Explainer – What is happening between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh?

(Reuters) – Azerbaijan launched “anti-terrorism activities” in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on Tuesday, saying it wanted to restore constitutional order and reportedly expel Armenian troops, a move that could herald a new war.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have already fought two wars over Karabakh in the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, of which they were both a part.

Here’s a look at the history of the conflict and the latest developments.


Nagorno-Karabakh, called Artsakh by Armenians, is a mountainous region at the southern end of the Karabakh Mountains in Azerbaijan. It is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but its 120,000 residents are predominantly ethnic Armenians. They have their own government, which is close to Armenia but is not officially recognized by Armenia or any other country.

The Christian Armenians claim that they have been present in the area since several centuries before Christ. Azerbaijan, whose residents are predominantly Turkish Muslims, also points to deep historical ties with the region, which over the centuries has come under the rule of Persians, Turks and Russians. The bloody conflict between the two peoples goes back more than a century.

Under the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh became an autonomous region within the Republic of Azerbaijan.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the First Karabakh War (1988-1994) broke out between Armenians and their Azerbaijani neighbors. About 30,000 people were killed and more than a million displaced. Most of these were Azerbaijanis who were forced from their homes when the Armenian side finally gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh itself and parts of the seven surrounding districts.

In 2020, after decades of intermittent skirmishes, Azerbaijan began a military operation that became the Second Karabakh War and quickly broke through Armenian defenses. It won a stunning victory within 44 days, recapturing the seven districts and about a third of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

The use of drones purchased from Turkey and Israel was cited by military analysts as one of the main reasons for Azerbaijan’s victory. At least 6,500 people were killed.

Russia, which has a defense treaty with Armenia but also has good relations with Azerbaijan, has negotiated a ceasefire.

The agreement called for 1,960 Russian peacekeepers to guard the territory’s lifeline to Armenia: the road through the “Lachin Corridor,” which Armenian forces no longer controlled.

Analysts say successive rounds of talks, mediated in different ways by the European Union, the United States and Russia, have brought the two sides closer to a lasting peace deal than they have been in years, but a final deal remains a long way off. The most sensitive issue is the status of the 120,000 ethnic Armenians in Karabakh, whose rights and security, according to Armenia, must be guaranteed. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Armenia recognizes Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but Baku says it is not certain whether the claim was made in good faith and accuses Armenia of fomenting separatism.

In December 2022, Azerbaijani civilians posing as environmental activists began blocking the Lachin Corridor, and in April 2023, Azerbaijan set up an official checkpoint, saying it prevented arms smuggling. The movement of people and goods between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh was largely interrupted. The United States complained about the “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation.”

This week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was able to simultaneously carry out aid deliveries through the Lachin corridor and a separate road connecting Karabakh with the Azerbaijani city of Aghdam.

Still, tensions have risen sharply this month as Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of adding troops.

Armenia has complained loudly that Russia’s war in Ukraine has distracted it from what Moscow calls its role as a guarantor of security in the South Caucasus.

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

Brian Ashcraft

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