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"No Peace, No War": The Destiny of Nagorno-Karabkh

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

International Affairs Analyst

Azerbaijani and Turkish demonstration of support for Azerbaijan, 2020 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the early hours of Tuesday, September 13, hostilities resumed in the Nagorno-Karabakh territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the two rival countries that contend for the region. Nagorno-Karabakh is an autonomous province with an ethnic Armenian majority and a Christian religion located within the Republic of Azerbaijan, under the control of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh will be used to refer to both the region and republic throughout this article).


Both sides have blamed the other for triggering the military confrontation, which appears to have already caused numerous casualties among both Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. The conflict (re)started after the Azerbaijani government accused Armenian forces of moving weapons and troops into the border area and launching intelligence operations to prepare for the attack. On the other hand, Armenia claimed that they moved troops for an exercise and responded to a "large-scale" provocation by Azerbaijan, to which they would respond by "launching a proportionate response."


This conflict has distant roots, and despite the various agreements that the two sides have signed over the years, no conclusion has ever been reached. Therefore, in this article, we will explore the origin and causes of a conflict that does not seem to have an end, at least for the time being.


The historical origins of the conflict: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Soviet Union


In order to understand the origins of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, we have to go back to the February Revolution in 1917, when in Russia the tsarist government was overthrown and the subsequent power vacuum allowed Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis, the most numerous ethnic groups in the area, to establish the Transcaucasian Republic in April 1918. This state entity, however, was dissolved after only one month due to internal disagreements. Three separate republics were then born, namely Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, in a climate of generalised violence and insecurity. In fact, all three states had territorial claims to each other. In the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, there were tensions over Armenia’s southern provinces, namely Nakhichevan, Zangezur, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Regarding the specific case of Nagorno-Karabakh, an initial solution was reached when the Treaty of Sèvres was signed in 1920. The Treaty of Sèvres was the peace treaty signed between some of the Allies –France, Great Britain, Greece, and Italy - and the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Sèvres established Armenia’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, to the disappointment of Azerbaijan.


A few months later, in the spring of 1920, the South Caucasus came under the control of the Soviet Union, but this did not quell the tensions concerning Nagorno-Karabakh. In fact, in May 1921, a commission was established to determine the territorial borders of the area. However, if at first, the commission recognised Nagorno-Karabakh as an integral part of Armenia and on 12 June the Azerbaijani Council confirmed this decision, less than a month later the decision was reversed and it was decided that Nagorno-Karabakh would become part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, even if with special levels of autonomy not granted to the other regions. This decision, strongly desired by Stalin, the future General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1953, was aimed at increasing sympathy for the Soviet regime in Azerbaijan, seen as an outpost towards the Asian world.


Nevertheless, less than a year later, in March 1922, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic was established, the purpose of which was to put an end to the territorial disputes between Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. To this end, the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh was also established. Fifteen years later, in 1936, the Soviet leadership decided that the nationalist dangers no longer existed and the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic was divided into the three republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. However, during seventy years of Soviet rule,


Armenian nationalists attempted several times to raise the issue in Moscow to change the status quo that had been created in the 1920s. In particular, Armenian demands for the secession of the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan began to become more insistent from 1965, when the 50th anniversary of the Armenian genocide was commemorated. In the same year, a petition with 45,000 signatures was presented to the Secretariat of the Communist Party in order to resolve the issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, this did not lead to any results. Therefore, in 1966, the “Party of National Unity” was established in Armenia, which aimed at the reunification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. Moscow for its part never directly meddled in the issue, always passing the buck to Armenia and Azerbaijan. This situation continued until the fall of the Soviet Union, when the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region changed dramatically.


Nagorno-Karabakh after the fall of the Soviet Union: the 1991-1994 war and international efforts to put an end to the conflict

In 1991, as had already happened with the fall of the tsarist empire, the fall of the Soviet Union reignited clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenian secessionists. The conflict continued until the armistice of 12 May 1994, which is still in force today. During the first years of the conflict, Azerbaijani forces seemed to prevail. In fact, by the summer of 1992, they controlled more than half of the disputed territory. However, from late 1992 onwards the Armenian counter-offensive prevailed, with the seizure of several towns in the present-day Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and the occupation of Azerbaijani districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh territory. The last Azerbaijani offensive launched in December 1993 failed to turn the tide of the conflict and, thus, by the date of the armistice, separatist forces controlled almost the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh. The so-called Bishkek Protocol in fact recognised the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh and its self-proclaimed government in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Nevertheless, this armistice left the two sides in a stalemate, which is why the expression “no peace, no war” is still used today to describe the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.


Following the signature of the armistice, Nagorno-Karabakh increased its economic, political, and military ties with Armenia, whose role during the conflict is still debated. Indeed, while Armenia’s leading role in the conflict from a diplomatic and negotiating point of view is indisputable, the question of its involvement in military operations is not as clear. Indeed, the authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert deny any armed participation by Armenia and claim that its support was essentially economic, political, diplomatic, and moral. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, claims that the victory of 150,000 Armenian secessionists over a state of over 7 million inhabitants was only possible due to Armenia’s massive strategic, logistical, and military support. What is certain is that the legacy of this war, rather than the armistice, is the increase in hostility between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as Azerbaijan, believing that it has suffered military aggression from Armenia, identifies Yerevan as its direct interlocutor and refuses to grant negotiating power to the authorities of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.


In order to solve this situation, also other actors have been directly involved. For example, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has created the so-called “Minsk Group”, a group of 11 countries whose aim was to finally put an end to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, between 1994 and 1996, international mediation efforts were sporadic and half-hearted. Indeed, the rigidity of the Azerbaijani and Armenian positions on the negotiating legitimacy of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, on the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied territories, and on the status to be attributed to Nagorno-Karabakh, was compounded by the failure to agree on the composition of the multinational peacekeeping force to be sent to the area, the reluctance of Western countries to get involved in a conflict that appeared difficult to resolve and far from national interests, and Moscow’s efforts to limit the role of the OSCE in a region considered to be in


Russia’s sphere of influence. Nevertheless, during 1996, the interest and economic commitment of Western countries in general, and the United States in particular, grew towards the exploitation of the Caspian Sea’s oil and natural gas fields, threatened by a possible resumption of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh and in any case hampered by the stalemate. Therefore, Washington began to consider the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict a matter of national interest and a foreign policy priority and it was in this context that the OSCE summit in Lisbon in December 1996 took place. On that occasion, the “Minsk Group” put forward a proposal containing general principles on which to base the resolution of the conflict: the preservation of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and Armenia, the realisation of the right of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to self-determination through the provision of the highest degree of autonomy within Azerbaijan, and the guarantee of security for all parties involved. The proposal was roundly rejected by Armenia, which, as a member country of the “Minsk Group”, exercised its right of veto.


According to Yerevan, enshrining the principle of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity was tantamount to predetermining the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, insofar as the prospect of independence from Azerbaijan was excluded a priori. However, throughout the following year, despite the hardening of the Armenian position, the “Minsk Group” continued its negotiating activities, submitting a new proposed agreement to the parties in several successive versions. The result, however, was always the same: rejection by Armenia as long as the principle of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity was preserved. This situation has remained unchanged to this day, with the conflict sometimes seeming to restart only to conclude with peace agreements that sometimes favour Armenia and sometimes Azerbaijan. Among the most significant conflicts to mention are the 4-day war in 2016 and the one in 2020, known as the “Second Nagorno-Karabakh War”. Particularly after this latest conflict, Azerbaijan gained control over districts that were previously under the Nagorno-Karabakh’s control, but nonetheless, the situation of tension has remained unchanged.



Map displaying Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh following the 2020 "Second Nagorno-Karabakh War" | Source: WarMapper


Nagorno-Karabakh: so, what are the real causes?


Even taking into account the aforementioned peculiarities of the Nagorno-Karabakh case, it would be wrong to assume that the only actors involved in the conflict are Armenia and Azerbaijan as other actors also play a prominent role. In fact, as emerged during the various negotiations from 1994 onwards, behind the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict lies a regional competition of influence without which it would be impossible to understand its nature. In other words, on one hand, the conflict is influenced by the regional interests and policies of the great and medium-sized powers in the area, Russia, Turkey and Iran. On the other hand, actors outside the region who have, at different times and in different ways, projected their influence towards it, from the United States to the EU, also play an important role. Therefore, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has become intertwined with the broader game of the strategic polarisations of the Caucasian area.


For example, for Russia, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is central both for its strategic choices and for the aggregation of internal consensus. Notably, the presence of Russian troops as peace guarantors in the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh allows Moscow to remain directly involved in the region and limit external influences. On the other hand, actors like the US and the EU are not willing to step back and leave the region under Russian influence. For instance, the EU has engaged both Azerbaijan and Armenia in its neighbourhood policy, particularly in the Eastern Partnership programme, that aims to strengthen the relations between the EU and its six Eastern Partner countries. This situation complicates any attempts to end the conflict, as it involves not only the interests of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh but also those of these three superpowers.


Therefore, if analysed from a systemic level rather than a macro-regional one, it is clear that in this dynamic the prolonged Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the freezing of peace negotiations have ceased to be relevant in themselves and have become relevant as a battleground for competition among Russia, the US, and the EU over the logic governing the stabilization and management of security in the broader Eurasian space.


Conclusion


To sum up, we have therefore seen that the underlying causes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are both historical and political. While conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia have persisted at least since 1917, the year of the fall of the Russian Empire, it is essential to remember the significance of the interests that other actors have in the conflict area, particularly Russia, the United States, and the EU.


The current resumption of hostilities only deepens a wound that has remained open for too long and does not appear to be healing in the short term. However, we should remember that behind economic and geopolitical interests, there are the lives of people who are denied a normal life.


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