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The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict | An Expert Analysis

On Sunday, September 27, the long-simmering conflict in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region flared up, leaving hundreds dead and wounded, and sparking fears of broader regional hostilities. The Kennan Institute recently asked several of our experts to weigh in on this developing story and consider the following questions:

1. What triggered the sudden escalation in fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Sunday, September 27? While there have been flare-ups and confrontations over the past 26 years, how is this time different?

2. What is each side looking to gain and how far might they be willing to go to secure their respective goals?

3. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have support from major regional powers. Does the current conflict risk drawing in these greater powers – namely Russia and Turkey?

4. How can both sides settle the conflict? Does the Minsk Group or other diplomatic channels have a chance of aiding in restoring stability?

This compilation is one in an occasional series highlighting the expertise of Kennan Institute scholars and staff.


  • Azerbaijan has more to gain than Armenia by fighting at this time. Like other oil-producing states, Azerbaijan has faced revenue losses from low oil prices, and its budget shortfall will undermine social spending including on public health in the era of COVID-19. Despite quashing the opposition parties, President Ilham Aliyev remains fearful of popular uprisings like those in Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

    In July, Baku tested new weapons from Turkey, including TB2 drones that are effective in mountainous terrain. In August, Turkey and Azerbaijan held joint military exercises. Aliyev had been using the new coronavirus restrictions to detain regime critics, yet in July he lauded a seemingly spontaneous demonstration in favor of war in Karabagh, a hot-button issue. As Aliyev has consolidated his power, the one prize that has eluded him has been Mountainous Karabagh and the surrounding territories, which remain occupied by Armenian forces. Moreover, the regional powers interested in containing this conflict are distracted by the pandemic and, for oil producers Russia and Iran, low oil prices. Other distractions are the Belarus situation for Russia, U.S. sanctions for Iran, and the U.S. disengagement in global affairs and the November election for everyone. Turkey is the exception, despite its COVID-19 troubles, because it has continued with impunity to project power in Syria and Libya. Ankara’s rhetoric on supporting Azerbaijan has been aggressive. So, powers that might act as brakes on Baku are busy and its main supporter is energized.

    Success looks very different from the viewpoint of each principle. For Armenian Prime Minister Nicol Pashinyan, who reportedly is working to shore up his administration and remove vestiges of predecessors, war now is probably unwanted. Yerevan and the self-proclaimed republic in Stepanakert won on the ground in the 1990s—Armenian forces hold the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabagh Autonomous Region and seven regions around it, de facto linking it to Armenia and expanding the corridor to Iran, Armenia’s trading partner and some-time supporter. Success for both Armenian entities, in the short term, is restoration of their holdings from the 1994 cease-fire. In the longer term, Armenian groups have laid claim to other territory in Azerbaijan, eastern Turkey, and Georgia, but these lands are not on the table right now.

    In Baku, Ilham Aliyev has set a high bar. He promised to retake all the land occupied “for the last 30 years.” He has to make this maximalist pledge—“Take back two regions!” is hardly a battle cry! He could claim victory if Azerbaijani forces regained meaningful territory—and they seem intent on Jebrail and Fizuli to the south—then offer to resume negotiations from a stronger position. This could be his short-term goal. Whether it is achievable is another question. If both sides fight long enough to bring in resources from the Armenian diaspora or regional powers, the war would be far more lethal and could spin out of control and engulf the entire region. This outcome must be avoided at all costs.

    Fighting here always risks drawing in neighbors. Russia is a key player as the former (and still aspirational) imperial power in the region that sells arms to both sides and brokers peace deals. Armenia and Russia have a defense pact, and Armenia hosts a Russian air base. Azerbaijan is Russia’s trading partner and the site of a strategically significant North-South Transit Corridor that links Iran and south Asia to Russia. Given its current list of troubles, Russia wants peace on the southern front. Moscow will work behind the scenes to alternately reassure and threaten the parties. Knowing the volatility of the region, Russia will avoid direct military involvement even if Armenia invokes their defense pact.

    Turkey seems unencumbered by worries about the pandemic or threats from other powers. Its recent projections of power coupled with rhetoric to do “whatever is necessary” to back Azerbaijan’s drive to retake Karabagh sounds like a genuine threat. Former Turkish presidents and prime ministers have shown restraint, but President Erdoğan may not. Especially worrying is one report, denied by Ankara, of recruiting Syrian fighters for Azerbaijan. The introduction of outside fighters would lend a new dimension to the conflict and set a dangerous precedent. Instability here invites extremists with their own agendas threatening what is left of stability in the Middle East, and it would produce another humanitarian crisis, including a flood of refugees that no one is ready to manage.

    The best path to settlement is to avoid serious escalation and end fighting immediately. This calls for restraint that none of the parties seems prepared to exercise. Cessation of fighting would be an essential step to a settlement, and settlement can only be political not military.

    The OSCE Minsk Group as currently constructed has been ineffective—and this is true for other diplomatic efforts—not because of its own flaws but because the parties have not meaningfully negotiated. All sides have hardened their stances and continued to vilify their adversaries. Everyone wants all their demands fulfilled completely. There is no talk of compromise. Even to move toward settlement means to prepare populations for compromise, a necessary next step. It is a step no one has taken in 30 years, and the few who tried were called traitors.

    How to break such a stalemate? Are there big enough carrots or sticks to force compromise? The need for regional peace demands that we seek a means for resolution. In an era of national sovereignty, however, outside powers or international organizations cannot impose necessary restrictions on the flow of weapons and fighters or of demilitarization of the occupied regions. Ultimately, the parties must decide to stop fighting and weigh the important of holding land against the lives that will be lost if fighting continues.

  • It is difficult to establish exactly how the fighting started because there are no international observers or peacekeepers based along the line of contact. As always, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are accusing each other. Some international leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron of France, have stated that Azerbaijan started this escalation. Others, like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, have accused Armenia. Regardless of which side fired the first shot, what is clear now is that the current fighting represents the most significant military escalation since the original cease-fire was signed in May 1994. This escalation is different from previous flareups because it appears to be a deliberate, rather than accidental, escalation. Both sides have declared mobilization, signaling readiness for a prolonged war, and the use of heavy weapons, drones, and aviation make this escalation particularly dangerous. However, in some sense the current escalation is similar to previous significant escalations. Much as was the case in 1996, it has been prompted by the loss of trust in the peace process, lack of property commitment by the international community to advance peace in the region, and the instrumentalization of the conflict by leaders of both countries to distract attention from domestic problems—this time connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The scenario of this escalation appears to be similar to previous ones. Azerbaijan is seeking to retake part of Nagorno-Karabakh by force to compel Armenia to relinquish some of its occupied territories. This tactic is often called “salami slicing”—meaning that Azerbaijan, despite its advantages in manpower and weaponry, cannot recapture the entire territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding occupied regions but can gradually reclaim territories bit by bit through frequent incursion. This time, the price of this territorial revision is set to be very high for both sides, as large casualties already have been reported and heavy fighting is likely to continue for some time. Although Azerbaijan believes that its demonstration of military force can compel Armenia to compromise at a negotiating table, the history of other conflicts shows that to achieve a sustainable peace deal, trust between the two sides is more important than the military balance. When the cease-fire is reinstated, it will take a long time to overcome the legacy of the current escalation. There are also significant concerns over domestic political impacts from the current escalation on governments in both countries, as expectations have been raised high on both sides, while military realities on the ground are not conducive to a clear-cut victory on either side. At the same time, the conflict is has already had significant costs for each side in terms of their men and treasure.

    Since 1994, the role of external powers in this conflict was surprisingly limited compared to other post-Soviet conflicts. This is in part because Russia has maintained relative neutrality—by supplying weapons to both sides. Although Russia maintains formal security guarantees to Armenia under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), these do not apply to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Russia still recognizes as part of Azerbaijan. During previous escalations, just as in recent days, Russia did not intervene on one side or the other. However, the Russian position might change if Turkey continues to provide significant military support to Azerbaijan. President Erdogan has always been a strong supporter of Azerbaijan and believes that it has a legitimate right to impose a military solution in Armenia to reclaim territory. Turkey provided assistance in training and equipping Azeri forces, but until this most recent period it had never openly intervened during a conflict escalation phase. Both Russia and France have accused Turkey of providing weapons and mercenaries in support of the current Azeri offensive. If Turkey does not stop fanning the flames of the conflict by encouraging Azerbaijan to continue fighting, Ankara can significantly damage its relations with both Moscow and Brussels. In the latter case, these relations are already strained over Turkey’s recent policies in Libya, Syria, and the eastern Mediterranean.

    A conflict settlement is now more distant than before the current escalation started. First, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs should work with both sides (and with Turkey) to reestablish a sustainable cease-fire and to monitor its implementation. Then the two sides need to implement some confidence-building measures in order to rebuild trust before major negotiations can resume. The United States can play a role in promoting stabilization in the conflict zone; however, previous failures of U.S.-led peace initiatives on Nagorno-Karabakh, including the 2001 Key West summit, demonstrate how intractable and difficult this conflict is and will remain in the foreseeable future.

  • There was no immediate trigger in this instance and the escalation was not entirely unexpected. Since the cease-fire in May 1994, there have been repeated four- to five-day clashes along the 200-kilometer line of conflict, including a four-day war in April 2016 that left around 200 people dead. There was a temporary honeymoon after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was elected in 2018, but the flare-up this past July provoked worsening rhetoric and military contingency planning on both sides.

    There are a few other factors to consider. This is a mountainous area, so as the weather worsens it becomes a more difficult landscape for fighting. A lot of the traditional intermediaries have also been distracted—the United States by the upcoming presidential election and ongoing pandemic, Europe by the Brexit transition and the resurgence of COVID-19, Russia by the situation in Belarus, and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) with a leadership crisis. Baku has also likely taken domestic issues into consideration. In the context of economic and social pressures related to the COVID-19 outbreak and opposition crackdowns, Baku could be seeking to rally support via renewed conflict with Armenians. 

    The situation is still developing rapidly, but it is clear that this fighting will likely last longer than usual and that this is the most ambitious offensive we have seen in a long time. This is worrisome given that a lot of people in the region are already facing hardship and insecurity because of the pandemic. Armenia and Azerbaijan are on the cusp of another full-scale war and 300,000 people live near the front line of this growing confrontation.

    It is hard to say how far each side is willing to go at this point. Is this going to be a more drawn-out version of the clashes that have come before, or will it be a turning point in this long-running conflict? This is still breaking news.

    Azerbaijan has more to gain than Armenia from military escalation of the conflict. Since the 1994 ceasefire, Nagorno-Karabakh has been de facto independent and Armenians have also controlled seven adjacent Azerbaijani territories.   Yerevan is not incentivized to disrupt the status quo. In Baku, it is a different story. Azerbaijan’s military capabilities and geostrategic relationships have improved since the 1990s. It appears that Baku may be trying to build on earlier gains to reclaim Jabrayil and Fuzuli, two Azerbaijani regions that Armenian forces currently control in the whole or in part. Compared with other contested regions, this is a flatter area with fewer Armenian settlements, although there has been talk that Karabakh Armenians were seeking to change that.

    This can be a risky gamble for President Ilham Aliyev, though. He will face a lot of criticism at home if the fighting does not go well for Azerbaijan. This is not just a territorial dispute, but a foundational conflict central to Azerbaijan’s national identity. War with Armenia has the potential to unite disaffected citizens and oppositionists behind the government, but the Azerbaijani public has not been primed for compromise or more losses. The death of an Azerbaijani general in the July clashes renewed public pressure on Baku to reclaim Azerbaijani territories under Armenian control and enable the return of internally displaced persons to their homes, but what will happen if Baku falls short again?

    It may not be so much a question of whether this flare-up risks drawing in other powers, but whether some of those external actors have willingly inserted themselves into it. There is a multipolar dynamic at play in the region and Erdoğan has been pursuing a more assertive foreign policy lately. Turkey previously supported Azerbaijan politically, but also urged restraint. Now, Turkey seeks a bigger role in the region and has altered its approach, holding its largest-ever joint military exercises with Azerbaijan after the July conflict and calling for Armenia to leave the land it has been “occupying” in Azerbaijan. There have also been reports—substantiated by credible journalists and researchers but strongly denied in Ankara and Baku—that Ankara has facilitated the arrival of Turkish-backed Syrian National Army fighters to the Azerbaijani frontlines.

    Russia and Armenia no doubt both want to avoid further deterioration of the situation to a point that might trigger Russia’s defense treaty with Armenia. Russia straddles relations with both countries—selling arms to Azerbaijan while holding treaty obligations with Armenia and maintaining a military base there—and Armenia does not want to cede more influence to Russia. President Vladimir Putin probably is best positioned to negotiate a cease-fire here, but what promises can he make to Aliyev that new talks will be more productive than those that followed the 2016 truce?

    Both sides have declared martial law and are bracing for more conflict, but there is a general lack of global leadership at the moment. There was some hope in recent years  that progress could be made through negotiation, but no notable advancements were achieved and attitudes have hardened in Baku toward the stalled-out diplomatic process. Despite the July clashes, it has been almost a year since the OSCE Minsk Group was last in the region and, owing to COVID-19, nearly as long since it brought Armenia and Azerbaijan’s foreign ministers together face-to-face. So far, there has been no substantive action from this side, only ineffective calls from the co-chairs and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop fighting and resume diplomatic talks.

    It is not just a matter of diplomatic negotiation, but also of preparing the public on both sides for peace and compromise. The international community is involved, but this is a locally driven conflict. The Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships have rallied their sides around contradictory resolutions to this conflict: that Armenia will achieve formal unification with Karabakh and that Azerbaijan will regain control over all of its Armenian-occupied territories, Nagorno-Karabakh included. If either side sees rapid military or territorial gains, then Russia or another negotiating partner will have room to try and impose a cease-fire, but a more protracted conflict will be harder to stop unless escalating casualties turn the public against war on both sides. This is a dynamic situation, but that scenario seems unlikely at the moment.

  • In 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan ended a war over Azerbaijan’s ethnic Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh. After 26 years of an uneasy armed standoff and unsuccessful international efforts at mediation and settlement, full-scale war may be breaking out again.

    Although there has never been a robust international presence to monitor or enforce the 1994 cease-fire, military clashes along the line of confrontation between the parties have generally have been limited in size and duration. A multiday clash of significant military units in 2016 was the most recent exception to this pattern. Events in 2020 suggest that this quarter-century of uneasy armed peace may be ending.

    In July 2020, hostilities broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan on a segment of their border at a considerable distance from Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent Armenian-occupied territories. Publicly available military information about the current hostilities is as yet spotty, but it appears that the forces involved on both sides are the largest since 1994, and attacks and clashes are occurring over a much broader front.

    Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been on a downward slope for several years. Ethnic hostility, always present to some degree throughout the history of the Karabakh dispute, have deepened. Open fighting between groups from the Armenian and Azerbaijani diasporas in Moscow are illustrative of this phenomenon. Leaders of both countries have grown more frustrated over the failure of the OSCE Minsk Group mediators to obtain accommodation or concessions from the other side.

    Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, installed in 2018, recently has taken a somewhat harder line on the Karabakh issue. During a visit to Karabakh last August, he asserted that “Artsakh [an Armenian name for Karabakh] is Armenia,” seeming to stray from the general principles for a settlement advanced by the mediators.  Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev explicitly stated that the goal of the military action is to restore Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity by recovering Karabakh and its surrounding occupied regions.

    Another major difference in the current crisis is the international circumstances, in particular the alignment and actions of major international actors. In the past, Russia has had close relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan alike and has sold arms to both states. Recently, Moscow’s relationship has been much closer to Yerevan, as reflected in Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and frequent participation in Russian military exercises in the region. As a CSTO member, Armenia in theory has the right to call on Russia for support should the current conflict threaten its security—which could force Moscow to choose between its role as ally or mediator.

    Azerbaijan has diversified its sources of arms and military equipment and has been getting increased support from Turkey. President Aliyev recently is reported to have complained about Russian arms deliveries to Armenia.  In his speech last week to the United Nations General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denounced Armenia and expressed strong support for Azerbaijan. Turkish and Azerbaijani troops conducted two weeks of joint exercises this summer, and some accounts allege Turkey is either participating in or providing direct military support to Azerbaijan in the current hostilities.

    Turkey’s role as a member of the Minsk Group and supporter of the stated goals of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) has clearly changed. Russia and Turkey are already at odds, supporting different parties in Syria and Libya. The Moscow-Ankara relationship would be further severely and unpredictably strained should they end up openly supporting opposing sides in an Armenia-Azerbaijan war. As one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, France remains involved in trying to mediate, but it is not clear whether President Emmanuel Macron will seek a larger role for the European Union in this conflict. U.S. President Donald Trump joined in an appeal for a cease-fire from the Minsk Group co-chairs, but otherwise the United States has seemed distant from events in the South Caucasus, distracted by its own domestic turmoil. Finally, Iran remains a wild card: a regional power bordering on both states, with longstanding ties to both but to date relatively little involvement in the Karabakh question and settlement process. Although Iran also would seem to be more concerned with other pressing problems, it bears watching.

    A lasting settlement seems even further away, not just because of the current fighting. Though the OSCE and its Minsk Group continue to be active, the issue also has been raised at the United Nations. This may encourage “forum-shopping” by both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Meanwhile, both parties have abandoned the principles accepted as the basis for a settlement first at Madrid in 2007: return of non-Karabakh territories to Azerbaijan; an international peacekeeping force; return of refugees; interim administration of Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan; and ultimate determination of Karabakh’s status by popular will, namely through a referendum.

    It seems unlikely that either Armenia or Azerbaijan can achieve a military victory sufficient to impose its will. Intervention by any external power to tip the balance toward one of the belligerents would most likely prompt intervention by other powers, thus widening the war. As of now there is no broadly accepted international settlement plan to replace the OSCE’s “Madrid principles.” This is a recipe for protracted stalemate, uncertainty and instability, with no clear path toward a lasting political resolution.

  • Michael Kofman

    This time around, there was no incident that sparked the conflict—rather, it is a preplanned Azeri offensive, with overt Turkish backing, to retake portions of Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku appears frustrated with Armenia’s seeming lack of interest in negotiations, and nationalist sentiment has been growing following a series of clashes in July.

    Azerbaijan is looking to break through Armenian front lines in Nagorno-Karabakh and seize enough territory to declare victory. Its aims are doubtfully maximalist, but nonetheless the fighting is taking place through the depth of Armenian lines and along the border, which makes it more serious than anything seen since 1994. As Armenia mobilizes reserves, this war will prove costly in manpower and equipment for both sides.

    Turkey is actively involved supporting Azerbaijan, providing drones, mercenaries, and advisers. Turkish aircraft have remained in the country following an exercise in July. Russia has armed both sides, but is principally Armenia’s ally. However, Moscow sees its role as maintaining stability in the region, which would be upset by a major offensive on either side. Consequently, Russia will probably work to establish a cease-fire as soon as possible to prevent the possibility of Azerbaijan making significant gains. Turkey seems more interested in the prospect of Azerbaijan taking territory, and is not concerned with a balanced or “peacemaker” role. Both countries have likely judged that Moscow’s attention is consumed with Belarus and would look to settle the war rather than get involved.

    To settle the conflict, the Azeris first have to run out of steam, which is bound to happen after a few days. The terrain is mountainous, and despite a great public relations campaign, their forces have suffered losses. Armenians are likely to recover from the offensive and retake much of the lost terrain. This will produce the conditions on the ground to encourage all parties to seek peace, ideally within a few days. However, the fighting could grind on much longer this time around.

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