From a local dispute to a regional powder keg: The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict explained

Almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is grappling anew with the implications of a centuries-old dispute. Under international law, Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in the South Caucasus, to which both Armenia and Azerbaijan lay claim, is part of Azerbaijan – even though the majority of its population is Armenian.

The ethnic-territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is multi-layered and complex. It contains political, socioeconomic and changing geopolitical dimensions – ranging from territorial disputes to ethnic hostilities. In order to understand other stakeholders, root causes, conflict dynamics and peace capacities, we need to take a look at the past.

Skirmishes along the front lines of Nagorno-Karabakh are nothing new

The power tussle between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the region dates back to the 20th century. Even though in 1923, most of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh was Armenian, the region was attached to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) under Stalin. 

When the Soviet Union began to crumble, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh requested the transfer from the Azerbaijani to the Armenian Union Republic in 1988, which laid the groundwork for the ensuing political turmoil. The request was rejected by both the leaders of the Azerbaijani Republic in Baku and Moscow. Nagorno-Karabakh’s declaration of independence in 1991 also went unheeded. This sparked a bloody war that claimed many lives and caused a stream of people to flee their homes. 

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: More than just a Cold-War-era relic

After the demise of the USSR in 1991 and the independence of both Azerbaijan and Armenia, the framework changed. The local quarrel over Nagorno-Karabakh morphed into an all-out war between the two independent states, drew in other powers and turned into a regional powder keg. Although the war officially ended with a ceasefire in 1994, frictions did not simply vanish. 

Peace talks chaired by Russia, France and the U.S. were slowly plodding along and eventually fizzled out completely – which led to new fights erupting in April 2016, lasting just four days and yet claiming the lives of approximately 350 people[1].

When analysing this conflict, one also needs to take into account that both sides are propped up by powerful backers: Turkey for example has close ties with Azerbaijan and is thus a staunch supporter, while Russia has provided weapons to both sides and wishes to preserve neutrality. But Armenia and Russia are both part of a security treaty of six former Soviet nations, which states that they must support each other in case of armed conflicts. This has led Azerbaijan to argue that Russia favours Armenia in this conflict. 

The peace deal in November 2020

In July 2020, the conflict started to flare up again and in late September, the Six Week War war broke out: 45 days of intense artillery fire, shell bombardments and more than 5000 soldiers dead[2]. In an attempt to damp down tensions, Russia brokered a peace deal – inked on Nov. 9 – which temporarily put an end to the Six-Week War. The ceasefire deal, under the aegis of Russia, also required the exchange of war prisoners, left the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh region under Armenian control, but allowed Azerbaijan to keep broad parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and required Armenia to withdraw from other territory as well. The reaction? Jubilation in Azerbaijan, protests in Armenia.

The ceasefire did not last long: In December 2020, clashes were recorded and both sides started to blame each other over violations of the peace treaty. 

Whether there will ever be a deal that really manages to yield a permanent and full-scale settlement of the crisis over Nagorno-Karabakh remains to be seen. If so, it will end one of the world’s oldest ongoing conflicts. But if not, and if the countries involved are not willing to bury the hatchet, the fighting will go on and we could very quickly witness a seventh week of the Six Week War. 


[1] US Department of State, “Background Briefing on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict”, 16th May 2016.

[2] BBC: “Nagorno-Karabakh conflict killed 5,000 soldiers”, 3rd December 2020.

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