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Moment that mattered: Azerbaijan takes control of Nagorno-Karabakh

An Azerbaijani serviceman stands at a former Armenian separatist military position in the village of Mukhtar, Nagorno-Karabakh

An Azerbaijani serviceman stands at a former Armenian separatist military position in the village of Mukhtar, Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

On 19th September Azerbaijan’s troops swept through Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave also known as the Republic of Artsakh. Twenty four hours later, with over 400 people dead, Nagorno-Karabakh’s government capitulated and one of the world’s longest-running conflicts seemingly came to an end. The operation triggered a mass exodus in the region and within two weeks nearly the entire population of Nagorno-Karabakh had fled, citing fears of ethnic cleansing.

Chatham House associate fellow Laurence Broers, who has spent over 20 years attempting to implement peacebuilding initiatives in the region, watched the results of the lightning attack in disbelief. “It’s extremely shocking to see a place that you once knew completely stripped of its human population,” he says. “Shock, but also a sense of failure, that all of the effort put into arriving at a non-violent solution, an equitable and inclusive solution, had failed.”

From the late 1980s tens of thousands have died and over a million have been displaced by the war for Nagorno-Karabakh. During the Soviet Union era the area in the South Caucasus had been an ethnically Armenian province within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. But as communism collapsed, the Armenian Christians in the area sought self-determination and union with Armenia, against the wishes of Azerbaijan and the minority Muslim Azerbaijanis who also lived there. A brutal full-scale conflict, known as the First Nagorno Karabakh War, broke out in 1991, claiming the lives of an estimated 30,000 people with up to a million ethnic Azerbaijanis forcibly displaced and their cities and towns left in ruins.

The war ended in 1994 with an uneasy stalemate. Ethnic Armenians were in de facto charge, but the world largely refused to recognise the government set up in its capital, Stepanakert, and the UN, on several occasions, referred to Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory. Aside from some skirmishes that lasted a few days at most, the situation was largely frozen until 2020 when Azerbaijan launched the Second Karabakh War and won back swathes of territory it lost in the first. Then, in September 2023, after ten months of effectively blockading what was left of the Republic of Artsakh, Azerbaijan took the rest of the territory.

Broers believes that at the start of the 21st century there had still been a chance that a peaceful end to the conflict could be negotiated. There was, he says, an uneasy “strategic equilibrium” between the two sides. But two things changed. Firstly, Ilham Aliyev replaced his father as president of Azerbaijan in 2003. His increasingly autocratic presidency has been shaped by Azerbaijan’s humiliation in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. “An essential part of the historical context is the crushing defeat that Azerbaijan endured in the mid-90s,” says Broers. “There was also the sense of insult being added to injury, because Azerbaijanis felt that the world didn’t listen, wasn’t receptive to their narrative and sided with the Armenians.”

Secondly, as Broers points out, “the Azerbaijan oil boom started.” Azerbaijan had always been oil-rich, but years of underinvestment and the fall of the Soviet Union meant that getting oil out of the country was a problem – until the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline opened in 2006. Aliyev invested much of the resulting riches in Azerbaijan’s military. “Over the following five or six years Azerbaijan’s defence budget doubled and you started to see this military asymmetry increasing,” says Broers. “The last real meeting around which there were any expectations [of a peaceful settlement] was in 2011, in [the Russian city of] Kazan. And I think after that, it was pretty obvious that this was going to turn more violent.”

That violence was on full display during the 2020 war. Azerbaijan, using advanced weaponry and enjoying a huge strategic advantage through drones bought from its key ally Turkey, completely reversed the situation on the ground. It was a watershed moment in international conflict, considered by many to be the first ‘drone war’, in which unmanned vehicles played a vital role in victory and reshaped the political landscape of the region.

Just 50 to 1,000 ethnic Armenians are left in Nagorno-Karabakh, from a population of around 120,000”

“The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War shattered all of our illusions and assumptions that such conflicts would be solved through negotiations,” says Broers. “It also challenged our conceptions of the South Caucasus. We’re so used to thinking of Russia as the dominant power, thinking of the region as a contested neighbourhood between Russia and the west, but what we saw in 2020 was that Turkey is a major player and actually had the capacity to overturn this status quo.”

Russia had approximately 2,000 peacekeepers in the region and after the 2020 war Vladimir Putin had pledged to protect the ceasefire and the ethnic Armenian population. But when Azerbaijani troops attacked in September, the Russian military, perhaps distracted by the ongoing war in Ukraine, chose to step aside. “Russia is seen as having completely betrayed Armenia, having defaulted on all of its obligations and commitments as an alliance partner,” says Broers.

The ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh face an uncertain future as refugees in Armenia, a country that is ill-equipped to help tens of thousands of new arrivals. In early October the UN confirmed that so many people had fled that there are just “50 to 1,000 ethnic Armenians” left in Nagorno-Karabakh, from a population of around 120,000 a month earlier. Save the Children said that a third of the displaced were children, many  of whom showed signs of severe distress after reaching Armenia after three days on the road without food or water.

When Broers visited Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, in October 2023, he found people were scared that Azerbaijan’s advance would not stop at Nagorno-Karabakh but would continue with an outright invasion of Armenia. “There was a feeling of extreme insecurity, that Armenia could be attacked any time now,” he says. “[There was] a huge sense of crisis, weakness, regret, and a rethinking of Armenian statehood, at a time when the state is very weak.”

Azerbaijan has done little to quell these fears, with Aliyev himself making references to Armenia as ‘Western Azerbaijan’. “I think the fears in Armenia are very much justified because this is a Rubicon that’s already been crossed,” says Broers. “In September 2022, Azerbaijan launched large-scale strikes on Armenian targets, many of them deep inside Armenia. We’ve also got the issue that some 200 square kilometres of Armenia’s territory has been taken under Azerbaijani control since May 2021.”

Azerbaijan also wants to secure a land link – the ‘Zangezur corridor’ – to the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, an Azerbaijani exclave that is cut off by the Armenian region of Syunik, an area which is just 25 km wide in places and where close to 150,000 Armenians live. “Azerbaijani forces are positioned in such a way that they could easily cut off the southern Syunik province,” says Broers.

On 1st January 2024 the ethnic Armenian political entity that governed Nagorno-Karabakh will officially be dissolved. Much of its political leadership and elite are in Azerbaijani jails, awaiting trial. How those trials are prosecuted could give a big clue to the future direction of relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and whether the feeling of existential dread in Yerevan is justified. “There’s going to be a spectacle and that may be aimed at putting the whole Nagorno-Karabakh project on trial,” says Broers. “The notion that these are terrorists and absolutely beyond the legal pale isn’t accurate. The risk is that this basically plays as victor’s justice. But they will be very powerful images supporting the narrative of a victorious Azerbaijan. The temptations to benefit from that by Azerbaijan’s elite are going to be huge. And it will leave an open wound.”

The question is whether further escalating the conflict between the two nations would be in Azerbaijan’s interests. “I think anyone who has underestimated worst-case scenarios in recent history has been proven wrong,” says Broers. “But if Aliyev invades Armenia he becomes Putin. The risks to Azerbaijan are far more considerable than they were in the escalations we’ve seen in Nagorno-Karabakh. Is this Zangezur corridor really worth it to risk all of the potential implications of an interstate invasion? But many people said the same thing about Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #52 of Delayed Gratification

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