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Why Armenia and Azerbaijan are on the Brink of War

  • Jeff Mankoff
  • Nov, 2020
  • 173
  • Ceasefire Agreement

Local tensions meet global rivalries in Nagorno-Karabakh

On September 27, significant fighting broke out between the militaries of Armenia and Azerbaijan, two states that have been locked in an intractable conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh since the last days of the Soviet Union. Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions have seen periodic outbursts of violence in recent years, but the current fighting is the most serious since Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease-fire in 1994.

Domestic political factors in both countries militate against compromise. The international context surrounding the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has also shifted in ways that complicate efforts to peacefully address the underlying dispute. In particular, Turkey’s growing involvement in a conflict in which Russia has long been the dominant player risks both giving the protagonists-especially Azerbaijan-an incentive to keep fighting and opening up a new front in the Turkish-Russian rivalry that has already engulfed Syria, Libya, and to a lesser extent Ukraine.


The origins of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be traced back to the Kremlin’s decision to include the Armenian-majority region within Soviet Azerbaijan. When Moscow relaxed restrictions on popular mobilization in the late 1980s, ethnic Armenians began demanding Nagorno-Karabakh’s transfer to Armenia. Moscow refused, and when the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later, a full-scale war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving around 30,000 dead and over one million displaced. With Azerbaijan led by the pan-Turkic nationalist Abulfaz Elchibey for much of the conflict, Russian forces largely supported the Armenian side. A Russian-brokered cease-fire ended the war in May 1994, but not the underlying dispute: today, Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts are under Armenian control, but Azerbaijan regards it as illegally occupied. Although Nagorno-Karabakh typically gets little attention in the West, it is perhaps the most dangerous flash point across post-Soviet Eurasia.

The current clashes broke out on September 27, with barrages of artillery and the deployment of heavy armor along the Line of Contact separating Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan proper. While each side blames the other for firing the first shot, local observers have reported for weeks that escalation seemed imminent. Both countries declared martial law and partially mobilized their reserves, suggesting an expectation of sustained conflict. Clips of this week’s fighting posted online show evidence of significant conflict involving artillery, armor, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and infantry forces. On Monday, Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, came under artillery fire.

This week’s clashes are hardly the first since the 1994 cease-fire. Sporadic sniping across the Line of Contact is common. In April 2016, an Azerbaijani offensive recaptured several strategic high points, leaving around 200 dead. Although Moscow was able to convince the two governments to return to the cease-fire after a few days, the clash was a warning sign that the status quo-frozen in place since 1994-was in danger of unraveling. Fighting along the Line of Contact broke out again in July 2020, raising tensions and expectations of further conflict.

Unlike previous bouts of fighting, this one may result in significant changes to the status quo. Baku and Yerevan both face increasing pressure to resort to harsh measures. In Armenia, the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan-which came to power amid a popular uprising in 2018 that Russia largely opposed-is worried about what it sees as Moscow’s increasingly ambivalent support for maintaining the status quo. Despite some initial indications that he would be more open to a negotiated solution, Pashinyan has taken a harder line, including calling for Nagorno-Karabakh to be formally integrated into Armenia.

In Azerbaijan, an economic downturn and frustration at the authoritarian rule of President Ilham Aliyev have fed popular discontent. As the losing side in the initial war, Baku has made public calls for the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to mobilize nationalist support but risks being outflanked by public opinion. During the fighting this summer, protesters stormed the parliament building in Baku demanding war with Yerevan.

The fighting so far has encompassed an Azerbaijani offensive against Fizuli and Jabrayil, two of the Armenian-occupied districts outside Nagorno-Karabakh whose relatively flat terrain facilitates offensive operations. The bulk of their Azeri-majority population fled during the 1990s war, and in recent years, Yerevan has started settling them with Armenians. While the overall population of the two districts r...

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