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Explaining the Armenia-Azerbaijan Situation

Updated: Mar 15

Armenia and Azerbaijan are two nations in the Caucasus that have long had territorial disputes. Nagorno-Karabakh is the centrally contested region between the nations. In 2020 and again in 2023 war broke out. Nagorno-Karabakh–previously known as the Republic of Artsakh– is an unrecognized Armenian enclave within Azerbaijani territory that was forcibly annexed by the Azeris.

Historically the region was grounds for a contest between the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Eventually, both nations came under Russian and then Soviet control. However, by the end of the 1980s, the decline of the USSR was imminent, despite its full-blown collapse being unpredictable. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan understood this to mean increased independence and therefore a renewal of mutual suspicions and territorial disputes. In 1988, the Republic of Artsakh voted to secede from Azerbaijan and unite with Armenia, sparking outrage from Azeris and deemed unconstitutional by a weakened Moscow.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijan. After a few years of skirmishes and the collapse of the USSR, an all-out war began in 1992. Armenia took the military initiative and over two years captured Azeri territory between Armenia proper and Nagorno-Karabakh. At the close of 1994, Armenia claimed a decisive victory. 

Despite having lost the war, Azerbaijan did not go quietly into the night. It controlled vast oil deposits in the Caspian Sea and after escaping subjugation to the USSR began trading for profit with Western nations. In just two decades, the GDP of Azerbaijan tripled. Much of this wealth had been invested into increasing its military capacity far beyond Armenia's and in forming alliances. 

Azerbaijan shares ethnic ties with the nation of Turkey as well as a mutual defense pact with Istanbul. Israel also provides military hardware in exchange for access to Azerbaijani airfields which are near to arch-rival Iran. With strong and motivated allies and renewed military might, by 2020 Azerbaijan was ready to reclaim its lost territory. 

Armenia is allied with the Russian Federation’s security umbrella. Armenia is a CSTO member, which is a Russian security pact similar to NATO. Its economy has been largely stagnant since the Soviet collapse. 

Unfortunately for Armenia, Russia was willing to play peacekeeper when war finally broke out for nine days in 2020 but is now occupied in Ukraine. In September of 2023, in 24 hours Azerbaijan fully annexed Nagorno-Karabakh and dissolved the secessionist Republic of Artsakh. 

Postwar peace talks have failed, however, and EU sanctions on Russian oil have given Azerbaijan ties to the EU via energy partnerships. Azerbaijan smells blood in the water and is now looking to further take advantage of its current opportune moment. The Azeris' motivation is to establish the Zangezur corridor, a railway that would provide Azerbaijan access to the exclave of Nakhchivan and Turkey. 

With Russia preoccupied with Ukraine, and Turkey being motivated to assist the Azeris, only the Iranians–who distrust Azerbaijan for multiple reasons–prevent the corridor from being achieved. This complex situation will likely persist for years.

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