The Regional and Global Effects of the Azerbaijan-Armenia Conflict

Protesters gather in front of the Azerbaijani consulate in Los Angeles, California.

Fighting erupted in late September between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, with reports suggesting at least 23 people were killed and hundreds wounded. The clash is the latest border skirmish over who can claim the disputed region. Although Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, an overwhelming ethnic Armenian majority reside in the enclave and have controlled the regional congress since 1994. The fighting has persisted since the first civil war over the territory in 1988. Still, casualties have not reached current levels since the mid-1990s.

There are reports of long-range missile attacks, drone strikes, and exchanges of fire along the border. In recent days, both countries have been taking shots at each other’s missile complexes, with Azerbaijan claiming to have destroyed an Armenian missile system. Other allegations include missiles fired at a hospital in Armenia and an Armenian scheme to target oil and gas pipelines in Azerbaijan. Near the border, mortars were fired, and armed drones have been intentionally crashed. While the death toll is the highest in almost three decades, the long history between Armenia and Azerbaijan precedes the current fighting. 

The countries of Azerbaijan and Armenia are nestled together amongst the Caucasus region in the east of Europe. As the Soviet Union began to form in the 1920s, both modern-day Armenia and Azerbaijan were invaded and became part of the overarching USSR. 

Directly before the invasion, the independent congress in Nagorno-Karabakh voted that the region be part of Armenia. However, after Armenia’s Sovietization, the USSR had complete control over Armenian land, and Stalin quickly reversed the congress’ decision. In 1921, he decided that the Nagorno-Karabakh region would be run as an autonomous nation, housed inside the Azerbaijan SSR. Therefore, Armenia’s geographical claim to the area had been seized, leaving only legal jurisdiction up most of ethnic Armenians in the population and the congress.

In the decades after, the Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh demanded the region be recognized as a part of Armenia. However, only as the USSR began to topple down in the 1980s when the regional Congress of Nagorno-Karabakh officially voted once more to become Armenian territory. Armenia endorsed the subsequent separatist movement. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, maintained that the Nagorno-Karabakh region was under its control. With the USSR pressuring the countries to halt the burgeoning violent conflict along the border, only when Armenia and Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991 did the skirmishes explode into full war.

The result was brutal. Reports of large scale ethnic cleansings and massacres were reported on both sides. One million people were displaced, and tens of thousands of soldiers and citizens lost their lives. Armenia had gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh by the end when a Russian-brokered peace deal went into effect and temporarily ended the fighting. At that point, a de facto independence was declared by a separatist government in the region. Since the peace deal, Nagorno-Karabakh has been run by an independent government of ethnic Armenians backed by the country of Armenia.

The current turmoil is distinct from previous violence as regional powers, namely Turkey and Russia, have pledged support to Azerbaijan and Armenia, respectively. As a NATO member, Turkey was the first country to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. Turkey and Azerbaijan have an incredibly close diplomatic relationship as they share Turkic culture and other ethnic and religious similarities. For years, Azerbaijan has been receiving support from Turkey in guns, military drones, and a plethora of other military weapons. Turkey recently supplied hundreds of Turkish-backed Syrian soldiers to aid Azerbaijan in the newest conflict.

Armenia has been an official Russian ally since 1992. While Russia and Armenia do not share a border, Russia is a longtime supporter of Armenia in the Caucasus region. Additionally, Russia and Armenia are both a part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, composed of  former USSR countries, which Armenia could call on for military support. Armenia also hosts a large Russian military base, characterized by Armenia’s President Armen Sarkissian, as a critical bulwark against a possible Turkish invasion. Additional support this time around includes a small supply of discounted weapons and missile batteries that Armenia had not had access to in the past. Despite these new benefits, Russia has not been doing as much as possible to give Armenia an upper hand in the conflict. The lack of support is partly due to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s fierce nationalist rhetoric and his long-standing refusal to negotiate with Azerbaijan. Pashinyan’s actions and words could prove catastrophic for Armenia if they continue to dissuade Russia from offering essential aid.

The ramifications of the most recent border skirmish will take the form of lives lost, mass displacement, and the infrastructure destruction on both sides. The well-established alliances between Azerbaijan and Turkey and Armenia and Russia have extended the conflict, and the coalitions will continue to affect the timeline going forward. With the rhetoric from both sides growing exponentially, the prospects for a peaceful resolution continue to grow dimmer. Momentarily, the most optimistic scenario is that both countries resume the tense disagreement over the territory and make another attempt at negotiating. If not, the consequences could include large-scale warfare involving four military powerhouses across two regions in Europe.

Photo from Shutterstock.

By Max Boesch-Powers