Escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

ZOiS Spotlight 36/2020 by Nadja Douglas (7 October 2020)

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has culminated in military attacks from both sides since September. The picture shows a destroyed shop in Stepanakert. © Sergei Bobylev / imago images / ITAR-TASS

Since September, brutal clashes have erupted again between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh. The self-proclaimed republic, which is unrecognised by the international community, is formally part of Azerbaijan under international law but its territory and  several surrounding provinces, have been controlled and populated by Armenia since a brutal war in the early 1990s. It is unclear how, exactly, the fighting began. According to external observers, both sides are engaged in targeted disinformation campaigns. However, judging from expert reports and a dispassionate analysis of the underlying motives, it is safe to assume that the offensive was launched by Azerbaijan. While acceptable to Armenia, the status quo no longer appears tolerable to Baku. After just a few days of fighting, hundreds of soldier and civilian lives had been lost, with even higher numbers of injured on both sides. Both governments have imposed martial law on all or part of the country and called for a general or partial troop mobilisation. They have also accused each other of deploying mercenaries from the conflict zones of Syria and Libya, a claim which has been confirmed by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

In recent days, cities and villages in Karabakh itself and on Azerbaijani territory have increasingly come under heavy artillery fire and missile attacks. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan are accusing each other of war crimes and have stated their respective conditions for a ceasefire and possible negotiations.

This conflict, often described as “frozen”, has already claimed at least 30,000 lives and created around one million refugees and displaced persons, making it one of the most violent conflicts in the post-Soviet space. It is also one of the main reasons for the lack of integration and cooperation in the region. However, the violence did not start with the collapse of the Soviet Union: the territory of what is now Nagorno-Karabakh has been disputed for millennia, and control over it has constantly shifted. Pogroms and massacres by both sides attest to the ethnic faultlines and deep wounds that have left their mark on both countries’ historical and national narratives to this day, intermingled with justified historical claims to the region.

What sparked the escalation?

There were repeated signs of growing tension in recent months, with the first serious clashes since the April War in 2016 occurring in July. Since then, there have been numerous provocations by both sides, although it was mainly Armenia that increasingly got under the skin of the Azerbaijani leadership. First, the chair of Armenia’s Security Council announced the construction of a third road connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. This was followed by a decision by the Armenian leadership to settle Armenian refugee families from Lebanon in Nagorno-Karabakh and neighbouring provinces. Then Arayik Harutyunyan, elected new President of the unrecognised republic in spring, announced that the National Assembly of the de facto state will move from Stepanakert, the capital, to Shushi, 10 km further south, which was the centre of the Azerbaijani population in Nagorno-Karabakh for more than a century. Azerbaijan, for its part, has been seeking ever-closer relations with Turkey of late and took part in joint military exercise with the Turkish armed forces at the end of July.

There are numerous indications that for Baku, the time seemed ripe for a revisiting of the status quo that had existed since 1994. Some weeks before the outbreak of violence along the line of contact, Azerbaijan was calling up reservists and confiscating private pick-ups; it also published a list of provocations by the Armenian side. By July 2020, President Aliyev was coming under intense pressure to follow up his words with action.

After the Velvet Revolution in 2018, Baku had high hopes of Armenia’s new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, for unlike his predecessors, he had no direct connections with Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashinyan initially seemed to be willing to press on with negotiations; however, faced with growing domestic pressure, with some factions within the opposition and the old elite repeatedly accusing him of unpatriotic behaviour, his rhetoric gained in stridency. He rejected a step-by-step solution to the conflict and in 2019, demanded that the negotiating format be modified and the de facto regime in Nagorno-Karabakh be brought back to the table.

Failed international mediation

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is a tragic illustration of the structural problems affecting international conflict mediation by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on the territory of the former Soviet Union. For many years, the international mediators had reconciled themselves to maintaining the conflict in a semi-frozen – although far from peaceful – state. There is still no international observer mission to monitor the line of contact. The public is therefore entirely reliant on information from the conflict parties, which by its very nature is not always objective.

Since 1992, numerous attempts have been made in various rounds of negotiations to bring about a solution. Over time, however, it has become increasingly apparent that two fundamental principles of international law – Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, on the one hand, and the right of national self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, on the other – are difficult to reconcile. In early 2020, a series of OSCE-facilitated talks between the two foreign ministries took place in Geneva; however, the conflict parties proved increasingly unwilling to embrace any kind of compromise.

Quite the contrary: over time, both have steadily ramped up their military rhetoric and their weapons stockpiles. It is this high degree of militarisation that makes the present conflict so dangerous, and it is the reason why the international community should be using all the means still at its disposal to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. However, it appears that the European Union, the United Nations and the OSCE Minsk Group, all of which have called for an immediate ceasefire, now have little leverage. The dominant external actors in the region today are Russia and Turkey.

Turkey – fuelling the conflict?

Russia is attempting to bring both sides back to the table; however, over the years, it has lost credibility as a mediator, largely because the Kremlin continues to supply arms to both sides in the conflict. Baku presumably feels reassured by Russia’s constant shifting of position, especially given that Russia – unlike Turkey in relation to Azerbaijan – has not thrown its weight fully behind Armenia and would possibly even be willing to accept Yerevan’s defeat and hence Pashinyan’s ousting from power. Given that both Russia and Turkey have repeatedly added fuel to the conflict, the prospects are dim. At present, however, it is mainly Turkey that is the catalyst behind the conflict escalation, with the Turkish Defence Ministry pledging military aid to Azerbaijan during the squirmishes as well as the joint military exercises in July. But this time round, Turkey’s pledge of support goes further. In response to individual declarations by the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, Ankara made it clear that their call for a ceasefire were unacceptable in light of recent events, reaffirming that “if something is desired, then the occupiers must leave those lands in order to achieve results”. This statement is illustrative of Turkey’s isolation and its pursuit of its own agenda in which domestic policy factors, economic motives and growing aspirations for status form a toxic mix. There is broad consensus among observers that it is the local actors themselves, in this instance, who ultimately hold the key to conflict resolution in the region.


Nadja Douglas is a political scientist and a researcher at ZOiS.