35 years ago this week began the first Karabakh war: a devastating conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the periphery of the old Soviet world. Though ending with an uneasy ceasefire in 1994, the conflict suddenly resumed in 2020, when Azerbaijan launched an offensive across the 1994 armistice line. Here, two scholars explain why it is vital for all to pay attention.
The disastrous war in Ukraine has focused the world’s attention on a horrendous conflict in Eastern Europe, one that has pitted nuclear powers against one another. The existential threat to independent, sovereign Ukraine has solidified NATO and consolidated a firm national identity in one of the largest countries in Europe, which in turn has dealt a humiliating blow to Russia’s imperial claims. There are many ways to characterize the war: the heroic self-defense of a smaller, democratic nation attacked by a larger, autocratic neighbor; unbridled imperialism disguised as an anti-fascist struggle; or the expected outcome of Russia’s expansionist nature. But rather than explaining the war by jumping to conclusions about Vladimir Putin’s fascist convictions or the autocrat’s mental health, cooler heads might consider the war’s historical origins and recent geopolitical shifts. Like other conflicts in the region that once made up the Soviet Union, the war in Ukraine can be understood as the ongoing unraveling of the USSR.
The spotlight on Ukraine has obscured another war not far from the killing fields of Kherson, Kharkiv, and Donbas: the Armenian Azerbaijani conflict in the South Caucasus. For more than 30 years, two small former Soviet republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have been sacrificing their soldiers and civilians to control the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (Mountainous Karabakh), once an autonomous region in Soviet Azerbaijan. Karabakh was overwhelmingly Armenian in population, roughly 75 percent, but its territory was wholly inside Azerbaijan. Then, in the late 1980s, demonstrations and protests turned violent, and Azerbaijanis carried out attacks against Armenians in Sumgait and Baku. Thereafter, war between the republics raged, until some 30,000 people had been killed. Armenians won on the battlefield and effectively controlled Karabakh from 1994 to 2020.
After the cease-fire of 1994, even though skirmishes continued, Armenians built a little state, which they call Artsakh, tied ethnically and culturally to the Republic of Armenia. But Azerbaijan never gave up its claims on the region. For three decades, diplomats and politicians from the two republics negotiated in vain to bring the conflict to an end. Ultimately, neither side was willing to compromise. In a dispute between national self-determination and territorial integrity, the latter is taken more seriously by the international community than the former. International law therefore favored Azerbaijan’s right to rule the territory.
Armenians, who had suffered a genocide 100 years earlier at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, saw Karabakh not only as part of their historic homeland but as a buffer to prevent yet another decimation of their people. For Armenians, Azerbaijanis were simply Turks, and Turks were people ready to use violence to achieve their political and strategic goals.
Meanwhile, Armenians, for Azerbaijanis, were arrogant imperialists who had seized part of the Azerbaijani homeland. Azerbaijan—a larger state, rich with oil and gas—used the decades after the cease-fire to rebuild its economy, rearm its military, secure an important ally in the Republic of Turkey, and mobilize its people around a fervent, militant Armenophobe nationalism.
When a coveted indivisible good, like the homeland, is at stake, compromise becomes almost impossible. And when the nationalist rhetoric of each side depicts the other as demonic subhumans bent on your destruction, even negotiation with one’s opponents can undermine the people in power. The radical simplifications that flow from nationalism shrink the possibilities to understand the other.
The Road to War
In the fall of 2020, Armenia had no serious incentive to change the status quo of the Karabakh situation. Armenians controlled Artsakh, as well as large swaths of Azerbaijani territory outside of Karabakh that had been ethnically cleansed of the indigenous population. A functioning government in Stepanakert administered Karabakh.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, was highly motivated to change the existing situation, take back its occupied territories, deal a decisive blow against the Armenians, and, with its anticipated success, increase support for the government of President Ilham Aliyev. Having used its oil revenues to modernize its military, Azerbaijan was in a stronger position than ever to gain from war. Aliyev’s rhetoric became more bellicose over time. He boasted about spending more on the armed forces than the entire budget of Armenia and declared defiantly, “We live in a time of war.”
Clashes between the two sides—in 2010, 2014, 2016 (the Four-Day War), and in July 2020—resolved nothing, and hundreds were killed on both sides. The failure of an Azerbaijani attack in July 2020 sparked protests in Baku. “Karabakh is Azerbaijan,” shouted the crowd as some demonstrators stormed into the parliament building. “Azerbaijani civil society re- awakened,” writes analyst Vicken Cheterian, “not to demand democracy, but war.” Across the border in Armenia, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan grew confident: “The victorious battles of July proved that our assessment of the military-political situation in the region and the balance of power are sober and accurate.” He was wrong.
In his brilliant analysis of the war, Cheterian demonstrates that,
in the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan succeeded by securing the participation of the Turkish military and Syrian mercenaries, plus a constant supply of Israeli weaponry, while keeping Iran out and Russia waiting for 44 days. On the other hand, Russia, despite being Armenia’s principal strategic partner, preferred to take a balanced position during the fighting, even while NATO member Turkey was directly participating in military operations in Russia’s “Near Abroad.” It was this configuration of forces that tilted the strategic advantage to the Azerbaijani side’s favour in 2020. . . . The Armenian military, just like its strategic thinking and diplomacy, was not ready to fight the kind of war machine that faced them in 2020.
In the run-up to the war, the Pashinyan government appeared overconfident but was unclear about its intentions. No Armenian government had been willing to go along with the Russian proposal to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Putin wanted Armenia to give up the territories it occupied outside the former Mountainous Karabakh Autonomous Region and allow Russian troops to be stationed in the conflict zone. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh would not be decided until later.
Yet, given that Armenia could rely on no other power than Putin’s Russia for military support, its rejection of Russia’s proposal for resolving the conflict only distanced Yerevan from Moscow. Pashinyan made gestures toward negotiation, but also declared starkly that “Artsakh is Armenia, and that’s it.” Reacting to their defeated opponents from the former governments in Armenia who accused Prime Minister Pashinyan of surrendering lands to Armenia’s enemies, Armenian officials supported a lavish commemoration of the centenary of the defunct Treaty of Sèvres, in which Woodrow Wilson and the victors at the Paris Peace Conference had promised to create a large Armenian state encompassing much of Eastern Anatolia.
But deploying history can be a dangerous signal to antagonistic neighbors. For Turkey, Sèvres was a serious threat: a reminder of the imperialist efforts in 1919–1920 to shatter defeated Turkey into pieces. As historian and diplomat Jirair [Gerard] Libaridian noted: “Adopting the Treaty of Sèvres as an instrument of foreign policy Armenia placed the demand of territories from Turkey on its agenda,” which was “equivalent to a declaration of at least diplomatic war against Turkey.”
Suddenly, without warning, on the morning of September 27, 2020, armed forces from Azerbaijan launched an offensive across the armistice line established in 1994. Backed by Turkey—and deploying the lethal Bayraktar drones (the same ones Turkey later sold to Ukraine), as well as Israeli weapons—the Azerbaijanis battered the less well-armed Armenian fighters. Indeed, the Second Karabakh War was the first war between two states that was ultimately decided largely by robotics: the use on the battlefield of drones that increased the importance of sophisticated technological weapons and decreased the salience of morale, preparedness of ground troops, and heavy weaponry like tanks.
As the fighting raged for 44 days, attempts at ceasefires, brokered by the United States, France, and Russia, failed. Only after the Azerbaijanis captured the old capital of Karabakh, Shushi (Shusha), were the Russians able to secure agreement from all sides and end the war. Several thousand Russian peacekeepers were deployed to patrol the front between the two armies. The official estimate is that nearly 4,000 Armenians and just under 3,000 Azerbaijanis were killed. The casualty figures were likely much higher.
The war was vicious, and both sides targeted civilians and deployed cluster bombs. Individual soldiers tortured and murdered prisoners. Social media showed horrendous war crimes involving torture and rape. Azerbaijani soldiers were videotaped beheading prisoners of war; as their army advanced, they took out their rage on civilians. Revenge murders escalated the level of anger and hatred on both sides. Armenians who had settled in territories gained in earlier conflicts were forced to evacuate their homes, which they destroyed as they fled to Armenia. Each side accused the other of engaging in genocide.
In the midst of the savagery, Azerbaijanis marched triumphantly through their own capital, Baku. In 2020, unlike in the First Karabakh War, Azerbaijan had a consolidated authoritarian leadership loyal to the hereditary ruler of the country, Ilham Aliyev, and powerful allies like Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Its society was tightly controlled by the state, and dissenters and political opponents had been repressed.
The radical simplifications that flow from nationalism shrink the possibilities to understand the other.
Meanwhile, Armenians—in despair at their loss of most of Karabakh—demonstrated in Yerevan against their government and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan. Armenia had undergone a popular democratic revolution in 2018, and people in the streets had driven a corrupt political elite from power. But the mafia figures who had ruled the country did not leave willingly, and Armenia’s politicians were divided in their support of the new Pashinyan government, which was under siege by powerful forces in society and the elite.
Armenia’s principal ally was Putin’s Russia, and the Kremlin was wary of the new regime, which had come to power in a mass movement from below. The Pashinyan government was made up of newcomers who had to learn to govern a turbulent, divided country—a messy, fragile democracy vulnerable to the family-based autocracy in Azerbaijan. And it was surrounded by states that were either despotic like Russia—Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran—or unstable like Georgia. In terms of international support, democracy was more of a liability in 2020 than a major asset. Indeed, the grassroots rebellion that succeeded in overthrowing ruling mafias gave the people throughut the former Soviet Union, chafing under the rule of corrupt, self-aggrandizing regimes, inspiration that those in power noticed and feared.
Once the war began, Turkey backed Azerbaijan without hesitation, committing weapons, leadership, and Syrian mercenaries, who were mercilessly used as cannon fodder. Armenia was left on its own. The West was silent, and for 44 days the Russians did not intervene.
The Afterlives of War
The Second Karabakh War radically changed the geopolitical and strategic map of the South Caucasus. Russian troops were legitimized once again as peacekeepers in the region, though, less than two years after that war ended, when Russia launched its disastrous invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s ability to keep the peace declined precipitously. Azerbaijan now dominated most of the land it had lost 26 years earlier. Autocracy had triumphed over democracy in the South Caucasus, while democracy backed by the West was embattled and heroically defending itself in Ukraine.
The repressive, corrupt Aliyev regime had gained a kind of legitimacy—no longer simply the dynastic succession of father to son but now with the aura of glorious victory over its inimical neighbor. Armenians despaired about the future. Opponents of Pashinyan and the democratic revolution rallied and contested the government in elections the following year. Even so, Armenian democracy, despite its defeats and divisions, proved remarkably resilient. Pashinyan’s party won an overwhelming victory. Still, prospects for the future appeared bleak and foreboding.
Fighting and death continued through the next two years. Exploiting his present advantage, Aliyev has escalated his demands. He wants Armenia to sign a peace treaty that recognizes Baku’s full sovereignty over Karabakh, giving up any Armenian claims to autonomy, and he seeks a clear demarcation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border that favors Azerbaijan. Because southern Armenia separates most of Azerbaijan from the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, Aliyev wants a new road and rail “corridor” across the Armenian region of Zangezur to connect both parts of his country. Armenians have refused to give up their sovereign rights over territory for such a “corridor” while willing to guarantee “unobstructed movement” of people, vehicles, and goods under Russian supervision. To press Aliyev’s demands, Azerbaijani troops have brazenly and repeatedly crossed the border into Armenia. Hundreds of defenders have been killed, and the vital Lachin Corridor that connects Armenia with Artsakh has been blockaded. Russia has proven to be impotent in maintaining the terms of the cease-fire.
One small ray of light flickered a few months ago, though what will come of it is unknown.
In September 2022, the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States, Nancy Pelosi, landed in Armenia to demonstrate support for the beleaguered nation. Her journey made it clear that the United States believes it has a role in bringing peace to the region and a special commitment to the Armenians, who, as she said in her speech in Yerevan, are “at the center of this debate between democracy and autocracy.” She linked the defense of Armenia to the struggles to contain Russia and to protect the Uyghurs repressed by China. Right-wing pundits in Washington immediately attacked liberals and Democrats like the Speaker for their pro-Armenian position.1 But the Speaker had the last and most compelling words when she quoted the national poet Paruyr Sevak, who, addressing his fellow Armenians, asked:
How did you manage that you, like a bee, extract nectar out of poison,
And out of bitterness, honey you even squeeze?
How did you manage to rise, after falling a thousand times?
And how did you manage to survive, after dying a thousand times?
What miracle made you not be extinguished as others before had done,
The flame never went off, but through long centuries kept on burning.
Armenians have been here before. Moments of near-annihilation have come and somehow miraculously gone. Armenians argue with one another, stand guard, continue to resist, sobered by their latest tragedies. The question—how did you manage to survive, after dying a thousand times?—remains. But Armenians manage to preserve the needed glimmer of optimism and hope that a people that has survived for three millennia can make it through this time as well. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have a chance.
This article was commissioned by Joanne Randa Nucho.
- For the right-wing view that Azerbaijan should be supported, rather than Armenia, see James Jay Carafano, “Armenia-Azerbaijan War of 2022: What Should America Do?,” The Heritage Foundation, September 22, 2022. ↩