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Armenia-Azerbaijan: The Fire Beneath the Ashes

Armenia-Azerbaijan: The Fire Beneath the Ashes
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

On July 28, three Armenian soldiers were killed in border clashes with Azerbaijan. The result was both countries accusing the other of having violated the November 2020 ceasefire that ended the brief war of reconquest led by Baku. Russia again played the role of “peacekeeper” and negotiated a return to calm. This incident, which follows several others in recent months, should serve as a reminder to the international community that the conflict between the two countries is far from over.  

The issues immediately at stake are two-fold: the fate of the prisoners taken during the short war of late 2020, and the landmine issue resulting from twenty-five years of Armenian occupation of technically Azerbaijani territory. Meanwhile, each side has accused the other of having destroyed religious and cultural sites. In recent weeks, however, there have been signs of goodwill. Azerbaijan has released prisoners, while Armenia has issued minefield maps for regions so devastated that they are reminiscent of northeastern France in the aftermath of the First World War. 

But the burning issue, of course, remains one of territory. 

The border problem

First of all, “restoring the international border,” which Western countries have rightly called for, is not a straightforward goal. Although the borders in the South Caucasus had been fixed in the 1921 Treaty of Kars, the one separating Armenia and Azerbaijan - a simple line separating two Soviet republics - remained poorly demarcated.    

Secondly, the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is also the small ethnically Armenian self-proclaimed republic of Artsakh and the primary issue at the heart of the conflict, remains uncertain. By the end of 2020, Azerbaijani forces were forced to end their advance before the enclave was fully under their possession (they only control about 25% of it in the south and west). However, the exact status of the former Soviet oblast is undecided. Baku speaks only of integration and no longer mentions the cultural autonomy it once promised. Meanwhile, all Armenian inhabitants of the country automatically have Azerbaijani citizenship. But will the 20,000 or so “settlers” who have arrived there since 1994 accept that? 

The complexities of the region do not end there. There is also Nakhchivan, a large Azerbaijani exclave established in 1921 that borders Iran and, for a few kilometers, Turkey. Its strategic position has not escaped the interest of Ankara, aroused by the prospective opening of a road and rail corridor controlled by the FSB, that would allow direct access to Central Asia, even as far as China, along the Iranian-Armenian border. President Ilham Aliyev has already threatened to establish it by force. Additionally, there are also small Armenian enclaves in Azerbaijani territory and a number of Azerbaijanis in Armenia, about which discreet negotiations are said to be taking place.    

The hope is that the agreement reached in principle between Baku, Yerevan and Moscow in the spring - to create a commission on border delimitation and demarcation - will bear fruit. However, as is often the case in many so-called “border” conflicts, the border is more a symptom of the problem than the problem itself. 

Identity conflict 

In reality, this is not a thirty-year war. It has been going on for over a hundred years. In 1922, the two states were incorporated into the Soviet Union after three years of deadly confrontation. The memory of cohabiting within the USSR has now given way to overtly nationalist narratives, often rooted in a religious substrate. This evokes memories of former Yugoslavia and, perhaps even more so, the Middle East with its succession of wars, refugees, colonization, and liberation of “sacred lands” and “martyrs.”

It is easy to focus on the horrors of the 1915-1916 Armenian genocide [...] we should not forget the other massacres of the 20th century perpetrated on both sides.

In the Southern Caucasus, borders remain similarly ill-defined or unrecognized, with villages cut off along the lines of ceasefires and corridors left vulnerable to sniper fire. What’s more, the unexpected recapture of the city of Shusha - known as Shushi to Armenians and sometimes referred to as the “Jerusalem of Karabakh” in Azerbaijan - may be reminiscent of Israel’s lightning victory in 1967.  

It is easy to focus on the horrors of the 1915-1916 Armenian genocide, whose scale and systematic nature are still unparalleled in the region - and which itself followed the pogroms of 1894-1897. But we should not forget the other massacres of the 20th century perpetrated on both sides, including those during the 1905 Russian Revolution (“Butchery in the Caucasus.; A State of Civil War -- 30,000 Combatants of Various Races” reads a 1905 New York Times headline), and those that occurred during the war between the two nascent states in 1920 and also during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1992. As for last year’s conflict, this also gave rise to serious human rights abuses on both sides.

Should we, therefore, speak of “ethnic conflicts” and invoke the specter of “age-old hatreds”, as was the case in Yugoslavia, and remains the case in the Middle East and other parts of the world? Such an approach inevitably leads to minimizing the role played by nationalist ideologies. It’s important to remember that Azerbaijan is a relatively recent creation, and the events of 1905 pitted Armenians against Tatars. It would also mean forgetting the responsibility of the Tsarist regime, which, similarly to the other imperial powers of the time, sought to maintain and even nurture divisions between communities. And perhaps most importantly, this would also mean overlooking the responsibility held by political leaders on both sides who willingly stir up the vilest of feelings in their peoples. 

Peace: a distant prospect?

Can we then hope that the shock of November 2020 will lead to what is called, in the framework of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the “end of claims”? It appears to be a long shot. On the Armenian side, the reappointment of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in the June elections was rather good news, as he seems to be willing to move forward - but not to the extent of being ready to accept Baku’s sovereignty over Karabakh.

On the Azerbaijani side, President Aliyev - who regularly calls for a “Camp David” - neither seems tempted by victor’s leniency nor fails to point out that the “reconquest” is not over. What’s more, he even appears to lay claim to the lands of southern Armenia, whose possession would connect Nakhchivan to the rest of Azerbaijan. Despite the opening of judicial proceedings, there is some hesitation in Baku to convict the perpetrators of war crimes due to the necessity to maintain national cohesion.

Pessimism is all the more justified because the confessionalization of the conflict is maintained by certain Armenian religious leaders, but also by Baku.

The official calls for reconciliation do not fit well with the still commonplace references to “Armenian fascism”and with the pompous inauguration of a “War Trophies Park” on the shores of the Caspian, which caricatures, even dehumanizes, Armenians. 

Pessimism is all the more justified because the confessionalization of the conflict is maintained by certain Armenian religious leaders, but also by Baku, which has understood that the narrative of the “defense of the Muslim world against the Armenian invader” was popular with the countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference: Turkey, of course, but also Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which are seeking to place their pawns in the region.

A game of great powers

Can Russia calm the revanchist ardor, even if temporarily? It is in a position of strength, and its security presence already far exceeds the 2,000 troops provided for in the November 2020 agreement. All indications are that it is there to stay: from it being able to renew its commitment after 2025, to Moscow distributing Russian passports in the areas under its control. What better justification for an indefinite presence? Russian has already become the second official language in Karabakh. 

But the withdrawal of Armenian and Artsakhiot forces, which has not been completed, is a condition for its full deployment, which no doubt partly explains the current Azerbaijani military pressure. Moreover, while Russia has long been the guarantor of the security of the recognized territory of Armenia, it now has to reckon with Turkey - which participates with it in the observation (drones) of the ceasefire. 

Certainly, Baku is wary of the Turkish appetite. Galvanized by the victory, the Azerbaijani elites began to dream of a renaissance of national soft power. There is gratitude to Ankara: in late 2020, the victory parade was attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and placed under the motto, “two countries, one nation”. But Baku does not want to play the part of the little brother overshadowed by the giant neighbor. 

Everything indicates that the South Caucasus is destined to become a geostrategic competition between Moscow and Ankara.

However, to balance the Russian presence, the country is seeking to strengthen its military ties with Ankara. On June 15, during a historic visit by President Erdoğan in Shusha, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed a cooperation agreement including a mutual security guarantee, in addition to the one that had been given in 2010. Moreover, the question of a permanent Turkish presence in Azerbaijan has already been raised. Everything indicates that the South Caucasus is destined to become a geostrategic competition between Moscow and Ankara.  

What about the international community? The “Minsk Group,” established in 1992 to seek a solution to the conflict, carries little weight.Its legitimacy is real - it is placed under the aegis of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe. However its role is difficult to pin down when it brings together a dominating Russia, an America that was either seen as absent America under Trump, or now as pro-Armenia under Biden, to not forget France that is perceived similarly. Europe is not indifferent to the issue. Less wealthy and more democratic than Azerbaijan, Armenia saw its June election rewarded by the EU, which granted Yerevan 2.6 billion euros in aid over five years. Charles Michel made a welcome visit to Baku at the end of July, potentially anchoring the EU in a role of mediation. But will that be enough if conflict resumes, as many observers fear? In any case, it is difficult for Europe to close its eyes to this strategic abscess at the gates of the continent. Beyond its humanitarian dimension and the protection of cultural and religious heritage, it entangles a good number of geopolitical issues of the moment.    


  • 1806: Conquest of Baku by Russia. 
  • 1894-1895: Pogroms targeting Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire.
  • 1905-1906: Massacres between Tatar and Armenian communities on the territory of present-day Azerbaijan.
  • 1915-1916: Armenian Genocide. 
  • 1918: Proclamations of independence of the Armenian Democratic Republic and the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic. 
  • 1920: Massacres in Shusha (Nagorno-Karabakh); Turkish-Armenian and Armenian-Azerbaijani wars; Treaties of Moscow and Kars; Soviet invasion; Establishment of the Armenian Socialist Republic and the Azerbaijani Socialist Republic. 
  • 1922: Incorporation of the two states into the Soviet Union. 
  • 1923: Creation of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. 
  • 1988: Request for the attachment of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan. 
  • 1991: Proclamations of independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Proclamation of independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. Beginning of the war.  
  • 1992: Khojaly massacre (Nagorno-Karabakh). Establishment of the “Minsk Group” (United States, France, Russia).
  • 1994: Ceasefire; Armenia occupies seven Azerbaijani districts and controls almost all of Nagorno-Karabakh, or 15% of Azerbaijan’s territory.
  • 2016: Violent clashes on the contact line. 
  • 2020: Reconquest by Azerbaijan of its occupied districts and part of Nagorno-Karabakh; Ceasefire. 
  • 2021: Moscow Tripartite Agreement; Agreement on the creation of a border commission; Deadly incidents.  



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