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  • Stuart Jeffery

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict explained

A look at what's currently happening in Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The government of Azerbaijan has requested that the United Nations Security Council intervene in the ongoing dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the status of the region of Nagorno Karabakh, following allegations by Azerbaijan that Armenian landmines had been found in the region. The use of anti-personnel landmines is prohibited by international law. As the situation escalates, United States Congressman Adam Schiff has called for the US government to intervene. But what is this conflict all about?


Like many other conflicts in the Caucasus region, a region that includes the Russian city of Sochi, which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics, this conflict involves the USSR, but can be traced back several centuries.

Of the three internationally recognised Caucasian states, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the first two are predominately Eastern Orthodox countries, while the latter is Muslim. Azerbaijan has been controlled mostly by Muslim countries since the 7th century, until Russia annexed it from Persia, now Iran, in the first half of the 19th century. As a result, the Azerbaijan ethnic group is split between Iran and Azerbaijan.


In contrast, Armenia and Georgia have enjoyed periods of independence, until Armenia was split by Persia and the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey, at the start of the 16th century. Persia lost eastern Armenia when it lost Azerbaijan; however, the Ottomans would retain some control over Armenia until after World War I. There, the Christian population suffered serious discrimination under the Muslim government, and would eventually face genocide in the 1910s.


The collapse of Russia and the subsequent civil war from 1917-1922 allowed the locals to organise into self-declared republics, leading to a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Like today, the primary conflict was over Nagorno-Karabakh, with a secondary dispute over Nakhchivan.


When the Soviet Union assumed control over the area in 1920-21, it ended the conflict. Armenia and Azerbaijan both became socialist republics with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


Despite promising both regions to Armenia, the Soviet government held referendums and declared that the land would belong to Azerbaijan. However, both regions would be given significant autonomy. Armenia was given the province of Syunik, which it had a historical claim to, and which would cut off the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic from the rest of Azerbaijan.


During the collapse of the Soviet Union, the three republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan declared total independence. Numerous Russian provinces in the Caucasus would follow, but without the pre-existing nominal independence that the three republics had, none would be successful in gaining full independence.


Seeing the writing on the wall for the Soviet Union, in 1998 Nagorno-Karabakh voted to unite with Armenia, which the Azerbaijan government opposed. This exploded into all-out war in 1992, once the Soviet Union had dissolved. It took Russian mediation in 1994 to implement a ceasefire. The conflict would displace over a million Azerbaijanis and Armenians, removing most Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, and most Armenians from Azerbaijan.


This would be followed by two decades of border clashes like those between India and China, with the two sides reporting a total of 7000 border clashes. By the time of the 4 Day War of 2016, fought between the 1st and 5th of April, Nagorno-Karabakh was under the control of ethnic Armenian forces and was acting as a de facto independent nation. The US government reported 350 dead civilians and soldiers in that conflict, with widely varying reports from Armenian and Azerbaijani forces.


Both countries imposed martial law in September 2020, when the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War broke out, before Russia again acted as a mediator and secured peace in November. Under the agreement made with Russia, Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh forces would withdraw from all Azerbaijani land they held outside of Nagorno-Karabakh.


In return, Azerbaijan would allow Russian peacekeepers to maintain the Lachin corridor, a single road that connected Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. It is this corridor that Azerbaijan complains is being used by Armenia to funnel military equipment into Nagorno-Karabakh.


However, six months after the second ceasefire agreement, on 21 May 2021, Azerbaijani soldiers occupied Armenian land, including in Syunik. The European Union and multiple Western nations, including the US, criticised the actions of Azerbaijan, while Turkey maintained its support of Azerbaijan, a fellow Islamic country


At around the same time, the US government finally recognised the Armenian Genocide that the Ottoman Empire had carried out, and which the Turkish government denied.


Although Russia had maintained its neutrality as the scope of the conflict expanded, but in August 2022 Russia accused Azerbaijan of breaking the ceasefire agreement following further escalation, and the following month Armenia accused Azerbaijan of shelling Armenian towns, with Armenia defending against the accusations by claiming that they were in response to Armenian provocation.


Azerbaijan has disputed Russia’s neutrality, due to close relations between Russia and Armenia. Russia sells arms to both sides of the conflict, just as Russia continues to sell military equipment to other former Warsaw Pact and USSR nations that continue to use the same weapons systems.


The dispute over the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic is less severe, as it is ethnically Azerbaijani, especially following the exodus of Armenians after the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. In 2018, Azerbaijan claimed that Armenia had been shelling towns within the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and several soldiers died. The accuracy of these claims has been disputed.


While the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has spilled over into the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, any Armenian interests in the region are primarily strategic, as it would allow Azerbaijan more avenues to invade Armenia’s rear.


As the situation continues to escalate, it is unclear what action the United Nations can take. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has destroyed diplomatic relations between Russia and the other members of the United Nations Security Council. This complicates any attempts at resolving the situation by Western nations on the Security Council, as this would require negotiating with the country responsible for peacekeeping operations in the area, and Russia has the ability to veto any Security Council resolutions that it does not like.


Stuart Jeffery is a freelance researcher & digital editor for 6 News. His views on personal social media pages are his & his only, and do not reflect the views of 6 News or our journalists. He abides by 6 News' editorial standards relating to fairness & accuracy.


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