On September 27, an explosion in the disputed mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh commenced a full-fledged war between the two archrivals, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The territory is originally part of Azerbaijan’s sovereign land which has remained occupied by Armenia for over three decades now. After six weeks of kinetic action by both sides, Armenia surrendered and requested Russia to act as a go-between for truce resulting in the ceasefire agreement in November. The tripartite agreement concluded with Azerbaijan’s territorial gain, putting an end to long-standing conflict and declaring Azerbaijan victorious.
Nagorno-Karabakh region is part of the European Caucus and is an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan, but not long ago the regional demography was altered by the Armenian side through settlements of their ethnicities in the disputed territory. According to historic records, the citadel of Shusha is an Azeri town founded in the 18th century, and ever since the city remained the cultural hub of the South Caucus and home to the Azerbaijani intellectuals. In the 19th century, the city flourished in terms of population and trade but mostly remained under the rule of Russians retaining its strategic significance for the then-dominant empires. In the 20th century, with the rise of the Soviet Union as the superpower, the district of Nagorno-Karabakh became a semi-autonomous region but remained as part of the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR. In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies paved a path for political freedom in the Soviet territories, resulting in an ethnic discord in the Nagorno-Karabakh region due to the resolve of the local governing Council of People’s Deputies in Nagorno-Karabakh (predominated by ethnic Armenians) to unify with Armenia. These ethnic Armenians demanded a referendum and marched to Baku, culminating the outrage into the first bloodshed in the modern iteration of the conflict.
Soon after, the small-scale skirmishes escalated into a full-scale war in 1992 where the Azerbaijani citizens became victims of pogroms and ethnic cleansing by Armenian forces, and displacement of large groups of people took place. Armenian forces, almost daily during the winter of 1991–1992, shelled Khojaly, and when the residents tried fleeing the city and approached the border with Azerbaijan, they came across an Armenian military post and were cruelly fired upon. The Khojaly Massacre was described by Human Rights Watch as “the largest massacre to date in the conflict” over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In May 1994, both parties signed a ceasefire agreement and Armenian forces, due to their relatively large size, have captured Azerbaijan’s territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the UN Refugee Agency, a huge displacement of one million people took place including 870,000 Azerbaijanis and 300,000 Armenians whereas more than 30,000 people killed.
The conflict was mediated by the MINSK Group, an initiative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) headed by the US and France; however, the body failed to reach a stable peace in the region. Since then, both sides, Armenia and Azerbaijan faced off at the Line of Contact and exchanged crossfires and mortar bombings leading to causalities.
Ceasefire and Armenian withdrawal lead to the restoration of justice in the region but it entails a regional power struggle due to increasing foothold of dominant regional powers like Russia and Turkey.
Before the autumn of 2020, in 2016 tensions between both nations escalated resulting in the loss of 200 lives –also known as four-day war or April War. According to Azerbaijan, the country’s forces started a pre-planned short-term military operation to prevent the continuous shelling on civilians by the Artsakh Defence Army backed by the Armenian Armed Forces.
From 2008 to date, Azerbaijan has spent an enormous amount of money and resources on its military modernization campaign –a hard-learnt lesson from the previous war with Armenia. During this period, Azerbaijan’s military spending has reached six times more than Armenia. Azerbaijan spent the huge sum of money generated from exporting its oil and gas reserves on advanced military equipment such as drones, reconnaissance technology and military personnel development. The recent victory of Azerbaijan owes to the swift advance by Azerbaijan’s military forces and their use of advance weaponry, especially the drone (unmanned aerial vehicles) giving them a military advantage over the Armenian forces.
The use of drone warfare by Azerbaijan, a relatively novel case in the realm of contemporary warfare and strategic studies, not only provided the country with a strategic advantage and avoided causalities of military personnel of Azerbaijan but also acted as a force-multiplier. The Azerbaijani forces have recently procured two Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones, Bayrakter from Turkey and Kamikaze from Israel. Along with the procurement of technologically advanced UAV’s, the country was able to hold joint military exercises with Turkey which prepared the Azerbaijani military personnel to get hands-on experience with the newly inducted war machines. In previous wars, both countries fought on the ground mainly with the employment of artillery and infantry and both sides do not possess an advanced air force; however, the Azerbaijani investment in the drone technology rendered the force as undefeatable in the mountainous terrain of the Nagorno-Karabakh against the Armenian Defence Forces. The ground forces of Armenia, Artillery and Infantry, became an easy target for the swarms of Azerbaijani drones and the lack of Armenia’s anti-drone capability forced them to harsh defeat and indelible loss. This is why the Armenian PM Pashinyan was forced to ask for the Russian assistance to arbitrate the conflict and bend knees in front of their rival Azerbaijan. The drone warfare not only provided Azerbaijan with a chance to win back their territory but also to restore their glory.
When one recapitulates the conflict, it shows that the six-week war set many new trends. As it was the first time when drone warfare was used in a full-scale kinetic action between two nation-states. Similarly, it is the first time for that Russian peacekeeper will be deployed anywhere in the world -2000 armed personnel deployment at Line of Contact. Similarly, it is the first time that the US did not intervene in the conflict or mediated the ceasefire agreement, may be due to Donald Trump’s preoccupation with the reelection campaign and domestic crisis.
If one analyzes the conflict through the prism of regional power politics, the ceasefire agreement and Armenian withdrawal led to the restoration of justice but it also entails a regional power struggle due to increasing foothold of dominant regional powers like Russia and Turkey. Nagorno-Karabakh region is located in the European Caucus and holds a geostrategic significance but the involvement of Turkey backing the Azerbaijan and Russian patronage on Armenia is of immense significance for the future of the region. Both Russia and Turkey are also involved in the Syrian conflict while it is the second crisis where both are encountering each other. Russia has a defence deal with Armenia and providing the country with weapons and munitions, whereas Turkey is behind the modernization of the aerial force of Azerbaijan, holds economic ties (oil and gas exchange), and building a strategic road to the country. The involvement of dominant military powers in the region will ultimately shift the balance of power or make it more volatile at least because of the absence of western actors, like Europeans and the US and eclipse of Minsk Group. However, it renders Turkey as a significant power in the region and securing its place at the table with Russia.
After the armistice offered by the Armenian PM Pashunyan, he faced a domestic backlash in form of demonstrations and mob lynching of his parliament’s speaker to death. The Armenian protestors had vandalized the Pashinyan’s office, demanded his resignation and scorned his repute for ending the six-week war. His Foreign Minister has resigned after the territorial gain of Azerbaijan. Armenian Premier, for face-saving, said that the war could be avoided if we voluntarily ceded the territory to Azerbaijan but we took up the challenge for war; whereas when he requested his Russian counterpart for mediation he gave a statement that we are ending this war after the deep combat analysis. President of Armenia Armin Sarkissian demanded Pashinyan’s government to step down, and a snap parliament should be held.
Armenian status-quo has been broken by Azerbaijan and this has been made possible with Turkey’s indelible support to their neighbouring Muslim country. However, a question arises that whether this ceasefire and peace is sustainable or not because the last three truces mediated by the Minsk Group were unable to pacify the situation. Another question regarding the near future is the resettlement of refugees and the establishment of the local government in the Nagorno-Karabakh.
After almost 30 years, justice is restored!