The Origins of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

Last update: October 28th 2022

The 2020 War between Armenia and Azerbaijan caught the attention of millions of people around the world. It was an explosion of a 30-year-old frozen conflict, with its roots dating back to the 20th century. Even today the countries are, unfortunately, far from being friendly as demonstrated by the 2022 attacks of Azerbaijan on Armenia. In this article, I will try to explain a century of events that led to the current ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The Origins

The conflict can be traced back to 1918 when the Russian Empire (1823-1918), which ruled over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, dissolved. For many decades Armenia and Azerbaijan argued to whom a certain region, called Nagorno Karabakh, belonged. However, historical accounts and data confirm the majority Armenian population. Below is the border of the 1918-1921 First Armenian Republic, according to the treaty of Sevres.

The area in white was populated by Armenians inside the Ottoman Empire before the Armenian Genocide saw them massacred and was never returned to Armenia. The areas in yellow were claimed but not controlled by Armenia, while the area in orange was both. Importantly, the blue circle is Nagorno Karabakh, properly part of Armenia at the time. In the following paragraphs, I will show how the pre-soviet dissolution territory of Armenia came to be, which will help with explaining the modern conflict.

The Turkish-Armenian War

After the 1920 treaty of Sevres collapsed, the newly formed Turkish State, with what was left of its army after the capitulation to the allied powers attacked the western front of Armenia, killing another 100,000 and capturing the western territories of Armenia. This further antagonized the already poor relationships, and to this day Turkey and Armenia still have not reconciled. Additionally, Georgia broke its neutrality and captured the area around Lori.

The Soviet Era

In 1921 the rise of the Soviet Union saw Armenia and Azerbaijan both occupied and integrated into it as Soviet Socialist Republics, which is said to have prevented another Armenian genocide committed by the Turkish state. To try to appease the newly formed Turkish state, the Soviets signed the treaty of Kars, which confirmed Armenia’s territorial losses during the war, and the now Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic (area in red) was ceded from Armenia to Azerbaijan (Turkey’s closest ally). 

The Transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh

Initially, Nagorno-Karabakh was confirmed to be a part of Armenia SSR. However, the decision was reversed, for unclear reasons, and the territory was ceded to Azerbaijan with an “Autonomous Oblast” status. Armenians, however, were not content with the decision which led to decades of tensions between the nations, especially since Azerbaijan was reluctant to grant the “oblast” its autonomous status. These tensions peaked after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which started the Armenian – Azerbaijan war. Before moving on, an important fact that I’d like to point out as witnessed above is that decisions by world powers were always made against the interests of Armenia, the reasons for which are unclear at best.

The Soviet Collapse

Just before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the population of the region voted strongly for being integrated into Armenia. However, the referendum was boycotted by Azerbaijanis. Tensions and clashes between the ethnic groups started to grow and became increasingly violent. In 1988, the parliament of the region voted to unify with Armenia but Azerbaijan, after declaring its independence from Soviet Russia, did not support it and removed the enclave’s government. This led to the declaration of independence of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and fueled the 1992 beginning of the war.

The First Nagorno Karabakh War

1992 saw the beginning of a full-scale war between the Armenian population in Nagorno Karabakh, backed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenians, while being outnumbered and outgunned, emerged victorious, captured territories outside the enclave fully connecting it to Armenia, and threatened to push deeper into Azerbaijan. In 1994 a Russian-brokered ceasefire put an end to the conflict and established the de facto borders of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.

The Interwar Era

Between 1994 and 2020 a set of skirmishes along the border and a shift in the power laid a path to what would be the second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Azerbaijan discovered oil in the Caspian sea, which saw heavy investment coming from transnational companies around the globe and the economy started to grow exponentially. In the meantime, corruption and border closures by Turkey prevented Armenia’s economy from matching the growth of its rivals. A significant escalation was the 4-day war in 2016, where Azerbaijan decided to resolve the matter by force. However, they were largely unsuccessful as the territorial gains were insignificant, falling somewhere in the range of 8-20 square kilometers.

The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War

On September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale invasion of the entire border of Nagorno-Karabakh, wrongly citing it as an answer to “provocations” from the Armenian side. Azerbaijan had purchased a sizeable amount of Turkish and Israeli drones, which proved decisive throughout the war. Armenia, on the other hand, relied on outdated soviet technology. Armenia is part of the CSTO, a Russian-led military alliance, and made an appeal requesting their assistance. However, Russia refused under the premise that “the attack was not on Armenia proper, thus not part of the agreement”. Throughout the 44 days of the war, Azerbaijan slowly advanced through many Armenian defensive lines, with the decisive moment being the capture of Shushi. Shushi is the second largest city in the region and is located on a mountain just 15km away from the capital Stepanakert. With the capture of it, the capture of Stepanakert was imminent which led to another Russian-brokered ceasefire signed on November 9, 2020.

The Ceasefire Agreement

The terms of the agreement demonstrated Azerbaijan as the decisive winner in the conflict. All of the surrounding areas of Nagorno Karabakh  (shown in dark green) were handed back to them, while they also kept the amount of Nagorno Karabakh proper which they captured during the war (shown in blue, white dotted line). Russian peacekeepers were deployed at the border to ensure stability in the region, and a small corridor (shown in purple) was provided to Armenia connecting it to Nagorno-Karabakh. The map is shown below.

The 2022 Major Escalation

After the war, there were some skirmishes at the border, with the major escalation happening on September 12, 2022. The reason cited by Azerbaijan was Armenian provocation, however, it was largely disproved by any third parties. The real cause is believed to be Armenia’s noncompliance with one of the 2020 ceasefire agreements, where they had to provide a corridor within Armenia connecting Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan. During the 2-day war, there were about 200 Armenian and 80 Azerbaijani casualties, with the latter capturing a part of Armenia proper.

Conclusion

This article provides a comprehensive summary of the events that led to the current ongoing conflict between the two states, trying to clarify the surrounding uncertainty. The world needs to be aware that this is only one of the thousands of ongoing conflicts in the world that are not receiving media attention due to their biased nature.

Leonard Khudaverdyan

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