Ankara, Turkey – On September 27 Armenian attacks and explosions shook Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh). It’s a mountainous region between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
And the center of a relentless dispute between these countries; Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but was occupied by Armenia in a war almost 30 years ago. Both country’s armies have been dug in along this line ever since. Fighting occasionally broke out but usually died down.
This time was different than the previous conflicts. Fierce fighting erupted on September 27, 2020 and quickly became a full-scale war. Both sides were accused of bombing civilian areas in the region. Thousands of people died, including 100 civilians. Then, in a sudden and dramatic turn in this decades old conflict, Armenia surrendered.
A ceasefire was signed on November 9 and Azerbaijan declared victory. So what sparked this war? And what does the ceasefire mean for this fiercely contested place? Nagorno-Karabakh is in the Caucuses, between Europe and Asia.
Historically, its population has been mostly ethnic Azeri Turks with a substantial Armenian minority. It’s dotted with medieval Azeri Turkish mosques and Armenian churches, has always had this strong Azeri Turkish population.
And to complicate things, in the 18th century, a kind of very big, important Azerbaijani town, the citadel of Shusha, was founded right in the middle of this territory.
So this was a region that was incredibly important both to Armenians and to Azerbaijanis. But for most of the 19th century, it was ruled by the Russian Empire. After the Empire fell, in 1918, ethnic Armenians and Azeris formed new countries: Armenia and Azerbaijan. And they immediately fought over this region. But just three years later, Russian Soviets conquered the entire Caucuses.
The soviets eventually made Armenia and Azerbaijan “republics” within the Soviet Union and drew new borders. And they made Nagorno-Karabakh a semi-autonomous region in the Azerbaijani Republic, because its majority-Azeri Turks population.
Ethnic Armenians there frequently asked to join the Armenian Republic, but were denied. This was the Soviet Union. There was no democracy. There was no dialogue. The kind of problem festered for all those years. Still, there weren’t signs of war until the Soviet Union began to loosen its grip. In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union announced a new policy, called glasnost, that gave its people more political freedoms.
But it had unintended consequences. Glasnost has given people freedom not only to create but to hate. Ancient feuds erupting such as the one between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
In 1988, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh passed a referendum to leave the Azerbaijan Republic, reviving the conflict. In Armenia, people rallied for unification. While in Azerbaijan, people responded with counter-protests.
Violence soon erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh. As the Soviet Union fell apart, Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence, escalating the conflict into a war. About 20,000 people died. And over 1 million were forced to flee their homes in the region. Fighting raged for 3 more years, until Armenia finally won.
In 1994, both sides signed a ceasefire agreement, freezing the conflict. Armenia occupied several pieces of Azerbaijan. As well as Nagorno-Karabakh, which was still legally recognized as part of Azerbaijan even though it had declared itself an autonomous region at the start of the war. This occupation displaced hundreds of thousands of Azeri Turks from their homes. The deal was brokered by Russia, who was a formal ally to Armenia but also had a good relationship with Azerbaijan.
Russia’s role has always been a bit ambiguous here. Because although they are the main mediator, they’ve had their own agenda, which is to keep their influence in the region and if possible, get Russian troops back on the ground.
While Russia was not able to send troops as part of the deal in 1994, it did end up leading a new international group, with France and the US to try and find a permanent solution to the conflict.
But Armenia and Azerbaijan refused to settle. Instead, Armenia renamed formerly Azeri towns and repopulated them with ethnic Armenians. While its leaders called for it to be officially unified with Armenia.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan planned a comeback. From 2008 to 2019, it spent $24 billion on its military. Six times more than Armenia. All the while reiterating its claim to Nagorno-Karabakh. On the ground, both countries maintained a military presence along the front lines. Where skirmishes broke out occasionally.
In 2016, they fought a war that lasted 4 days. So people called this a frozen conflict. But it was in no way a frozen conflict. It was a smoldering conflict. And it reignited when another country suddenly intervened.
In the past few years, Turkey has increasingly intervened in conflicts around the region, in order to tilt the outcomes in its favor. By sending troops into the Syrian civil war, it captured a swath of territory along its border in 2019.
And in 2020, its troops have turned the tide of the Libyan civil war in favor of the government, who is helping Turkey legalize valuable natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean.
These are also ways for Turkey to push back against its major rival, Russia, who is also fighting in both conflicts. So in July 2020, when skirmishes broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey saw an opportunity and threw its support behind Azerbaijan, whose majority Azeri-population is a Turkish ethnic group.
Azerbaijan is probably the closest country there is to Turkey. The two languages are extremely close. There was even talk of one nation and two states. And they also wanted to kind of on a crude level, have a thumb in the eye for Russia. In August, the two held joint military exercises in Azerbaijan. And Turkey’s supply of weapons to Azerbaijan dramatically surged, which included advanced drones.
In case Armenia first attacks Azerbaijan, this counter-Armenian attack has strategically been planned in Azerbaijan. And so with Turkey’s support, when Armenia first attacked Azerbaijan on September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan launched its counter-attack. In just over a week, Azerbaijani soldiers had pushed at least 20 kilometers into Armenian-held occupied territory.
A few weeks later in 44 days, they advanced further into Nagorno-Karabakh, and also got close to the Armenian border. Even Armenia wasn’t able to resist against Azerbaijan in fight. Armenia fought back but was nearly defenseless against Azerbaijan’s deadly drones. Then, on November 8, Azerbaijan won its biggest victory. It captured the historic city of Shusha, just 15 kilometers from the capital, Khankendi.
That’s when Armenia agreed to surrender. The ceasefire agreement that ended the war. The ceasefire agreement that ended the war dramatically reshapes who controls Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan will keep what it captured and take over this part from Armenia. Russia didn’t intervene in the war, but brokered this deal which calls for 2,000 of its troops to serve there as peacekeepers.
Russia obviously had its ideas about how to end this conflict with Russian peacekeepers. And certainly didn’t rush to help Armenia. Turkey also gains a foothold here.
The deal calls for the construction of a road here, which would give Turkey access to Azerbaijan. Plus, in agreement with Russia, Turkey will now send its own peacekeeping troops to the region. So while Azerbaijan is celebrating and Turkey and Russia won strategic rewards, Armenia is in turmoil.
After the deal was announced, mobs stormed government buildings in the capital and called for the removal of the Prime Minister. Armenia, is in a huge state of trauma. It’s going to take a long time for it to recover from this. And the political crisis, is going to be ongoing for a long time in Armenia.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, ethnic Armenians in newly-captured areas may peacefully be living in their homes. But, some have already burned their homes before leaving. While Azeri Turks who fled during the previous war in 1990s, could make their way back to their homes. Ultimately, the agreement does nothing to end the hostility between the two countries. It is much more a deal than it is a peace.