First posted at Rosa Luxemburg Foundation on September 22.
On 13 September, regular Azerbaijani troops launched a large-scale attack on Armenian territory. This attack took tensions between the countries to a new level. Previously, such as in the autumn of 2020, the conflict had always been located in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, rather than on Armenian territory.
But then again, the prevailing view — shared by Russia as well as Turkey and Western states — is that Nagorno-Karabakh does not belong to Armenia, but to Azerbaijan. While even Armenia does not consider the region part of its national territory (nor recognize the Republic of Artsakh, the name Nagorno-Karabakh officially calls itself since 2017), it nevertheless contests Azerbaijan’s claims to power over the region.
Mainly populated by ethnic Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh was an “autonomous oblast” within the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic until the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1988, Azerbaijan organized pogroms against the Armenian population. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh were therefore opposed to the region remaining part of the newly formed state of Azerbaijan, and declared their independence. Armenian separatists ultimately responded to the abolition of local autonomy, which was accompanied by further pogroms, with a counteroffensive, resulting in mass killings of Azerbaijanis.
Azerbaijan’s defeat in this conflict led to Armenian separatists occupying Azerbaijani regions in addition to Nagorno-Karabakh, which enabled them to create a direct land bridge to Armenia. However, Azerbaijan was also able to gain control of a third of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
Various attempts to implement a lasting peace settlement in subsequent years failed, and in the end were no longer pursued in earnest by Baku. The reason for this is obvious: Azerbaijan’s military defeat in the early 1990s primarily resulted from an assertive independence movement in Nagorno-Karabakh utilizing the element of surprise, and not from the actual balance of forces between Armenia and Azerbaijan. With around 10 million people, Azerbaijan has a population more than three times that of Armenia. In addition, as a major exporter of raw materials, Azerbaijan has much higher state revenue.
Azerbaijan has continued to beef up its military following its defeat. The objective of those in power in Baku was to reverse the outcome of the lost war — in other words, to regain control of Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan’s moment of retaliation came in autumn 2020 when, supported by Turkey and jihadist mercenaries, its vastly superior armed forces were able to regain control of former Azerbaijani territories. Aside from poor transport links, which were continually fought over, Nagorno-Karabakh was now geographically isolated from Armenia. It now lost another third of its territory to Azerbaijan. However, Azerbaijan’s stated goal of gaining full control of Nagorno-Karabakh was not achieved — protected by Russian troops, a third of the enclave remained under Armenian occupation.
The advance of Azerbaijani troops by no means signalled the end of the conflict between the two countries. Armenian transport routes to Nagorno-Karabakh and raw material exploitation within the border region were still being fought over. These disputes directly resulted in continuous border skirmishes, giving Baku the opportunity to deploy its superior military potential on Armenian territory and generating the sense of an existential threat in the Republic of Armenia.
What is striking is that with its direct attack on Armenian territory, Baku has not made an effort to justify its actions by appealing to international law. The regime in Baku appears to be very certain of its stance. It is unlikely to be held to binding claims that it is simply responding to Armenian sabotage. Ultimately, Armenia cannot afford another war, since it has neither the military nor diplomatic means to assert itself against Azerbaijan.
In the slipstream of the Ukraine War
Conditions for a renewed Azerbaijani offensive continue to appear favourable. In 2020, it was able to implement its autumn campaign over several weeks before diplomatic pressure from Moscow brought it to a standstill. Armenia remains weak and its military can barely withstand attack.
It is true that Armenia can call on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the collective military defence alliance drawn up between the states of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, for aid. But as the de facto strongest leader in the CSTO, Russia has already announced that it does not consider the conflict as a case for collective defence. The CSTO is only sending an observation mission to Armenia. The reason why is clear: Russia’s military is tied up in Ukraine — a fact that has obviously not escaped the attention of Azerbaijan.
An additional aspect is that Azerbaijan has been able to build upon its status as a significant gas supplier for the European Union as a result of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. It was only at the end of August that EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen visited Baku and thanked President Ilham Aliyev for “supporting the European Union”. Due to sanctions against Russia, the EU can certainly not do without Azerbaijani gas. In addition, Turkey, Baku’s traditional ally, is sympathetic towards Azerbaijan’s war ambitions. It is plain to see that the political risks of a further attack for Azerbaijan at present would be manageable.
Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has announced wide-ranging concessions. We can thus assume that Yerevan is prepared to accept Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. In parliament, Pashinyan stated that this was a way of securing the Republic of Armenia’s sovereignty.
This concession by the Armenian government, which not yet been codified, was possibly of greater significance for the current easing of the situation than the UN Security Council’s call for a ceasefire. In any case, so far Azerbaijan has only demonstrated its willingness to allow for a “humanitarian ceasefire” to recover bodies.
But even if the consequences in detail are not foreseeable, there will be difficult times ahead for the Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is also clear that the Armenian defeat is placing a considerable burden on the democratic development of the country, with its government fighting for political survival due to the concessions announced.
The behaviour of Western states is conspicuous: while they interpret the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a conflict between authoritarianism and democracy, they shrink from viewing the Azerbaijani invasion of Armenia in the same way. In a classic case of double standards, Western states feel compelled to make this concession to the regime in Baku because of their own energy interests.
In the meantime, Russia has been forced to accept these new circumstances. With the majority of its own military tied up in the war in Ukraine and Moscow also politically weakened, it can no longer effectively pursue its own interests in creating balance between the two Caucasus states. It can now only watch as Azerbaijan, through its gas contracts with the EU and its close alliance with NATO member Turkey, steps economically and geopolitically closer to the West — and further away from Moscow.
Axel Gehring is a political scientist and expert in foreign policy and security. He is currently a Fellow at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis. Translated by Gráinne Toomey and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.