had weakened both nations severely, communists took over both countries, turning them into Soviet satellite states in 1920. Nagorno-Karabakh would be demarcated and assigned to Azerbaijan by the Soviet Union, despite the majority Armenian population. It would eventually be an autonomous region within communist-run Azerbaijan.

Just before the Soviet Union’s collapse, the two rivals would engage in another war over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988.  The war had been preceded by peaceful protests and resistance, with the enclave voting to unite with Armenia after a parliamentary referendum. The vote was boycotted by the Azeris in the region, who instead wanted independence. The resulting protests between the ethnic groups would eventually escalate to ethnic cleansing, despite initial attempts by the Soviet Union to work the issues out and find a compromise. Full-scale fighting would begin in 1992 and escalate due to the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs’ withdrawal from Armenia and Azerbaijan. In their departure, the Soviets left large amounts of munitions, heavily arming both sides. By the end of the war, Armenia had a clear path to Baku after several major victories, leading Azerbaijan to seek a ceasefire using the new Russian Federation to help mediate. These efforts were successful, and in 1994 the Bishkek Protocol,  a provisional ceasefire agreement, was signed. While the first war ended in more of a stalemate between the two powers, this conflict was a complete Armenian victory that resulted in significant territorial gains as well as a de facto unification of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Nagorno-Karabakh suffered multiple attacks and ethnic targeting, and sometimes the violence nearly broke out into war, including during the period  2008 to 2010, when 74 soldiers were killed on both sides, according to a policy briefing by the International Crisis Group. The United Nations demanded at the time that Armenia withdraw its occupying forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, since Nagorno-Karabakh, which was known as the Republic of Artsakh, had declared itself independent, albeit very close to Armenia in geopolitics. Hundreds of soldiers on both sides as well as civilians would be killed in the lead-up to the war in 2020.  The2020 conflict would last for six weeks, with the ceasefire being signed in November.

The war started as an Azerbaijani offensive looking to take back territories lost in the 1988-1994 war, using the reasoning that those territories are internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. What started as artillery bombardments between both sides would later become a bloody six-week war that would conclude with an overwhelming Azerbaijani victory. This victory could be credited to the success of the new Bayraktar TB2 unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) being used by the Azeri armed forces that were easily able to avoid the older Soviet  air defenses being used by Armenia.  Azerbaijan was able to not only regain its lost territory but also control the region around Nagorno-Karabakh. According to The Military Balance 2021, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Armenia has far less manpower than its rival Azerbaijan, with an estimated 44,800 troops compared to Azerbaijan’s nearly 67,000. Defense spending is also in the Azeris’ favor, as from 2020-2021 the Azeris spent an estimated $966 million on defense while the Armenians spent only $600 million. This discrepancy in spending and manpower allowed Azerbaijan to have the upper hand.

The war was influenced by three major parties: Russia, Israel, and Turkey. Russia technically had a neutral stance during the war, but multiple times Russia attempted to broker a peace deal while also silently assisting Armenia – an action that would lead to one of Russia’s Mi-24s being shot down by the Azeri Army. More importantly, Turkey was a major factor in Azerbaijan’s victory, supplying the Azeri Army with the Bayraktar TB2 UAV.

Turkey is a close ally of Azerbaijan, and, even during the previous wars, Armenia  guarded its border against Turkish aggression. Part of the hostility between Turkey and Armenia stems from the Armenian genocide during World War I. The TB2s would prove to be devastating against the Armenian forces. Because of the dominance of the UAVs,  Armenia suffered losses in its tank divisions, artillery, armored fighting vehicles, and electronics. While there are no definitive statistics, estimated losses include 253 tanks, 78 armored vehicles, 83 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), 275 artillery pieces, and 17 radars.  These estimates do not account for the equipment that was damaged. The Azeri Army, meanwhile, didn’t lose nearly as much.

Israel has been a major ally of Azerbaijan since 1992.  This relationship is one of the few  between Israel and a Muslim majority nation that has led to strategic and economic cooperation. However, this Israeli influence  so close to Azerbaijan’s border has recently caused tensions to flare up.  Azerbaijan’s  victory in the recent war was aided by its purchase of Sky Striker drones made by Elbit Systems of Israel. This marked the first export of the Sky Striker.  Along with the Sky Striker, Azerbaijan also purchased the Harop. The Harop is a suicide drone made by Israel Aerospace Industries that is equipped with a warhead and weighs 23 kilograms.

After negotiating a ceasefire, with Russia once again acting as the mediator, both sides attempted to devise a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The price of loss was heavy for the Armenians, as many started to distrust their government and protests erupted in the country. The unrest grew to the point that the Armenian populace would occupy Parliament, leading to various arrests. A potential assassination plot against the prime minister followed, along with resignations of government officials. In Azerbaijan, celebrations took place as the government started planning to return displaced Azeris back to the regained regions.

The peace wouldn’t last long, as during 2021, violence between the two sides would once again escalate as geopolitical problems led to rising tensions. Azerbaijan and Iran had a major disagreement over Iranian trucks traveling through Azerbaijan to get to Nagorno-Karabakh, with Azeri outpost personnel  arresting and detaining Iranian truckers. (Iran has traditionally been friendlier with Armenia than Azerbaijan.)  As tensions rose between the two when Iran held military exercises on the Azeri border, the Azeris created more outposts and border checkpoints, and these, in turn, caused supply chain disruptions and were additionally employed to harass citizens. This expansion was in response to newly aggressive actions on the part of Armenia. These new checkpoints would only lead to more violence, with explosives being thrown at one such checkpoint,  and there are supposedly videos of Azeri troops forcefully taking Armenian outposts. The skirmishes have been the deadliest since the 2020 war, and the Armenian and Azeri ministries of defense, meanwhile, have been engaged in a war of words.

But while the region is experiencing new conflict, both governments have condemned the attacks and are reportedly close to reaching an agreement on demarcating their border while opening up new transportation routes. Additionally, both sides agreed to a ceasefire on the border as they try to de-escalate the situation. Importantly, the two countries now have a chance to reach agreements that can calm hostilities and potentially lead to the normalization of relations. Such an achievement would go far to help the Eurasian region, currently a geopolitical hotspot, to cool down. The main question that remains is,  how will the regional partners of Armenia and Azerbaijan – Georgia, Israel, Russia, Turkey, and Iran – handle the situation? Geopolitics along with ethnic hostilities could once again bring about conflict between the two battered nations. It will be up to their respective governments to ease the scars of war and try to maintain peace, or risk continued violence and escalation.

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