A thirty-five-year-old war was reignited last week. Hundreds died. Tens of thousands of people may have been displaced. The world was focused on the UN General Assembly and the war in Ukraine, barely noticing. On September 19, Azerbaijan began shelling towns and military bases in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave that has long fought for independence. In less than a day, the self-proclaimed republic was effectively disarmed and forced to surrender. Russian troops ostensibly aimed to prevent this outcome, but in reality offered little resistance. The most generous interpretation of the situation is that they were caught off guard. Least generously, Russia approved the attack, perhaps in exchange for maintaining a military presence in the region.
The Karabakh conflict dates back to 1988. It foreshadowed a dozen other conflicts that would break out in what was then the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Nagorno-Karabakh is legally an autonomous region within Azerbaijan, a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. As Mikhail Gorbachev’s government eases political restrictions, Armenians in Karabakh are demanding the right to secede from Azerbaijan, which they believe is guaranteed by the Soviet constitution. Join Armenia, also a Soviet republic. Moscow rejected the request. Meanwhile, gun battles between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh have sparked violence elsewhere. In February 1988, an anti-Armenian massacre occurred in the town of Sumgait, Azerbaijan, resulting in dozens of deaths. Two years later, a week of anti-Armenian violence in Baku, Azerbaijan’s historically multi-ethnic capital, left dozens dead. Thousands of Armenians have fled Azerbaijan, where their families have lived for generations. Some left on a plane chartered by chess champion Garry Kasparov, perhaps the most famous Azerbaijani Armenian who would also leave his homeland for good.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and its fifteen constituent republics each became a sovereign state. For Karabakh Armenians, this means the disappearance of any legal basis for their separatist aspirations. Nagorno-Karabakh became one of several ethnic enclaves in the post-Soviet region that are fighting for independence from the newly independent states to which they belong – South Ossetia and Abkhazia are trying to secede from Georgia , Transnistria is fighting to separate from Georgia. Moldova and Chechnya want to withdraw from Russia. In the early 1890s, these conflicts turned into a hot war. In all cases outside its borders, Russia supports separatist movements and, in most cases, exploits conflicts to station its own troops in the region. Two decades later, Russia used the same tactics to foment armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh continued until 1994. Both sides engage in ethnic cleansing: the deliberate displacement and killing of people based on their ethnicity. Moscow secretly supports Azerbaijan in the conflict. The war ended with a de facto victory for the Armenians, who were able to establish autonomy over much of the territory they claimed, although no country – not even Armenia – officially recognized Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence. Whether the conflict ended because of the Armenian victory or because Russia was destabilized by its own bloody constitutional crisis, Nagorno-Karabakh is the only conflict zone in the former empire without a Russian military presence.
Over the next three decades, the political paths of Armenia and Azerbaijan, two neighbors inextricably linked by bloodshed and war, diverged. Azerbaijan transitioned from Soviet totalitarianism to post-Soviet dictatorship, with ruling dynasties, censorship, and widespread political repression. Azerbaijan was one of the world’s first oil powers and also became relatively wealthy. It has diplomatic, economic and military ties with neighboring Turkey and Israel, which sees Azerbaijan as an ally in any confrontation with Azerbaijan’s neighbor Iran. Armenia has begun its transition to democracy, at least formally. The transition stalled in October 1999 when a group of gunmen broke into parliament and assassinated nine people, including all leaders of one of the two ruling parties. The leader of the surviving party, Robert Kocharyan, led the country for another decade and his family remained in power until 2018, when the peaceful revolution seemed to usher in a new era. Armenia’s new leader, Nikol Pashinyan, is a former journalist.
In both countries, Nagorno-Karabakh remains the focus of political life. For Azerbaijan, the pain and shame of the 1994 defeat form the core of the national narrative. “Azerbaijan gained its independence at the same time as the war, so Nagorno-Karabakh played an important role in shaping Azerbaijan’s national identity,” Shujat Ahmedzada, an independent Azerbaijani political scientist, told me. “There are memories, there are images of internally displaced people that add to the narrative of injustice suffered. Conflict is very important for retaining and consolidating power.”
In Armenia, a group known as the Karabakh Family held power for much of the post-Soviet period. Kocharyan is the former leader of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armen Martirosyan, an Armenian publisher and long-time political activist, told me that in 2018 he had hoped that Nikol Pashinyan would eventually represent the “peace party.” But even Pashinyan, who was born in 1975, has to claim that his political career began in Nagorno-Karabakh. “Seven of our eight parties are war parties,” Martirosian said.
Both sides continue to arm themselves. The self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh has formed its own armed forces and receives aid and supplies from Armenia. Azerbaijan imports weapons from Israel. “It should not be a surprise to anyone that an oil-rich country with a dictatorial regime is able to assemble a well-trained and cohesive army,” Alexander Cherkasov, a Russian researcher in exile Ethnic conflicts in the area have been documented for years. Thirty-five years old, said. In 2020, Azerbaijan attacked Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting lasted for forty-four days. Thousands died. Azerbaijan regained control of most of the self-proclaimed republic and adjacent territories. Ultimately, Moscow brokered a ceasefire based on the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh. The status of the self-proclaimed republic has not yet been determined, but for now it appears that shrinking Nagorno-Karabakh will continue to govern itself.
Less than fifteen months later, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have flocked to Armenia fleeing political persecution, conscription and Western economic sanctions. Russia’s security guarantees to Armenia are starting to look less reliable, and the price of these guarantees appears to be rising. According to Arman Grigoryan, an Armenian-born political scientist at Lehigh University, Pashinyan launched an “ambitious plan to pull Armenia out of Russia’s orbit.” Pashinyan, apparently counting on Russia’s declining influence in the world and waning interest in the region, has delayed in signing a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, at least one that involves Russia’s participation in the negotiations . He has also not fulfilled one of the obligations Armenia accepted in the 2020 ceasefire agreement: to provide Azerbaijan with a land corridor to Nakhichevan, the country’s enclave on the other side of the Armenian border, 300 miles from Baku. Under the terms of the ceasefire agreement, such a corridor would be controlled by Russian security services. Pashinyan’s reluctance was understandable, but his hopes that Western support would allow him to delay indefinitely proved unfounded. Pashinyan also took some diplomatic — or rather, non-diplomatic — steps that irked Russia. Most recently, he asked the Armenian parliament to ratify the Rome Statute, the founding document of the International Criminal Court, which has indicted Vladimir Putin for alleged war crimes against Ukraine. (Russia, like the United States, has not ratified the Rome Statute.)
Late last year, Azerbaijan began to increase pressure on Nagorno-Karabakh. In December, a blockade was imposed, apparently to cut off the only supply route to the enclave. People found some ways to circumvent it, but as time went on, the situation became more and more dire. Thomas de Waal, a London-based senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Europe who has been documenting the Karabakh conflict for nearly three decades, told me, “Thousands of people are without gas and bread rations have been reduced to two people. “. One hundred grams per day. No matter what you do, you have to walk for miles. Then out of nowhere, they were bombarded. “