Tensions Flare In Nagorno-Karabakh

Tensions are once again high in the Caucasus, and Nagorno-Karabakh is at the heart of the cyclone. The separatist region of Western Azerbaijan has been a theatre of war and massacre for decades, but the situation had seemingly improved following a ceasefire signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan in November 2020. On August 3rd, however, Azerbaijan violated the agreement and launched “Operation Revenge” in response to the alleged death of one of their soldiers by Armenian forces. Killing at least 2 Armenian soldiers and wounding another 19, Baku’s provocation poses a great threat to the fragile equilibrium of the region. Diplomatic organizations are attempting to avoid an escalation of violence, while peace talks between Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, which started in April 2022, continue. 

Nagorno-Karabakh is a separatist region of West Azerbaijan with a 95% ethnically Armenian population. It was established as an autonomous province of the USSR in the 1920s and immediately commenced advocating for its own independence. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself to be a de facto State, but it is still not recognized by the international community. Following that, a sanguinolent war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the control of the region. Armenia advocates for the protection of the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh, while Azerbaijan wants to exert its sovereignty over the State. In decades of fighting, Armenia has been supported by Russia, while Turkey sides with Azerbaijan. 

In 1994, after years of fighting and almost 30,000 victims, Armenia had gained control over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding provinces. A ceasefire was signed, but no long-lasting peace agreement was found between the two countries. In the last trimester of 2020, tensions spiraled out of control again, resulting in a six-week war. Almost 7,000 people died, and Azerbaijan recaptured large areas of territory, including all its provinces and part of Nagorno-Karabakh. A new truce was established, brokered by Russia, introducing a series of stabilizing provisions. Despite Russian peacekeeping forces being deployed in the region, the ceasefire was repeatedly broken by both parties, although the situation never got out of hand. 

“There’s a lot of frustration,” said Matthew Bryza, former U.S. ambassador in Azerbaijan, when commenting on the current situation. The cause of this discontent is to be found in the provisions of the 2020 truce, which are not being respected. One of the most important terms of the agreement was the construction of an alternative to the Lachin corridor, the only existing connecting road between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Once the new overland route will be completed, Russian peacekeepers will leave the Lachin area, allowing Baku to gain back control over it.

Azerbaijan is now claiming that Armenia is purposefully delaying the construction works, but Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, assures that the new corridor will be completed by 2023. Azerbajan’s capital, Baku, is further accusing Armenia of not having withdrawn its military forces from Nagorno-Karabakh. The soldiers the Azerbaijani government refers to, however, are not part of the Armenian army, but rather the Defense Army of the de facto state of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan sees these forces as an illegal branch of the Armenian army and threatened to launch an “anti-terrorist” military operation, but Armenia argues that the dismantlement of such military groups was never part of the agreement. 

Despite accusations and rising tensions, Azerbaijan and Armenia are currently undertaking peace talks meditated by the European Union. The Azeri government is especially eager to reach a peace agreement as soon as possible to fully utilize the benefits of its military victory in 2020. Armenia is finding itself in an inferior position, both in terms of military and diplomatic strength, especially now that its most powerful ally, Russia, is occupied on the Ukrainian front. Therefore, the government might be willing to make concessions to Azerbaijan, regardless of the intense domestic criticism and of the security concerns for all the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. A hypothesis was advanced to sign a peace treaty that would leave the Nagorno-Karabakh situation open for further discussion, but Baku rejected this option and is determined to make the most of the negotiations.

While talks continue, it is essential to maintain a stable situation in the area and to avoid new military conflicts arising, solving the crisis through diplomatic means rather than forceful ones. 

Camilla Giussani