Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

This map describes the situation in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region prior to the 2020 war. The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but partly governed by the de facto independent Republic of Artsakh. The image is a modified version of MarshallBagramyan’s map.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has its origins in the complex history of the South Caucasus region, characterized by ethnic diversity and overlapping territorial claims. The roots of the conflict can be traced back to the early 20th century when the territories of Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of the Russian Empire. With the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence, leading to territorial disputes over various regions, including Nagorno-Karabakh.

Early Stages of Conflict

The roots of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region characterized by its rugged mountains and deep cultural significance, can be traced back to the complex interplay of history, nationalism, and territorial claims between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. This region, while internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, has a majority ethnic Armenian population that has historically sought closer ties or unification with Armenia, reflecting broader ethnic and national identity issues that have plagued the South Caucasus.

The early stages of the conflict were marked by escalating tensions that were further exacerbated by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In 1988, a significant turning point occurred when the local legislature in Nagorno-Karabakh, tapping into the rising tide of nationalist sentiments, voted in favor of joining Armenia. This decision was not just a political maneuver but also a profound expression of the ethnic Armenian community’s longstanding aspirations and sense of identity.

The vote acted as a catalyst, igniting protests and sparking violence across the region. In Azerbaijan, it triggered large-scale demonstrations and confrontations, as Azerbaijani communities reacted strongly against the move, viewing it as a direct threat to the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Meanwhile, Armenians rallied in support of Nagorno-Karabakh’s bid for unification with Armenia, driven by a deep-seated fear of cultural assimilation and historical grievances.

The situation rapidly deteriorated, with both sides experiencing a surge in nationalist fervor that led to increasing militarization and clashes. These early confrontations set the stage for a protracted and bloody conflict that would entangle the region for decades, deeply impacting the lives of thousands and leaving a legacy of mistrust and hostility that continues to challenge peace efforts.

Outbreak of War

Azerbaijani soldier in rubble

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked a pivotal moment for the South Caucasus region, as newly independent states emerged from the ashes of the former superpower. Among these were Armenia and Azerbaijan, two countries with deep-rooted historical tensions, now finding themselves at the center of an escalating conflict over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The dissolution of the Soviet Union removed a key layer of political control and oversight, setting the stage for the conflict to evolve into a full-scale war.

As both Armenia and Azerbaijan asserted their independence, the struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh intensified, fueled by nationalist sentiments and the desire to assert control over the disputed territory. The region’s ethnic Armenian population, supported by Armenia, sought independence or unification with Armenia, while Azerbaijan aimed to assert its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The war that unfolded was marked by fierce and bloody confrontations, with both conventional military engagements and guerrilla warfare defining the conflict. The fighting resulted in significant casualties on both sides, with thousands of soldiers and civilians losing their lives. The human cost of the war was further compounded by widespread displacement, as hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes, creating a large population of refugees and internally displaced persons.

Atrocities were committed by both sides during the conflict, deepening the animosity and mistrust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Reports of massacres, forced expulsions, and other human rights abuses added a tragic dimension to the war, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis and making the prospects for peace even more elusive.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh not only caused immense human suffering and economic devastation but also left a legacy of unresolved issues and territorial disputes that continue to affect relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Despite various attempts at ceasefire agreements and international mediation efforts, the conflict has seen periodic escalations and remains a significant source of tension and instability in the region.

Azeriler ve Türkler Dağlık Karabağ ihtilaflarında Azerbaycan’a destek gösterisi düzenliyor, İstanbul, Türkiye.

Ceasefire and Subsequent Peace Efforts

The 1994 ceasefire that brought a halt to the full-scale hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict marked a significant turning point, albeit without addressing the deep-rooted issues at the heart of the dispute. Brokered by Russia, the ceasefire agreement succeeded in stopping the immediate bloodshed but left the region in a state of unresolved tension, with Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas under Armenian control, yet internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

In the aftermath of the ceasefire, efforts to find a lasting peace settlement intensified, with the international community recognizing the need to address the underlying causes of the conflict to prevent future escalations. The Minsk Group, formed under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), emerged as a key player in these efforts. Co-chaired by Russia, France, and the United States, the Minsk Group sought to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan, proposing various frameworks and principles aimed at achieving a negotiated settlement.

The peace process, however, has been fraught with challenges. Negotiations have frequently been stymied by mutual distrust, competing narratives of victimhood and justice, and the uncompromising positions of both sides regarding sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the right to self-determination. Periodic outbreaks of violence have further complicated these efforts, undermining trust and highlighting the fragility of the ceasefire.

Despite these difficulties, the Minsk Group and other international actors have continued to advocate for dialogue, proposing confidence-building measures and seeking to create conditions conducive to a peaceful resolution. These efforts have included discussions on the return of displaced persons, the establishment of communication links between the parties, and the implementation of economic and development projects aimed at fostering cooperation and reducing tensions.

The path to peace in Nagorno-Karabakh remains complex and uncertain, with each step forward often met with setbacks. The enduring legacy of the conflict, marked by loss and suffering on both sides, continues to influence the political and social dynamics of the region. The international community’s role in facilitating negotiations, supporting confidence-building initiatives, and encouraging compromise is crucial in sustaining momentum towards a peaceful resolution.

Recent Escalation and Humanitarian Crisis

The long-standing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh experienced a significant and tragic escalation in 2020, marking the most severe outbreak of violence in the region since the ceasefire of 1994. This renewed conflict saw Armenia and Azerbaijan engage in intense military confrontations, leading to a substantial loss of life, including both military personnel and civilians, and the displacement of thousands of people from their homes.

The escalation was characterized by the use of heavy artillery, drones, and advanced missile systems, indicating a departure from the skirmishes and limited engagements that had periodically occurred in the years following the ceasefire. The intensity of the fighting and the involvement of sophisticated weaponry underscored the deep-seated animosity and the militarization of the conflict, raising concerns about the potential for a broader regional conflagration.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of initiating the hostilities and violating the ceasefire, with each side presenting evidence of aggression by the other. These accusations fueled a cycle of retaliation and further violence, complicating efforts by the international community to broker a ceasefire and return to negotiations.

The humanitarian impact of the 2020 escalation was profound. Civilians living in and around the conflict zone faced bombardment, displacement, and the destruction of their homes and livelihoods. The rapid escalation left many families with no choice but to flee, often under dangerous conditions, seeking safety in less affected areas or in neighboring countries. The displacement crisis added to the already challenging situation of managing the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the vulnerability of affected populations.

International reaction to the renewed fighting was swift, with widespread condemnation of the violence and calls for an immediate ceasefire. Countries and international organizations, including those involved in the Minsk Group, urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to return to the negotiating table and seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. However, achieving a ceasefire proved difficult, as both sides sought to gain or reclaim territory, and mutual distrust hindered efforts to de-escalate the situation.