You can probably be forgiven for never having heard the terms Artsakh, Stepanakert, or Nagorno-Karabakh.
To the uninitiated, these places tend to occupy the “I dunno but it sounds like there’d be a war there” part of the geographic schema.
And unfortunately, they’re correct. There is a war in Nagorno-Karabakh and has been for some time.
The recent news of Armenia and Azerbaijan going at it with cluster munitions and music videos absolutely dripping with synth riffs is just the latest in a conflict that has flared up several times in the last century.
Hopefully, after reading this, you’ll have a bit better understanding of what’s going on. This isn’t going to be a quick ride, but it’ll be more in-depth than what you’ll see on regular news sites. So buckle up.
Oh man, this is going to be a mess.
Disclaimer: I am going to do my best to present this with an even hand. Pretty much every event of all this has the Armenian side and the Azeri side of the story.
This conflict tends to bring out the worst in internet comment sections which are already terrible places to begin with. Please don’t yell at me.
Table of Contents
Um… Where Is it? I’m Asking For A Friend…
So a natural place to start with all this is to establish where exactly we’re talking about.
Grab your globe if you’re over 65 or a big dumb nerd (I, in fact, own several), or open up your maps app–we’re going to the Southern Caucasus.
Find where Turkey, Iran, and Iraq meet and go north. Hit Russia? You’ve gone too far, traveler.
Tucked away in the southern portion of the Caucasus Mountains, between the Black and Caspians Seas, you’ll find the former-Soviet states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Now zoom in on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The name “Nagorno-Karabakh” comes from the Russian term for the area and means “mountainous Karabakh” or “Karabakh highlands”.
“Karabakh” has a somewhat disputed etymology, but most think it comes from Turkic and Persian words meaning “black garden”.
Nagorno-Karabakh is about 1,700 square miles–roughly the same size as Rhode Island, but with a lot more landmines (probably) and is residence to about 150,000 people.
Internationally, it is recognized by the UN as sovereign Azerbaijani territory.
On the ground, however, Karabakh and the surrounding areas are controlled by the Armenian-backed Artsakh Republic and have been so since the last war ended in 1994.
The region has quite a bit of mineral wealth in the form of gold and copper, but Karabakh’s real importance lies in its proximity to major oil and gas pipelines that link Europe and Asia.
Both Armenians and Azeris claim the region as their own, and Artsakh extends beyond the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan proper, linking it to Armenia. See the issue?
Who Are The People Living There?
Let’s meet the most involved parties:
Armenians are from Armenia, which is called Hayastan in the Armenian language (which isn’t really related to any other languages).
They’re traditionally Christian, having declared the world’s first Christian kingdom in the year 301. Even today, over 90% of Armenians claim to follow the Armenian Apostolic Church–a unique branch of Orthodox Christianity.
Azerbaijan is primarily populated by Azeris. Azeris are a Turkic people, who speak a language closely related to Turkish.
Unlike their mostly Sunni cousins in Turkey, Azeris are Shia Muslims. They arrived in the area roughly 1,000 years ago. So everyone’s been here a long, long time.
Now, some folks out there might be eager to make this another “This is Christians versus Muslims! Religion war! Crusades!” type of hamfisted argument.
And while it’s true that religion is a factor here, it’s not really the basis of the current violence.
One needs to look no further than the fact that Israel (Jewish) and Georgia (Christian) are backing Azerbaijan (Shia Muslims) and Iran (Shia Muslims) is backing Armenia (Christian).
It’s almost like economics and regional power plays are actually more important and easy answers aren’t necessarily the correct ones…hmmm.
Without delving too far back into the middle ages, it’s important to understand the empires that left indelible marks on the region and set things up for the present violence.
Before 1828, the areas that make up modern Armenia and Azerbaijan were traded around for centuries,.
Belonging at different times to the Mongol Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Seljuk Turkish Empire, multiple dynasties of the Persian Empire, and various periods of self-rule under small kingdoms and khanates.
If you want to really dive into it, go for it. It gets pretty tangled pretty fast.
I would say to just give it back to the Cimmerians, but I’m sure one of you will make some sort of unsubstantiated, pseudo-historical, pseudo-scientific statement about how the Cimmerians are the REAL ANCESTORS of some group. Stop. You’re wrong.
For the sake of brevity, the real modern history of the region begins in 1828 when the Treaty of Turkmenchay ended the last of the Russo-Persian wars and ceded the South Caucasus to the Russian Empire from Persian control.
At this point in time, tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians left Persia and other parts of what was now Russian territory to live in the newly declared Armenian Region of the Russian Empire.
Likewise, about ⅓ of the region’s 100,000 Muslims left the Armenian Region and settled in the territory that is today Azerbaijan–also now part of the Russian Empire. Karabakh was not included in the Armenian Region.
That’s not a political statement, I swear. Just a fact of imperial border drawing.
Though you wouldn’t be able to tell by today’s situation, Azeris and Armenians actually lived pretty harmoniously for the next several decades under Russian rule.
There were a few instances of ethnic unrest, most notably in 1905 but again, things were mostly fine. For almost a century, if you’d believe it.
But then, 1917 happened. As in the Russian Revolution. And the Russian Empire was no more.
For about a month, the Georgians, Armenians, and Azeris of the South Caucasus came together and formed a federation.
But it lasted for literally one month in 1918 and all three nations went their separate ways and declared independence.
And then the Red Army invaded, violence ensued across the region as the new Republic of Armenia and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic went to war over, you guessed it, land. Including Karabakh.
Armenian revolutionaries joined with the Bolsheviks and helped massacre 12,000-20,000 Azeris in March of 1918, potentially motivated by revenge following the absolute tragedy that was the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks between 1916 and 1923
Yes, it was happening at the same time. The Armenians being murdered were in Ottoman-controlled lands and many of those who escaped made their way to Russian territory. The Armenian Genocide is a fact.
And in an amazing, completely unpredictable twist, Azeris massacred about 10,000 Armenians in Baku six months later.
Are we seeing a pattern emerge?
Cutting to the chase, the Soviet Union fully absorbed the region in 1920 and ended the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan (for now).
The names of all the temporary political units the Soviets established, split, and merged over the next two decades creates a horrible, horrible web of names that all sound the same and basically result in the same thing: Nagorno-Karabakh in Azeri Republic hands, populated by mostly Armenians.
It was officially defined by borders now and given some degree of autonomy within the Azeri Soviet Republic, which had some degree of autonomy within the Soviet Union…this sucks.
Throughout the Soviet period, the Armenians of Karabakh tried several times to join with the Armenian Soviet Republic, but it never happened.
Armenians claimed, with a high degree of truth, that the Azeri Republic leadership was Azeri-flying Karabakh. After the death of Stalin, Karabakh Armenians petitioned to join with the Armenian Republic in 1963. This was denied.
In February of 1988, ethnically mixed villages and towns became flashpoints as both Azeris and Armenians formed mobs and assaulted their neighbors.
In March, Karabakh Armenians again voted to join with the Armenian Soviet Republic.
This was overruled by Soviet authorities, who made an offer to massively expand Armenian-language media and education in the region as a measure to avoid agitating the situation which was clearly already in a death spiral.
Armenians rejected this deal, and tensions reached a tipping point.
Protests were met with counter-protests, and both Azeris and Armenians began to arm themselves.
Mob violence continued throughout 1988 and 1989 as Armenians and Azeris both imposed railway blockades on each other and launched revenge attack after revenge attack.
If you’re worried about who ACTUALLY attacked first here or what was warranted vs unwarranted levels of revenge murder, you’re doing it wrong and part of the problem.
Moscow tried to return some semblance of order to the Caucasus and sent troops into Baku, Azerbaijan in January 1990 with orders to protect the city’s Armenian minority.
Guess how that went? It’s called “Black January” now if that’s any indication.
By March of 1989 and through 1990, the mobs had pretty much become militias and began to massacre villages of the rival ethnic group along the border.
Militias from both sides torched houses and slaughtered pretty much anyone they could, including women and infants.
Again, demonstrating how absolutely useless the central government was at this point, Soviet generals in the region took up sides like goddamn medieval warlords, and suddenly this mess involved attack helicopters and artillery.
In 1991, Gorbachev sent in the MVD, this time with Azeri OMON police units, as part of Operation Ring to “check the passports” of Armenians living in Karabakh and disarm the Armenian militias that were in Karabakh.
Karabakh was legally Azerbaijan. Not saying it was right or wrong. Those are just the legal facts and why this happened.
Naturally, things went sideways and thousands of innocent Armenians were forcefully displaced, fleeing to other parts of Karabakh or to Armenia proper.
By now, everyone who was in any position of political power was pretty tired of this slow-burn of a war.
In September of 1991, a peace deal was brokered and signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the leadership of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
I would get into the contents and stipulations of it, but it really doesn’t matter.
Violence continued anyways as Azeris shelled the Armenian-majority capital of Karabakh (Stepanakert), and a helicopter of Azeri and Russian diplomats was mysteriously shot down.
Azeris kept ethnic cleansing Armenian villages, and Armenians kept ethnic cleansing Azeri villages.
But Wait! It Gets Worse!
With incredible timing, the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991.
Armenians in Karabakh declared their independence from Azerbaijan and named themselves the Republic of Artsakh.
All the Soviet military equipment in the South Caucasus became the property of completely independent Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Former Soviet MVD troops from other parts of the USSR sold their rifles, artillery pieces, and whole-ass T-72s to militia members as they pulled out, because why wouldn’t they.
Azerbaijan received military aid from Turkey, Israel, and the Arab world and used oil money to hire mercenaries, while Armenia received massive donations from their wealthy diaspora around the world.
Russia, of course, supplied both sides. Given that Karabakh/Artsakh itself is entirely surrounded by Azerbaijan, the Armenian military wasn’t actually engaged yet (officially).
Though they admit to sending material and money to Artsakh militias, most of the Armenian military spent the war along the Turkish border to prevent a potential Turkish invasion.
Azerbaijan kept on war-criming Armenians in Stepanakert via artillery and aircraft strikes while simultaneously blockading them.
Until that is, Artsakh militia forces attacked the artillery batteries in the nearby town of Khojaly in February 1992 and war-crimed several hundred Azeri civilians after promising them safe passage out of the town.
Azeri forces tried and failed to launch a ground assault on Stepanakert, and Artsakh militias managed to capture the city of Shusha.
In a further display of Azerbaijan’s military ineptitude at this stage of the war, Armenian forces captured the pretty much-unguarded village at the narrowest part of Azerbaijan that separated Armenia and Artsakh, opening the road for supplies and people to flow into Artsakh/Karabakh.
Azeris were tired of losing, so they coup’d their president and put in a new one that promised to go harder.
And harder he did go. On June 12, five days after taking office, anti-Russian pro-Turkish Azeri President Elchibey sent 8,000 soldiers into Karabakh as Operation Goranboy, hoping to finally end this.
He almost made it happen and captured back about half of Karabakh from the Armenian separatists.
But as Azeri forces approached Stepanakert, the Artsakh militias rallied and reorganized under a single command as the Artsakh Defense Army.
With the help of Russian air and artillery assets, the Azeri advance… which allegedly contained men from the same Russian division that was helping the Armenians… was halted and reversed.
By the end of the year, Azeri forces were pretty bashed up and by spring of ‘93, the Artsakh Defense Army was able to seize Azeri territory outside of the Karabakh region, further reducing the gap between Armenia and Artsakh.
Azeris, including generals, were already sick of President Elchibey and marched on the capital city of Baku to remove him.
He bailed, and a new president was elected. In the meantime, the Artsakh Army kept moving, capturing the cities of Jabrail and Fizuli in Karabakh and portions of the Azeri Agdam region.
Turkey threatened to invade over this violation of un-contested Azeri territory, but Russian forces in Armenia shut that down real fast.
This just keeps going, doesn’t it? Trust me, they felt the same back in ‘93, because now the Azeris were recruiting Afghan mujahideen, sending in waves of child soldiers, and the real Armenian army–not just the Artsakh Defense Army–joined the madness.
Thousands of Azeris were killed in action that winter due to the tactical flailing of their leadership, and the Armenians showed no signs of stopping.
Most of Karabakh was in Armenian hands, as was the territory between Karabakh and Armenia…as was territory on the other side, facing Baku. 10% of Azerbaijan, not including Karabakh, was held by Armenians.
In May of 1994, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Republic Artsakh signed the Bishkek Protocol–a ceasefire mediated by Russia that ended the fighting but really didn’t change anything politically.
Azerbaijan still considered the Artsakh Republic to be an illegal occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and surrounding Azeri soil, and Armenia and the Artsakh Republic maintained that Nagorno-Karabakh is rightfully part of Armenia and that the surrounding areas must be occupied to protect it.
And Now Today
If you feel like that wasn’t much of a resolution, you’re not alone.
The conflict didn’t end. It was just frozen.
Between May 1994 and July of this year, the border hasn’t changed much and several hundred have died in the sporadic clashes that seem to pop up every few years and only last a couple of days at a time.
But this one is different because it’s showing no real signs of stopping after several weeks.
Each side has its own account of who shot first, and frankly, I don’t care. This has been simmering for so long that literally giving some side-eye across the border is considered an act of war.
On July 12, 2020, both Armenia and Azerbaijan reported that the other side violated the terms of the ceasefire agreement via artillery strikes in the northern border region–not even Karabakh/Artsakh.
Armenians claim that Azeri military patrols attempted to cross the border in one of these:
And Azerbaijan claims that the Armenian government manufactured the whole engagement to distract from COVID policy failures.
This wouldn’t be a 2020 conflict without it. Regardless, both sides exchanged artillery and downed each other’s drones while keeping meticulous counts of and provided daily reports regarding how many dozens of times the other allegedly violated the terms of ceasefire.
Both sides engaged in cyber warfare that took the shape of website vandalism and not much more. Scattered violence continued along the border through the end of the month.
In a perfect illustration of how stupid this year is, Armenian protesters in the capital city of Yerevan threw buckets of borsch at the Ukrainian embassy as a commentary on alleged Ukrainian support of Azerbaijan.
Around the world, Azeri and Armenian communities faced off in a number of ways ranging from fruit boycotts of Armenian berries in Moscow to vandalism of Azeri restaurants and Armenian buildings in the US and Europe.
To these Armenians stomping on some Azeris in LA.
Following the July escalations, Armenia conducted air-defense training with Russian assistance, and Azerbaijan held joint exercises with the Turkish military in early September.
On the morning of Sept. 27, Artsakh officials claim that Stepanakert and civilian settlements along the border came under artillery and drone attack.
The Azeri Ministry of Defense claims that these strikes were in retaliation for an Armenian attack that allegedly occurred two hours earlier.
For as much as each party finds its cause blameless, neither is eager to be painted as the belligerent.
This current iteration of the conflict is mostly playing out with artillery, rocket, and drone strikes, all of which are targeting a combination of armor and, of course, civilians.
Azerbaijan reports Armenian rocket attacks against cities outside the contested areas, and Armenia reports continued Azeri bombardment of civilians in Stepanakert and beyond.
They’re probably both right because it’s pretty clear that civilian lives in this conflict have never meant a damn thing.
At the time of writing, Azeri forces seem to be more tactically successful.
They’ve been making a slow but steady advance into Artsakh, capturing the completely-deserted-since-1993 city of Jabrayil and the surrounding villages near the Iranian border.
The situation in the northern Artsakh/Karabakh is less certain, as both sides accuse each other of false information regarding how much territory has traded hands.
Check out Twitter if you want to see Azeris and Armenians screaming at each other and crying fake news.
Oh, and the Oct. 10th Russian brokered a ceasefire to exchange POWs and collect bodies? Violated by Monday the 12th. Back to business as usual.
So if you’re still here, first of all, nice job.
I know this isn’t the same as reading a defense report on the gear and assets in play, but there’s plenty of that out there already.
And frankly, knowing what kind of rockets a UAV is firing or what version of T-72 was spotted in a village doesn’t do much to aid understanding.
Part of what makes understanding this war so important is the international dimension.
In addition to the regional powers choosing sides to reinforce their own economic and political goals, global alliances have resulted in a clownish web of military and diplomatic support that threatens to expose the fact that defense agreements are pretty much made with the same level of commitment as telling a friend you can help them move.
Like, I have to offer, but damn, I really don’t want to and hopefully, something comes up where I don’t have to.
Below is a list of how the lines are being drawn and some potential reasons as to why things are breaking down the way they are:
Azerbaijan’s #1 source for support comes as no surprise. Turkish President Erdogan has repeatedly demonstrated his desire to involve Turkey in just about any conflict that allows him to wage war against the traditional enemies of the Ottoman Empire.
The links between Turkey and Azerbaijan naturally begin with their shared Turkic heritage and similar languages. But of course, that’s not enough to really cement an alliance.
Azerbaijan is, as of this year, Turkey’s primary source for natural gas.
Wanting to decrease its reliance on Russian gas and become a player in the European gas market, Turkey has partnered with Georgia and Azerbaijan to build pipelines from Baku to Ankara, conveniently bypassing Armenia.
Turkey still does not acknowledge the Armenian Genocide (even though Turkish ultranationalists still call for the murder of Armenians?), creating a sticking point that has never allowed them to have good relations with Armenia.
Anyone that says the Nagorno-Karabakh war is simply about culture and religion should be asked about this.
Not only do Christian Georgia and Muslim Azerbaijan cooperate on energy resources, but they pretty much ignore their conflicted borders, which include religious sites.
The David Gareja monastery complex lies along the border and both countries consider the ruins to be part of their own cultural heritage.
The result? Lots of meetings that pretty much ended with, “eh, neither of us are too worried about it. How about we both work to restore it and make it a kick-ass tourist site that will help out both of our economies?”.
Tourists from both sides of the border regularly visit without issue and in 2011, then-President of Georgia and current Ukrainian politician Mikheil Saakashvili proclaimed, “Whoever opposed Azerbaijan is Georgia’s enemy!”
It would be funny if they kissed. What a joke. Unless…
Speaking of Ukraine, they back Azerbaijan too. Is it because the current Ukrainian government is opposed to Russia and Russia backs Armenia? Probably.
Is it because the situation of ethnic separatists in Azerbaijan wanting to secede and join a neighbor isn’t totally unlike the Russians of Eastern Ukraine wanting to break away and join Russia? Probably.
Is it because the two countries conduct over $1billion in trade every year? I’d reckon that has something to do with it too.
Almost half of the oil Israel imports are from Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan imports military hardware from Israel.
There are also about 30,000 Jews living in the mountains of Azerbaijan where they’ve resided for the past 16 centuries or so, and both governments are happy to point to them as a reason why they’re natural friends.
But a more realistic reason is Iran. Azeri-Iranian relations aren’t great (more on that in a minute), and it’s been claimed that Azerbaijan has agreed to serve as a launching point, should Israel want to strike Iran.
Pakistan supports the Azeri claim to Karabakh, and Azerbaijan supports Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir. I don’t know. They just do.
Armenian-Russian relations are complex, with a long history of Russia being the traditional protector of Armenians against Ottoman aggression.
Russia openly supports the Armenian claim to Karabakh and acts as a major supplier of Armenian military hardware.
The two nations signed defensive agreements as recently as 2016. There are multiple Russian military bases in Armenia.
At the same time, relationships between Moscow and Azerbaijan have been steadily improving as they collaborate on energy projects, and Russia still supplies the Azeri military.
Russian support to Armenia has been somewhat half-hearted this time around, and the majority of official statements are called for mediation.
We’ll see where this goes. Is going head-to-head with Turkey an opportunity or a liability at this point? Is Armenia worth it to Russia? Guess we’ll find out.
Here’s one that’ll blow some minds. Iran and Armenia are actually good buds. That’s right, Christian kingdom Armenia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
They’re actually so close diplomatically that Azerbaijan called out Iran for favoring Armenia in peace talks in the 90s.
The relationship goes back thousands of years before Islam or Christianity gave keyboard warriors easy answers to complex questions.
Over 100,000 Armenian Christians live in Iran and enjoy official recognition by the Iranian government.
Today, Iran is the only major importer of Armenian energy and has had blossoming relations with Russia regarding Syria and helping one another deal with sanctions.
French President Macron has voiced France’s support for the Armenian cause.
What does all this mean? A weird, twisted proxy war at the political and geographic nexus of Iran, Turkey, and Russia.
NATO member France is on the same side as Iran and Russia and against NATO member Turkey and NATO hopeful Ukraine.
Not to mention the number of American politicians and members of the public that support the Armenian side, which again, is aligned with Iran and Russia, who have foreign policies that pretty much every American politician condemns.
It’s almost like NATO doesn’t have a purpose anymore without the Cold War and/or global politics is an absolute joke that, by its very nature, creates more problems than it solves and everyone would be better off without it…
So there we go. If you made it to the end here, you are now better versed on this conflict than most. Believe it or not, this never-ending article actually omits a lot of details.
I can see the Armenian nationalists and Turkish bozkurt fascists frothing at the mouth, but these days, they probably were already.
Sorry, y’all. A lot of unnecessary death has occurred on both sides of this. Just sayin’.
Information wise, I’d avoid trusting either side in this, because as of now both governments are the guy that you can never totally believe when he tells you he won a fight.
Keep the comments productive please, our editors are human and don’t have a dog in this fight. If you’re interested in more of this style of article on PPT, let us know!
If you want a guns and weapons break down of something, take a look at The Modernization & Failed Indigenization of the Indian Army!