Nagorno-Karabakh: Azerbaijan’s Blitz Flares Up Historic Tensions Again
24 August 2023
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought several wars to assert their claims over the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh over the past several decades. After its recapture by Azerbaijan in September 2023, a newly self-declared government has announced that the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh will simply cease to exist by January 2024.
The dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave has once again emerged as a flashpoint in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations. Tensions commenced after Azerbaijan’s military seized control of Nagorno-Karabakh after a swift military campaign conducted during 19-20 September 2023. Following this rapid onslaught, Azerbaijan captured the Lachin corridor effectively cutting off Armenia’s access to the region. Faced with the threat of Azerbaijani domination, and fearing for their safety, almost all of Karabakh's 120,000 or so residents have fled to Armenia.
The Course of Conflict
Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave situated in the Southern Caucasus region. The region has been at the centre of a long-standing territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO)was formerly an administrative unit within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic during the Soviet era. The NKAO was created as per the Soviet Union’s policy of dividing territories along ethnic lines. While Armenians constituted the majority of the population in the region, it was designated as part of Azerbaijan in 1923. This has historically been a source of tension between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
Over time, the NKAO became a focal point for Armenian nationalism and aspirations for self-determination. The demand for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia grew stronger in the late 1980s. Ethnic tensions escalated and both the nations sought to assert their claims over the region. This led to protests and clashes between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities. In 1988, the predominantly Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to join Armenia, sparking protests and counter-protests among the two communities.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed independence in 1991. The situation worsened in the early-1990s leading to a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The conflict resulted in significant casualties and displacement of people from both sides. The NKAO ceased to exist as an administrative entity after the war and the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh emerged in its place. In 1994, a ceasefire was brokered by Russia, ending the active phase of the conflict. However, sporadic violence and border skirmishes have continued since then, with occasional escalations.
Conflicting Claims, Historic Value
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan claim the territory as their own. Armenia supports the self-determination of the predominantly Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh and recognizes it as an independent Republic. It regards Artsakh (the Armenian term for Nagorno-Karabakh) as crucial for its identity. According to Armenia, Artsakh is the final frontier of their Christian civilisation and a historic shelter for Armenian rulers and bishops prior to the beginning of the eastern Turkic world.
Armenia has a population of about three million people, and practically every family has lost someone during the Nagorno-Karabakh battles. During the 1992-1994 conflict, Armenia lost about 10,000 troops. It lost nearly 100 soldiers during the four-day war in April 2016, the majority of whom were born after 1994. However, Armenians attach great value to Artsakh.
Meanwhile, the territory assumes special importance in Azerbaijani collective memory as well. It is known as the cradle of Azerbaijani identity, the hub of Azerbaijani culture, and the residence of numerous Azerbaijani artists and musicians. The loss of Nagorno-Karabakh was seen as the loss of a significant portion of its national identity. According to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev "the creation of the Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region by Russian communists was a result of Armenians' strong ties with Moscow and the continuation of its old imperial politics of 'divide and rule'."
Lachin Corridor: At the Centre of the Flashpoint
The Lachin corridor or Lachin road, is a strategic land route that connects Armenia to the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Lachin corridor is closely intertwined with the broader Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, reflecting the complexities and challenges involved in resolving the dispute. The corridor runs through the Lachin district of Azerbaijan and is the primary supply route to the landlocked region. Nagorno-Karabakh relies heavily on the Lachin corridor for transportation of essential goods, humanitarian aid and communication.
The Lachin corridor also holds significance for strategic and security reasons. Control over the corridor allows for the movement of military personnel, equipment and supplies between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. It also provides a defensive advantage for the Armenian forces in securing their positions in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Lachin corridor has been a subject of contention and military operations throughout the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Its control has shifted between the conflicting parties, with the corridor being under the control of Armenian forces since the 1994 ceasefire agreement. The recent 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war brought renewed focus on the Lachin corridor, as its status and control became a crucial point of negotiation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The ceasefire agreement signed in November 2020 included provisions for the establishment of a transport corridor connecting Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhichevan through the Lachin district, ensuring the reopening of the corridor under Azerbaijani control.
External Interventions Complicate Regional Geopolitics
Russia, which has a military station in Armenia, has long been the country's security guarantor, particularly in handling tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh. However, when Azerbaijan started its onslaught on the mountainous separatist area in September 2023, Moscow made it plain that its forces would not intervene. As a result of its war against Ukraine, Russia's status as a source of security in its near-abroad has been seriously weakened. Moreover, the Kremlin is said to have been angered by the Armenian Parliament agreeing to join the International Criminal Court. This would require Armenia to arrest Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, if he visits the country. However, Armenia's prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has attempted to reassure Russia that his nation is just addressing what it claims are Azerbaijan's war crimes in the country's long-running dispute with its neighbour, and the decision is not aimed at Moscow.
Israel has covertly aided Azerbaijan's attempt to retake Nagorno-Karabakh, equipping Azerbaijan with lethal weapons prior to its rapid onslaught last month that reclaimed control of the ethnic Armenian enclave. Israel is interested in maintaining a military presence in Azerbaijan and utilizing its territory to monitor Iran. Israel has a significant investment in Azerbaijan, which is an important supplier of oil and a loyal ally against Israel's arch-enemy Iran. It is also a valuable client for advanced weapons.
Meanwhile, France, Russia and the United States have made efforts to resolve the conflict since the early-1990s through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group. However, a lasting solution has remained elusive due to the complex nature of the conflict and the deep-rooted grievances of both sides.
Attaining a cease-fire and a lasting resolution to the conflict is a difficult task that involves multiple stakeholders as the situation is complex and constantly evolving. To achieve a cease-fire, or to open a humanitarian corridor, it is crucial for all parties involved to express a genuine commitment to dialogue and peaceful negotiations.
A key step towards a cease-fire is a mutual agreement by both Armenia and Azerbaijan to halt military operations and engage in negotiations. With the Azeri forces dominating the playing field, this looks difficult. International mediation efforts, such as those led by the OSCE Minsk Group, are essential in facilitating dialogue and finding a diplomatic solution.
Long-term peace and stability in the region require addressing the root causes of the conflict, including territorial disputes, political grievances and historical tensions. A comprehensive approach that prioritizes diplomatic negotiations, confidence-building measures and respect for the rights and self-determination of affected populations is necessary. Resolving conflicts of this nature and magnitude is a complex and sensitive process, which often requires a multi-faceted approach involving political, diplomatic, and humanitarian efforts.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Abhyuday is the resident Defence and Security Fellow for Trivium Think Tank's StraTechos website. He is pursuing a postgraduate degree in Defence and Strategic Studies from Bareilly College, M.J.P. Rohilkhand University, Bareilly. His areas of interest include defence affairs, international relations and geopolitics.
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