Illustration by Xingzhou Cheng for an article on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
It's time for the public to stop turning their backs on Armenia and Azerbaijan. (Illustration by Xingzhou Cheng, Fashion Institute of Technology)

A Crash Course on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The conflict is one of deep-seated ethnic and historical tensions. It’s become extremely necessary to spread awareness of the violence.

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Illustration by Xingzhou Cheng for an article on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The conflict is one of deep-seated ethnic and historical tensions. It’s become extremely necessary to spread awareness of the violence.

The recent eruption of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan has reignited a decades-old conflict over the disputed territory of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the strife between the two opposing countries has resulted in 600 deaths and hundreds more wounded since the onset of fighting on Sept. 27.

Although this conflict has raged on for 32 years, Western public attention toward the violence has been incredibly limited despite its global ramifications. In an attempt to raise awareness about the situation, this article will explore three of its major aspects, including its history, the recent violence and its international implications.  However, I must disclose that, due to its length, this article was not written to explain all of the intricacies of the persistent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict but rather, is only meant to provide the fundamental background of the conflict to guide readers into pursuing more information on the pressing topic.

1. The Background of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

While the modern strife between the two countries officially began in February 1988, it is important to understand the roots of the conflict, which began in 1918, after the countries had declared their independence from the Transcaucasian Federation and subsequently laid claim on the same territory. Both cited their belief that the lands were historically and demographically theirs. The territorial disputes became quite deadly and the violence soon culminated in war. After the territories were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1920, the fighting ceased and there were relatively few violent confrontations.

The Soviet Union’s ability to thwart the hostility between the two countries waned as its eventual dissolution in 1991 approached. The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, established by the Soviets in 1920 as a part of Azerbaijan (despite the population being 95% ethnically Armenian), became the center of the ethnic antagonism between the populations. In 1988, the Armenians of Karabakh became empowered enough to agitate Azerbaijan’s government to join Armenia. Strong opposition from the government and the USSR only exacerbated the ethnic hostility, and war quickly followed the countries’ declarations of independence. Brutal bombardments, pogroms and ariel attacks against Armenians and blockades of essential services were commonplace, resulting in a great number of casualties.

Eventually a ceasefire was brokered in 1994 by Russian officials, and in 1995, the countries also agreed to mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group — composed of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and other Western European nations, and co-chaired by the United States, France and Russia. While the group could not negotiate a meaningful resolution, the ceasefire limited confrontation to clashes rather than brute war between the two nations — until the most recent spark of violence.

2. The Modern Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The deep-seated antagonism between the two nations and the international community’s failure to achieve a lasting resolution to the conflict has resulted in the current bouts of violence. Despite the 1994 ceasefire, there have been skirmishes alongside the border between the two states with varying amounts of severity such as the 2008 Mardakert clash, the 2010 Nagorno-Karabakh clash and the clash in 2016, which led to the death of 10 civilians. None of these skirmishes have resulted in new negotiations due to each side blaming the other for their role in the violence. Armenia has previously accused Azerbaijan’s government of attempting to take advantage of the growing unrest in Armenia whilst Azerbaijan’s officials claim that the Armenian government is just trying to divert attention from their internal struggles.

Violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan has continued through the two decades, coming to a head with the onset of the violence in September 2020. Resulting in the highest number of causalities since the ceasefire in 1994, the September skirmishes in Nagorno-Karabakh have caused Armenia and Azerbaijan to declare martial law, further mobilize their troops and establish curfews.

In a statement made on the social media platform Facebook, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashhinyan urged his fellow countrymen to mobilize themselves to fight Azerbaijan: “Get ready to defend our sacred homeland.” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has responded to these anti-Azerbaijani nationalistic speeches by stating that those using intimidation tactics against his country would “regret” it whilst reaffirming Azerbaijan’s claim to Nagorno-Karabakh.

3. International Foreign Actors & Why You Should Care

Often, the Western public has displayed apathy toward complicated ethnic conflicts such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; this begs the question, “But why should anyone care?” The simple answer is that the conflict could result in a massive humanitarian crisis due to both countries’ geopolitical importance and the involvement of major foreign parties.

The geopolitical and economic position of both Armenia and Azerbaijan has aroused severe concern from major Western and Eastern countries, the most dominant players being Russia, Turkey and even Israel. Russia has declared itself to be a neutral party in an attempt to be an impartial mediator, whilst Turkey and Israel have expressed their support for Azerbaijan —  even going as far as supplying the country with high tech weaponry.

As Azerbaijan continues to try to regain its territory along the Iranian border and the Lachin corridor, which holds the arterial supplying line linking Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the fear that this could foster dangerous consequences grows. The blockade of the supply line could cause civilians to panic, which could lead to Armenia escalating the conflict further and subsequently drawing Russia into the war, as the large country must then fulfill its part of its mutual defense pact with Armenia. This would then push Turkey to also formally enter the war, which could trigger a tangled cobweb of military alliances reminiscent of World War I.

Whilst the United States did play a dominant role in attempting to mediate the crisis in the 1990s, the U.S. has now disengaged and settled for a more observatory role.  Thomas de Waal, senior fellow with Carnegie Europe specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, even hypothesized that Azerbaijan has launched a military offensive due to U.S disengagement.

However, disengagement could be incredibly dangerous. As the conflict rages on, affecting the civilians of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the risk of a greater war and a subsequent major loss of life increases. Not only will the conflict cause mass causalities, but as properties are destroyed, a refugee crisis could also emerge that would further burden NGOs and international organizations — such as the United States High Commissioner for Refugees, which is already confronting a major refugee crisis from the Syrian, Myanmar and Africa Great Lakes conflicts.

With the massive upheaval in our lives by the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts in places such as Armenia and Azerbaijan can be swept under the rug in favor of sifting through our own troubles. However, the situation is dire, and the public must still commit to helping the people of Nagorno-Karabakh by not only spreading awareness, but also donating to aid funds that will directly benefit them. If the world continues to turn its back on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its vulnerable people, we may just be facing yet another violent war that will displace and murder thousands of civilians.

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