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In-Focus: Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

Kartikeya Baid

A brief Explainer on Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

19 Oct 2023

Nestled in the South Caucasus region, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict has long remained a flashpoint in the heart of Eurasia, capturing the world's attention with its intricate blend of history, geopolitics, and unresolved grievances. This ongoing clash between Azerbaijan and Armenia is a testament to the complexities of international relations and the enduring legacy of historical animosities.

At its core, the conflict revolves around the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan's borders. Over the decades, tensions have erupted into full-blown wars and ceasefires, leaving a trail of devastation and heartache. Both sides lay claim to this land, each invoking historical narratives and geopolitical alliances to support their cause.

In this piece, we will embark on a journey to decipher the multifaceted layers of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. We will explore its historical roots, the geopolitical chessboard on which it plays out, and the profound impact it has on the lives of those caught in its crossfire. Join us as we delve into the intricate narratives and critical events that have shaped this enduring conflict in the South Caucasus.

Origin of Tensions

  • The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in the South Caucasus, traces its roots back to medieval era power tussles in Europe. This mountainous land, located in the southern part of the Lesser Caucasus range, has seen various powers vie for control for centuries. It was part of Armenian kingdoms and principalities during the middle ages, followed by periods under different khanates and melikdoms.

  • Direct Russian rule entered the equation in 1823, when the region came to be known as Nagorno-Karabakh, meaning "Mountainous Karabakh" in Russian. Tensions between the newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan flared up when the Russian Empire dissolved in 1918. Both nations laid claim to the territory they saw as historically and ethnically theirs, resulting in the Armenian-Azerbaijani War (1918–1920).The conflict only abated when both Armenia and Azerbaijan were annexed by the Soviet Union. During the Soviet era in the 1920s, Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-majority Armenian region, was placed under Azerbaijani control, a decision that sowed the seeds of future conflict.

  • The late 1980s saw a resurgence of tensions as the Soviet Union began to collapse. Nagorno-Karabakh's regional parliament voted to become part of Armenia, leading to ethnic clashes. After both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence from Moscow, a full-scale war erupted in the early 1990s. This devastating conflict resulted in tens of thousands of casualties, ethnic cleansing, and mass displacement. The 1994 ceasefire brokered by Russia brought a temporary halt to the hostilities, with Armenian forces maintaining control over Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the region remained a constant source of tension, marked by occasional escalations, culminating in the second Ngoro-Karabakh war of 2020.

Tug of War: Role of Russia and Turkey

  • In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, both Turkey and Russia have assumed influential roles, albeit with differing objectives and approaches, shaping the complex dynamics of the region.

  • Russia, as a long-standing regional power with historical ties to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been deeply involved in the conflict. It has consistently acted as a mediator between the two sides, leveraging its co-chairmanship of the OSCE Minsk Group, along with the United States and France, to facilitate peace talks and negotiations. Over the years, these diplomatic efforts have resulted in multiple ceasefires and dialogues aimed at resolving the conflict. Moreover, Russia has historically supplied arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, maintaining influence through arms sales while inadvertently contributing to the military buildup in the region. Notably, Russia's deployment of peacekeeping forces following the 2020 war solidified its role as a guarantor of stability in the South Caucasus.

  • Turkey, on the other hand, has adopted a more assertive stance, particularly in support of Azerbaijan. Diplomatically, Turkey has consistently voiced unwavering support for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and has actively participated in peace talks. However, its most significant impact has been on the military front. During the 2020 conflict, Turkey provided extensive support to Azerbaijan, including military advisors, equipment, and advanced drone technology. This military backing significantly enhanced Azerbaijan's capabilities and tilted the balance of power in its favour during the conflict.

  • These two contrasting roles highlight a key dichotomy in the international response to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Russia's more balanced approach, involving mediation and arms sales to both parties, versus Turkey's unequivocal support for Azerbaijan, accompanied by substantial military assistance. This complex interplay between regional powers and their strategic interests underscores the intricate and multifaceted nature of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where geopolitical dynamics intertwine with historical grievances and territorial disputes, shaping the ongoing struggle for influence and control in the South Caucasus.

The Second Ngoro-Karabakh War

  • Spanning six weeks from September 27 to November 9, the war unfolded across a vast theatre of operation, extending approximately 200 kilometres along the line of contact and encompassing areas beyond, such as the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and the Nakhchivan exclave. It featured intense artillery barrages, missile strikes, drone warfare, ground operations, and urban combat. Notably, civilian areas and infrastructure were deliberately targeted by both sides, resulting in a regrettable toll on non-combatants.

  • The conflict's inception can be attributed to Azerbaijan's large-scale offensive, supported by Turkey and bolstered by Syrian mercenaries, with the objective of reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories held by Armenia since the conclusion of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994. Azerbaijan leveraged its superior military capabilities, economic resources, and advanced weaponry, including drones and electronic warfare systems, to gain the upper hand in the conflict.

  • Culminating in a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement on November 9, the war represented a resounding triumph for Azerbaijan, enabling the recovery of approximately 15 percent of its territory that had been occupied by Armenia for nearly three decades. Moreover, Azerbaijan re-established its access to the Nakhchivan exclave through a corridor in southern Armenia, a corridor backed by Turkey and Russia. The conflict bolstered the standing of President Ilham Aliyev and fostered closer Azerbaijani-Turkish ties. Under the terms of the agreement, Azerbaijan retained control of territories it had captured during the war, and Armenia was mandated to withdraw from several surrounding districts by December 13. The accord also introduced a Russian peacekeeping contingent of around 2,000 troops tasked with monitoring the situation and safeguarding a vital land corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Conversely, Armenia experienced a devastating defeat in the war, relinquishing much of its sway over Nagorno-Karabakh and enduring heavy human and material losses. The conflict precipitated mass protests and political upheaval within Armenia, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in June 2021. It also underscored Armenia's geopolitical isolation and reliance on Russia, which opted not to intervene militarily but instead mediated a ceasefire on its terms.

  • Beyond its immediate disputed territory of Ngoro-Karabakh, the war had far-reaching ramifications. Turkey emerged as a prominent regional actor and potential security provider for Azerbaijan, while Russia sustained its role as a mediator and peacekeeper. Iran, which shares borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, maintained a position of non-alignment, offering its services for dialogue facilitation. In contrast, the United States, France, and other Western nations played a limited role and had minimal impact on the war's outcome.


Amidst the intricate web of historical rivalries, geopolitical interests, and vested concerns that typify modern geopolitical conflicts, we must not forget the paramount consideration: the countless human lives ensnared within this turmoil. In the realm of global power plays, it is often the faceless, voiceless individuals who bear the heaviest toll in lives and livelihoods.

In the aftermath of the 2020 ceasefire, a grim reality loomed – countless people displaced from their homes, robbed of their sense of belonging, and bereft of loved ones. It is the moral obligation of the international community, comprising not only nations with vested interests but also individuals who hold the sanctity of human life dear, to acknowledge and address this conflict.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is complex and chaotic, but it offers an opportunity to prioritize humanity over power games, to mitigate further destruction of lives and spirits, and to strive for a future where the true cost of conflict is measured not in geopolitical gains but in the preservation of human dignity and peace. One must remember, as Sun Tzu noted two and a half millennia back;

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity

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