As September 2020 shuddered to a close, the news cycle slalomed between Donald Trump’s pre-election belligerence and the ever-present spectre of COVID in a frenzy. As the global press corps breathlessly reported on every bit of mangled syntax the 45th president of the USA splattered across the political discourse, you’d be excused for thinking that there was nothing else happening across the globe. However, away from the Twitter fireworks, very real explosions were tearing through the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. This mountainous slice of the Caucasus had been the epicentre of three decades of strife between the nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan, both on and off the battlefield. Some 150,000 people live in the region (which is roughly the size of the US state of Delaware) and both sides have claimed it as sovereign territory since the fall of the USSR saw the two countries achieve independence. From the 27th September to November 10th the long simmering tensions erupted into a full-on war which snarled beneath the surface of public awareness. A tense peace currently endures, in part secured by Russian peacekeeping forces. But the geopolitical repercussions (let alone the human cost) have only just begun to make themselves felt.
Whilst there have been clashes between the Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis over the region for centuries it took the dissolving of the Russian empire in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution for the conflict to truly take shape. Newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan both took the position that Nagorno-Karabakh belonged to them and the dispute was still raging in 1920 when both nations were incorporated into the new-born Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or USSR for short). As a result, the issue was taken entirely out of the feuding nation’s hands and borders were decided by Soviet diktat. Nagorno-Karabakh at that time had a population comprised of 94% ethnic Armenians so it was unsurprising that the Soviet government decided to settle the matter of ownership by formally making the region part of Armenia. However, in 1923 the Soviet Commissar for Nationalities, an ambitious young go-getter named Joseph Stalin, reversed that decision, making Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomous administrative region of Azerbaijan. Intent on stamping out regional nationalism within the USSR the Soviet government refused to hear any complaints over the next decades and considered the matter closed. It took the collapse of the first communist superpower for the embers of resentment to flare back into warlike life.
As Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms paved the way for the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, the loosening grip of the Soviet central government emboldened the autonomous government of Nagorno-Karabakh to vote to officially become part of Armenia, outraging Azerbaijan. Whilst the number of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh had fallen in the decades since Stalin’s surprise decision, from 94% to 76.9% of the population, they were still a significant majority. Gorbachev stated that there would be no change to the borders and Azerbaijan attempted to formally quell the separatists in 1988, which led to the first flashpoint clashes and skirmishes within the region. The conflict steadily grew in intensity in parallel to the steady decline of the Soviet Union. Still, the tenuous status of both states as members of the disintegrating USSR did succeed in restraining the conflict from truly getting out of hand. In 1991 however, with the final collapse of the Red empire, both countries were fully independent for the first time since 1920. Free from Soviet oversight, Azerbaijan rescinded Nagorno-Karabakh’s status as an autonomous region and split the territory into the surrounding regions so as to diffuse the Armenian majority. This had the effect of supercharging the crisis. After a swiftly held referendum saw 99.8% of voters back independence (with recorded results of 108,618 votes to 28, though the results were skewed as the 20% Azeri minority boycotted the vote), in 1992 ethnic Armenians declared Nagorno-Karabakh an independent republic. With this action the three years of turmoil erupted into a full-scale war between Azerbaijan and the separatists, who were supported by Armenia (who were not able to commit the majority of their armies due to the need to defend their borders from Turkey).
In this first flowering of the modern conflict over 30,000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives, alongside over a million displaced as refugees, from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, from Armenia to Azerbaijan, and from Armenian-occupied sectors of Azerbaijan to Azerbaijan. The ethnic nationalism forcibly ossified by the Soviet Union exploded across the Caucasus in a hard rain of blood and suffering that saw both sides committing atrocities, radicalising a generation. After three grinding years of war the nations were brought to the treaty table to sign the Bishkek Protocol, a Russian brokered ceasefire. In this first conflict Armenia had come out on top, with lobbying by the Armenian diaspora even managing to see a bill passed in the U.S. banning all military aid to Azerbaijan. In the wider world the conflict was seen almost strictly as a ‘Muslim majority vs Christian minority’ religious war, ignoring the political context completely; in addition the atrocities on the Armenian side were mostly ignored compared to the Azerbaijanis in order to better fit this narrative of pre-War on Terror persecution.
In the aftermath Nagorno-Karabakh has ostensibly functioned as a republic, but in effect as a de-facto part of Armenia (though this was not recognised internationally as it remained a part of Azerbaijan under international law). However, after over a decade of relative peace the ceasefire began to break down with multiple clashes of increasing severity between the two nations taking place from 2008. In Azerbaijan the 1994 defeat was increasingly seen as a national humiliation with the Azeri families who lost their homes a potent rallying cry. Both nations have their international backers with Russia broadly seen as supporting Armenia, even selling them weapons at a discount (though they also have a good relationship with Azerbaijan), whilst Turkey is deeply invested in the Azerbaijani cause, to the point where there have been no official diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia since 1993. Of course, Turkey’s continuing refusal to acknowledge the reality of the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman empire in 1915 would have soured even the most determined of diplomatic efforts. In a rather bizarre confluence Israel is also something of a silent partner for Azerbaijan in the conflict, having provided them with over $825 million in arms between 2006-2019, including high-tech weaponry like drones. Beyond money, the sales were very much part of a regional power game to destabilize neighbouring Iran (who are ostensibly neutral but very interested in maintaining the status quo).
When the war reignited in late September, Azerbaijan was the better armed state. They had spent over a billion on rearmament and had amassed a fearsome number of attack drones which the Armenian forces were unable to counter. Having taken a significant amount of territory, the Azerbaijan army was in a position to fight to total victory by the time both sides agreed to an armistice and as a result the terms heavily favoured them. There were violent protests throughout Armenia at the terms, which even saw the parliamentary speaker beaten to the point of needing surgery after an angry mob stormed the capitol.
For the moment Nagorno-Karabakh is free of bloodshed but the embers of conflict are far from extinguished. The war was notable by the fact that the EU and NATO played almost no part other than offering vague condemnations that were almost wholly ignored. Wherever the conflict leaves the geo-politics of the Caucasus, the human cost of bloodshed and homes destroyed over this stretch of 150,000 miles has been unthinkable, and there’s no guarantee there isn’t more blood to come. Over the last century empires have risen and fallen and the struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh has outlived them all. Perhaps this armistice will prove the end at last; perhaps not.