Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

How the Soviet legacy shaped the current conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

Asbed Kotchikian

Asbed Kotchikian

Asbed is a senior lecturer at the Global studies Department at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His area of research focuses on socio-political conflict in the Middle East and former Soviet space. For the past 20 years he has conducted extensive field research on political regimes and state institutions, civil/ethnic wars, and social movements (revolutions) in Armenia, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

The latest round of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh region has domestic, regional as well as international triggers. Decreased Western (especially US) diplomatic activism in world affairs coupled with the shroud of the Covid-19 pandemic, has led regional actors in the South Caucasus such as Turkey and Russia to try to expand their role in this regional conflict. Consequently, this could be the prelude to creating regional sub-orders to challenge and even replace Euro-Atlantic institutions in place since the end of the Cold War.

It all started in the Soviet Union

Created in 1923, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (an “Oblast” was an administrative division within the Soviet Union with very limited sovereignty) with its overwhelmingly Armenian population was put under the administrative control of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) and was separated from the neighboring Armenian SSR by a 10-km strip of land. This decision by Soviet authorities was meant to create a sizeable Armenian ethnic minority within Azerbaijan that could be used as a pressure point and a potential pretext to intervene in Azerbaijani affairs. Since the 1960s the Armenian population has demanded the unification of the region with Armenia; however their demands were dismissed by the Soviet central authorities (1).

When Mikhail Gorbachev began pushing his reforms in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) widely known as perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh used the opportunity to petition Moscow to transfer the region from the Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR. The Armenian demands for border restructuring were eventually rejected by central authorities in Moscow and by the end of 1988, the dispute between the two Soviet Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan gradually escalated and transformed into an armed conflict.

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Photo @ The Independent

The Soviet authorities tried in vain to solve the conflict by maintaining the status quo and sending troops to both the Armenian and Azerbaijani SSRs, but those moves only led to subsequent anti-Russian sentiments amongst both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Furthermore, while Nagorno-Karabakh along with Armenia and Azerbaijan were still under Moscow’s rule, Soviet troops on the ground tried to cooperate with Azerbaijani internal security forces to conduct the “Operation Ring,” which aimed at surrounding Armenian populated villages and regions in Nagorno-Karabakh, and push inhabitants out of their homes with the hope of instilling fear in the larger Armenian population and squashing further Armenian demands for autonomy and reunification with Armenia (2).

In 1991, after the fall of the USSR and the independence of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh mutated into an all-out war between the two independent states and thus became a conflict that attracted the attention of regional and international actors.

The conflict moves from Soviet Unilateralism to Western Multilateralism

With both Armenia and Azerbaijan declaring their independence in 1991, the conflict’s original framework as an internal USSR dispute was transformed into an inter-state conflict, where regional and international actors were involved in the mediation.

On March 24, 1992 the Ministerial Councils of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (which later became the Organization on Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE) adopted a decision to create a framework to provide an ongoing forum for the negotiation of a peaceful settlement of the armed conflict. This forum, which came to be known as the OSCE Minsk Process and later as the Minsk Group, included mostly Western countries along with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia. The OSCE Minsk Group also included Belarus, Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the United States.

Many observers argue that the West (including the US and some European countries) attempted to dilute Russia’s role in the resolution of the conflict by pushing the OSCE to take a more active role in the mediation process between the two conflicting sides. By engaging the OSCE through the Minsk Group, the West hoped that Russia would pass along its responsibilities to a multilateral group that had the confidence of all the parties in the conflict. While in the short run the Minsk Group did not halt unilateral Russian mediation activity, it did provide an internationally authorized basis for the involvement of outside powers in helping to resolve the dispute (3).

It was through Minsk Group mediation (with active Russian unilateral efforts) that in May 1994 a ceasefire agreement was signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan. By 1995 the structure of the Minsk Group changed and a system of permanent co-chairmanship was introduced which included France, Russia and the United States.

Since the 1994 cease-fire the Minsk Group’s attempts to mediate a permanent peace solution have not yielded many results. While there were instances when the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides were close to reaching an agreement, the issues that stood out were the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh and its Armenian population’s refusal to submit to Baku’s sovereignty (even if only nominal). In recent years Azerbaijan’s patience with the Minsk Group has reached its limits with Baku expressing reservations about the effectiveness of the OSCE framework.

The violent thaw of a frozen conflict

The stalemate of the negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh for over two decades led this conflict to be categorized as a “frozen conflict” (4). However, by 2016 it was obvious that Azerbaijan’s frustration from the lack of progress had reached its limit. In this context, the Nagorno-Karabakh’s frozen conflict witnessed the first cracks of a thaw in what was known as the four-day April war (5).

Despite claims by both Baku and Yerevan, the April 2016 war did not result in any side being victorious. While the OSCE Minsk Group managed to push for another cease-fire, it was becoming clear that the management of the conflict was slowly moving away from the OSCE framework and that Russia was again eyeing to cast its shadow over the conflict and its resolution.

Two years after the April 2016 war, Armenia witnessed a peaceful change of government which ousted the political elite which had controlled the country for the previous two decades. The coming to power of Nikol Pashinyan, an opposition MP riding on the wave of mass and populist demonstrations, was viewed as an opportunity for Armenia to reset its domestic political structures and subsequently provide a new impetus on the negotiations front with Azerbaijan.

After two years of attempted, and sometimes successful, domestic reforms, it became obvious again that the new authorities in Armenia were not ready to bring a breath of fresh air into the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations with Azerbaijan, something that made Azerbaijan’s ruling class even more impatient.

In addition to the Azerbaijani frustration due to the new Armenian leadership, Russia was irritated by Nikol Pashinyan, who was considered by Moscow as not “loyal” enough. Moreover, since 2019, Pashinyan started to crack down on the political and economic elite in Armenia that was closely connected with Russia, further raising concerns in Moscow about Pashinyan’s perceived antagonism towards Russian interests.

The year 2020 started with a positive outlook of domestic political and economic reforms in Armenia. However, in July 2020, a short border skirmish quickly escalated into a major exchange of fire. Although the clash resolved quickly, the July war proved to be a preface of larger scale plans by Turkey and Azerbaijan. The two countries, after having conducted joint military exercises in mid-August, made statements about the possible establishment of Turkish military bases in Azerbaijan.

The West versus the Rest

In recent years, one of the key indicators of the changing global and regional dynamic has been the increased disengagement of the US from world affairs. American selective isolationism reverberated around the world creating opportunities for countries such as Turkey and Russia to undermine Euro-Atlantic institutions in their respective neighborhoods. Added to the US isolationism, the global Covid-19 pandemic has shifted European and US attention away from international disputes.

In this context, Turkey has become militarily and diplomatically active in its larger neighborhood. From Syria to Libya, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has intervened in a number of international conflicts, increasing Turkey’s foreign and military engagement, with the intention of creating a neo-Ottoman post-colonial environment. Moreover, Turkey has always declared its unequivocal support for Azerbaijan by claiming that the two countries are “one nation in two states”, a statement that led many Armenians to equate the Azerbaijanis with the Turks and by extension consider the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict an existential war, one to be considered as a revenge for the 1915-20 Genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the hands of the Turks (6).

Similar to Turkey, in the past several years Russia has taken advantage of US isolationism to resurface its regional presence by (re)activating the Primakov Doctrine. Named after Russian former Foreign and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, this doctrine speculates that Russia should find regional allies and partners to undermine US hegemony around the world.

Despite their common disdain of the West, Russia and Turkey are far from being strategic partners. In fact, Turkey’s active engagement in the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been viewed with concern by Moscow. The Turkish-Azerbaijani joint military exercises in August 2020 and the subsequent transfer of Turkish military equipment to Azerbaijan after those exercises were followed by Russian-led joint military exercises in mid-September with Armenia, Iran, China and Pakistan (among others).
The biggest concern for Russia is however the presence of Turkish-funded Syrian mercenaries (most of whom are jihadists) fighting on behalf of Azerbaijan and very close to Russia’s border (especially in Chechnya and Dagestan). This has made Russia wary since it has had its own jihadist “problems” dating back to the early 1990s. The issue of radical mercenaries from Syria brought to Azerbaijan became one of the first issues that the Russian media focused on in the current war.

Regardless of their global strategic differences, Russia and Turkey are engaged in a tactical partnership to resist Western hegemony, with its best manifestation appearing in the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh. As the war is already in its third week, it is obvious that the overwhelming Turkish military and diplomatic support for Azerbaijan has paved the way for Russia to act as a peacemaker in the region. Perhaps it is not too far to imagine that the Turkish and Russian combined role in the region is a one-two punch directed towards the West, with the highest price being paid by Armenia and a price being paid by Azerbaijan as well.

Back to Regionalism (with a Russian flavor)

As a former colonial overlord, Russia views the South Caucasus, along with Central Asia and Eastern Europe (Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine) as its geopolitical backyard, utilizing terms such as “near abroad”. Moscow has been adamant to maintain its hold in the ‘near abroad’ as evidenced by the 2008 Georgian-Russian war (when Georgia tried to gravitate too much towards the West) and in Ukraine in 2014 (Read “The protests in Belarus: How to build a democratic transition under Russia’s orbit“).

It is within the context of its ‘near abroad’ policy that Russia’s interest and role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be best explained. If the region is kept in a “no war, no peace” status, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are to varying degrees dependent on Moscow’s will. Russia provides both sides with weaponry and has made abundantly clear that any solution to the conflict has to be on Russia’s terms.

As vocal as Turkey was in supporting Azerbaijan, Russia’s relative passivity and initial silence appeared enigmatic. It wasn’t until three days after the beginning of hostilities that Moscow declared that it was ready to host the Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers for talks to end the conflict, something that took place over a week later. The delayed declaration was matched with the caveat of Russia’s FM Sergey Lavrov’s announcement that Russia would be willing to work both within the OSCE Minsk process as well as independently of it, signaling that Russia might act as an arbiter outside of the OSCE framework. Therefore, Moscow’s delayed response to the conflict stems from the fact that by postponing a diplomatic intervention, both Armenia and Azerbaijan would be desperate to accept any proposals from Moscow, even if that meant having Russian boots on their ground. While the West is relatively unable and disinterested in actively engaging in the mediation, Russia now has a free hand in imposing its own formula to end the conflict.

There is little doubt that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has entered a new phase in which shifting geopolitical dynamics and internal political changes have converged to unfreeze the conflict. The question is whether this could be a prelude for events to unfold on a larger global scale, with Turkey and Russia becoming potential rivals to Euro-Atlantic institutions.


Asbed Kotchikian



  1. Libaridian, J. G., ed. “The Karabakh File: Documents and Facts on the Question of Mountainous Karabakh, 1918-1988”, 1988.
  2. Murphy, D. E., “Operation Ring,” Journal of Soviet Military Studies, 1992.
  3. Croissant, M. P., “The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: Causes and Implications”, 1998.
  4. Broers, L., “From ‘Frozen Conflict’ to Enduring Rivalry: Reassessing the Nagorny Karabakh Conflict.”, Nationalities Papers, 2014.
  5. Schmidt, H. “The Four-Day War Has Diminished the Chances of Peace in Nagorno-Karabakh.”, OSCE Yearbook, 2017.
  6. Migdalovitz, C. “Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict,” CRS Issue Brief for Congress IB92109, 2001.
Received: 18.10.20; Ready: 27.10.20; Editors: Federico Germani, Alexander F. Brown.

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