The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in Artsakh: A Comprehensive Critical Appreciation

Updated: May 26

Pratik Dutta,

Junior Research Analyst,

Internationalism Research.

When Azerbaijani troops announced the capture of the strategic city of Shusha[1] (culturally known as Shushi to Armenians) which was earlier controlled by ethnic Armenian forces of the Republic of Artsakh on the 3rd of November, 2020 a deathblow was struck to the Armenian war effort. The war which started in late September turned to go drastically in favour of Azerbaijan by early November especially in the South and South-Eastern regions that adjoin Karabakh where the ethnically Armenian controlled cities of Varanda, Jabrayil, Hadrut, Kashunik, and Kovsakan were overrun by the Azerbaijani (‘liberated’ as claimed by the Azeris) army after fierce fighting. The annexation of such cities clearly shows the military preparedness and prowess of the Azerbaijani military which it seems has been preparing for such a war for the past two decades ever since their setback during the war of separation waged by the Republic of Artsakh (officially supported by Armenia) which ended in 1994 resulting in the Artsakh and its neighbouring districts becoming independent of Azerbaijani control.

The population of Nagorno-Karabakh has majorly been populated by ethnic Armenians who were not elated with the continued inclusion of their home region under Azerbaijani sovereignty leading up to the disintegration of the USSR. The Soviet invasion of the Caucasus in 1921 led to a very interesting problem that needed to be solved i.e. the way in which Caucasian nationalism could be quelled; the answer to such an issue was given by Stalin (born and raised in Georgia) who was then the People’s Commissar for Nationalities and who was also the supervisor of the Soviet Caucasian Bureau, he propounded the tactic of making the different Caucasian ethnic nationalities fight amongst themselves lest they choose to form a united front against the Soviets. To do this psychological pressure and purposeful resentment was exerted on the Armenians who were very emotionally connected to their brethren in the Artsakh against the Azerbaijanis, as the Caucasian Bureau during a meeting had voted that the ethnically Armenian region of Nagorno Karabakh would be joined with the newly created Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia but later reversed this decision and placed the region under the Azerbaijan SSR. The Soviets, later on, fuelled this resentment by creating the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within Azerbaijan which was already inhabited by 94% ethnic Armenians who would constantly clash with their Azerbaijani neighbours.

The Secessionists in the Artsakh were further aware of the futility of Soviet intervention to right the wrongs made by the Caucasian Bureau especially when Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear that the borders between the republics would not change, in accordance with Article 78 of the Soviet constitution; his fear was that many regions in the USSR were vying for territorial change and redrawing the maps of Karabakh would set a dangerous precedent leading to the permanent dissolution of the USSR. Ever since the beginning of the conflict in the region, Armenia has always been at a military disadvantage compared to the Azeri’s. Soviet battle plans that contemplated a NATO invasion from Turkey into the Caucasus would turn Armenia into a battle zone hence there were only three divisions stationed in the Armenian SSR and no airfields, while Azerbaijan had a total of five divisions and five military airfields. When the parliament of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast voted to leave Azerbaijan all-out war was already on-going but no international recognition of the region as a part of Armenia came, instead the international community recognizes Karabakh to be under Azeri jurisdiction including the districts of Kalbajar, Lachin and Agdam that were annexed by the Artsakh republic during the first war. The intervention of International Law in this conflict also posed to be quite problematic due to the ambiguous resolutions passed by the Security Council that didn’t exactly diffuse the situation and were also ignored by Armenia despite its binding nature on sovereign nations as mentioned in Article 25 of the UN charter. First of all, it was a known fact that the Republic of Armenia was providing the secessionists with food, fuel, weapons and logistical support including the support of infantry and armoured divisions but this was denied officially, resolution 822 passed by the Security Council mentioned the invasion of the Kalbajar district of Azerbaijan by ‘local Armenian forces’, it in no way mentioned the regular army of Armenia and even failed to properly chastise the Republic of Armenia for their continued efforts in bolstering the secessionist efforts. The resolution also demanded the withdrawal of all occupying forces’ from the other territories of Azerbaijan but to no avail, as local Armenian forces had already successfully protected the capital of the region Stepanakert and occupied the strategic and culturally important city Shusha from Azeri control including securing the sensitive and vital Lachin corridor which connected Armenia proper to Nagorno-Karabakh.Not only this the Armenian forces were fast approaching areas and cities that were not considered the territory of the ethnic Armenian people of Karabakh and which wasn’t claimed by them[2]; the logic behind such a move may have been to occupy as much as Azeri land around Karabakh so as to widen the barrier that would keep towns and villages and their positions out of the range of Azerbaijani artillery in the near future. But surely such an act relates to an act of aggression as per UN Security Council regulations by local Armenian forces against Azeri land as a war for one right to self-determination cannot mean the trampling over the rights of the other ethnic population by entering their land under the justification of setting a strategic defence line? Justification in occupying land which has never been historically claimed seems very vague and the fact that such annexation of territory clearly belonging to another ethnic group shows the disdain for the rights of people who have been displaced in the region due to such an armed incursion. The issue has always been the right to self-determination of the ethnic Armenian population of Artsakh and their wish to join Armenia but what about the 700,000 Azeri refugees forced to flee Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions? However, an argument can be brought forward that due to past atrocities committed against Armenian minorities in Turkey (the Armenian Genocide) and in Baku, the Armenian leadership felt a buffer zone was needed so as to safeguard the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh from future Azeri vengeance. Ultimately, a ceasefire was brokered between the warring parties in 1994 and Armenian forces retained the annexed Azeri provinces. Coming to the present scenario the political landscape has changed dramatically as there are vested foreign interests in the Caucasus the most apparent being those of Turkey and the Russian Federation. The Caucasus is very significant due to its strategic and economic resources most notably natural gas and the major oil reserves[3] that can be found in Azerbaijan; after the war ended in 1994 the political leadership of Azerbaijan chose to invest heavily in its military by tapping its oil reserves that not only led to the construction of the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline in 2006 which connects Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey (notably bypassing Armenia) but which transformed Azerbaijan into an oil-based economy which led to an increase in foreign direct investment into the country amounting to $20 Billion Dollars (2010 estimates).