The Battle for Nagorno-Karabakh: Facts, Actors, and Perspectives

By Arianna Pearlstein

In the town of Martuni, Armenia, a young child’s doll lay amidst mountains of rubble and destruction, its bright magenta dress and curly red hair standing out against the grey and brown of debris. The child to whom that doll belonged was killed by an artillery barrage on the morning of 27 September 2020 along with a neighboring child and her mother-in-law. Across the border in Ganja, Azerbaijan, Ragiba Guliyeva stands in front of what rubble remains of her home, which was destroyed by a rocket attack. While Guliyeva was lucky enough to survive, her grandson Artur was one of an estimated 130 people killed in the attack. Although these stories are heart-breaking, they only begin to scratch the surface of the astronomical humanitarian costs of this recent outburst of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. 

It is certainly easy to hear of these tragedies from the outside and dedicate a brief sad thought to all those struggling and move on with your day. But it is far more productive to seek an understanding of why such tragedies are occurring to be able to give context and meaning to them. Thus, to give fellow outsiders an understanding of why this violence is occurring, I present the facts of the dispute and the international forces involved, along with the discourses Armenia and Azerbaijan have articulated to justify their right to Nagorno-Karabakh. I conclude by discussing a recent ground-breaking development that signals this war may finally be coming to an end.

The Facts

While the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute invokes various grandeur narratives of nationhood, it immediately boils down to Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, which lies between the conflicting nations. Internationally, Nagorno-Karabakh is recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan, despite the fact that the area is de facto controlled by seperatist Armenian forces backed by the Armenian government.  

The people of Armenia and Azerbaijan are no stranger to disputes over this territory, because the two nations fought over Nagorno-Karabakh some 30 years ago in the Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-1994). During the decline of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan gained independence, and Nagorno-Karabakh remained part of Azerbaijan. However, as the region expressed desires to be independent from Azerbaijan in a referendum, a seperatist movement soon emerged, and declared Nagorno-Karabakh independent in 1991. Conflict escalated, with the Armenians supporting unification and the Azeri’s fighting to keep the territory, and 30,000 people were killed . Ultimately, Azerbaijan retained possession of  Nagorno-Karabakh, and Russia, as part of the OSCE Minsk Group, brokered a cease-fire in 1994. Technically however, the conflict was only “frozen” as a formal peace agreement ending the dispute was never reached despite the efforts of the Minsk Group. Skirmishes and firefights have continued throughout the years, though they have only ever lasted a few days.

This brings us to today, as tensions between the two nations are thawing out and the dispute and violence over Nagorno-Karabakh has again escalated. On 27 September 2020, conflict again erupted to a degree not seen in decades. It began around 8.00 when Azerbaijani forces bombed various settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh, allegedly in response to Armenian shelling. Armenian forces responded by allegedly taking down two Azerbaijani helicopters and three drones. The Azerbaijani forces then proceeded to launch a counter offensive, and since then Armenian and Azerbijani forces have been engaging in intense exchanges in civilian areas such as Stepanakert and Ganja, putting civilians in grave danger.

This outburst is the most violent and bloody since the ceasefire in 1994, with at least 5,000 people having been killed since 27 September 2020, although actual numbers are suspected to be higher. Not only is this round of violence unique compared to past skirmishes, but the resolve of Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders is much more explicitly hostile. For instance, in an interview with Vox, Zareh Sinanyan, Armenia’s high commissioner for diaspora affairs, agreed that the current violence would not end until one party had a decisive victory, and that Armenians were prepared to fight until “the last bullet”. Likewise, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, has stated on television that “this is the end” of the frozen war and that Azerbaijan intends to triumph.

As the back and forth has continued, three cease-fire agreements have been brokered, but have fallen apart almost as soon as the ink has dried, including that brokered by Russia intended to allow both parties to collect the bodies of the casualties on their sides. On 30 October, 2020 both parties agreed to meet in Geneva with the Minsk Group for peace talks intended to broker a halt to the dispute. 

An International Affair

While this conflict seems intensely domestic- a battle for disputed territory- it is anything but a regional conflict. Various states and international organizations have weighed in on the conflict, some more directly than others, but all in ways that have notable implications for the dynamics of violence. 

Most directly involved on the ground has been Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a staunch supporter of Azerbaijan and its “right” to Nagorno-Karabakh even before the unfreezing began. At the surface, Turkey’s support is based on the close cultural and linguistic ties the two nations share, compounded by the fact that Turkey has had rough relations with Armenia after 1.5 million Armenians were killed during the late rule of the Ottoman empire (though Turkey denies this was a genocide). But beyond just cultural ties, Azerbaijan plays an important role in Turkey’s energy security and is an important source of foreign investment. In fact, Turkey’s gas imports from Azerbaijan rose by 23 percent in 2020, and  SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state oil company, is the largest investor in Turkey.

Hence, Turkey has a vested stake in Azerbaijan, and has contributed substantial funds to assist Azerbaijan in developing a larger and more sophisticated military along with training Azerbaijani officers. In this most recent round of fighting, Turkey has allegedly sent several thousand Syrian mercenaries to aid Azerbaijan on the front lines and has contributed its multi-use drones to Azerbaijani forces which are far superior to aging Armenian drones from Russia. 

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A second key player, though to Armenian dismay much less directly involved than Turkey, is Russia. Russia and Armenia have traditionally been relatively close, largely due to the fact that Russia viewed itself as a protector of all like peoples so to speak, and both are predominantly Orthodox Christian. During the original Nagorno-Karabakh war, Russia backed Armenian forces, and today has a military base in the country. What’s more, both are part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization which Armenia is heavily dependent on for security given that its military is substantially smaller than the Azerbaijani armed forces (see image above). 

However, despite these close ties, Russia has failed to come to the military aid of Armenia, though it has attempted to broker several short-lived ceasefires. Russia’s failure to intervene despite Armenian requests may partly be due to its growing frustrations with Armenia, in part because of the new democratic government of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan after mass anti-government protests against the previous regime in 2018. Another factor is that in negotiations where Russia has attempted to negotiate a peace agreement, Moscow is under the impression that the Armenians have been uncooperative. Furthermore, although Russia has made it clear that should the internationally recognized border of Armenia be attacked it will intervene to defend the state, Russia may have a strategic incentive to permit Azerbaijani forces to take Nagorno-Karabakh, as this would finally end the dispute (which as mentioned before it has long been trying to broker an end to), and let Russia determine how the balance of power has shifted in the region.

Additionally, states such as Iran, India, France, and Greece have expressed support for Armenia, while states including Israel, Italy, Ukraine, and Pakistan have sided with Azerbaijan.

Armenian Perspective

The Armenian discourse surrounding their right to Nagorno-Karabakh are primarily based on the fact Armenia has long viewed the territory as part of its original homeland, an integral part of its national identity, and still today being de facto Armenian. The Armenian government has cited the works of ancient scholars including Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Claudius Ptolemy, Plutarch, and Dio Cassius, who referred to Nagorno-Karabakh (then known as Urtekhe-Urtekhini 9-6th cc. B.C.) as being part of Armenia. They also claim that Nagorno-Karabakh became part of the Eastern Armenian kingdom, then part of Armenian marzpanutyun (province) during Persian rule, then part of Armenia kusakalutyun (region) under Arab rule, and then under later Armenian kingdoms. Hence the territory is viewed as an essential part of Armenian national identity and as a historical homeland.

Furthermore, Armenians assert that the territory is already de facto Armenian, and hence the government has a right over the territory in order to defend its people. Nagorno-Karabakh has long been overwhelmingly Armenian, and today is a self-proclaimed republic backed and run by the Armenian government and ethnic Armenians. Not only that, but as mentioned above the people of Nagorno-Karabakh held an independence referendum in 1991, which allegedly resulted in 99% of voters expressing the desire for independence, with the implication that it would in turn develop extremely close ties with Armenia. Thus for Armenians the borders according to international law are inaccurate, as the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh are abstractly and in a de facto sense Armenians, and thus the Armenians have the right to protect their people and territory that they already de facto govern.

Not only that, but Armenians have also justified their use of force as an act of self-preservation as they fear losing this war means not only losing Nagorno-Karabakh, but facing an attack on their own internationally recognized boundaries they will be powerless against. Compared to the size of Azerbaijani forces, Armenia is vastly outnumbered. The Armenian defense budget (2020) is roughly $1,385,000,000 whereas the Azerbaijani budget is $2,805,000,000. The number of Azerbaijani active personnel is roughly 2.8 times larger compared to Armenian forces, and while Armenia has only 110 combat tanks, Azerbaijani forces have roughly five times that many at 570. The disparities go on, but needless to say Azerbaijani forces would have a large advantage should they choose to attack Armenia directly. Armenians are concerned that this may happen should they lose Nagorno-Karabakh, given that the disputed territory has served a strategic advantage for Armenia as a buffer zone from Azerbaijan to defend the internationally recognized boundaries of Armenia from attack. Ergo losing Nagorno-Karabakh means losing essential protection from direct attack by Azerbaijan, a concern articulated by Zareh Sinanyan, Armenia’s high commissioner for diaspora affairs.

Azerbaijani Perspective

Contrastingly, Azerbaijan’s narrative on its right to Nagorno-Karabakh emulates its essential role in shaping the Azerbaijani national identity, but also based on international law. 

Today, the people of Azerbaijan are largely divided in terms of regional and political differences, which has been a source of domestic tension. In order to overcome these divisions, the government of Azerbaijan has worked to create a strong sense of nationalism and national identity to unify the state. A key component of this national identity has been Nagorno-Karabakh, around which the government has created an us-versus-them mentality to bring the divided people together around the notion that Nagorno-Karabakh must be defended as rightfully part of Azerbaijan. For instance, President Ilham Aliyev, has stated “Nagorno-Karabakh is our land,”   as a rallying call for the people of Azerbaijan.

Internationally, Nagorno-Karabakh is recognised as part of Azerbaijan and has been since the state was granted independence from the Soviet Union. The government of Azerbaijan has long considered the Armenian backed government of Nagorno-Karabakh to be composed of terrorists who pose a crucial threat to what is recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan. Accordingly, Azerbaijanis have justified their actions as justified defence against a group that has no internationally recognised right to the territory and thus threatens Azerbaijani sovereignty.

A Lasting Peace?

In the two days prior to the publication of this article, news broke that Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan have signed an agreement to end the military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The agreement stipulates that Azerbaijan will get to keep the areas of Nagorno-Karabakh it has taken during the dispute, and Armenian forces will withdraw from the surrounding areas they have occupied. Russian forces will establish a peace-keeping operation in the region to maintain stability. Soon after the agreement was announced, people flooded the streets in cities throughout Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the people were articulating quite different emotions. The atmosphere in Azerbaijan was one of joy and celebration, that they had finally won what is in their view rightfully theirs. Meanwhile in Armenia the people took to the streets in anger at their government, saying they had not fought hard enough to defend an area that in the Armenian peoples’ eyes has always been Armenian. 

This raises new questions about whether Armenia’s defeat makes them vulnerable to a direct attack on their borders, and the impact this will have on Armenian politics. Furthermore, this raises questions of how Russia’s alliances which formerly favoured Armenia, will change after this outcome.

But more generally, there is still an essential question: will this peace last? While this is seemingly a more definite end to the conflict than what occurred in the 1990s, it is clear that this outcome was a one-sided victory for Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh is still inhabited predominantly by ethnic Armenians. What is to say that this peace will last? 

At this moment, the people of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh are very much like the child’s doll lying in the rubble- a symbol of innocence caught amid destructive cross-fires. This is not to say that the people of these territories do not have hostile tensions towards each other, but to note that regardless of what side one is on, this conflict has had immense tolls on human life, including those in the middle of cities with nothing to do with the dispute. While things may seemingly be coming to an end on the battlefield, the struggle of rebuilding and recovering from the havoc that has been reaped amongst both peoples has only just begun.

Edited by Gunvir Paintal

Artwork by Chira Tudoran