A Renewed Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Reading Between the Front Lines
On Tuesday, September 19, Azerbaijan launched an attack against ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh, a contested mountainous region located in the South Caucasus, has been the epicenter of two large-scale conflicts and intermittent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan for well over three decades. Known as “Artsakh” among Armenians, the region is officially recognized as part of Azerbaijan, yet its population of 120,000 is predominantly ethnic Armenian and has a local government that has historically maintained close cultural, social, and political ties with Yerevan. During Soviet rule, Nagorno-Karabakh held the status of an autonomous region within the Republic of Azerbaijan. The weakening and ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the first Karabakh war between 1988 and 1994, which killed around 30,000 people and displaced more than a million, ending with an Armenian victory.
The second war erupted in 2020, leading to more than 6,000 deaths, while Azerbaijani forces recaptured previously lost territories in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. A subsequent ceasefire agreement, brokered by Russia after a 44-day successful Azerbaijani offensive, provided for up to 1,960 Russian peacekeepers stationed in the region, including near the Lachin Corridor—the lone highway connecting the separatist region to Armenia that had previously been controlled by Armenian forces.
The deployment of Russian troops in a contested territory was initially perceived as an important step toward furthering the Kremlin’s entrenchment in the South Caucasus. But Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has weakened its ability to effectively control and interfere in the decades-long conflict between the two neighboring states. This has created opportunities for other external actors—including Turkey, Israel, and Iran—to promote their own interests and agendas in the region. The renewed Azerbaijani offensive against Karabakh Armenians reflects these changing power dynamics, providing Western policymakers with an opportunity to step up as potential guarantors of longer-term peace and stability in the Caucasus—a title famously claimed by Russia.
Q1: Why did Azerbaijan initiate a new offensive against Karabakh Armenians?
A1: In the official statements issued by Azerbaijan’s defense ministry and presidential administration this Tuesday, Baku announced that it had begun an “anti-terrorist” operation in Nagorno-Karabakh aimed at neutralizing “illegal Armenian armed groups” engaged in sabotage and dissolving “the illegal regime” itself. The military operation was preceded by a nearly 10-month-long Azerbaijani blockade, prompted by what Baku has argued had been an illegal exploitation of the region’s natural resources by Karabakh Armenians. During the blockade, Azerbaijani troops closed the Lachin Corridor, through which Karabakh Armenians had been receiving food, medicine, and fuel supplies from Yerevan. As a result, the region’s 120,000 inhabitants experienced acute shortages of basic foodstuffs and medicines, as well as water and electricity. Residents claimed that Baku’s actions resembled “a slow-motion genocide,” using hunger as a weapon that would force them to leave the region once the road reopened.
On Wednesday—a day after Azerbaijan began its offensive, killing at least 200 people and injuring many more—Karabakh authorities surrendered and agreed to a Russia-brokered ceasefire, according to which the remaining units of Armenian forces would leave Nagorno-Karabakh. In a speech Wednesday evening, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev lauded Baku’s ability to punish “the enemy properly” and regain full control over the region “with an iron fist.” By contrast, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan said that Yerevan was not involved in drafting the terms of the ceasefire and that he found the language confusing, considering that “Armenia doesn’t have an army in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
This Thursday, a first round of talks, focused on the future of the region and its 120,000 ethnic Armenian inhabitants, was held between Azerbaijani and Karabakh authorities. However, if the three-decades-long conflict has taught anything to its observers, it is that Russia-brokered peace in the region usually tends to be fragile and fleeting.
Q2: What is Russia’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
A2: Since the conflict began in the 1990s, both Azerbaijan and Armenia have rapidly militarized, positioning Nagorno-Karabakh as the site of a globally funded arms build-up. In 2020, Baku and Yerevan spent 5.4 and 4.9 percent of their respective gross domestic products on defense, compared to a global average of 2.4 percent. Notably, Russia occupies a contradictory position as the dominant arms supplier to both sides and the main provider of peacekeeping forces to the region. Indeed, although Russia has a military base in Armenia and Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia has been turning its attention toward Azerbaijan—a major market for Russian arms exports. Russia accounted for approximately 94 percent and 60 percent of Armenia and Azerbaijan’s arms imports, respectively, from 2011 to 2020. It also oversaw the ceasefire that ended the war in 2020, leading to the deployment of an estimated 1,960 Russian peacekeepers stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Yet, thus far, Moscow has largely failed—or been deliberately unwilling—to fully resolve the ongoing hostilities between the two neighboring nations. Some have argued that Russia’s inability to quell the conflict, especially in the past year, reflects its singular focus on the war in Ukraine. Others have claimed that Russian peacekeepers turned a blind eye to Azerbaijan’s attack this Tuesday due to Armenian prime minister Pashinyan’s growing alignment with the United States following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
Q3: What other external actors are involved in the conflict?
A3: Beyond Russia, the main external actor involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is Turkey, which has provided its unwavering support to Azerbaijan, grounded in pan-Turkic cultural and linguistic affinities and strong economic ties. Turkish assistance proved decisive for Azerbaijan’s military superiority over Armenia during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, notably thanks to the Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drones. By extension, Baku also enjoys the support of Ankara’s closest partners, such as Pakistan and Qatar.
Despite competing for a greater influence over the South Caucasus, Moscow and Ankara agree that they prefer to keep international—and especially Western—involvement in the Karabakh conflict relatively minimal and contained. Both actors have notably tried to circumvent the OSCE Minsk Group—cochaired by France, Russia, and the United States—which was established in the 1990s “to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
Another regional dimension of this conflict is its potential for causing instability in Iran, which is home to a significant Azeri-speaking community—15–19 million Azeris live in Iran, compared to 10 million living in Azerbaijan. Tehran wants to avoid any potential spillover that would fuel Iranian Azeris’ claims for autonomy within Iran or rapprochement with Azerbaijan. Tehran is also concerned about Baku’s ambition to build an overland transport corridor in Armenia that would link mainland Azerbaijan to the landlocked Nakhichevan exclave, which would cut off Iran’s direct access to Yerevan. Therefore, while officially Iran holds a position of neutrality and expresses its availability to mediate between the two conflicting parties, it is in fact leaning in favor of Armenia.
Iran’s tilting toward Armenia partly explains why Israel, Iran’s archrival in the region, backs Azerbaijan, establishing itself as one of the key arms suppliers to Baku. In the five years leading up to the second Karabakh war, for instance, approximately 70 percent of Azerbaijan’s arms imports were from Israel, including drones, ammunition, and Barak 8 missiles, helping Baku achieve military victory in the 2020 war.
The United States has also received significant pressure from members of its Armenian diaspora to intervene. While Washington has historically sold arms to both countries, U.S. government representatives have spoken out against Azerbaijan’s attacks; in September 2022, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Armenia and criticized Azerbaijan for its incursions on Armenian “security and democracy.” This Tuesday, the United States again took a stand, with U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken denouncing Azerbaijan’s latest offensive, just a few months after Blinken hosted Armenian and Azeri leaders in Munich earlier this year.
Q4: Is there a European-led effort to bring longer-term peace to the region?
A4: The conflict poses a pressing dilemma for European capitals that consider the region to be part of Europe yet have been unwilling to get militarily involved. Many on the continent have been vocal against Azerbaijan’s military buildup and aggressive posture, while seeking to avoid a direct clash with Baku. Azerbaijan has established itself as one of the major providers of hydrocarbons to Europe, notably through the Southern Gas Corridor, a trend set to increase as the continent diversifies away from Russian gas.
In the past, the European Union’s attempts to step up have been largely unsuccessful, since neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia has been willing to anger Turkey and Russia, their respective security guarantors in the conflict. But Russia’s ongoing military shortcomings in Ukraine and its deteriorating relations with Yerevan seem to have left a power vacuum that has not gone unnoticed for European policymakers.
Under the impetus of Paris, the European Union has harnessed the new platform of the European Political Community (EPC), a continent-wide initiative that has convened twice, first in Prague in October 2022 and then in Chisinau in May 2023. The EPC hosted a new track of direct dialogue between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, led by European Council president Charles Michel alongside French and German policymakers. The leaders agreed to a new EU initiative in Armenia, which was established in January 2023 to contribute to stability in border areas, with the stated objective of “building confidence on the ground” and “ensuring an environment conducive to normalization efforts.”
The recent clashes constitute a setback for the EU-led effort. It remains to be seen if the next EPC summit planned to be held in the coming days in Granada, Spain, will allow for a resumption of the EU-led peace talks or a new Nagorno-Karabakh peace initiative.
Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Tina Dolbaia is a research associate with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS. Abigail Edwards is a research assistant with the International Security Program at CSIS.