The Fall Of The Republic Of Artsakh

On September 19th, Azerbaijan launched an intense military offensive in the contested Nagorno – Karabakh region, which killed over 200 ethnic Armenians and dozens of Azerbaijanis. After just 24 hours of fighting, a ceasefire was agreed upon between Armenian forces and the Azerbaijani military. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, separatist authorities announced that the break-away region would officially be incorporated into Azerbaijan on January 1st, 2024. After decades of Armenian defiance, the hopes for an independent Republic of Artsakh have finally ended. According to the BCC, approximately 100,000 Armenians have fled the region since the military operation and subsequent capitulation. While Baku has maintained that Armenians would be treated as equal citizens, the mass exodus indicates fears of ethnic cleansing. 

Although Armenian and Azerbaijani ethnic tensions have persisted for centuries, the current Nagorno – Karabakh dispute is a relic of Soviet occupation. In 1923, the Soviet Union established that Nagorno – Karabakh should be an autonomous region within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, despite the population being roughly 95 percent Armenian at the time. Whether intentional or not, Stalin’s odd land distribution increased the potential for ethnic violence following Armenian and Azerbaijani independence. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, the Republic of Artsakh was declared following a referendum in the region in 1991, which ultimately led to a three year war. After the death of roughly 30,000 people, a bilateral ceasefire was signed in 1994 and officially remained in effect until 2020. Despite international recognition of Nagorno – Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan, the Republic of Artsakh remained a breakaway region for several decades due to the military and economic support of both Armenia and Russia. 

While Armenia initially gained territory in the 1991 conflict, the tide turned in Azerbaijan’s favor in the following decades. This was mainly driven by Azerbaijan’s superior alliances, largely created by their vast reserves of petroleum and liquified natural gas. One of Azerbaijan’s most important allies is Turkey, which has provided significant military and diplomatic support to the country. Azerbaijan’s supply of petroleum alongside their shared Turkic identity has solidified Turkey’s support for Baku. According to Reuters, 80 percent of Azerbaijan’s oil exports flow through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline to Turkey, which strategically circumvents Armenia by passing through Georgia. Furthermore, Armenia and Turkey were already geopolitical rivals due to Ankara’s denial of the Armenian genocide in 1915. Many European countries, alongside the United States and Israel, have benefitted from Azerbaijan’s exports as well, effectively isolating Armenia from the world. 

Armenia’s main allies are limited to Russia and Iran, which both lack significant geopolitical clout at the moment. According to TRT World, Russia’s support for Armenia is derived from their shared Orthodox-Christian identity and Slavic heritage. Without Russia’s military and economic support, Armenia was unlikely to win the war in 1991. Armenia’s alliance with Iran is mainly derived from Tehran’s tensions with its Azerbaijani minority. Iran is home to over 12 million Azerbaijani’s, more than the population of Azerbaijan itself. Tehran does not want its own separatist movement, which is why it seeks to undermine Baku to decrease the probability of a unification movement of all Azerbaijani people. One way to do this is to support Armenia so that Baku’s attention is fixated on another matter. According to Modern Diplomacy, Iran has supplied Armenia with extensive weaponry, including 500 units of anti-tank missile systems. While these allies have been helpful to Armenia in the past, Russia and Iran have been more concerned with their own internal matters in recent years. 

Following the 1994 ceasefire, the state of Nagorno – Karabakh remained fairly stable with infrequent clashes occurring over the subsequent decades. However, emboldened by significant weapon imports from Turkey, Israel, and Belarus, Azerbaijan has become increasingly aggressive in the last decade. According to the Center for Eastern Studies, Azerbaijan launched a military operation known as the four days war in 2016, in which Baku enjoyed miniscule territorial gains. In September 2020, fighting once again broke out along the Azerbaijan-Nagorno Karabakh border, which saw the most intense violence since 1994. Lasting roughly six weeks, the Second Nagorno Karabakh war claimed thousands of lives before a peace deal was finally brokered by Russia on November 9th. Azerbaijan reclaimed the majority of its lost territory and Armenia only retained a small portion of the Karabakh region. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the peace deal established the Lachin corridor, which was a designated passage protected by Russian peacekeepers connecting Armenia to Nagorno Karabakh. 

In December 2022, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of using the Lachin Corridor to supply weapons to Nagorno Karabakh and subsequently blocked the transit line. Armenia denied the allegations and accused Azerbaijan of isolating the region for its own agenda. Whether the Armenians supplied weapons or not, the Lachin Corridor was a vital route for supplying essential resources such as food and medicine. According to the BBC, residents reported severe food shortages and human rights violations were thrown at Baku. However, Azerbaijan maintains that any supply shortages were the fault of the Armenians as they refused to accept Azerbaijani aid when offered. In any case, Nagorno Karabakh’s isolation combined with a weakened Russian ally meant the break-away region had little means of defending itself in the recent military operation. 

Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of Nagorno-Karabakh, signed a decree to dissolve the Republic of Artsakh and all of its institutions on January 1st, 2024. While this specific territorial dispute seems to be resolved for now, it remains to be seen what these developments mean for the Armenian diaspora and Armenian – Azerbaijani relations. According to the AP, Jeyhun Bayramov, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister, reaffirmed that all ethnic Armenians will be guaranteed full rights and freedoms. While these statements cannot be confirmed, the reality of the situation will become more apparent in the coming weeks. According to Aljazeera, a UN team of approximately a dozen people recently arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh. Although the majority of its citizens have already fled the region, this team will be able to assess the claims of the Azerbaijani government. 

While it is too early to assess the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, should the Azerbaijani government pursue a policy of ethnic cleansing there are various actions the international community could take. First, while Azerbaijan’s oil reserves gives it diplomatic leverage, it also makes its economy very dependent on exports. Should the international community want to retaliate against the Azerbaijani government for any reason, decreasing imports of Azerbaijan oil would greatly undermine Baku’s economy. Also, Azerbaijan relies completely on weapons imports from a few countries. This allows for significant leverage over the state should grave human rights atrocities be committed. 


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