Armenia and Azerbaijan: Conflict in Nagorno Karabakh continues to erode regional security

Armenia and Azerbaijan: Conflict in Nagorno Karabakh continues to erode regional security

A flare-up between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region raised concerns over the security and stability of the Caucasus region for more than a month. Both countries’ tough stances and quick military responses led to deadly clashes and failed attempts at restoring stability. A Russian-brokered deal between the two is highly likely to ensure the region’s security, although long-term peace is an unlikely outcome.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s escalation

Decades-long competing claims over the breakaway state of Nagorno-Karabakh and recent tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan resulted in major fighting at the end of September 2020. Clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh have occurred since 1994, when a ceasefire agreement ended a deadly war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, they have previously been easily contained. Tensions escalated after border skirmishes near Armenia’s Tavush province in July 2020, which led to the deaths of at least 16 people. Since then nationalistic rhetoric and demands to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh have flourished in Baku and Yerevan.

Armenia and Azerbaijan’s resolve to continue the violence threatened a broader regional conflict, another proxy war with Turkey and Russia on opposite sides. However, Azerbaijan regained control over long-lost territories in Nagorno-Karabakh and both sides agreed to a second ceasefire, ensured by Russian peacekeepers, on 9th November.  There is a realistic possibility that the violence between the two will wind down; nevertheless, decades-long animosity and regional tensions will not be easily resolved.

New clashes, old disputes

The historic grievances at the core of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict date back to the early 20th century. The region, which was predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians, was the object of war between the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the First Republic of Armenia after their independence resulting from the fall of the Russian Empire in 1918. The conflict ended when the Soviet Union gave Nagorno-Karabakh to the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic in 1923. However, the fall of the Soviet Union reignited the conflict as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) first demanded to be transferred to Soviet Armenia and later held a referendum in 1991 and declared independence, which led to the 1991-1994 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The dispute itself remains unsolved as the war ended only with a ceasefire agreement.

Since then Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto independent state, has been under the internationally recognised jurisdiction of Azerbaijan, and thus a source of antagonism and sporadic violence. Most notably, violent clashes erupted between the forces of Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016, which were contained within five days. There were indications that when Nikol Pashinyan succeeded Serzh Sargsyan as Prime Minister after the 2018 Armenian Velvet Revolution, the dispute would be resolved peacefully.

However, with violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia escalating since the summer of 2020, the conflict is yet to reach a long-term solution. Against the backdrop of the July skirmishes and amid protests in Baku demanding the return of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian soldier was killed on September 16, followed by the death of an Azerbaijani sergeant five days later. Tensions escalated further when fighting broke out on September 27, with the cause of the violence undetermined. Fighting continued since September, with more than 5,000 deaths reported. Armenia and Azerbaijan signed and later violated two international ceasefire agreements brokered by Russia and the U.S., and attacked civilian targets. A week prior to signing the third ceasefire agreement in November, Azerbaijan captured the strategic town of Shusha and hence compromised the Nagorno-Karabakh capital of Stepanakert. Azerbaijan’s recent advances and Armenia’s steady loss of territory have thus endangered the fragile stability of the region.

Regional adversaries and tensions in the Caucasus

The Caucasus region is marred with rivalries, which have influenced the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On one side, Turkey and Azerbaijan’s important and multi-faceted geopolitical alliance has inevitably shaped the current escalation. Since the 1990s, Turkey has closed its borders to Armenia in support of Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, and has no diplomatic relations with Yerevan.  After the July 2020 escalation, Turkey and Azerbaijan conducted joint military exercises, and Ankara’s support might have emboldened Baku’s military offensive. Armenia’s Defence Ministry accused Turkey of taking down an Armenian SU-25 jet, and of transporting Syrian fighters to support Azerbaijan, which has been confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On the other hand, Russia has close ties with Armenia, which further complicates the Caucasus’ security. Both countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance, according to the terms of which aggression against one signatory country is deemed to be an aggression towards all. In addition, in 2016 Russia granted Armenia a military loan, which doubled the country’s military spending. There is also a Russian military base in Armenia. However, Moscow’s close historic ties with Azerbaijan, its unwillingness to fight another proxy war with Turkey and tensions with the EU over the Belarus crisis have affected Russia’s aspirations to serve as a mediator in the conflict.


Armenia and Azerbaijan have come under immense international pressure to solve the conflict peacefully. While two previous ceasefire agreements have been violated, the trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia is likely to prevent short-term clashes.  Both sides have stopped their advances, and Armenia has agreed to withdraw its military from the region, effectively surrendering territories it has occupied for decades. The agreement will be supervised by a Russian peacekeeping mission, which will be on the ground for five years. Yerevan is also to allow Azerbaijan access to the Nakhchivan enclave.

Nevertheless, a long-term solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is unlikely to be reached due to both sides’ historically opposing claims and refusal to cooperate, in a Caucasus entangled with regional interests. Achieving a permanent end to the dispute will be difficult as both counties’ nationalistic tendencies towards the region are highly likely to remain – a fact demonstrated by the protests in Yerevan following the news of the agreement. The November ceasefire has reaffirmed Moscow’s position as a mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Russia’s military presence in the region will ensure that over the next five years. Turkey’s energy interests guarantee Ankara’s continuing involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which will remain one of the region’s hot spots.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Boryana Saragerova

Boryana Saragerova received a MA in Terrorism, Security & Society from King’s College London. She has previously attained a BA degree in International Relations from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Boryana specialises in international affairs, and political instability and international security, namely terrorism and extremism, insurgencies, regional and global conflicts and has expertise in Public and Private International Law. She has worked on a diverse set of topics from the prevention of religion-motivated violence in Bangladesh, during the 64th International Student Conference in Tokyo, Japan to bilateral and multilateral relations in South-Eastern Europe during her internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria.