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  • Bridgette Bennis

The Azeri-Armenian Conflict: How Did We Get Here?

On September 12, Azeri forces broke through the border at Nagorno-Karabakh in a continued escalation of tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This breakage of ceasefire agreements occurred about two years after the start of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. The history of conflict between these two nations isn’t new and is rooted in years of issues.

Azerbaijan, primarily comprised of Muslim ethnic Azeris with Turkic roots, has long been at odds with Armenia, a nation of predominantly Christian ethnic Armenians. The two Caucasian nations are most inflamed in regards to a disputed section of land known as Nagorno-Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azeri territory but is almost entirely inhabited by ethnic Armenians.

The two nations have always fought over the territory, but it was not until the 1920s that the setup for the wars we see today would be set. When first admitted to the USSR, Nagorno-Karabakh was controlled by Armenia and considered their territory to guarantee Armenian support for the USSR. However, in 1923, the Soviets redrew the borders of who would control which territories. The man in charge of this–Joseph Stalin–drew the borders so that Nagorno-Karabakh, mostly ethnic Armenians, would be under Azeri rule. While this caused protest and unrest, the Soviets prevented any fighting. But once the USSR dissolved, there was no one to prevent the conflict from erupting violently.

Map explaining the geographic regions of interest in the conflict. Source: Radio Free Europe

The Armenians and Azeris had begun attacks before independence was truly declared, but once the Soviet Union dissolved, the issue became even more dire. Once Nagorno-Karabakh attempted to declare independence as The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, the conflict exploded. The First Nagorno-Karabakh War began. The war displaced over a million people from each nation. Territory switched hands multiple times as the world watched closely.

A member of the Armeni militia stands inside a school shelled by the Azeri army in Nagorni-Karabakh, June 2017. Source: Global Conflict Tracker.

The Minsk Group, composed of the United States, France, and Russia, worked to establish a peace treaty between the two nations before the toll worsened any further. Neither side could agree, and the most that the Minsk Group could accomplish was a weak ceasefire that has inevitably been broken many times since. The largest of these breakages being another full scale conflict: the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Over a thousand soldiers and civilians were killed and the fighting went on for over six weeks before a ceasefire was brokered by Russia. But that ceasefire was inevitably broken as well by the time of the 2022 conflict.

All peace agreements require Russia to be made, but that becomes even further complicated as Moscow scrambles over the War in Ukraine. Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Turkey, isn’t an option for peace deals as they refuse to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide committed on their own territory and agree almost exclusively with Azerbaijan in Armenian-Azeri disputes. While France and the United States publicly condemned both the recent conflicts and Azerbaijan for crossing the border, neither took immediate, influential action, such as imposing sanctions. Both only encourage further talks between the two nations as opposed to any strict regulations or treaties.

The civilian toll in both casualties and effects on quality of life are unspeakable. Over these decades of fighting, thousands have been killed, millions have been displaced, and many have left their home nations in search of refuge from the never-ending tensions. The 2022 breaking of the ceasefire is another indication that these tensions will likely never go away. Azeri president, Ilham Aliyev, and his regime have been accused of preventing freedoms of speech, protest, and journalism as opponents are frequently jailed. There is no opportunity for Azeri citizens to protest the repeated wars and battles between the two nations without being jailed and possibly tortured. Opposing Aliyev’s rules and term goals is impossible, and Azeri citizens can be accused of and charged with treason for opposing Aliyev. Whilst Armenian citizens have more freedom to protest and express their dismay over the war, they are powerless to prevent retaliations against and from Azerbaijan.

Since September 12, tensions have cooled but are still not calm. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi went on a diplomatic visit to Armenia soon after the fighting, an action which Azerbaijan has criticized. Citizens of Armenian descent in the United states have protested the continual economic support of Azerbaijan, especially in the crude oil industry. TheUnited States and France continue to encourage diplomatic discussions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and for now, no major progress is expected. It is likely that border conflicts will repeat and another war may occur, but no serious judgments can be made until the dust settles from this last encounter at the Azeri-Armenian border.

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