“A fresh disaster may be looming in Nagorno-Karabakh, the majority-Armenian highland enclave within the borders of Azerbaijan,” wrote veteran scholar Thomas de Waal for Carnegie Europe in a note on September 24.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan's borders, is once again teetering on the edge of the abyss. Recent events have unfolded rapidly, and the situation is fraught with uncertainty and potential upheaval, says de Waal, who reported on the Chechen wars for the Moscow Times before going on to become a scholar specialising in the Caucasus.
On September 19 Azerbaijan launched a swift and overwhelming offensive against Karabakh, toppling the relatively inferior Armenian forces. This offensive marked Azerbaijan's recapture of the province, which it had not controlled for thirty-five years. Reports from locals indicated a grim toll, with at least 200 casualties and credible accounts of civilian deaths.
In the aftermath, Karabakh Armenians found themselves signing a ceasefire agreement under duress. This agreement compelled them to disband their local self-defence force.
Talks did occur between Karabakh Armenians and emissaries from Baku, but Azerbaijan's proposals lacked the promise of autonomy or the establishment of an elected local government. Instead, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan offered limited concessions in the form of educational, cultural and religious rights, a meagre offering considering the circumstances.
“Force, not diplomacy, has decided the course of this conflict since it first flared up during the era of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. (Some would say it originated well before, in the early twentieth century.),” de Waal says.
In 1988, Karabakh Armenians sought to break away from Soviet Azerbaijan, resulting in an armed conflict. During the 1990s Armenians gained the upper hand, occupying substantial portions of Azerbaijani territory and displacing hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. However, in 2020 Azerbaijan mounted a successful counter-offensive, reclaiming lost territories and parts of Karabakh.
“To the frustration of Baku, the Karabakhis did not act like a defeated party in 2020. They invited sympathetic foreigners – including a French presidential candidate – to visit the region they still referred to by a medieval Armenian name, Artsakh. Azerbaijan alleged that weapons and land mines were being transported along the so-called Lachin Corridor, the only road connecting Karabakh to Armenia,” says de Waal.
Diplomatic efforts resumed, with the European Union, the United States and Russia mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While progress was made on bilateral issues, the core matter of Karabakh's status remained unresolved. Although Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan recognised Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, including Nagorno-Karabakh, questions remained regarding the rights and security of its inhabitants.
“The Karabakhis’ fate was probably sealed in April, when Azerbaijan established a checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor. This de facto blockade deepened in the summer, and the situation became desperate for tens of thousands of people remaining in Karabakh (estimates range from 50,000 to 120,000) who began to run out of food and medicine,” says de Waal.
“There is a geopolitical game here. A small Russian peacekeeping force was established in Karabakh in 2020. Moscow, which has always wavered between and manipulated both sides, had presented itself as the protector of the Karabakhis. President Vladimir Putin publicly told them his peacekeepers would guarantee their safe return from Armenia and continued residence in their homeland. But the Russian soldiers stood by as the checkpoint was set up on the Lachin road earlier this year, fracturing trust held in the peacekeeping force,” adds de Waal.
Geopolitical considerations also played a role. Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Armenia began to pivot towards the West, while Azerbaijan, sharing a border with Russia and adopting an authoritarian model, appeared to be a more attractive partner.
In recent months there were hopes of reopening the Lachin road and another road via the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam for humanitarian purposes. Western leaders, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and European Council President Charles Michel, conveyed the message that the use of force was unacceptable.
However, the military offensive on September 19 took Western officials by surprise. Russian peacekeepers seemingly stood aside, fuelling suspicions of a tacit agreement between Moscow and Baku. Russian officials even pointed fingers at Pashinyan and his pro-Western stance rather than holding Azerbaijan accountable for the conflict, says de Waal.
At the United Nations, Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock condemned Azerbaijan for breaking promises and causing suffering to the population. In contrast, the Russian representative acknowledged the escalated armed confrontation but refrained from assigning blame.
“In the darker European order of the past decade, where normative values and a multilateral framework have been devalued, Azerbaijan cares less about statements of condemnation from Western governments. The key thing is almost certainly the support of two regional powers and neighbours: the full backing of Turkey and deliberate equivocation from Russia, which looks more concerned about keeping its military base on the ground in Azerbaijan and humiliating the government in Yerevan than in ensuring the rights of local Karabakh Armenians,” says de Waal.
The International Committee of the Red Cross is the only international organisation on the ground in Karabakh. Western officials have called for an international humanitarian and monitoring presence akin to missions during the Balkan wars of the 1990s but have done little else. Azerbaijan and Russia, seeking to justify their peacekeeping force, are likely to resist such efforts. The West has almost no leverage in the conflict and Armenia is too weak to resist Azerbaijan aggression.
“Barring an unexpected international initiative, the main question may now be whether a mass exodus of Karabakhis to Armenia will happen in an orderly fashion or with bloodshed and detentions of male residents,” says de Waal.
Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh are reportedly removing the pictures of their loved ones that fell in earlier walls from the walls of their homes and destroying documents linking their male relatives to the fighting. The authorities in Baku have also ominously said that they will guarantee free passage out of the region, except for those linked to the previous wars.
“There are modest signs that the Azerbaijanis will allow the former, but the situation on the ground is messy and volatile – as could only be expected when combatants in a three-decade-long conflict confront one another again, face to face. The repercussions of the third Karabakh war will be long and hard,” concludes de Waal.