Skip to content

Military conflict and mediation: Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict explained

By Haritha B., BA Global Liberal Arts

Hostilities have escalated into violent warfare in Nagorno-Karabakh, the contested territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. On 27 September 2020, clashes broke out along the Nagorno-Karabakh line-of-control resulting in the imposition of Martial Law in both countries. The violent clashes of the past month are particularly alarming, involving the use of drones as well as air and artillery attacks. The death toll remains speculative. 

Located in the Southern Caucasus between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, the region has a history of violent ethnic and territorial tensions. The origin of the conflict can be traced back after the end of the First World War when the new Soviet rulers established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, with an ethnic Armenian majority, within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in the early 1920s. The relaxation of Soviet rule towards the end of the 1980s saw Armenian-Azeri frictions break into violence when the region’s parliament voted to join Armenia.

A cease-fire was brokered by Russia in 1994, after three years of bloodshed resulting in around 30,000 deaths as well as displacement of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris from the region. The ‘Republic of Artsakh’ was formed in 1991 as a self-declared government in Nagorno-Karabakh, but has not been recognised by any UN member or observer. The Artsakh Parliament had voted for the region to be transferred to Armenia in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union began to collapse, but this proposal was rejected by Moscow.  Post-1994, the Armenian-controlled enclave backed by the Armenian government has been internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan although hostility and tensions have remained high.

The mediating body in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, chaired by France, Russia and the USA. The organisation had an original proposal for a peace settlement in 2006 and had updated the ‘Madrid Principles’ in 2009 to reflect ideas of deterrence, territorial integrity, equal rights and self-determination of peoples.  France and Moscow have called for a cease-fire in light of violent clashes in early October 2020 and urged Baku and Yerevan to engage in peace talks. 

Other key regional players are also stakeholders in the conflict, and prolonged violence may culminate in a hugely destructive regional war. Turkey’s ‘unconditional’ support is readily available to Azerbaijan whereas Turkey and Armenia have had strained relations arising from Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Borders between them remain closed and they have had no diplomatic ties since 1993. Russia plays a dual role – as supporter and arms-lender to both countries as well as co-chair of the Minsk Group, making Moscow’s role in the conflict particularly unclear. Russia and Turkey already support opposing sides in issues surrounding Syria and Libya. There have been further allegations from Yerevan about Syrian involvement in support of Azerbaijan. In addition, the Southern Caucasus occupies an important position in the global energy market and this makes further third-party involvement and escalation of conflict into a full-scale regional war a possibility. For instance, the European Union’s oil and natural gas supply pipelines connecting Azerbaijan and Turkey pass close to Nagorno-Karabakh. These factors make the exact calibration of power-relations in this region rather opaque. 

As global focus flutters between the many catastrophes that the year has bought, it is important to recognise the gravity of this ongoing conflict.

Photo Caption: Locating Nagorno-Karabakh. Prior to the clashes of September 2020, the region had witnessed significant violence between both parties in the ‘Four Day War’ of 2016 and later in July 2020. Credit: CreativeCommons.

CORRECTIVE STATEMENT: This to inform our readers of corrections in this article on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict that was published in Issue #13 (3 November 2020). Firstly, the article erroneously asserted that in “1921 Joseph Stalin transferred two regions from Armenian to Azerbaijani control – Nakchivan SSR and Nagorno Karabakh.” This has subsequently been revised to note that these regions were never transferred and were always considered to be integral parts of the Azerbaijan SSR by the Soviet Authorities. It was also stated that “the Republic of Artsakh was formed in 1991 as a self-declared government in NK, but remains unrecognised by nations other than Armenia.” This has also been revised to take cognisance of the fact that no U.N. member or observer has ever recognised Artsakh as a self-governing republic, including Armenia. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *