The Autumn War in Nagorno-Karabakh

By Justin Tomczyk

This article was originally published on SIPR Forum’s website.

For 45 days Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. A fragile ceasefire negotiated with Russian mediation on October 9th collapsed almost instantly. A second bilateral “humanitarian ceasefire” established on October 17th lasted only a handful of hours. Even mediation of a third ceasefire by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to secure more than a few minutes of pause in the fighting. For the duration of the conflict, the cities of Stepanakert and Shushi in the Republic of Artsakh were targets of the Azerbaijani military while retaliatory strikes on a military airport near the Azerbaijani city of Ganja revealed the risk of further civilian losses and collateral damage. White phosphorus (a notorious incendiary weapon whose legality is debated in the international community) had been used in the forests of Nagorno-Karabakh while observers have recorded the continuous usage of banned cluster munitions against civilian targets. Numerous Azerbaijani drones probed Armenian airspace with interceptions occurring as far as the Kotayk province. Coupled with this new level of intensity in fighting was the inclusion of a third party into the conflict — Turkey. Through the deployment of mercenaries to Nagorno-Karabakh and an extensive air campaign, Ankara abandoned its passive support of Azerbaijan and instead played an active role in Baku’s military efforts. Through nearly two months of fighting, Russia remained aloof and unclear in its posturing towards the crisis. On the morning of November 10th, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that a trilateral negotiation with Azerbaijan and Russia produced a peace agreement. According to unofficial translations of the agreement, much of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh would return to Azerbaijan. The agreement includes provisions for the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh for a period of at least five years to monitor the handover of territory. This article will briefly explore the history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and explore the actions taken by Russia, Turkey, and Georgia during the 45 days of fighting in the autumn of 2020.

History and Legality

Nagorno-Karabakh is a territory located in the South Caucasus in what is internationally recognized as Azerbaijan. Today the territory is under the de facto governance of the Republic of Artsakh, an unrecognized state with a population just over 150,000, prior to the recent wave of fighting. During the Soviet Union’s governance of the South Caucasus, the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was given the status of “Autonomous Oblast” within the Azerbaijani SSR, which granted it a degree of self governance. The territory held an Armenian-majority population with a minority of Azerbaijanis and other Soviet nationalities. During the waning years of the Soviet Union, local authorities in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) declared independence from Azerbaijan and later pushed for political reunification with Armenia-proper. The government of the Azerbaijani SSR denied both requests in the interests of territorial integrity as well as differing interpretations over the historic heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite these denials, the NKAO formally declared its independence from the Azerbaijani SSR in September 1991. When the Azerbaijani SSR followed suit and declared independence from the USSR in October 1991, it abolished the autonomous status of the NKAO one month later. Rather than heed the policy of Azerbaijan, the NKAO changed its name to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and established a de facto capital in the city of Stepanakert. After months of fighting between militias and guerilla fighters belonging to NKR and the fledgling military of Azerbaijan, the military of the Republic of Armenia formally intervened in support of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. This was done with the purpose of securing a geographic connection between Armenia and NKR known as the Lachin Corridor which would allow for a unified Armenian national front in defense of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. After further fighting between Azerbaijan and the combined forces of Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic — which later became the Republic of Artsakh — an uneasy ceasefire was established in 1994 with the mediation of the Russian Federation. However, neither a lasting peace treaty nor an armistice have been signed. The fighting in 1988 to 1994 became known as the “First Karabakh War,” and sporadic skirmishes continue to this day.

In the most literal and strict interpretation of the concept of national sovereignty, the presence of Armenian forces on the internationally-recognized territory of Azerbaijan (specifically in the former territory of the NKAO its surrounding districts) may be considered a violation of territorial integrity. However, this interpretation does not take into account the agency of the residents of NKR and their inherent right to self determination. Was Azerbaijan’s denial of the NKAO’s initial declaration of independence a response to a purely domestic affair, or was it a violation of the self determination of the Armenian residents of the territory? If the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh were to be returned to Azerbaijan, what would be the fate of the Republic of Artsakh’s 150,000 residents, particularly given the anti-Armenian sentiments espoused by the Azerbaijani government and the intentional erasure of Armenian culture and history seen in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan? Given the ongoing targeting of the Republic of Artsakh’s civilian centers (particularly with the usage of banned cluster bombs) by the Azerbaijani military, at what point does Azerbaijan lose the status of an aggrieved party and is instead considered an aggressor intentionally escalating a conflict? These questions are not raised to minimize the impact of the conflict on Azerbaijan itself, especially given the displacement of the NKAO’s Azerbaijani minority and the current total of 351,000 IDPs in Azerbaijan who have been affected by the conflict. However, Azerbaijan’s reclamation of territory alone does not guarantee peace or stability in Nagorno-Karabakh. The scope and effectiveness of the Russian peacekeeping mission remains unclear and the risks of ethnic cleansing or protracted insurgency may make a lasting peace impossible to achieve.

Disparities and Differences Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

When we consider the immense disparity between Azerbaijan and the combination of Armenia and Artsakh, the status of “aggressor” becomes even more vague. Azerbaijan is drastically larger than Armenia and Artsakh in nearly all metrics, from population and geographic size to GDP and military spending. The disparity between Armenia and Azerbaijan grows even larger when we consider Turkey’s intervention in the conflict in support of Baku. Together, Turkey and Azerbaijan represent a combined population of 95 million people while Armenia and Artsakh total roughly 3 million. Armenia’s defense spending stands at $600 million dollars, while the combined spending of Azerbaijan and Turkey is nearly 40 times that figure. Almost the entirety of Armenia’s military equipment is purchased from the Russian Federation which sells arms to Armenia below typical export prices through a bilateral agreement. In comparison, Azerbaijan and Turkey receive weapons from a diverse variety of domestic sources and international partners, including the Russian Federation, which is also Azerbaijan’s largest arms supplier and recently sold S-400 anti-air systems to Turkey.

Both countries also display major differences in their defense policies and national security strategies. Armenian military strategy is focused on maintaining its current holdings in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and guarding the state borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey. In comparison, Azerbaijan has displayed much more aggressive posturing. Activities on the Azerbaijani side of the line of contact suggest that a major mobilization effort was organized by Baku prior to September 27th. Azerbaijani reservists were called into service and civilian cars were impounded by the military as elements of the army began snap-exercises. Mobilization of this scale in the days leading to September 27th suggests that the outbreak of fighting was due to a premeditated offensive by Azerbaijan rather than an unintentional escalation of a minor skirmish. Members of the Azerbaijani government have made multiple irredentist claims against the state of Armenia, as President Illham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has frequently made public statements of his intent to not only recapture Nagorno-Karabakh but to also extend Azerbaijan’s rule to the territory of Armenia-proper. One of the most public displays of anti-Armenian sentiment by the Azerbaijani government was the pardon — and later commendation — of an Azerbaijani soldier convicted of murdering an Armenian serviceman.

Moscow and Yerevan

One of the most important relationships to consider when assessing regional security in the South Caucasus is the partnership between Armenia and the Russian Federation. Russia is Armenia’s largest trading partner and is home to the largest share of the world’s Armenian diaspora (at around 2 million people). After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, both countries continued warm relations, which include Armenia’s participation in Russian-led integration projects like the Eurasian Economic Union. Although Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution is not considered to be overtly opposed to Russian interests, it did see the deposition of a regime allied with Russia in an increasingly contested region. This has led to a degree of tension between Nikol Pashinyan and Vladimir Putin, as Pashinyan and his government provide an example of a democratic transition in a former Soviet bloc state. The Russian Federation is also considered to be Armenia’s main partner in matters related to security. This is due to the physical presence of the Russian military at the 102nd military base in Gyumri and the Erebuni military airport near Yerevan. Through a bilateral agreement between Moscow and Yerevan, the Russian Ministry of the Interior has jurisdiction at crossing points along Armenia’s borders with Iran, Georgia, and at Zvartnots international airport in addition to patrolling Armenia’s western frontier with Turkey. Most importantly Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a treaty organization whose concept of collective defense is similar to that of NATO. In accordance with the alliance’s structure, participation in the CSTO would theoretically grant Armenia a guarantee of protection in the event of an attack on the country’s territory. This protection would not extend towards an attack on Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, as it is outside of the territory of Armenia-proper.

However, the past two months have called the effectiveness of this collective security partnership into question. Armenian territory has come under fire from Azerbaijan multiple times during skirmishes. In response to the Armenian province of Tavush coming under fire this past summer, the CSTO took no meaningful action beyond issuing statements expressing the immediate need for a ceasefire. There are also political divisions within the alliance that would make collective intervention in defense of Armenia unlikely. Fellow CSTO member Kazakhstan has expressed support for Azerbaijan’s position in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and during the 2016 Four Day War went as far as to cancel a summit of the Eurasian Economic Union scheduled to be held in Yerevan as a symbol of solidarity with Azerbaijan. Unlike NATO’s concept of collective security, a member of the CSTO is not mandated to come to the defense of another member if attacked. Article 7 of the founding treaty outlines the wide latitude of security cooperation that should be taken by members of the CSTO and lays the groundwork for the alliance’s vision of collective security. However, it is preceded by Article 5, which explicitly states that participation in the alliance is on a voluntary basis and stresses the importance of the independence of the alliance’s members.

Looking beyond intervention from the CSTO, there was considerable uncertainty as to whether Russia would unilaterally intervene in defense of Armenia in the days following the outbreak of fighting. Russia’s passive stance was a departure from previous posturing in the 1990s. During a period of Turkish mobilization along Armenia’s western frontier in the First Karabakh War, the Russian commander of the CIS forces in Armenia publically commented that if Turkish forces were to intervene on behalf of Azerbaijan and cross the Armenian border then “we shall be on the brink of a new world war.” Article 2 of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed by Armenia and Russia in the 1990s specifically outlines a mutual defense agreement between both countries that would require either party to come to the aid of the other in the event of an attack.

Considering that the Kremlin’s attention was likely focused on the ongoing political crisis in Belarus, stopping the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh may not have been a priority for Moscow. Even with the physical presence of Russian troops in the Republic of Armenia, a meaningful intervention would present a major logistical challenge as it would open a third front of activity for the Russian armed forces alongside Syria and Ukraine. This also presents the possibility of direct confrontation between Russian and Turkish forces, which could compromise the ongoing rapprochement between Erdoğan and Putin following multiple diplomatic crises related to the Syrian Civil War. Prime Minister Pashinyan publicly called upon Russia to deliver on its collective security promise after territory of the Republic of Armenia was struck by Azerbaijani forces. Beyond the construction of a small outpost in Armenia, Putin expressed a position similar to that of the CSTO, stating that Russia would only come to Yerevan’s defense if the clashes spread to Armenia-proper. Russia’s reluctance to come to Armenia’s aid may have been an intentional effort to compromise the post-revolution government and frame instability and conflict as the price of democratization. Even with the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh through the proposed peace plan, it is unlikely that Moscow will be viewed as a credible security partner to Armenia for the foreseeable future.

Turkish Power Projection in the Caucasus

Turkey’s active participation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one of the more recent concerning developments. Since 1991, Turkey has been a political ally of Azerbaijan and has supported Baku’s position towards Nagorno-Karabakh. This support included Ankara’s suspension of all diplomatic relations with Yerevan in 1993 and the closure of the Armenian-Turkish border as part of an ongoing economic blockade. With the exception of a brief period of rapprochement in the mid 2000s, Armenia and Turkey have maintained a tense relationship. This tension was particularly visible during the Turkish military invasion of Northern Syria in 2019. This action led to a sharp condemnation from the Armenian government while Turkey’s incursion was supported by the governments of Azerbaijan and Pakistan. In addition to supporting Azerbaijan’s claim on Nagorno-Karabakh and Turkey’s activities in Syria, Pakistan has made comparisons between the disputed status of Nagorno-Karabakh and that of Kashmir. Some have considered Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Turkey to form a “strategic triangle” on the topic of Nagorno-Karabakh.

This fall, there have been multiple instances of active participation by the Turkish military in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Turkish F-16 fighters were reportedly stationed at the Azerbaijani military airport near the city of Ganja. One of these fighters was implicated in the downing of an Armenian SU-25 ground attack aircraft. While the governments of Azerbaijan and Turkey denied Armenia’s accusation, satellite photos obtained by a New York Times-affiliated investigator confirm the presence of F-16 fighters at the Ganja military airport. Considering that Azerbaijan’s air force is composed almost entirely of Russian-designed aircraft, the only way that the F-16 could be at the airport is if it were stationed there by a foreign military. Ankara responded to the photo evidence by claiming that the jets were left behind following a wargame earlier in the summer. This contributes to the evidence of a gradual mobilization effort by Azerbaijan in the weeks leading up to September 27th.

Investigative reporting also uncovered that mercenaries and foreign fighters had been contracted by Turkey to participate in the conflict on behalf of Azerbaijan. Foreign fighters are not necessarily new to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as individual mercenaries from former Soviet republics and Mujahideen fighters were present in the first Karabakh war. While reporting often uses the blanket term “Syrian Fighters” or “Syrian Rebels” to describe these combatants, these individuals appear to be members of a very specific faction of anti-Assad forces known as the Syrian National Army (SNA). Turkey is the primary sponsor of the SNA and the group has acted as a proxy for Turkish interests in the Middle East, particularly in Libya. The involvement of the SNA fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh represents yet another instance of the group acting as a proxy for Ankara’s interests in Turkey’s surrounding neighborhood. Not only does this intervention demonstrate Turkey’s willingness to actively participate in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and project military power in the South Caucasus, but it also shows an attempt to use ambiguity and deniability among other strategies associated with “hybrid warfare.” This contrasts heavily with Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, which was done with immediately identifiable Turkish forces (alongside local SNA members). However, personal accounts from Syrian fighters in Azerbaijan seem to describe an experience more akin to human trafficking than typical private military contracting. These individuals describe themselves as being drawn into service from destitute poverty and being deployed with little to no training and without proper explanation of their exact role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The benefits of this strategy are not immediately clear, as the usage of mercenary forces provides neither a sense of true ambiguity towards Turkey’s involvement in the conflict nor a clear tactical advantage that would be unattainable with conventional troops.

The Georgian Factor

While not a direct party to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Georgia is nonetheless a relevant actor and a key part of the regional stability of the South Caucasus. Georgia borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan and has positioned itself as a neutral mediator since 1991. Due to the Turkish economic blockade against Armenia, the Armenian-Georgian border is Yerevan’s only viable, terrestrial crossing for international trade. This has created a major bottleneck as fiber optic cables, energy delivery infrastructure, and nearly all supply chains are reliant on the Armenian-Georgian border remaining open and accessible. While Tbilisi and Yerevan enjoy generally warm diplomatic ties with one another, Armenia’s partnership with Russia has complicated this relationship. This is due to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Georgia over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — two frozen conflict zones located in northern Georgia that are under Russian military occupation. Georgia is also Azerbaijan’s main conduit for trade with Turkey as major east-west infrastructure projects like the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway, and a variety of pipeline networks are dependent on passing through Georgia. Georgia is also home to large populations of ethnic Armenians clustered in the region of Javakheti and Azerbaijanis in the Kvemo Kartli region .

The past six weeks of fighting have shown us the limit of Georgian neutrality towards the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Tbilisi has increasingly limited the transit of Russian military equipment to Armenia through its territory and airspace. After the outbreak of fighting on September 27th, Georgia suspended the transit of all military equipment to either Armenia or Azerbaijan. This was done in the interests of neutrality and may have been part of an effort to position Georgia as a mediator in a later peace process. Although this gesture was equal to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, by no means was it equitable. Azerbaijan has multiple vectors for the delivery of weapons and sources its military hardware from several different countries. In comparison, losing the transit of military equipment from Russia to Armenia via Georgia left Yerevan cut off from its only arms supplier and presented a logistical challenge to the Russian garrison in Armenia. Additionally, on September 26th Russian forces were mobilized in the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of the “Kavkaz 2020” exercises. Given that Russia used wargames and military exercises in the Caucasus as a cover for staging prior to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, this likely generated a sense of anxiety in Tbilisi and factored into the decision to limit transit of military equipment through Georgia. The frustration towards the transit limit reached a boiling point in Javakheti, where the local Armenian community blocked traffic from the Georgian-Turkish border in protest against the suspected movement of Turkish military equipment through Georgia into Azerbaijan. This military transit limit is likely to have created a deep political schism between Tbilisi and Yerevan and may compromise any potential for Georgian mediation in the peace process.

Moving Forward

As mentioned previously, Nikol Pashinyan announced that a deal has been negotiated with Azerbaijan regarding the cessation of hostilities over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The proposed peace agreement includes the handover of certain territories belonging to the Republic of Artsakh to the Azerbaijani government. Any areas under the Republic of Artsakh’s control will feature a Russian peacekeeping presence. Considering other deployments of Russian peacekeepers to frozen conflict zones in the former Soviet Union, we can expect that this peacekeeping presence will remain indefinitely.

It would seem that the turning point in the Autumn War was the loss of the fortress-city of Shushi. Located among the highest peaks of Nagorno-Karabakh, Shushi is crucial to any military presence in the territory. The operation to capture the city in the First Karabakh War was known as the “Wedding in the Mountains” and was key to stopping the shelling of Stepanakert by Azerbaijani forces. To Armenia and Artsakh, losing Shushi meant that Artsakh’s main artery with Armenia, the Lachin Corridor, would come under fire, leaving Artsakh completely isolated from Armenia.

For now, the international community has avoided a doomsday scenario of confrontation between great powers over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. With that in mind, outside observers should pause and ground themselves in the human cost of the conflict and the deep damage that has been done to post-revolution Armenia. At least 1,221 Armenian servicemen have been lost since September 27th. Considering the country’s small population, per capita this is the equivalent of the United States losing the entirety of its Vietnam casualties from 1964–1975 in six weeks. With demonstrators storming government buildings in Yerevan, it remains unclear whether Pashinyan and his coalition can weather this defeat and what will become of the legacy of the Velvet Revolution. Meanwhile, international observers are left wondering if a meaningful peace is tenable. After two months of repeated shelling the remaining territory of the Republic of Artsakh is left devastated as its future remains in limbo. The deployment of Russian peacekeepers has minimized Armenia and Artaskh’s agency in resolving the conflict and has sent a clear message from Moscow — democracy comes at the price of security and no revolution goes unpunished.

Justin Tomczyk is an M.A. candidate at Stanford University’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2017 he moved to Yerevan, Armenia, as a FLAS fellow for the study of Russian language at the Russian-Armenian Slavonic University. Following the Velvet Revolution he remained in Armenia where he worked as a researcher covering political conflict in the former Soviet Union before arriving at Stanford in the fall of 2019. His research interests include Russian foreign policy in the South Caucasus and far-right movements in Eastern Europe. He can be found on twitter at @justintomczyk1. His written work can be found at http://stanford.academia.edu/JustinTomczyk and https://www.evnreport.com/profiles/justin-tomczyk.

SIPR Forum elevates cutting-edge analyses of timely and relevant issues in international affairs in the form of short articles and opinion pieces.

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