War and truce in Nagorno-Karabakh

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has global significance, not least because of its powerful backers: Russia and Turkey

Veronica Martin

The perestroika era was the last time that conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenians and Azerbaijanis really made headlines in the West. Back then, calls for self-determination in Nagorno-Karabakh were one element in the rise of many nationalisms that ultimately contributed to the Soviet collapse in 1991. As Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent, this little Armenian exclave within Azeri territory also demanded its own independence by referendum, then sought it on the battlefield. Fighting carried on for a couple of years, though with dwindling international coverage. By 1994, the local Armenians had won the day, taking control both of their own region and also of a swathe of extra Azeri territory all around it, and a ceasefire more or less stopped fighting for most of the years till 2020.

Now, a quarter of a century later, the conflict is back in the news, with six weeks of all-out fighting this autumn, followed by a ceasefire in November—though this time with history reversing itself, and the Azerbaijanis claiming victory.

At first sight it might be hard to understand why this fighting is generating global headlines. The territory being fought over is tiny—hardly bigger than Kent, and much more remote. Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian-majority population was under 200,000 just before the Soviet collapse, and is down to around 150,000 now, at least half of whom have fled the region to escape the fighting. Their regional declaration of independence has never been recognised, either by external countries or by international organisations.

Yet Nagorno-Karabakh’s troubles do resonate worldwide, both because of Azerbaijan’s oil wealth and, more importantly still, because of the powerful backers supporting the rival sides.

One glance at the map reveals the explosive geopolitical dimension of the conflict. Armenia and Azerbaijan lie just south of the Caucasus mountains. To their north is Russia; to their south, Iran and Turkey. Christian Armenia has historically been a friend of Moscow, and the two countries have a defence pact. Muslim Azerbaijan, whose people speak a Turkic language that Turks half-understand, has close ties with Ankara, which backed its military offensive this autumn. So the latest open warfare in Karabakh, and the extent to which it has been contained, is also an expression of the relationship between Russia, which continues to view the post-Soviet South Caucasus as its backyard, and an increasingly assertive Turkey as the challenger.

History has added to the explosiveness of this geography. Armenians have complex feelings about their Azerbaijani neighbours. On the eve of World War I, there were two million Armenians in the declining Ottoman Empire. By 1922, there were fewer than 400,000. The others—some 1.5 million—were killed in what historians consider a genocide (though the modern Turkish state rejects this label). So local Armenians did not welcome the boundaries Stalin then drew for the Soviet Union, under which, since the 1920s, Nagorno-Karabakh has been formally part of Azerbaijan. Some Armenians today consider Azerbaijanis to be also “the Turk”. And many members of both nations harbour bitter personal memories of the bloodshed, cruelties and war-related losses experienced during their own lifetimes.

From the 1990s to this autumn, the conflict was more or less frozen behind barbed wire and patrols, with both sides leading a limited and often miserable existence as a result.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s local Armenian government calls its homeland the Republic of Artsakh. While it cooperates closely with Armenia, which supports it financially and militarily, even Armenia does not formally recognise it as an independent country. Although the physical damage done to buildings in the capital, Stepanakert, by bombing from the nearby mountain city of Shusha, then in mainly Azeri hands, was soon repaired, the region remains isolated. With the railway line to Azerbaijan proper dismantled in the 1990s fighting, leaving just a memory, the territory’s last connection with the outside world is by a road known as the Lachin corridor, leading southwest from the local capital, Stepanakert, to Armenia proper.

If life has felt enclosed for the Karabakh Armenians, it has been less cheerful still for the Azeris who fell victim to the First Nagorno-Karabakh War of the 1990s. Local Azerbaijanis who had lived in Nagorno-Karabakh itself until then, many of them in Shusha (called Shushi by Armenians), fled their homes in that fighting. In 1993, the Karabakh Armenian forces also ventured right out of their traditional region and seized seven neighbouring districts of undisputedly Azerbaijani territory, to Nagorno-Karabakh’s west, south along the Iranian border, and east into the flatlands of Azerbaijan proper—a strategic move that ensured that Azeri forces could not attack or close the Lachin corridor. A total of about 600,000 local Azeris were displaced. Although they fled the area around Nagorno-Karabakh (more properly, Nagorny Karabakh, Russian for “Mountainous Karabakh”, as it is the last craggy outcrop of the Lesser Caucasus mountain range) many of them stayed as near as they could, at the start of hundreds of miles of Azerbaijan’s flatlands, which stretch all the way to the Caspian Sea coast and the capital, Baku.

Since the Karabakh war of a generation ago, Baku has seen its fortunes revive on a grand scale thanks to huge oil finds in the Caspian. But that wealth is impossible to guess at in the dilapidated flatland villages near the conflict zone. For a quarter of a century since, those hundreds of thousands of displaced Azeris have been stuck in camps. Some have made an existence on the edges of Azerbaijan’s other cities, but many remain near the mountain territory, living in commandeered schools or containers, waiting for a chance to return. Their plight has been part of Azerbaijan’s political mix ever since. Resentment has festered.

The fighting itself was swift and brutal. On September 27, Armenia announced attacks by Azerbaijan all along the territory’s border. Azerbaijan said this was a counter-attack, and the Armenians had attacked first. Azeri forces armed with cutting-edge weaponry advanced quickly. By October 8 they had moved into the mountains and taken back control of Shusha/Shushi. This was a loss of huge emotional significance to Armenians as the city is an ancient centre of learning in the South Caucasus, to which the separatist Artsakh government had announced, earlier in September, that it would move its parliament. Shusha/Shushi is also only six miles from the local capital, Stepanakert, whose people feared they would now come under attack. Between half and three-quarters of the local population fled. At least 5,000 people died in the fighting. By November 10, the Armenian Prime Minister, Nicol Pashinyan, had accepted a truce brokered by Moscow, freezing territorial gains and authorising the deployment of 2,000 Russian peacekeeping forces to the region to oversee the return of Azeri territory and police Nagorno-Karabakh on a renewable five-year basis. The guns have fallen silent. But this is not a peace.

As the dust settles on a still uncertain landscape, the question now is who has won and lost.

That Armenia and the Karabakh Armenians have come off worst is clear. News of the ceasefire was met with anti-government rioting in the Armenian capital. Although the presence of peacekeepers means return is possible, it is uncertain how many of the up to 100,000 Karabakh Armenians who fled this autumn will want to return to their territory on new terms, with parts of Karabakh and the surrounding area being handed back to Azerbaijan. Armenians, deeply attached to their past, are now also fearful that several historic churches and Christian monuments in territory either captured or due to be returned to Azerbaijani control are at risk, including the 13th-century Dadivank monastery in Shahumyan district just outside Karabakh, just as, during the fighting, the cathedral in Shusha/Shushi was damaged by Azeri shelling.

But the outcome for the other players in this drama is, at best, nuanced. True, Azerbaijan has notched up a military victory, gone much of the way to restoring the territorial integrity it lost in the 1990s, and created the hope that its internally displaced people can at last return home. This arises from the calculated risk it took that Moscow would not intervene militarily if it had backing from Turkey—rightly, as it turned out.

As a result, Azerbaijan’s 600,000 displaced people may soon be able to go back to homes bordering and inside Karabakh. But these days the seven border districts are full of ghostly ruined villages; Shusha/Shushi is also a ghost of its former self. Rebuilding will be a long and costly operation for Azerbaijan, and the return will need to be carefully managed.

Turkey’s gain is that its support for Azerbaijan has given Ankara a presence in Russia’s post-Soviet geopolitical backyard—which may serve as payback for Russia’s involvement since 2015 in Syria and Libya, which Turkey views as its area of influence.

Yet Russian deftness—President Vladimir Putin has spoken of intense telephone diplomacy—has given it the upper hand in the ceasefire, and limited Turkish aspirations.

In the wake of this conflict, Russia gets to keep peacekeepers inside oil-rich Azerbaijan—more than it achieved after the last conflict ended in 1994, and potentially a way to exert influence over leaders in Baku. Moscow has also blocked Ankara’s wish to deploy its own peacekeepers, fobbing Turkey off with a smaller role at a ceasefire monitoring centre outside Nagorno-Karabakh.

The crisis that the outcome of the war in Karabakh has unleashed in Armenia may also be considered a (smaller) plus for Putin, since the embattled Armenian Prime Minister, Nicol Pashinyan, came to power in 2018 after unrest that unseated a previous, and more solidly pro-Moscow, leader in Yerevan.

The task facing Russia will not be easy, however. In the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and high tension, Moscow’s peacekeepers will have to show sensitivity to both sides to avoid escalation. This reflects the greater responsibility for the region’s affairs that Moscow is now shouldering.

Russia now stands squarely in the centre of the process, says Tom de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe. But, he adds, whether that will lead to peace between its two ex-Soviet neighbours is another matter: “Putin might see reasons to push for a full peace agreement that restores relations between two important neighbours, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Then again he might not: if the two sides are in a state of suspended hostilities, that is a good reason for the Russian peacekeepers to stay. Russia’s agenda is probably more about projecting its own power and about trade routes than about long-term peace in the South Caucasus.”   

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