How Nagorno-Karabakh's fall shifted the balance of power in the Caucasus
The 19 September lightning offensive by Azerbaijan ended thirty years of self-rule in the breakaway region, located within its borders but - historically and as a result of the long-running conflict - inhabited almost exclusively by ethnic Armenians.
Over 100,000 people, almost the entirety of the region’s population, streamed through the border and sought shelter in Armenia, whose government - just like the rest of the world - never recognised what the refugees call the Republic of Artsakh, despite being its closest ally.
As a result of the offensive and under pressure from a stifling blockade in place for nearly a year, the government of Artsakh announced it would disband all its institutions by January next year.
"While Azerbaijan has stated it would 'guarantee the rights' of Armenians who want to return to their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians accuse it of ethnic cleansing"
The territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh fought a war to secede from Azerbaijan, supported by Armenian forces.
The events of those years saw atrocities on both sides and resulted in the expulsion of more than 700,000 Azeris from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the surrounding territories. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians were displaced from Azerbaijan.
Peace negotiations led by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group over the years failed to result in a settlement, and a low-intensity conflict continued.
All-out war flared up again in 2020, which saw Azerbaijan - backed by Turkey and strong from its oil boom - recover 80 percent of the territories previously lost, including one-third of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.
The rest of the territory was patrolled by a Russian 'peacekeeping' force following a Moscow-brokered ceasefire. Traditionally a close ally of Armenia, ties between the two countries have become strained over the last year.
Armenia's prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist who came to power in 2018 after leading a protest movement against corrupt post-soviet elites, has made several moves, mostly symbolic, distancing his country from Russia.
That tension, as well as Russia's engagement in its war in Ukraine, could be the reason Russian forces on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh failed to prevent the closure of the Lachin corridor connecting the enclave to Armenia in December 2022.
For months, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh had been queueing in breadlines and struggling to procure medicine and other essential items. Malnutrition and exhaustion clearly marked many of the faces of the thousands that crossed into Goris every day.
While Azerbaijan has stated it would “guarantee the rights” of Armenians who want to return to their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians accuse it of ethnic cleansing.
“It was the latest in a larger escalation,” Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Centre in Yerevan, told The New Arab.
“So the fear in Armenia is Azerbaijan will not stop, will not be satisfied,” he added, explaining that the country is concerned about Russian “either complicity or incapacity”.
In the latest signal of its distancing from Russia, the Armenian parliament has voted to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), which binds the country to arrest Putin over war crimes in Ukraine should the Russian president set foot on its territory.
Yet Armenia remains a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). It also imports over 80 percent of its gas from Russia.
“I think the Armenian government is cutting its losses in terms of Nagorno-Karabakh and challenging the relationship with Russia,” Giragosian said. “But we're smart enough here in Armenia not to see NATO membership as the answer to all of our problems.”
"'It's less about Armenia looking to the West, as the West looking to Armenia'"
Filling the void
After the Azerbaijani offensive, hundreds of opposition protesters rallied in Yerevan. They called on Armenian president Pashinyan to resign over the crisis, calling him a “traitor.”
“This government was actually re-elected despite losing the war in 2020,” Giragosian explained. He believes that frustration over the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh will not topple the government. “I expect much of the frustration to shift away from the government and to target Russia for its inability to defend the Armenians."
Washington and Brussels have been moving to fill the void left by Russia. In January 2023, the EU launched a civilian monitoring mission in Armenia. “It's less about Armenia looking to the West, as the West looking to Armenia,” Giragosian said.
During a visit to Yerevan on 3 October, French foreign minister Catherine Colonna promised to supply military equipment to Armenia.
In response, Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev said that France would be to blame for any new war in Armenia. Aliyev also boycotted a long-planned meeting with Pashinyan in Granada, Spain, in early October, which was attended by EU Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Olaf Scholz.
While some EU politicians have called for sanctions on Azerbaijan, Michel invited both Pashinyan and Aliyev to meet in Brussels by the end of October. On a visit to Tbilisi on 8 October, president Aliyev said Azerbaijan is ready to hold talks with Armenia, indicating Georgia as the preferred host for negotiations.
“This is the most promising moment there has ever been to get to a lasting peace,” said Matthew Bryza, an American diplomat and former co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, which included the US, France and Russia.
The Armenian side has also been signalling its willingness to sit down at the negotiating table. "Endless war is not beneficial for anyone," parliament speaker Alen Simonian told Armenian public television on 25 September.
“Armenia does not have any capacity to wage another war against Azerbaijan. Its military has been decimated in the last war,” said Bryza.
“If there were to be another flare-up of armed conflict, it wouldn't provide any hope to the Armenian side unless the Armenian military completely rebuilt itself. And that's not really something anyone's talking about,” he added.
Still, some analysts warn that disputes over border areas and trade routes could further prolong the conflict.
“The Azerbaijani strategy in this campaign is largely driven by domestic politics,” explained Giragosian.
“I see a father and son dynasty, authoritarian. A family ruling the country for over a quarter of a century, and needing conflict to distract the population from the lack of democracy and corruption.”
Ylenia Gostoli is a reporter currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. She has covered politics, social change, and conflict across the Middle East and Europe. Her work on refugees, migration and human trafficking has won awards and grants
Follow her on Twitter: @YleniaGostoli