Moscow’s timid response in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020 allowed the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia to run its course. The settlement returned a lot of disputed territories to Baku, despite Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the military alliance led by Russia. The Kremlin-brokered peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan in November 2020, following a conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, cemented Moscow’s leverage over both countries.
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.
The Karabakh conflict evolved from communal unrest in 1988-1990 and small-scale civil war involving rag-tag militias and irregular units in 1991 to an all-out war between two newly established states in 1992-1994. 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.
When Baku inherited an underfunded and dispirited military force from the Soviet Era, it was not able to stop Armenia. Such a defeat and the subsequent loss of territories left a deep wound in Azerbaijan’s common consciousness. Without addressing this wrong, Azerbaijan’s state identity was always deemed incomplete. Also, Baku dealt with a massive humanitarian catastrophe as hundreds of thousands of displaced persons moved from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts to Azerbaijan.
Oil-producing Azerbaijan frequently threatened 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 went on a military spending spree over a decade, buying new weaponry and equipment from Russia and elsewhere. That worried analysts, who feared Baku might try to preemptively take back Nagorno-Karabakh, whose loss remains an unhealed wound for many Azerbaijanis.
Arayik (Ara) Harutyunianh was sworn in as de facto president of Nagorno-Karabakh, the unrecognized breakaway Azerbaijani region. The inauguration ceremony held on 21 May 2020 in the city of Shushi was attended by an Armenian delegation led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. Harutyunian, the former prime minister of the disputed region, won a runoff election on April 14.
Nagorno-Karabakh held a second round of elections for the disputed region’s leader on 14 April 2020 amid international criticism and safety concerns due to the coronavirus outbreak. Voters headed to polls on after results from the first round of the vote on March 31 showed Ara Harutyunian, a wealthy businessman and former prime minister, winning over 49 percent, just short of the majority needed for an outright victory. Masis Mayilian finished second with 26.4 percent. On April 12, Nagorno-Karabakh’s outgoing de facto leader, Bako Sahakian, declared a coronavirus-related emergency situation in the region, but stopped short of postponing the runoff election, sparking criticism from some who feared bringing groups of people together for voting may exacerbate the coronavirus outbreak.
The OSCE Minsk Group also issued a statement on March 31 saying it "recognizes the role of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh in deciding its future," but reminded the de facto leaders of the breakaway region that "Nagorno-Karabakh is not recognized as an independent and sovereign state" by any country. "Accordingly, the co-chairs do not accept the results of these 'elections' as affecting the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh and stress that the results in no way prejudge the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiations to bring a lasting and peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict," the statement said.
In autumn 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a six-week war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The conflict claimed more than 6,500 lives and ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire under which Armenian forces ceded territories they had controlled for decades to Azerbaijan. Since then, there have been repeated deadly border skirmishes. President Ilham Aliyev enhanced relations with Turkey significantly, and the two governments developed a remarkable synergy. Aliyev also maintained a good relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Aliyev did not try to upset the Kremlin and understood Moscow’s red lines in the region. In the Karabakh conflict, Aliyev tried the diplomatic route for a long time and was open to compromise.
In contrast, Armenia’s Prime Minister, Pashinyan irked the Kremlin by attempting to insert pro-Western elements within Armenia’s bureaucracy and security services. His administration also opened criminal cases against Russian companies. Moreover, Pashinyan multiplied the provocations and declared his inclination to annex the occupied territories, thereby dashing hopes for a negotiated settlement and paving the way for military escalation.
Militarily, Turkey helped Azerbaijan modernise its army. The Turkish army trained the Azerbaijani army, supplied Baku with some of the latest equipment in terms of electronic warfare and armed drones, and helped design an efficient strategy that neutralised Armenia’s arsenal of armored, mechanised, and motorised formations.
Azerbaijan’s 44 day offensive abruptly reshaped a decades-long, WWI-like trench war over Nagorno-Karabakh, an impoverished, breakaway region that was inside Azerbaijan’s borders but run by ethnic Armenians. Since the mid-1990s, when the battle over Nagorno-Karabakh killed more than 30,000 people and displaced up to a million, the conflict has long been written off as one of the world’s “frozen”, unsolvable political stalemates in which resource-poor Armenia seemed to be punching well above its political and military weight.
Azerbaijan placed its bets on sophisticated, pricey weapons and new tactics battle-tested in the Middle East, while their foes relied on old Russian-made arms and obsolete stratagems they mastered in the 1990s, analysts say. Armenia-backed troops moved around in large groups or in trucks, their trenches were wide, but not deep, their artillery was barely disguised and stayed put for days, becoming an easy target for air raids. Their weapons were hopelessly dated, their fighter jets did not fly a single sortie, and their Russian-made Osa and Strela anti-aircraft missile systems were powerless against Baku’s most lethal battlefield upgrade – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
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