Azerbaijan Armenia conflict
The Caucasus is a strategically important mountainous region in south-east Europe. For centuries, different powers in the region – both Christian and Muslim – have vied for control there. Modern-day Armenia and Azerbaijan became part of the Soviet Union when it formed in the 1920s. Nagorno-Karabakh was an ethnic-majority Armenian region, but the Soviets gave control over the area to Azerbaijani authorities.
It was only as the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s that Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional parliament officially voted to become part of Armenia. Azerbaijan sought to suppress the separatist movement, while Armenia backed it. This led to ethnic clashes, and – after Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence from Moscow – a full-scale war.
Tens of thousands died and up to a million were displaced amid reports of ethnic cleansing and massacres committed by both sides. Most of those displaced in the war were Azerbaijanis. Armenian forces gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and areas adjacent to it before a Russian-brokered ceasefire was declared in 1994. After that deal, Nagorno-Karabakh remained part of Azerbaijan, but since then has mostly been governed by a separatist, self-declared republic, run by ethnic Armenians and backed by the Armenian government.
Peace talks have taken place since then, mediated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group – a body set up in 1992 and chaired by France, Russia and the United States. But clashes continued, and a serious flare-up in 2016 saw the deaths of dozens of troops on both sides.
The conflict is further complicated by geopolitics. Nato member-state Turkey was the first nation to recognise Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. Former Azeri President Heydar Aliyev once described the two as “one nation with two states”. Both share a Turkic culture and populations. Moreover, Turkey has no official relations with Armenia. In 1993 Turkey shut its border with Armenia in support of Azerbaijan during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia meanwhile has had good relations with Russia. There is a Russian military base in Armenia, and both are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance. However, President Vladimir Putin also has maintained good relations with Azerbaijan.
In 2018, Armenia underwent a peaceful revolution, sweeping long-time ruler Serzh Sargsyan from power. Protest leader Nikol Pashinyan became the prime minister after free elections that year. Mr Pashinyan agreed with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to de-escalate tensions and set up the first military hotline between the two countries.
But in August 2019 Mr Pashinyan told crowds of ethnic Armenians assembled in the main city in Karabakh, Stepanakert, that “Artsakh is Armenia, full stop.” Artsakh is the Armenian name for Karabakh. The remarks angered Azerbaijan and were repeatedly condemned by President Aliyev.
Fighting broke out in July this year on the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, some 300km (185 miles) away from Nagorno-Karabakh. By the end of the month Turkey’s military was taking part in large-scale joint exercises in Azerbaijan. The latest conflict broke out on 27 September. Armenia said Azerbaijan fired the first shots. Azerbaijan said it was launching a “counter-offensive” in response to Armenian aggression.
The six-week-long war over Nagorno-Karabakh has come to a halt following a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but only after altering the balance of power in the region. Before Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev went to war in late September, Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding villages connecting the enclave with mainland Armenia were controlled by either Armenian troops or their proxies. Armenia had captured the mountainous region within Azerbaijan — populated by ethnic Armenians — in the earlier war in the 1990s. But tensions continued even after the 1994 ceasefire. When he launched the offensive, Mr. Aliyev, backed by Turkey, vowed to capture Nagorno-Karabakh. Last week, when the ceasefire was announced, Azeri troops had captured several areas around Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, including the strategic Shusha, a city just 16 km from Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert. If Armenia was seen as the victor in the 1991-94 war, Mr. Aliyev has claimed triumph this time. On the other side, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is facing a political backlash. Yerevan has seen protests against the troops’ withdrawal, Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan has quit over the ceasefire and the country’s President has asked Mr. Pashinyan to resign and hold a snap election.
Even if the direct conflict was between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two bigger powers had high stakes — Russia and Turkey. While Turkey strongly supported Azerbaijan, reportedly with armed drones and military advisers, Russia, which has a security agreement with Armenia, tried to remain neutral. While Azerbaijan made military progress, Russia resisted calls to back Armenia and continued with its push to bring the conflict in its backyard to an end, which it managed to do, finally. Vladimir Putin is the only signatory to the agreement besides the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Armenia was forced to pull back from several villages and Shusha, it avoided defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia would send 2,000 peacekeepers to protect the remaining Armenian population and patrol the corridor that links the enclave with the Armenian mainland.