Navigating Armenia's Future Post Nagorno-Karabakh: Geopolitical and Humanitarian Threats

 /  Jan. 29, 2024, 4:35 a.m.

The former Parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh in Stepanakert, Azerbaijan

Robert Levonyan on Unsplash

The former Parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh in Stepanakert, Azerbaijan


In the rugged landscapes of the South Caucasus, a region marked by geopolitical struggles for independence among its states, one small enclave has persistently stood at the center of conflict: the de-facto breakaway region, Nagorno-Karabakh. Nestled within the historical tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, this landlocked, Armenian-majority territory has always been a central point of discord for identity and regional autonomy.

Recent events have pushed Nagorno-Karabakh into the global spotlight once again. Encouraged by changing regional and international dynamics since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2022, Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, took back Nagorno-Karabakh in a rapid military offensive in September 2023. A shift unfolded as the Azerbaijani and separatist authorities announced the dissolution of the ethnic Armenia enclave by January 2024. The dissolution triggered a mass exodus of more than 100,000 people—80% of the region’s population—fleeing towards Armenia. 

Beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis, Azerbaijan’s offensive has geopolitical implications across the South Caucasus. The operation's success raises questions about how the regional balance of power will continue to shift and change, introducing a new dynamic that extends beyond the mountainous borders of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Decades of Displacement

Following the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, which occurred between 1988 and 1994 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region was in a fragile state.  The war resulted in significant casualties and the displacement of nearly one million Azerbaijani civilians from the area. Most of the displaced civilians fled into Azerbaijan, with many living in tents or abandoned buildings. By the end of the conflict in 1994, Armenia gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied twenty percent of Azerbaijan’s geographic territory. After the Bishkek Protocol ceasefire negotiated by Russia in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh declared de facto independence, becoming the Naorno-Karabakh Republic, with a government heavily reliant on close economic, political, and military ties with Armenia. 

The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in September 2020 marked a critical turning point. Azerbaijan launched the first offensive, and the conflict witnessed hundreds of thousands of people wounded and seven thousand civilians losing their lives. Unlike the previous war, longer-range weaponry escalated the scale of the conflict beyond cross-border skirmishes. The fighting continued despite the European Union's (EU), the United States, and Russia’s early attempts to negotiate a ceasefire. In November 2020, a ceasefire was finally reached, with Russia brokering the deal for the second time. Once again, Russian peacekeepers were deployed to control the newly established boundaries.

This agreement allowed Azerbaijan to reclaim most of the territory it lost two decades prior, leaving Armenia with only a section of Karabakh. Both countries developed an agreement to use the Lachin corridor, maintained by Russian peacekeepers, to serve as a transit route connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. While the deal attempted to bring stability to the region, it did not solve all lingering issues, including the delicate power balance and unresolved territorial disputes. Russia’s role as a peacekeeper became crucial, shaping the dynamics and talks between the two countries. The deployment of Russian forces aimed at maintaining the fragile peace in the region, yet the underlying tensions persisted.

In September 2022, clashes broke out once again between Armenia and Azerbaijan along the border of both countries. Roughly 50 soldiers on both sides were killed, sparking sporadic new small-scale fights. Soon after, a blockade of the Lachin corridor, led by “eco-activists” and supported by the Azerbaijan government, began. In August 2023, Vahe Gevorgyan, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Armenia, claimed that the blockade “has impacted 2,000 pregnant women, around 30,000 children, 20,000 older persons, and 9,000 persons with disabilities.” Depriving people of food, medicine, and water, the Armenian government claimed that it violated the stipulations of the 2020 ceasefire agreement. 

In September 2023, Azerbaijani forces overwhelmed the defending troops and seized Nagorno-Karabakh in a swift 24 hours of fighting. The seizure led to the majority of ethnic Armenians fleeing back into Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the Azerbaijani government declaring the region would no longer exist in January 2024.

Another Occupation: Turkish and Russian Influence 

Azerbaijan’s military win, notably supported by Turkey, has strengthened the alliance between both countries. Azerbaijan and Turkey’s diplomatic relationship began in 1992, during the middle of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. This alliance has been a strong force, challenging the dynamics in the region, influencing diplomatic relations, and creating new transport routes. The territorial gain by Azerbaijan and the continued blockade have kept the humanitarian crisis ongoing, leading to widespread displacement and raising urgent questions about housing, livelihoods, and access to essential services. 

Russia has also gained more leverage and control over Azerbaijan, as they currently have a combatant force stationed there. Officials in Azerbaijan believe that the only way to have a peaceful solution is to allow Russia to support Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city. Many in Azerbaijan argue that the West has not played an active role in resolving the conflict. Azerbaijani officials say that the West never picked a side, as it was unprepared to develop a peacekeeping force, leaving it primarily to Russia.

Critical Crossroads: Navigating Humanitarian Concerns

The Armenian government argued the Azerbaijani forces, with the support of Russia, engaged in actions resulting in the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from the region. The lingering impact of the blockade prompted ongoing discussions about the effectiveness of international interventions, with Armenia scrutinizing the extent of support provided by Russia during the current and critical period of humanitarian strain. Armenia believes that Russia’s role in mitigating the effects of the blockade was limited due to its prioritization of directing resources toward its ongoing war in Ukraine. Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, dismissed these claims, saying, “We regard any accusations against the Russian peacekeepers as counterproductive and non-reflective of their real contribution to the effort to stabilize the situation on the ground.” Despite the official denial, concerns about Russian intervention remain, as the blockade and its consequences are ongoing.

Addressing the changed status quo in the region reveals a range of security concerns looming over the Armenia population in both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Decades of historical animosity between Armenia and Azerbaijan raise fears of retaliatory actions against Armenians, specifically those choosing to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh, and whether they would face violence and discrimination by Azerbaijan. These questions mimic the cycle of ethnic cleansing the region has been through the past three decades, with the EU expressing concern over the use of violence against Armenians by Azerbaijan. Ilham Aliyev, the Azerbaijani president, has promised that Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh will still have the right to practice their religion and culture, but many doubt this. These doubts have only been heightened with the present concurring crisis along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

The primary issue is allocating humanitarian aid for the 100,000 people who fled to Armenia. The EU has expanded monitoring missions in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. They are also looking to continue their diplomatic engagements with Armenia. However, Armenia is in a bind due to the significant number of people who fled to Armenia in the 24 hours. They have yet to discuss guaranteeing permanent housing, for example, or other long-term solutions for the Nagorno-Karabakh people. Presently, the outlook for them is bleak—the majority currently live in shelters or crowded apartments and receive limited money and employment support from the government. 

There are additional concerns over a breakout of a new war, one between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Armenians, specifically those who live near the Armenian-Azerbaijani border areas, have voiced worry about the emergence of a new conflict fueled by historical and present-day tensions. Because Azerbaijan is backed by both Turkey and Israel, they receive training, weapons, and money for the Azerbaijani army. Therefore, Azerbaijan has a more robust military compared to Armenia, which is the biggest reason why they took over Nagorno-Karabakh at such a quick speed. Based on this, the concerns are plausible since Azerbaijan has the potential to overtake Armenia militarily because there have been limited diplomatic negotiations since September 2023. 

In the aftermath of Azerbaijan's swift military offensive, supported by Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh faces pressing humanitarian challenges and geopolitical shifts, as the mass exodus of its population has prompted urgent calls for humanitarian relief. With the potential for renewed conflict looming and limited diplomatic negotiations, the South Caucasus remains at a critical crossroads, demanding sustained international attention and proactive measures for lasting stability.

The image used in this article is licensed for reuse under the Unsplash License. It was originally created by Robert Levonyan and can be accessed here.

Carri Mattis


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