The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, explained

Armenia and Azerbaijan disputed region
Emily Murphy

Emily Murphy

3rd November 2020

Beginning research on the current Armenian-Azerbaijani war, I had no idea how little I actually knew. I was aware that there had been a surge in missile strikes reported on both sides, that civilian deaths were in the hundreds, and that the conflict was centred around the Nagorno-Karabakh mountain region. On top of the gaps in my knowledge, most importantly, I knew nobody was talking about it, and most people I had spoken to didn’t even know that there was anything to discuss. We live in a globalised world with access to more information than ever before, yet only a few hours away people are suffering and dying at an unfathomable rate without our knowledge. I assume that the lack of awareness is generated through current global obsessions on rising Covid-19 cases and the upcoming US election that’s dominating news feeds. Perhaps a less obvious reason is that this conflict is old news. While the resurgence is relatively new, the conflict is a continuation of a previous war. This probably explains why my mother’s generation vaguely remembers the fighting and my generation had almost no idea what was happening. So here it is, a breakdown of the current situation, how it unfolded, how it seems to be progressing, and if there is a solution in sight.


We must first of all keep in mind that this is not a new conflict, in fact, the current struggle has been ongoing for more than 32 years. The origins of tension can be traced back almost three millennia, when (despite disputes by Azerbaijani historians) a variety of Armenian kingdoms were established in the vicinity. The mountain region was at times ruled by the Turks, Persians, the Ottoman Empire, and later by the Russian Empire. Throughout the early 19th century respective people lived somewhat peacefully in Transcaucasia (modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia). However, during the First World War tensions began to rise, as many Armenians fled to Russian occupied territories to escape persecution from the Ottoman Empire. As the Muslim population (who would later become Azerbaijani citizens) identified themselves as Turks and held allegiance with the Ottoman Empire, a deep sense of mistrust grew between them and the remaining Armenian Christians.


In May 1918, three months after clashes within Transcaucasia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia declared their independence. The region now referred to as Nagorno-Karabakh was, and remains, home to an Armenian ethnic majority, however, at the time of independence the region lay along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. As the Armenian state had only just been established, it was unwilling to exacerbate tensions with Azerbaijan who to this day have strong ties and support from Turkey. In 1919, after the Ottoman troops withdrew from the region, the British stepped in, attempting to convince the Armenians to surrender the area to Azerbaijan. This was by no means an attempt to create peace, the British were simply trying to develop an alliance with Azerbaijan to protect their access to oil in the Caspian Sea.


In 1920, Armenia launched an attack that was quickly quashed by Azerbaijan, who retaliated with force, all but destroying the Nagorno-Karabakh capital. This event sparked riots that led to the deaths of possibly thousands of people. The war ended when the Bolsheviks gained control of both countries. However, they only complicated matters further when Soviet officials redrew the map enclosing the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous zone in Azerbaijan but pushing the border several miles into Armenia. At this point, the autonomous zone in Azerbaijan was home to 94% ethnic Armenians.


“We must first of all keep in mind that this is not a new conflict, in fact, the current struggle has been ongoing for more than 32 years. The origins of tension can be traced back almost three millennia, when (despite disputes by Azerbaijani historians) a variety of Armenian kingdoms were established in the vicinity.”

While the regions were under Soviet control there were no open conflicts and only a few ethnic clashes, but nothing like what the area had seen before. During this period, Armenian leaders regularly petitioned Moscow to return Nagorno-Karabakh to them, all of which were denied. In 1988 after large-scale demonstrations in Yerevan, local authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh requested to be rejoined with Armenia. In January 1990, in Baku, Azerbaijani nationalists killed dozens of Armenians. As tensions in the region continued to grow, the Soviet army was sent to regain control, but this only intensified the situation. Clashes between the two sides became commonplace and several hundreds of people were killed.


After the fall of the USSR, war broke out in the region, and in the summer of 1994, the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, with the support of Armenia, occupied several towns in Azerbaijan and broke through to the Armenian border. While successful in theory, the region is still recognized internationally as part of Azerbaijan. The war claimed the lives of over 15,000 soldiers and a similar number of civilians. The outbreak of small fights along the border is common, however between the end of the war and 2016 only 30 people had been killed.


On September 27th, 2020, Armenian officials claimed that the Azerbaijani military bombed civilian settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh, and in response, they shot down two Azerbaijani helicopters and three drones. The Azerbaijani defence ministry launched a counter-attack with fighter planes, tanks, and 1000 Syrian fighters, courtesy of Turkey. In early October, attacks began once again, less than thirty minutes after a ceasefire had been called. Both sides have stated that they were acting in retaliation to the other side’s breach. Within less than a month of fighting, over 1000 people, including civilians and troops have been killed. Although Russia, who has typically acted as a peacekeeper between the two nations and who has a long-standing alliance with Armenia, has yet to step in, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has said that he is more than willing to visit Moscow for talks. If Russia were to enter the conflict, it is assumed that they would side with Armenia, thus increasing tensions between Russia and Turkey.


The latest reports suggest that the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers will hold separate talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, DC. It is hoped that the two will down arms and create a permanent treaty, however, based on previous events, I remain hesitant to believe peace is in sight. While talks are ongoing, outbreaks of fighting on both sides are expected to continue. This is not an issue that will be easily resolved, however for the sake of the civilians on either side I hope it stays as amicable as possible.



Featured photo by DNA India



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