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The Fighting Between Armenia and Azerbaijan Has Halted — But a Deep-Rooted Conflict Remains

This morning, Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed to a cease-fire after almost two weeks of fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. But like after the last truce in 1994, there can be no enduring peace without a political solution — one that overcomes the violent legacy of the Soviet collapse in the Caucasus.

A man rummages through the remains of a home that was damaged by Azeri artillery, on October 10, 2020 in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh. Residents experienced relative calm in the city following a cease-fire agreement that was made between Azerbaijan and Armenia the previous night in Moscow. (Alex McBride / Getty Images)

In 1994, representatives of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia, and the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh signed the Bishkek Protocol. After six years of deadly fighting and ethnic cleansing, this document provided a much-needed reprieve — and an immediate end to the bloodshed. But this produced only a fragile peace, and far short of addressing the root causes of the conflict, it institutionalized mutual enmity and the uncertainty over Nagorno-Karabakh’s future.

A quarter-century later, this September 27, military clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out once more. Again, the fighting between these South Caucasus neighbors centered on Nagorno-Karabakh — a mountainous, unrecognized de facto independent state surrounded by Azeri territory. Once populated by both Azeris and Armenians, since the war of 1988–1994 the territory has become increasingly homogenous, with its 150,000 Armenians. The region is de jure part of Azerbaijan, but since 1994 it has been both controlled by local Armenian armed forces and wholly dependent on Armenia for security, economic survival, and access to the outside world.

Following the latest two weeks of violence, on Saturday, October 10, a cease-fire was hastily agreed. This came after ten hours of talks between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, who met in Moscow with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Yet even this truce is fragile — only an hour into the truce and both sides immediately accused the other of breaking it, as reports of shelling abounded.

While the post-1994 cease-fire was broken by repeated skirmishes, the recent fighting was the most severe in decades. Previous instances such as the clashes in 2008, the April War of 2016, and fighting this July pale in comparison; this time, hundreds of civilians and military personnel have been killed and thousands forced to flee their homes. Previous upticks were often sparked by murky circumstances or accidents. But this time was different: for the Azeri offensive had been months in the making.

The War Drive

After armed confrontations in July resulted in the death of Azerbaijan’s major general, Polad Hashimov, massive pro-war demonstrations flooded the capital, Baku. Missteps over Karabakh had ended the careers of many Azeri elites in the 1990s; this was not lost on President Ilham Aliyev, who, especially given the economic pressure from the COVID-19 crisis, could not ignore the nationalist rage. Aliyev publicly stated that searching for a peaceful solution with Armenia was pointless. On September 24, just three days before the fighting started, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs ominously released a list of so-called provocative actions taken by Armenia since reform-oriented Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan came to power in that country’s 2018 Velvet Revolution.

Following Azerbaijan’s initial offensive on September 27, the fighting rapidly escalated. Azeri rockets and heavy artillery bombarded the regional capital Stepanakert almost daily. Towns within Armenia and military positions along the two-hundred-kilometer “line of contact” separating Azerbaijan from Nagorno-Karabakh also came under fire. Armenian forces unsurprisingly responded, attacking Azeri positions and repelling drones — one of which was shot down alarmingly close to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. But they also shelled targets within Azerbaijan’s territory, including its second city, Ganja.

There is, indeed, a substantial asymmetry between the two countries, with Azerbaijan’s defense budget, military hardware, and total personnel far outweighing Armenia’s. With a population of nearly ten million, Azerbaijan has a defense budget of $2.73 billion at 5.4 percent of GDP, whereas Armenia has a population of slightly under three million and a defense budget of $500 million at 4.7 percent of GDP. Notably, Turkish- and Israeli-made drones have played a central role in Azerbaijan’s military operations: Amnesty International confirms that Israeli-made cluster munitions were used in residential areas of Stepanakert.

State officials in both Armenia and Azerbaijan have fueled the fighting with a concomitant information war, unleashing a deluge of accusations, misinformation, and false data. Each state’s intransigent rhetoric thickens the abyss of unverifiable information widely circulating on Twitter and Facebook. Despite the best efforts of well-intentioned journalists and analysts, these conditions filter much of the conflict to the outside world. Even when more or less accurate information is available, the overall picture remains foggy. For example, Armenia releases consistent updates on military casualties but not civilian ones, whereas Azerbaijan does the inverse.

Yet such details alone do not explain why two neighboring post-Soviet countries with deep and intertwined histories are still locked in conflict. Fundamentally, irreconcilable official narratives and national understandings are central to the persistence of tensions and the reproduction of enmity. The region’s recent history can put this dynamic into a much clearer perspective.

National Histories, National Fates

For Armenians, the defense of Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh as it is traditionally called, is an existential struggle. Between 1914 and 1917, 1.5 million Armenians perished in the genocide at the hands of Ottoman soldiers and Kurdish irregulars. The combination of forced deportation and indiscriminate slaughter depopulated Eastern Anatolia of nearly its entire Armenian population. Though the cities of Tbilisi and Baku were far more culturally, economically, and politically significant for Armenians, nationalists of the time had seen Eastern Anatolia as the future home of an independent Armenian state.

The permanent loss of this land created a territorially dismembered nationalism, in which not only a shared language and religious traditions but a sense of loss and popular memory of the genocide shape the Armenian national idea. This, in turn, fuels its intransigence over Nagorno-Karabakh — much like how Israeli irredentism often invokes the fear of a second Holocaust.

For Azeris, too, Karabakh is also critical to the national imagination. This mainly owes to the nearly six hundred thousand Azeris who became internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the fighting before the 1994 cease-fire. While some IDPs came from Nagorno-Karabakh, the vast majority fled seven districts in Karabakh’s historically Azeri-populated flatlands currently (according to Azerbaijan) under Armenian occupation. Since the end of the last war in 1994, the reclamation of these lost territories and the eventual return of their residents has been a pillar of Azeri nationalism.

But if this explains how each country’s popular nationalist imaginations have long seen the conflict, we also need to understand the mechanisms reproducing it today.

The term “frozen conflict” is often used to describe unresolved territorial disputes in the post-Soviet world. Armenia and Azerbaijan’s conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is no exception. Yet South Caucasus expert Laurence Broers explains that “enduring rivalry” is a far more useful descriptor. In his own words, it prevents “the dichotomies of ‘war/peace’ and ‘hot/cold conflict’ and shifts the analysis from an event-centered focus on war to a process-driven focus on the sustainability of rivalry.” But decisive, in looking beyond individual flash points and seeing this tension as an ongoing process, is the region’s deeper history — not least its experience of integration into the Soviet Union, and then that state’s collapse.

Sovietization

From 1918 to 1920, Nagorno-Karabakh was formally — though disputedly — administered by the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. At the time, the multiethnic territory included the majority-Armenian mountainous section, Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), and the Azeri Muslim flatlands, together called Karabakh. Between May 1920 and May 1921, as the Russian Civil War still raged, Bolshevik forces consolidated power in this latter area. The largest settlement in the mountainous region, Shusha (known to Armenians as Shushi), was inhabited by both Armenians and Azeris until the 1920 massacre when thousands of Armenians were killed or displaced by Azeri troops and locals after a failed Armenian revolt. Working to navigate these tensions, the Bolsheviks founded two Revolutionary Committees in NK — an Azeri-controlled one, based in Shusha, and an Armenian one in the village of Tahavard. Azeri and Armenian Communists in the region were pursuing “national goals, this time within a Communist ideological framework.”

On July 4, 1921, the Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party (Kavburo) met in Tbilisi and confirmed that given its sizable Armenian population, NK should be designated as part of newly Bolshevik-controlled Armenia. The logic was that this would balance rival national claims, after ethnically mixed Nakhichevan had been united with Azerbaijan. Azeri Bolshevik leader Nariman Narimanov declared that designating NK part of Armenia was the essence of proletarian internationalism.

However, this decision was quickly reversed — and NK united with Azerbaijan. There was an understanding among leading Bolsheviks that creating nationally distinct autonomous districts within the Union Republics would nurture positive ethnic cooperation. Even so, Bolshevik leaders were also not keen on decisions that risked promoting ethnic secession elsewhere. For this reason, historians point to another decisive factor in the final decision to unite NK with Azerbaijan. The Georgian Bolsheviks, Stalin among them, believed that NK’s designation within Armenia would surely promote ethnic secession among the ethnic Armenians and Azeris who populated Georgia’s southern border. At the last minute, given their stature in the Kavburo, the Georgian Bolsheviks ensured the decision about NK was reversed.

In 1923, the Central Committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party established a territorial committee which created the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), and NK was formally incorporated into Soviet Azerbaijan as an “Autonomous Oblast.” This term referred to administrative units that maintained a modicum of control over local affairs yet were under the formal political control of the national bureaucracy of the Union Republic in which they were located.

For the next sixty years, this arrangement existed in relative peace. Doubtless, as time went on the Union Republics — especially in the South Caucasus — became more ethnically homogenous. But a larger Soviet ideal of multinational friendship and a particular brand of Soviet cosmopolitanism in the South Caucasus prevented explosive violence. Ethno-nationalism was co-opted into particular Soviet state structures, preventing it from operating as a tool of political aggregation. Further, the development of particular national cultures as pieces of a larger Soviet whole formally integrated them into a larger shared project. This was by no means a perfect arrangement, but it stopped ethno-nationalism from running rampant. The end of this larger arrangement unleashed ethno-nationalism as the basis of mobilizing for independence.

De-Sovietization

During a January 1987 plenum, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the concerning emergence of “negative tendencies in the sphere of inter-ethnic tensions” in the USSR — and the importance of preventing the rise of “nationalistic or chauvinistic prejudices.” He suggested more centralized oversight of the Union Republics was needed. Despite such an astute observation, it could not account for the paradoxical political mobilization of Karabakh Armenians. On one hand, this development was the outgrowth of their peculiar ethno-territorial designation within the Soviet system. But it articulated a political resolution squarely within the logic of Soviet ideals and the promises of Gorbachev’s reforms.

For the Karabakh Armenians, being a compact majority in an ethnically mixed Autonomous Oblast, yet also a minority population within a Union Republic, created a developmental divergence between the national administration and local population. Given their proximity and connection to the Armenian SSR, and the various advantages populations had when living as the titular majority within their “own” national Union Republic, Karabakh Armenians demanded unification with the Armenian SSR.

The issue had been brought up intermittently in the post–World War II era. But in February 1988 the Supreme Council of the NKAO formally requested that the territory be transferred to Soviet Armenia. The transfer was framed as befitting both the Soviet constitution’s Leninist conception of national sovereignty as well as the liberalizing promises of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost reforms. A NK united with Soviet Armenia was imagined as a true embodiment of Soviet principles. Massive demonstrations were held in Stepanakert and Yerevan supporting unification.

The Karabakh Committee was founded in 1988 and assumed de facto leadership of the nascent Karabakh movement. As they began to formalize and popularize demands for NK’s secession from Soviet Azerbaijan, paranoia and unease permeated local Azeris. On February 22–23, 1988, rumors spread through the town of Askeran that an Azeri man had been murdered in Stepanakert. Clashes resulted in the death of two Azeris and nearly fifty Armenians. News of the violence in Askeran made its way to the industrial town of Sumgait, just north of Baku, enraging locals. On February 27, Azeri residents of Sumgait began to kill and attack their Armenian neighbors. In response to this pogrom, Armenians in Yerevan began demonstrating in larger and larger numbers. The Sumgait pogrom further fueled the demand that NK be united with Soviet Armenia. Eventually, on December 10, 1991, a referendum on independence for Nagorno-Karabakh passed overwhelmingly.

In January 1990, a combination of nationalist resentment and rumor-induced paranoia unleashed another pogrom. Azeris, as in the Sumgait pogroms two years earlier, began to slaughter Armenians in Baku. On January 22, Gorbachev sent the Soviet military to restore order, leading to the deaths of 120 Azeris. The events would become known as Black January.

Throughout the Karabakh crisis, demonstrators in Yerevan connected the Sumgait and Baku pogroms directly with the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Harutyun Marutyan’s book Iconography of Armenian Identity features photos of slogans and banners from Yerevan in 1988–1990, showing how Armenian demonstrators claimed a political continuity between the Turkish perpetrators of the 1915 genocide and the Azeris’ actions today. Protesters insisted that Armenia’s very survival depended on victory over Azerbaijan in NK, precisely because this was the only way to prevent the extermination of the Armenians living there. NK was, in the Armenian imagination, the front line between the future and total eradication.

But Azeris mobilized in the opposite sense. Massive demonstrations in Baku spearheaded by the Popular Front opposition movement painted Armenia as the biggest threat to Azerbaijan’s independence and territorial integrity, whether or not the USSR survived. Rallies in Baku asserted that an independent Azerbaijan could only be free by defeating the Armenian enemy trying to seize its historic territory.

Though skirmishes and clashes began in 1988, by 1992 the fighting became more like a full-scale war. Armenian militias, Azeri partisans, and collapsing vestiges of the Soviet state fought for control. Thousands of civilians and soldiers lost their lives. Towns and villages were ethnically cleansed. The disintegration of Soviet institutions facilitated the distribution of arms to nationalist militias, as their value incentivized those with access to weapons to meet the increasing demand for firepower in areas overtaken with conflict. After almost seventy years of national development guided by principles of multiethnic cooperation, ethno-nationalist conflict raged as if that experience had never happened.

Fuel on the Flames

That fighting stopped only in 1994, with a Russian-brokered cease-fire. But this did not bring a political resolution — rather both Armenia and Azerbaijan’s positions have become more intransigent and intractable. Today, the interests of outside forces, militarism, and oil are all fueling conflict.

In the last two weeks of fighting, Turkey has been a key factor. Its role serves both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s domestic interests and those of the Azeri ruling elite. Turkey and Azerbaijan share historical ties — even claiming to be “one nation, two states” — due to their similar languages and cultural ties. Since the end of the USSR, Turkey has consistently promised its support for Azerbaijan. Erdoğan asserts that Armenia is the “greatest threat to peace in the region.” In this particular round of fighting, the Turkish state’s rhetoric has been particularly bellicose, with Erdogan even rejecting moves toward a cease-fire.

However, the ties between the two countries are more than just rhetoric. This August, Azerbaijan and Turkey engaged in joint military exercises. There is credible speculation that Turkey left behind weapons from the exercises in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has openly admitted to using Turkish drones and warplanes in recent days, directly involved in attacks on Armenia despite Turkey’s earlier denials. It has also been verified that Turkish-backed mercenaries from Syria have traveled to fight for Azerbaijan.

But key to the Azerbaijan-Turkey relationship is gas, oil, and pipelines. Baku provides gas and oil to Turkey, Europe, and Russia through an extensive network of pipeline infrastructure. Indeed, the critical Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline (BTC) alongside the parallel-running South Caucasus Gas Pipeline (SCGP) have sections merely kilometers from the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Multinational gas and oil company BP, with extensive operations in Azerbaijan, also expressed “concern” at the proximity of the fighting to the BTC pipeline. Further, the recently unveiled $6.5 billion Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) project, owned by Azeri state gas company SOCAR — with a potential capacity of transporting thirty-one billion cubic meters of gas per year — has not only expanded Azerbaijan’s already vast oil export capacities but provided a further six billion cubic meters directly to the Turkish domestic market. The TANAP also directly connects to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, a major supply route for Europe.

In May 2020 Turkey imported 62 percent less gas from Russia, as Azerbaijan became the country’s top gas supplier, and Russian gas exports to Turkey declined to the lowest levels since the 1990s. Turkish discoveries of natural gas in the Black Sea function as an international bargaining chip with Europe and Russia.

This is all in stark contrast to Armenia’s energy situation — a land with no oil or natural gas reserves, almost entirely dependent on imports from Russia. Previously Armenia’s electricity needs were dependent on Russian-owned Inter RAO who oversaw a 17 percent increase in electricity rates in summer 2015. This sparked the Electric Yerevan protests, which successfully fought against the electricity rate increase. However, given Armenia’s strained relationship with Azerbaijan, and continued tensions with Turkey, close relations with Russia are a matter of survival.

Russia has deep cultural ties to both Azerbaijan and Armenia given their shared Soviet history. The Azeri elite prefer to use Russian, and the language is also still a fact of daily life in Armenia. Russia sells both sides weapons and maintains deep economic ties to both. Azerbaijan’s oil wealth alone makes business opportunities obvious, and the Armenian diaspora in Moscow and throughout Russia is an economic power in its own right. This attempt to appease both sides explains why, despite Russia and Armenia both being in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia has had a rather quiet hands-off approach to the conflict,  while pushing toward a cease-fire. Russia does provide Armenia with gas, but compared to Russia’s European exports and other markets, they are negligible. Armenia may be a formal political ally, but is far from a critical economic one.

It would be an overstatement to see the conflict as a proxy dispute between the Russian-led CSTO and NATO. The importance of local tensions, and Armenian premier Pashinyan’s lack of actual confrontation with Russia since taking power — despite not being a favorite in Moscow — rather weaken this explanation. And while Turkey is a NATO member, if anything, this will likely make Russia tread lightly on heating up the situation anymore.

Israel has also played a central, if quiet role in the conflict. For years, Israel has maintained a close economic, military, and intelligence relationship with Azerbaijan; not only is Azerbaijan one of Israel’s top oil and gas providers, but its border with Iran has been useful to Israeli intelligence. Between 2006 and 2019, Azerbaijan has used its endless oil wealth to purchase upward of $825 million worth of Israeli weapons, becoming one of that country’s largest armaments customers. And in the current fighting, Israel’s support for Azerbaijan is clear, with Azeri cargo planes traveling to military bases in Israel in recent days. Even coy comments from the Azeri government left no doubts as to the purpose of these trips. Armenia has responded by recalling the Israeli ambassador, adding strife to already lukewarm relations.

Wider stepping up of military exercises in the region risks adding to the explosive potential of the conflict. The “Kavkaz 2020” Russian military exercises were held in the Russian North Caucasus over September 21–26 and ended one day before the fighting began in NK. Azerbaijan “observed,” while Armenia was a direct and active participant. Further, neighboring Georgia — positioning itself as neutral in the conflict and offering to host talks between Yerevan and Baku — recently held its annual Noble Partner exercise, prominently featuring US troops marching through the country.

Armenia and Azerbaijan (as well as neighboring Georgia) are also part of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership. But with the EU’s own viability increasingly under pressure — and its attempts to pose as a geopolitical player tripping over its internal tensions and rising right-wing populism — it is hard to believe that its expansionist ambitions will do anything to counter the ethno-national politics which undergird this conflict.

Political Solution

Even if today there is a halt in the fighting, there can be no peace without a political solution. There are brave Armenians and Azeris and others invested in the conflict working in think tanks, various peace initiatives, and universities inside and outside of the region rightfully calling for peace, dialogue, and understanding between the two sides.

But peace is neither free nor neutral. Imagining a shared future where war is not only absent but unthinkable will take more than peaceful intentions and recognition of each other’s humanity. It will take a struggle to reconceptualize a politics where Armenians and Azeris at home and abroad see their own futures as intertwined, interdependent, and in service of something bigger than their own national identities. That demands the resuscitation of shared histories, the exploration of a shared present, and the articulation of a shared future.

It is already three decades since the Soviet multiethnic life in this diverse corner of the South Caucasus, with its rather less dramatic imperfections, was buried in the rubble of homes and apartment buildings. Its seventy-year experiment in state-mandated international brotherhood was ultimately sent packing with apocalyptic nationalist violence. Then, ethno-national enmity became the binding agent holding together the political institutions and identities of newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan. Without the overcoming of this legacy — and the institutionalization of supposed ethnic difference — chances of lasting peace are slim.