A Century of Conflict
The recent explosion of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region represents the continuation of tensions and hostility between the two nations that dates back to the early 20th century. The collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the subsequent civil war created a power vacuum in the Caucasus region, enabling both Azerbaijan and Armenia to declare independence from Moscow. Intense clashes over the sovereignty of the Nagorno-Karabakh region ensued, as the area was populated by both Turkic Azerbaijanis and a majority of ethnic Armenians.
Following the establishment of the Soviet regime and the incorporation of Azerbaijan and Armenia into the Soviet Union as separate republics, the Kremlin adopted a “divide and rule” policy toward the troublesome neighbors. This policy hinged on the idea that as long as the Caucasian republics had territorial disputes between each other, they would seek the Kremlin’s support and act in Moscow’s interest to solicit favor among the political elites. In this context, the Soviets established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, with an ethnic Armenian majority, within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.
From the 1920s to the 1990s, Nagorno-Karabakh remained relatively stable under the weight of the Soviet-imposed order. However, in 1988, as the dissolution of the Soviet Union loomed, both Azerbaijan and Armenia began to express their desire for independence. They also started jostling over the boundaries of their respective states. Territorial disputes over Nagorno-Karabakh followed, though initially both countries hoped to resolve the issue through diplomacy.
When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the dispute between Yerevan and Baku escalated rapidly. Karabakh’s declaration of independence served as the catalyst for armed conflict, which erupted in 1992. The conflict lasted for two years and cost 30,000 lives, with over a million civilians displaced. The vast majority of refugees were the ethnic Azeris of Nagorno-Karabakh, who before the war constituted about a quarter of the region’s population. Due to Russia’s clear preference for Armenia and Moscow’s hand in mediating between the two belligerents, the First Nagorno-Karabakh war ended decisively in favor of Armenia. Not only did Yerevan gain control of the Karabakh region, but Armenian forces also occupied Azerbaijani territory outside of Karabakh, thus creating a corridor that connected Karabakh to mainland Armenia.
The Unfinished War
However, Armenia’s victory in 1994 did not resolve the underlying conflict. Instead, the one-sided resolution merely deepened hostilities and led to multiple border skirmishes. The conflict continued to simmer for decades, until it came to a head in 2020. That year, following 30 years of dissatisfaction with the status quo, Azerbaijani forces, bolstered by their advanced drone warfare capabilities, heavy rocket artillery, and the support of their ally, Turkey, attacked Armenian-held territories to reclaim the Nagorno-Karabakh region. After 44 days of intense fighting, Azerbaijan emerged victorious, with Baku establishing control over one-third of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
As with the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, the brief conflict that erupted in 2020 did little to resolve the underlying tensions that defined the Azeri-Armenian conflict. After the second war, Baku adopted “salami-slicing” tactic with respect to the residual territories of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In 2021, Azerbaijan’s armed forces, in a series of isolated skirmishes, advanced into Armenia’s Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces, annexing at least 19 square miles (50 sq km) of Armenian land. Then, in September 2022, Azerbaijan undertook one of the most substantial offensives against Armenia witnessed in their long-standing dispute, establishing control over several key positions along the Armenian border.
Tensions between the two neighbors escalated further when Azerbaijan enforced a military blockade on the areas within Nagorno-Karabakh that remained under Armenian control, specifically the Republic of Artsakh. Baku defended this blockade by citing the need to “prevent the illegal flow of weapons and arms to Nagorno-Karabakh.” However, many observers saw this as a move to degrade the Armenian-backed defense forces of Artsakh over time. This assessment proved accurate; in September 2023, Azerbaijan mounted another significant military campaign against the Republic of Artsakh, leading to the dissolution of the Artsakh Defense Army and the displacement of around 120,000 Armenian civilians.
A Break with the Past
While many perceived the September 2023 clash as a continuation of the same Azeri-Armenian conflict that has existed for over a century, the most recent conflict diverged from its predecessors in a significant way: Armenia did not retaliate. The Armenian leadership refrained from thwarting Azerbaijan’s advance—allowing Baku to claim a swift victory. Indeed, the conflict lasted only one day.
Many Armenians were incensed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s decision to shy away from military conflict with Azerbaijan. Citizens accused him of treason, alleging that he had prioritized his political ambitions over the nation’s welfare. True or not, these sentiments threaten to undermine Pashinyan’s government.
Nonetheless, some believe his decision was strategically sound, given the current power imbalance between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This disparity largely favors Azerbaijan due to two primary reasons. First, Azerbaijan has benefited from its amicable relations with the West and substantial revenue from oil and gas exports, which it has poured into acquiring advanced military equipment. In contrast, Armenia’s stagnant economy has hindered its military modernization. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Armenia finds itself at a significant disadvantage in terms of international political and military support. Whereas Azerbaijan has enjoyed the steadfast backing of its traditional ally, Turkey, Armenia found its traditional partners, Russia (and to a lesser extent, Iran) unwilling to assist. Tehran made symbolic gestures like vocal criticisms and troop deployments near its border with Azerbaijan, while Moscow, preoccupied with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, quickly declined Armenia’s appeal for help.
Russia’s rejection was particularly stinging as Moscow essentially reneged on what were once steadfast security commitments to Armenia. During both the May 2021 and September 2022 clashes with Azerbaijan, Armenia called for Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to honor their collective defense treaty and intervene. Both times, as in September 2023, Moscow refused to support Yerevan. Lacking a modernized military or reliable allies, Armenia’s attempts to beat back Azerbaijan’s forces would have been a futile effort.
Regional Power Shift
The outcome of the recent skirmish is unambiguous: Azerbaijan expanded its influence while Armenia suffered a severe setback to its territorial ambitions and prestige. But the ramifications of September’s lightning conflict extend to regional actors like Turkey, Iran, and Russia, as well.
Turkey emerges as a clear winner from the latest bout of conflict. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkey has aspired to fill the power void in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Capitalizing on cultural and ethnic ties with Turkic nations, Turkey envisaged a new regional power bloc—a “Turkish Alliance.” Putin’s ascendancy in 2000 and Russia’s subsequent efforts to re-establish dominance in its near abroad complicated this vision. Central Asia gravitated towards Russia due to its economic heft. However, in the Caucasus, especially with Azerbaijan, Turkey enjoyed advantages like geographical proximity, linguistic affinities, and Russia’s preference for Armenia, which alienated Baku. As Azerbaijan’s primary supporter, Baku’s triumph bolsters Turkey’s influence in the Caucasus. Given the long-frosty relationship between Ankara and Yerevan, Azerbaijan’s assault saw its ally gain the upper hand while diminishing the influence of a historical adversary. Turkey’s unwavering support for Azerbaijan reinforces its image as a dependable ally and partner, positioning it for greater influence in regions like Central Asia.
Russia’s historical alignment with Armenia stemmed partly from cultural and religious kinship. Indeed, Moscow presented itself as the protector of Christianity in the region for centuries. Russia’s perceived abandonment of Armenia, combined with its military setbacks in Ukraine and an economy weakened by sanctions, has posed serious questions about Moscow’s viability as a long-term partner for many states within its former sphere of influence. Many of the Central Asian nations, which are also members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, might consider pivoting towards Turkey in light of Russia’s betrayal of Armenia.
Russia’s inaction will also likely push Yerevan to develop its own security ties with the West. Prime Minister Pashinyan recently commented on Armenia’s security situation, declaring that his country had made a “strategic error” in relying on Russia. Armenia’s joint military exercise with the United States, named “Eagle Partner,” which commenced on September 11, 2023, underscores Yerevan’s inclination to move closer to Western states that would appear more reliable. If Armenia, the sole Caucasus ally of Russia and Iran, pivots towards the West—especially when Georgia has already fostered friendly ties and military alliances with Western entities—Iran and Russia may see their influence in the Caucasus severely diminished.
However, Armenia’s disentanglement from Russia or Iran is not a foregone conclusion. As a landlocked nation flanked by Azerbaijan and Turkey, Iran serves as Armenia’s vital conduit to the wider world. Furthermore, Moscow’s influence permeates Armenia’s rail, gas, and electricity infrastructure. This is compounded by the fact that Russia continues to operate a military base on Armenian soil, and there remains a significant and influential Armenian diaspora in Russia. Given Russia’s demonstrated willingness to leverage any advantage to keep its neighbors in line, any Armenian quest for greater autonomy could be a prolonged, challenging, and costly endeavor. Indeed, such an effort would necessitate sweeping strategic reforms that appear unrealistic without substantial foreign aid. Consequently, skeptics might assert that even if Armenia were to pivot westward, the Karabakh situation is likely to remain frozen, given the massive military advantage that its adversaries possess.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.