The Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Explained

By Adam DuBard

In the early morning of September 27, 2020, Azerbaijanian military forces launched a surprise attack into the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a disputed territory between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Although tensions flared in July, the suddenness and intensity of this war have taken many around the world by surprise. In less than a month of fighting, almost 100 civilians and 800 soldiers have been killed, with many experts in the region confident that the actual tolls are far higher. More than 70,000 civilians, around half of the region’s population, have fled, and human rights observers have confirmed the use of cluster munitions, which are illegal under international law. Just what has caused the outbreak of this intense conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan? 

The Nagorno-Karabakh region, although located within Azerbaijan’s geographical territory, has a majority ethnic Armenian population. During the years of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh was an Armenian-ruled autonomous region within Azerbaijan. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region fell into conflict as both Armenia and Azerbaijan battled for control over this territory. During this war from 1991-1994, over 20,000 were killed. Armenia ultimately gained control over Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh, as it is known to Armenians, despite the territory being internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. 

So why have tensions only now erupted into a full-scale conflict? SAIS Russian Professor Ruzanna Danielian, born and raised in Armenia, has some insight into the current conflict. She believes that Azerbaijan is attempting to capitalize on the current widespread instability across the world to take back territory it sees as rightly theirs. As Professor Danielian highlighted, many of the world’s traditional international powers and conflict mediators are preoccupied with their own issues, ranging from spiking COVID-19 cases to internal elections. However, regional power Turkey has committed to the fight, sending fighters to assist Azerbaijan, with whom they share both religious and ethnic ties.

Lilit Makaryan, born in late-Soviet Armenia and is the great-granddaughter of the Armenian Genocide survivors, echoed several of Professor Danielian’s thoughts. “The 20th century began with World War I and the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek genocide, which resulted in the mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians … just like before, the world is turning a blind eye to this situation. Throughout its history as one of the oldest countries in the world, my country has always fought for its rightful place and existence, and the fact that it’s happening in the 21st century with the whole world watching and not doing anything is sad and beyond frustrating,” she lamented when describing the current conflict. 

Although, as Thomas de Waal, an expert on the region for more than 25 years, notes, “No one has a monopoly on truth in the dispute. Each side has legitimate and passionately held claims to justice.” During the war in the early 90s, Armenia also captured seven Azerbaijani districts outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, forcibly displacing over 500,000. Although initially described as a temporary “buffer zone,” Armenia has instead held on to the territory and allowed 17,000 Armenian settlers to move into these regions. 

In a conflict this complex, coming to an acceptable resolution can be quite elusive. However, the foreign ministers from both countries have agreed to meet separately with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the White House on October 23rd in an attempt to hammer out an agreement. “The resolution of that conflict ought to be done through negotiation and peaceful discussions, not through armed conflict,“ Secretary Pompeo remarked. 

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