Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. The confrontation over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in 1988 when the region, mostly populated by Armenians, sought independence from Azerbaijan and announced its intention to join Armenia. For Moscow, Azerbaijan is the prize and Armenia is the tool for achieving that. Azerbaijan’s geopolitical location and rich oil resources are what interest the Kremlin.
In 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was founded. Azerbaijan tried to regain control over the territory. The landlocked region declared independence in 1992, and the conflict escalated into a full-scale war in which around 30,000 people were killed. Oil-producing Azerbaijan frequently threatens to take the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region back by force from the much weaker Armenia. Armenia has not yet implemented the UN Security Council's four resolutions on withdrawal of its armed forces from the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts. Clashes around the region have fueled worries of a wider conflict breaking out in the South Caucasus, which is crossed by oil and gas pipelines. The two sides are separated by a demilitarized buffer zone, but each side accuses the other of numerous violations.
Fueled by windfall revenues from its Caspian Sea oil and gas reserves, Azerbaijan has gone on a military spending spree in the past decades, buying new weaponry and equipment from Russia and elsewhere. That has worried analysts, who feared Baku might try to preemptively take back Nagorno-Karabakh, whose loss remains an unhealed 21-year-old wound for many Azerbaijanis.
Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces said 06 April 2016 that they were observing a cease-fire following four days of fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry said its forces were strictly observing the cease-fire around the disputed territory. The ministry accused Armenian forces of breaking the truce several times Wednesday by firing mortars at Azerbaijani positions, adding that Azerbaijani forces had not returned fire.
Heavy fighting erupted 02 April 2016 between regional rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan in the tense separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian Defense Ministry called it the most serious escalation of fighting in the conflict since a 1994 truce. Media reports on 02 April 2016 quoted Azerbaijan officials as saying that 12 of its soldiers had been killed. Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said in a televised statement that 18 Armenian soldiers had been killed.
The outbreak of violence was the worst in Nagorno-Karabakh since 1994 when Armenia and Azerbaijan ended a war over the territory that is part of Azerbaijan but has been under the control of Armenian forces.
The Azeri defense ministry said the army had "liberated strategic heights and settlements" in the region. "Six Armenian tanks were destroyed (and) more than 100 Armenian servicemen were killed and injured," it said in a statement, saying 12 Azeri servicemen had also been killed.
Each side blamed the other for starting the fighting, and both sides also reported civilian casualties and accused each other of violating a cease-fire. The Armenian Defense Ministry said it had brought down an Azeri helicopter, but Azeri officials disputed that claim. Baku later admitted that its Mi-24 helicopter had been shot down.
The violence led Russia, a key mediator in the conflict, to step up diplomatic efforts to quench it. President Vladimir Putin urged the warring sides to immediately observe the cease-fire and "to exercise restraint so as to avert new human casualties," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Azerbaijan was ready to switch from a diplomatic to a military solution over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, Polad Bulbuloglu, Azeri ambassador to Russia, said following escalation in the area. “The attempts of a peaceful solution to this conflict have been underway for 22 years. How much more will it take? We are ready for a peaceful solution to the issue. But if it’s not solved peacefully then we will solve it by military means."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan phoned his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, to express condolences over the death of Azeri troops on the Nagorno-Karabakh border. "The Turkish President expressed his support and solidarity in relation to the events on the contact line between Armenian and Azerbaijani and stressed that the Turkish people will always be with the people of Azerbaijan," the Azeri president’s press service said in a statement. Turkey and Azerbaijan are Muslim countries, while Armenia is Christian. Turkish Defense Minister, Ismet Yilmaz, expressed his full support to Baku, saying it has a “just stance" on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Turkish Foreign Ministry also condemned Armenia for an alleged attack and urged Yerevan to fulfill the terms of the ceasefire.
Azerbaijan announced a unilateral cease-fire 03 April 2016 in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh after clashes with Armenian forces left 30 soldiers dead and both sides reported more fighting overnight. Yerevan, however, dismissed the announcement as an “information trick." David Babayan, a spokesman for Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic leader, also dismissed the announcement, saying Azerbaijani operations were continuing.
Fighting on April 3 was described as fierce in the region's northeast and along the southernmost section of the “Line of Contact," which effectively serves as a front line separating the opposing sides. Officials with Nagorno-Karabakh separatist fighters said its soldiers pushed Azerbaijani forces back from “tactically important" positions near the northern village of Talish.
Since December 2015 there was a steady escalation of clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The renewed fighting began on 04 December 2015, when Azerbaijan launched an offensive targeting Armenian positions along the "line of contact" separating Karabakh and Azerbaijan. In the days that followed, the situation quickly worsened, with an escalation of fighting that left more than a dozen fatalities on both sides.
Since 2013, the rate of casualties (for both soldiers and civilians) almost tripled. The total number of deaths from these clashes stood at 19 soldiers in 2003, but surged in 2014, with 64 soldiers and 8 civilians losing their lives, representing the highest level of deaths in the over 20 years since the ceasefire agreement. In 2015, however, there were at least 56 military fatalities and another 3 civilian deaths on all sides.
Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. The landlocked region declared independence in 1992. Fighting over the region killed about 30,000 people before a 1994 cease-fire. A peace treaty has never been signed and tensions between both sides occasionally boil over into violence.
The name Nagorno-Karabakh (often called simply Karabakh) is a relatively recent combination of the Russian word Nagorno, meaning mountainous, and the Turkic-Persian word Karabakh, meaning black garden. The de-facto authorities of Nagorno Karabakh as well as most Armenian sources use the historical name of the region: Artsakh, meaning strong forest. The origin of both names seems to be linked to geographical features: elevation, cooler climate and, in ancient times, forests rich in game and fruit. Azeri sources report that the term "Nagorny Karabakh" is a Russian translation of the original name in Azerbaijani language - "Dagliq Qarabag" (pronounced as "Daghlygh Garabagh"), which literally means mountainous Garabagh.
The conflict concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh region is really a conflict between two principles: territorial integrity and self-determination. On the one hand, the borders of Azerbaijan were internationally recognised at the time of the country being recognised as independent state in 1991. The territory of Azerbaijan included the Nagorno-Karabakh region. On the other hand, the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh (the majority even before "ethnic cleansing" in 1992-1994) claim the right of self-determination. They are supported by Armenia. Armenians from Armenia participated in the armed fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region besides local Armenians from within Azerbaijan. Today, Armenia has soldiers stationed in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and the surrounding districts, people in the region have passports of Armenia, and the Armenian government transfers large budgetary resources to this area.
Ethnic Armenian separatists, with Armenia's support, control most of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region remains unsolved. Hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced and live in miserable conditions. Considerable parts of the territory of Azerbaijan are still occupied by Armenian forces. The military action, and the widespread ethnic hostilities which preceded it, led to large-scale ethnic expulsion and the creation of mono-ethnic areas which resemble the terrible concept of ethnic cleansing. Separatist forces are still in control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Armenian forces and forces of the self-styled "Republic of Nargono-Karabakh" (which is not recognized by any government) continue to occupy 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory. Exchanges of fire occurr frequently along the Azerbaijan-Armenian border and along the line of contact with Nargono-Karabakh causing casualties, including some civilians. The armed clash of 4/5 March 2008 was one of the worst to have taken place in recent times. There is increasing turbulence along the front line, and by the end of 2007 the number of shooting incidents and armed clashes was almost three times the previous annual figures; about 30 men had been killed during 2007.
Military operations continued to affect the civilian population. Figures about refugees and internally displaced persons are disputed on both sides. Therefore the numbers given are of indicative value. The total number of Armenians who left their homes in Azerbaijan is estimated at 300,000. Around 30,000 of them were resettled in N-K and the Lachin district. The total number of exiled Azerbaijanis is estimated at 800,000, including some 200,000 refugees from Armenia and around 600.000 internally displaced persons from the zone of conflict. The latter figure counts practically all 50,000 Azerbaijanis from N-K. In the part of Azerbaijan that Armenians control, a heavily militarized ruling structure prevents ethnic Azerbaijanis from returning to their homes.
This is now giving rise to demographic problems as the population of the area has shrunk by almost 70% in the past two decades. This frozen conflict carries the risk of creating a displaced population, although one not as yet of such proportion as to be a real threat to the region. During Armenia's war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, authorities evacuated approximately 65,000 households from the border region, but most IDPs later returned to their homes or settled elsewhere. Of the remaining IDPs, almost two-thirds could not return to their villages, which were surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. Other IDPs chose not to return due to socioeconomic hardships or fear of land mines. A 2005 mapping study conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council, together with the Migration Agency under the Ministry of Territorial Administration, found that 8,399 IDPs resided in the country. There were no further studies to estimate current numbers of IDPs. In September 2008 the authorities approved a program to assist in the resettlement of 626 families that were displaced during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; however, there was no funding provided to implement the program, according to government officials.
Many people do not want to return (especially ethnic Azerbaijanis formerly living in Armenia and ethnic Armenians formerly living in Azerbaijan). The former population of Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent districts is more likely to want to return because these areas had only been populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis and are nearly depopulated at present. Those refugees who do not want to go back need the means to integrate into the communities in which they have been living since their flight. Where displaced persons want to go back, large efforts are needed for the reconstruction of their destroyed homes. The reconstruction of houses will have to go hand in hand with economic reconstruction and development.
If the eventual settlement of this dispute does not envisage immediate secession of Nagorno-Karabakh form Azerbaijan, everyone accepts that Nagorno-Karabkh must have a high level of autonomy. Other positive experiences of autonomous regions are a source of inspiration. Regional autonomy with a high degree of self-government may be a better solution than secession and independence.
Land mines placed along the border with Azerbaijan and along the Line of Contact in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continued to cause bodily harm. During the first 11 months of 2009, government sources reported that three military personnel were killed and two injured by landmine explosions. There was one report of a civilian incurring injuries caused by land mines. According to official information, during the first 11 months of the year shootings along the militarized line of contact separating the sides as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resulted in 26 casualties on the Armenian side, including the death of six military personnel and the wounding of 18 military personnel and two civilians.
Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer predicted 10 March 2010 that a new war in the South Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan had become inevitable because of the rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. Speaking to the Armenian service of Radio Free Europe, Felgenhauer described the threat of war as real and dangerous, adding that Azerbaijan would go to any length - including war - to prevent the ratification of agreements between Armenia and Turkey to normalize relations. "Today there is a real threat of a destabilization of the situation," he said, adding that he believed the desire to avert war no longer exists for Azerbaijan.
"Azerbaijan will take this step even if the resumption of hostilities was not in its favor," he explained. "The aim of the step is not to return Karabakh but to prevent ratification of the Armenian-Turkish protocols.... Before, neither Baku nor Yerevan wanted the worsening of the situation. Today, everything has changed... Aliyev's administration has set a serious objective for which it may risk and start hostilities again.... Azerbaijan can do so even if hostilities lead to fallout. By this move it aims at returning Nagorno-Karabakh and prevent Armenia-Turkey Protocols' ratification ... The situation is no longer frozen and anything can happen now."
Felgenhauer had predicted in early 2009 that another Russia-Georgia war was merely a question of time. Felgenhauer predicted the first war between Russia and Georgia long before its onset. Felgenhauer says Russia's subjugation of Georgia would isolate Azerbaijan, and end the situation in which Armenia and Russian troops in Armenia are cut off, with no transit by land between Russia and Armenia. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has been quoted many times [eg, March 2008] as saying that if the Armenian side did not withdraw its troops from the Azerbaijani territories, that Azerbaijan would take these provinces back through a military offensive.
Azeri President Ilkham Aliyev said in March 2010 that the negotiations were already in their final stage but insisted on the return of all Karabakh territories and the withdrawal of the Armenian forces stationed there. Armenia is ready for a compromise, to give back the areas around Nagorno Karabakh it seized during the brief war of the early 1990s, and also to give the region a temporary status as stipulated by the Madrid agreements the Armenian and Azeri president were handed during the 2007 OSCE summit.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated on 20 March 2010 "We have reached the crucial stage in settling the conflict. The negotiations can be said to have mainly been completed. Most of the proposals, for a few exceptions, meet Azerbaijan's interests. They ensure territorial integrity and return of all the occupied territories to Azerbaijan... Any status of Nagorno-Karabakh outside Azerbaijan is out of the question. It will not happen - neither tomorrow, nor in 100 years, never. We cannot accept it, and it is our position of principle. Nagorno-Karabakh will never be granted independence."
There is no consensus within either Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding an acceptable settlement. The current public opinions in both countries may not yet be ripe for a settlement based on compromise. Some hawks in Azerbaijan intend to resolve the ethnic and territorial dispute regarding NKR by military methods, and it is evident that the Armenian army will take part on the side of NKR in the case of a conflict. The efficiency of the ground forces of Azerbaijan is low, and Baku may not be able to conduct effective offensive combat operations against the forces of NKR and Armenia.
Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly threatened to launch a military offensive to liberate Nagorno-Karabagh. Azerbaijan warned that the threat of a great war was looming if Armenian forces did not withdraw from the region. On 01 March 2010 the Azeri Defense Ministry stated 'Diplomats could not achieve concrete results for 15 years, and Azerbaijan cannot wait another 15 years. Now it is up to the military, and this danger is gradually approaching. If the Armenian occupier does not liberate our lands, the start of a great war in the South Caucasus is inevitable.' Armenian President Serge Sargsyan appealed to Azerbaijan to sign a non-aggression pact which he hoped would prepare the ground for continued talks. Economically successful due to oil money, Azerbaijan sees itself as the dominant player in the South Caucasus, hence its consistent refusal to give any ground on Nagorno Karabakh.
Turkey - Azerbaijan's primary sponsor - has improved its relationship with Russia - Armenia's patron - and neither state would condone renewed fighting over Nagorno-Karabagh. Although a new armed conflict seems improbable, the possibility cannot be excluded that the Azeri leadership will feel domestic pressure to use military force against the Karabakh Armenians.
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan were scheduled to meet on August 8 or 9 2014 on the long-simmering conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, where a surge in fighting had left a number of soldiers dead. Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev planned to hold talks in the Russian city of Sochi. Fighting 02 August 2014 killed four Azeri troops and an Armenian soldier, days after at least eight Azeri soldiers were killed. The situation around Nagorno-Karabakh remained strained on August 3, with Armenia and Azerbaijan accusing each other of escalating tensions.
The Russian President held talks with his colleagues from Armenia and Azerbaijan as relations between the two Transcaucasia nations have deteriorated in the worst crisis since the beginning of the century. The Russian leader met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan separately, but both meetings were held on 08 August 2014 in the Southern Russia resort city of Sochi. A trilateral meeting was held 10 August 2014 in Sochi between President of the Republic of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, and President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev.
The Hawaii State Legislature adopted a resolution on March 29, 2016 recognizing the Independence of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh. Hawaii was the seventh U.S. state to have recognized the independence of the NKR following Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Maine, California, Georgia. Such recognitions have neither juridical nor practical consequences, as US tates do not have international legal personality.
Since the emergence of the conflict in 1994, Russia has been a key member of the Minsk group, an international body created to provide a “road map" for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Minsk group showed little success, and the group’s format was gradually marginalized, at least in part due to Moscow’s attempt to “sabotage" the efforts. A Moscow-brokered cease-fire halted four days of violence in the region in April 2016, the worst confrontation in years, but sporadic shooting continued and some deaths were reported. The fighting that erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh was the worst outbreak of violence in the history of the conflict. At least 64 people were killed in the fighting.
The OSCE-sponsored peace plan -- pushed by Russia with the support of France and the United States -- proposes that Armenia give up occupied territory adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for concessions from Azerbaijan on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. Armenian President Serzh Aliyev told Putin on 08 August 2016 that the “existing status quo is unacceptable" in the region and that “Azerbaijan’s occupied territories must be liberated." But Sarkisian faced political opposition in Armenia over the idea of returning to Azerbaijan any territory Armenian forces had occupied since the early 1990s.
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list