Azerbaijan & Armenia explainer: All you need to know in layman’s terms

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of a war in the southern Caucasus region of south-eastern Europe raging between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former soviet (USSR) republics that have been locked in a conflict for three decades.

The current eruption involving heavy artillery, tanks, missiles and drones bottled up from the July 2020 flareup and took a drastic turn from mid September, overshadowing the periodic escalations of the past couple of decades in both scale and scope.   

What is the fight over?

Land.  A patch of land.

Map: Wikipedia

If you look at the map above from Wikipedia, the small area marked as Nagorno Karabakh is a 4,400 km2 (1,700 sq mi) mostly mountainous and forested territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan where both Azerbaijanis and Armenians, as well as other ethnic minorities lived before the conflict.

Now comes the important thing before we can understand why below that Nagorno Karabakh areas around it are highlighted. 

Map: Wikipedia

What happened?

It is long and complicated. Here is a simplified overview: 

Although not widely reported, this was Moscow’s divide-and-rule strategy – a usually ethnicity-based hotspots blueprint Russia has since applied to many of the now independent neighbors.

The recipe is 1) create a bloody territorial conflict 2) find “volunteers”, supply weapons to them, or both sides, 3) dress well and step in to set a fragile truce on your own terms.

Here you go. Now you have a “frozen conflict” and two sides dependent on you. Take Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Trans-Dniester in Moldova, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, multiple territories of Ukraine and so on. 

So in this particular case, when the 15-member Soviet Union started to lose a grip on its member states from late 1980s,  both Azerbaijan and Armenia declared independence as other countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Latvia etc.  

Amid chaos and surging nationalism, with help from Russian regiments, Armenia pushed Armenians living in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) to take the territory out of Azerbaijan, which led to a devastating war between Azerbaijan and Armenia from 1992 to 1994. 

Nagorno Karabakh region itself was not, as you see in the map above, easy to hold because it is inside Azerbaijan and has no border with Armenia. 

That’s why Armenia also invaded other 7 districts of Azerbaijan (highlighted outside Nagorno Karabakh above) around Karabakh during the war that resulted in over 30,000 deaths among other uglinesses you would expect from a war.

About 800,000 Azerbaijanis were ethnically cleansed from the occupied areas and another 200,000 were driven out of Armenia proper, finding shelter as refugees in Azerbaijan.

The entire area under occupation represents 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory. 

Eventually, Russia brokered a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1994, leaving Armenia in control of Nagorno Karabakh of about 4,400 sq km (1,700 sq miles) and 7 surrounding areas of about 8,004 sq km (3,090 sq miles)

International Mediation

Yes the world actually reacted that time, multiple UN Security Council resolutions, a UN General Assembly resolution, a Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly resolution have called for the withdrawal of Armenian armed forces.

Yet, as there does not exist any international enforcement mechanism, an international mediation effort so called the OSCE Minsk Group co-led by the US, France and Russia was established in 1994 to find a peaceful solution and to prevent the situation the sides have faced now.  

Since then, there have been ups and downs in the negotiations, with the latest 2006 package Madrid Principles based on the Helsinki Final Act (1975) had raised hopes after both sides’ tentative agreement to narrow “their few remaining differences”.

The framework essentially included six elements 1) return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control; 2) an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance; 3) a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh; 4) future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will; 5) the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and 6) international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation.

The 2018 velvet revolution changed the government in Armenia. The new government, under immense pressure from the Armenian diaspora abroad, unilaterally rejected Madrid Principles

The internationally mediated negotiations languished and the peace process appeared exhausted. 

Supporters and Arms Suppliers

Armenia: Russia has long been Armenia’s primary arms supplier. Armenia has also made some purchases from China, Greece, Serbia, India and Jordan. Politically, Armenia has traditionally been supported by Russia and Iran in the region due to the complex geopolitical proxy wars. Armenia also has strong political and financial support from its large diaspora abroad, especially in the United States.

Azerbaijan: Israel (60%+) has recent years replaced Russia as Azerbaijan’s top arms supplier. Azerbaijan has also made purchases from Turkey, Belarus, Ukraine and Serbia. Politically, Azerbaijan has been traditionally supported by Turkey, in addition to some other former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, especially in territorial integrity (these three countries also have similar separatism and territorial issues). Kazakhstan and Belarus – two members of the defence pact with Russia and Armenia – tacitly support Azerbaijan’s position. Israel also provides diplomatic support to Azerbaijan due to deep trade and community links between these two countries. 

South Caucasus Geopolitics: Russia and Turkey

Although Russia along with France and the US is a leading member of the OSCE Minsk Group mediation between the sides since 1994, it has been dragging its feet all the way if not hindering (to keep the conflict “frozen” rather than solved).  

It has traditionally favored Armenia, sending shipments of free or discounted weapons and providing military training. It has a mutual defence pact with Armenia and a military base there. 

Interestingly, Russia also has good relations with Azerbaijan both economic and political. 

However, things have changed a bit recently.

Traditionally, Armenian leaders used to be in Russia’s orbit until the 2018 velvet revolution which brought Nikol Pashinyan to power.  Russian president Vladimir Putin, not that sympathetic to Pashinyan, has turned many stones to undermine him. 

Putin is said to have quite good personal relations with Azerbaijan’s president.

Amid this complexity, we should also add Turkey and its relations with Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia.

Turkey has very close relations with Azerbaijan, increasingly warmer relations with Russia but not good relations with Armenia. 

Cornered by the US and EU with crippling economic sanctions, Russia probably now needs Turkey more than ever for both trade and diplomacy (also to potentially undermine the EU and NATO).

As the largest of the South Caucasus countries, Azerbaijan is widely seen as a bridge between Russia and Turkey, not only geographically but also culturally and politically.

This time Russia seems to be taking a more (unusually) pragmatic and quiet approach likely because of this new geopolitical reality, especially against the backdrop of Turkey’s open support for Azerbaijan. 

Also, probably Russia has come to the realization that this conflict, if unresolved, will stick around and hinder its ambitions to expand its economic bloc.

So it appears the new  situation has put Russia’s Putin in a dilemma: whether Armenia is worth good relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. 

Especially when it comes to the odds, he has likely factored in that Armenia will inevitably stay in Russia’s orbit no matter what, but one miscalculated move and he can lose Turkey and Azerbaijan.