The self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno Karabakh, Artsak in Armenian, will officially cease to exist as of January 1 next year. The political denouement of this disputed strip of land for more than 30 years began on September 19, when Azerbaijani forces attacked the enclave and took control within 24 hours, after causing 500 to more than 1,000 deaths. Karabakh Armenians agreed to lay down their arms, and on September 27 “separatist” President Samvel Shahramanyan signed a decree dissolving all institutions in the territory: rather than a cease-fire, this time it was a forced surrender, faced with the impossibility of facing a new offensive, after nine months of isolation caused by the Azerbaijanis’ closure of the Lachin corridor, the only transit point from Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia.
If President Ilham Aliyev declared that he had fulfilled the decades-long dream of the people of Azerbaijan by wresting control of Stephanakert (Khankendi in Azerbaijani) from ethnic Armenian separatists, a mass exodus began for the inhabitants of Nagorno Karabakh. By the end of September, 70 percent of the population, totaling about 120,000 people, had left the area for Armenia, which was totally unprepared to receive such a large number of refugees.
The inhabitants, already exhausted by a long siege inside a territory from which it had become impossible to get out, but also to get supplies, did not wait one second to seize their chance to get out, leaving everything behind. Their homes as well as mass graves where they hastily buried the victims of yet another “blitzkrieg,” the latest violation of a ceasefire disregarded countless times since 1994.
Between July 12 and 16, 2020, hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan had picked up once again, in clashes then described as the most serious since the “4-day war” of 2016. This new wave of violence had marked a drastic change in the course of the “frozen conflict,” because for the first time the two countries had not faced each other on the line of contact between the self-proclaimed independent territory and Azerbaijan, but in the north, along the international border.
On September 27 of the same year, there was renewed heavy artillery attack on the front lines, once again highlighting the fragility of the continued existence of an independent Nagorno Karabakh and the inadequacy of the international community, and the Minsk Group in particular, to produce effective and lasting mediation.
Two months later, on November 9th, with Russia as “guarantor,” an agreement was signed that provided not only for a cease-fire but also for the return to Azerbaijan of territories conquered by Armenians in the first Karabakh War. Russian interposition forces were then deployed along the line of contact and the Lachin corridor, but no mention was made with respect to the future of the region.
On September 27, 2021, on the first anniversary of the “4-day war”, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Resolution 2391 on “Humanitarian Consequences of the Armenia-Azerbaijan/Nagorno Karabakh Conflict.” The document took stock of the casualties of the 2020 war: 3,900 Armenians and 2,900 Azerbaijanis among the military dead or missing and nearly 700 civilians lost their lives on both sides. The council also called on the two countries to recognize and prosecute the war crimes committed in those days, and openly condemned Azerbaijan’s use, with Turkey’s support, of mercenaries who had already fought in Syria.
On August 31, 2022, Brussels hosted the fourth trilateral meeting between Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Aliyev, mediated by the president of the European Council Charles Michel, to attempt the drafting of a treaty to regulate mutual relations and work together on humanitarian issues (mine clearance, missing and detained persons).
When the peace process finally seemed to be on track with the release of five Armenian prisoners repatriated from Azerbaijan, new clashes broke out in the night between September 12 and 13 in an area outside Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia accused Baku of encroaching on its territory, while Azerbaijan blamed Yerevan for mining the Dashkasan, Kabajar and Lachin regions.
The unknowns after annexation: relations with Russia
The re-annexation of Karabakh to Azerbaijani territory, in addition to carrying out ethnic cleansing, aiming to erase the history of the Armenian community from the region, could reignite the conflict and extend it, rather than having appeased Azerbaijan’s desire to reassert full sovereignty.
The balance in the area has changed in recent years, starting with relations between Moscow and Yerevan.
Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and is linked to Russia by a series of bilateral security agreements. Therefore, Russia’s failure to intervene in the latest attack, from Armenia’s perspective, was a failure by Moscow to meet its obligations – that is increasingly distant from Armenia’s agenda, which on several occasions has voiced its intention to conduct a multilateral foreign policy. Last January, Armenia refused to host CSTO exercises, while in September it hosted “Eagle partner,” a peacekeeping training with the United States.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Pashinyan also openly said that after the Azerbaijani takeover of Nagorno Karabakh, he sees no reason to continue hosting Russian bases on Armenian territory (these are two military bases and one air base), and that Yerevan’s road to diversifying alliances is on track.
Until now, Armenia had been the only post-Soviet country in which Russia’s influence had grown steadily since the collapse of the USSR: in 1992 Russian border guards had protected Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran, and three years later the first major military base had been opened in Gyumri. By 2020 this had led to the deployment of Russian peacekeeping troops in Nagorno Karabakh, which evidently were not a sufficient deterrent to the Azerbaijani attack a few weeks ago.
Then again, Baku also has important and historic relations with Moscow: since 1997 they have been linked by the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Security, and since 2008 also by the Declaration of Friendship and Strategic Partnership. According to data from SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia is the leading arms exporter for both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and thus the Karabakh conflict was fought mainly with military equipment from Russia, but also from Turkey, Belarus, and Israel on the Azerbaijani side.
What differentiates the two states is military spending: in 2020, Armenia invested $634 million versus $2.238 billion spent by Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan as energy partner
Baku is also a strategic partner for Europe in the supply of oil (it has a capacity of 1.2 million barrels per day) and natural gas, and its influence has grown further since the start of the war in Ukraine, when Russian supplies were banned and it became critical to seek new sources of supply.
For Italy in particular, it is the second largest supplier of gas after Algeria, with a 15 percent higher share than Russia; Azerbaijani gas comes directly to Puglia via the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), as part of the Southern Gas Corridor, which, together with the Trans Anatolian Pipeline, transports natural gas directly from the Azerbaijani Shah Deniz II field to Europe, with a capacity of ten billion cubic meters per year.
Relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey
Traditionally an ally of Azerbaijan, Turkey has taken an increasingly prominent role in the Karabakh conflict. As early as 2020 the two countries announced that they were working together to modernize Azerbaijani military equipment, and with this in mind Ankara provided Baku with the Ilgar electronic warfare system, which can control radio emissions and the electromagnetic spectrum to attack enemy forces. Turkey has also given the Azerbaijanis new reconnaissance planes that are deployed along the Armenian border, but in addition to being a military partner, it has also affirmed itself as an ally on the energy front: on September 25, the two countries laid the groundwork for the Nakhchivan-Ighdir gas pipeline project, which will be completed next year and will allow the enclave that lies between Armenia, Iran and Turkey to be supplied directly with Azerbaijani gas through Turkish territory, without depending on Iranian supplies.
Baku’s relationship with Israel
Among Azerbaijan’s main arms suppliers and supporters in its “mutilated sovereignty” reconstruction project is Israel, which is estimated to have equipped the Azeris with nearly 70 percent of its entire arsenal, including long-range missiles and drones, between 2016 and 2020.
Concerned with a common enemy, Iran, as well as being excellent trading partners (nearly 7 percent of Azerbaijani products reach the Israeli market and 40 percent of the oil consumed in Israel is Azerbaijani), the two countries have had strong bilateral relations since 1992: Israel with capital to purchase energy and consumer goods and cutting-edge technology on the military front, Azerbaijan with huge energy capabilities and an army that initially need to be rebuilt and now has to be brought up to NATO levels.
The change of pace between Baku and Tehran
After decades of very tense relations, the rapport between Azerbaijan and Iran may have taken a path towards détente. Influencing the change of pace is the shift in regional balances that now see Baku in a position of strength, sealed by the recovery of Nagorno Karabakh. A rapprochement with the country would benefit Tehran economically, thanks to the new connecting infrastructure the Azeris are planning, and direct access to Russian markets to circumvent Western sanctions.
Tehran, which has traditionally sided with Armenia in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, has in recent years tried to keep a low profile on the case as Azerbaijan has grown, economically and militarily, to become a medium-sized regional power. A radical stance against Baku could have triggered a backlash from the Azerbaijani “minority” living in the north of the country, 15 to 20 million people that accounts for a quarter of Iran’s total citizens and exceeds the population of all of Azerbaijan.
In order to reaffirm the strength of its relations with Armenia, Iran has offered to host talks between the two countries’ foreign ministers, the first since the Azerbaijani reconquest of Karabakh. President Ebrahim Raisi said Tehran is ready to assist Baku and Yerevan in finally resolving the dispute, where Russia and Europe have failed for 30 years.
Cover photo: an elederly women sits as she waits among fellow Armenian refugees in Goris on September 29, 2023 before being evacuated in various Armenian cities, as the exodus from the Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic Armenian enclave following its fall to Azerbaijani forces continued unabated. (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD / AFP.)
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