2023 will mark three years since Azerbaijan won a sweeping victory in 2020 and reclaimed 20% of the territory in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, with major support from Turkey as well as strategic favors from Israel. The escalating military conflict in the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the longest running post-Soviet Eurasian conflict, emblematic of a post-Soviet unraveling from conflicts in Georgia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and of course Ukraine, showing signs of a deteriorating Russian-led ceasefire deal in 2020 after reports of renewed fighting between Azeri and Armenian forces in early August 2022, which earned the condemnation of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken [1] [2]. On December 12, 2022, Azerbaijan continued its hegemonic posturing over Armenia instituting a blockade after environmental activists blocked the only road that connects Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh,  which has earned condemnation from the U.S. lawmakers ranging from Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi to Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass [3] [4] [5].

Nearly a million people were displaced in the 2020 war as Armenia lost 3,825 troops and Azerbaijan lost 2,906 with immense civilian casualties on both sides during the gruesome 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020 [6]. This Second Nagorno Karabakh War followed after the initial war over the region following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when a more prepared and Russian-backed Armenia claimed territory during the first Nagorno-Karabakh War which was designated as part of the Azerbaijani SSR during Soviet rule [7].

The tables were turned nearly three decades later, as Azerbaijan had nearly five times more military expenditures, double the soldiers and triple the artillery of Armenia at the time of the conflict, in addition to superior drone capabilities, which by most estimates, proved to be a deciding factor [8]. At its core, Azerbaijan has been a wealthy petrostate since its independence, leveraging its geopolitical clout in the region to reverse the status quo which favored Armenia administering the Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway state within Azerbaijani territory since 1991.

However, what the 2020 ceasefire deal evidently fails to address are both the status of the territory as a border conflict and the political situation in the breakaway, autonomous region which Azerbaijan and the international community consider illegally occupied Armenian-administered Nagorno Karabakh, while only Armenia considers to be the Republic of Artsakh [9].

Two weeks before renewed fighting broke out between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh in August 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyden struck a deal to triple Azerbaijan's gas exports to the European Union to fill in the gap left by Russia due to the War in Ukraine [10]. Azerbaijan's expanding energy footprint displays signs of Azerbaijan's outsized leverage and legroom to instigate further violence to top off their already strong upper hand against Armenia in the region. Meanwhile, Armenia is left more vulnerable than three years ago, as the post-war Russian peacekeeper's presence now spreads thin.

While Azerbaijan itself has been pushing a narrative against Armenian occupation for three decades and stockpiling militarily and financially, a more decisive factor in their victory has proven to be the use of Turkish drones and proxy groups [11] [12]. The incumbency of  pro-Western Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan, who ousted former pro-Russian Armenian President Sergey Sargzyan in a democratic revolution in 2018, is perceived of as a window of opportunity by Azerbaijan and its Turkish backers, as this meant a Russian withdrawal of support with major strategic returns at the ongoing cost of Armenia and its Nagorno-Karabakh territory [13].

Transcaucasia: How Imperial Histories & Competing Nationalist Narratives shape the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The name 'Nagorno-Karabakh' derives two names from languages of the former imperial rulers of the land. Nagorno means 'mountainous' in Russian, while Karabakh means 'black vineyard' in Turkish and Persian. Azerbaijan, in which Azer is the Persian word for fire, is known in the Persian and Turkic world as the 'land of fire,' for its great number of Zoroastrian temples that were fed by its vast sources of nearby oil [14]. After the Arab conquest in the mid-seventh century, the land retained its Persian character and saw subsequent conversions to Islam. In the eleventh century, Azerbaijan witnessed a huge influx of Oghuz Turkic tribes under the Seljuk dynasty, during which the local Persian language was replaced by a Turkic dialect which brings the Azeri Turkish language we know today [15].

However, Armenians refer to the region by its name during the rule of the Kingdom of Armenia, which held off the Roman Empire for all of its existence — 'Artsakh.' Professor of Caucasian Studies at SOAS, David M. Lang says the name 'Artsakh' is derived from King Artaxias I of the Artaxias Dynasty which ruled over Greater Armenia from 189 BC to 160 BC [16].

The end of the fifteenth century brought Azerbaijan into the control of a new native dynasty, the Persian Safavid Dynasty. The consolidation of a new Iranian kingdom under Shah Ismail I along with his conquests and politics of centralization, whose capital was Tabriz, made the Azeri Turks followers of the Shi'ite branch of Islam, henceforth setting them apart from their Ottoman Turkic counterparts next door [17]. The Safavids were later replaced in the region by Tsarist Russia, where the Russian Commander-in-Chief, Pavel Tsitsianov, extended military control over Azerbaijan's ruling khans in the early 1800s [18]. The subsequent centuries of Russian control over Azerbaijan operated on a divide-and-rule strategy between the Sunni-Shi'ite split to enlist Shi'ite volunteers against Sunni Ottoman Turkey in both 1828-1829 as well as 1853-1855 [19].

Russian rule saw the oblast (district) of then-Karabakh and Eastern Armenia undergo population exchanges between Muslims and Armenians, which Tsarist Russia facilitated as a means of restoring Armenians to their ancient lands in Eastern Armenia according to the late Polish Historian at Columbia University, Tadeusz Swietochowski [20]. Similarly, the late Iranian-American Professor of Armenian descent at UCLA, George Bournotian, confirms that:

"Prior to Russian conquest the Armenians accounted for some 20% of the total population of Eastern Armenia, and the Muslims 80%; following the Russian annexation, 57,000 Armenian immigrants arrived from Persia and the Ottoman Empire and 35,000 Muslims emigrated from Eastern Armenia. By 1832, therefore, the Armenians formed…half of the population [21]."

In Karabakh, the trend was similar as Russian figures from the 1930s showed that the region held nearly 19,000 Armenians and 35,000 Muslims [22].

A century later, when the post-WWI Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk came face-to-face with the Bolsehviks of the emerging Soviet Union, the forces of Pan-Islamism, Pan-Turkism and Turanism - which are intimately embraced by Erdogan's Turkey today and in the 2020 support for Azerbaijan - were rejected outright by Ataturk. He found such designs incompatible with Turkey's post-WWI friendship with Russia and his post-Ottoman, "Turkey first" brand of nationalism [23]. As he predicted, on April 28, 1920, the short-lived Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was invaded by the Bolshevik 11th Army and was established as the Azerbaijan Socialist Soviet Republic [24].

Today's War, Tomorrow's Weapons, Yesterday's Grudges

The Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was established as a Soviet district drawn in 1923 by Joseph Stalin with a 90% Armenian population. While initially conceded to the Armenian SSR, the People's Commissariat of Nationalities, chaired by Stalin himself, handed the district over to the Azerbaijani SSR in order to win the favor of Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [25]. 

Armenians held demonstrations as early as 1945 to rejoin the Armenian SSR, but were met with crackdowns by the Supreme Soviet [26]. However, towards the final days of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev with reforms like glasnost and perestroika, which allowed Soviet subjects to organize and protest, the NKAO voted to reunify with Armenia in a referendum [27] [28]. However, Gorbachev was hesitant to do so in fear of alienating not only Azerbaijan, but most of Muslim-majority Central Asia including areas like Tatarstan on the Volga River [29].

Historian Ronald Suny argues that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict itself is a byproduct of Soviet collapse given that the Soviet Union's official ideology of druzhba narodov or "friendship of the peoples" meant that there would be no ethnic or national conflict within the Union [30]. However, the waning days of the Soviet Union saw huge episodes of violence in the forms of pogroms against Armenians in Sumgait (February and March 1988), Kirovabad (November 1988) and Baku (January 1990) in response to their mobilization as a result of Gorbachev's reforms [31]. 

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 till 1994, all-out war broke out in which the Russian-backed Armenians won and claimed de facto rule over Nagorno-Karabakh. During that time, half a million Azeris were forcibly displaced and tens of thousands died through indiscriminate violence [32]. On February 26, 1992, hundreds of Azerbaijanis were killed by irregular Armenian forces in what is remembered in both Azerbaijan and Turkey as the Khojaly Massacre in the town of Khojaly, Azerbaijan [33].

The grievances on both the Armenian and Azeri sides are deep and irremovable as a result of the post-Soviet conflict. The memory of the Armenian genocide during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire and Armenia's geographic position in between both the countries puts Armenia in a particularly tough position with trauma and deep grievances towards both Turkic, Muslim-majority nations.

Regional Powers & Distant Powerbrokers of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War

The 2020 Nagorno Karabakh conflict was different for Armenia, as only France seemed to offer them strategic support while Russia and Iran remained silent [34]. In 2013, Armenia had joined the European Union's Eastern Partnership, which linked former Soviet Republics with enhanced access to EU markets and resources - a move which Russian President Vladimir Putin warned against [35]. However, the more costly move for Armenia with regards to deteriorating relations with Russia was the 2018 election of the current Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, following his Color Revolution-style protests against his long-standing former Prime Minister, Serzh Sargsyan [36]. Sargsyan was seen as a leader who always put Russian interests first and which gave the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan plenty of fodder when framing Armenia as a Russian client state. Pashinyan has taken steps to move away from being seen as a Russian client state, which cost him in 2020 as Russian mediation served only when one of its own helicopters was shot down on November 8, 2020 [37].

Even though Armenia is a member of the Russia-led security alliance known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia did not provide support due to the caveat that Armenia proper was not under attack, but only the breakaway province of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijani territory [38].

Russia's mediation which ended the 44-day war also inserted 2,000 peacekeeper troops into areas still held by Armenia including the Nagorno-Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, while the neighboring city of Shushi was captured as the 20% that the Azeris reclaimed now patrolled by Turkish peacekeeping forces [39] [40]. The conflict's aftermath and Russia's role in the mediation put on full display how the country ultimately perceived their role as pushing back Turkey's potential upperhand in the future of the region. Richard Giragosian of the Regional Studies Center mentions how Nagorno-Karabakh is the only conflict in post-Soviet territory without a military presence, which was a long-term irritant for the Kremlin, making the recent deployment a clear win for Moscow [41]. Similarly, Thomas De Waal of Carnegie Europe reiterates that Putin doesn't really do humanitarian work and that its purpose as a mediator and peacekeeper is part of its grander agenda to restore its footprint in the South Caucasus [42]. Still, Giragosian stresses that Armenians feel betrayed and that the ceasefire deal itself constitutes more of a grand truce deal rather than a peace deal [43]. 

After the signing of the deal by Pashinyan on November 10, 2020, protesters stormed the Armenian Parliament and office of the Prime Minister, after Pashinyan's Facebook post at 2 a.m. announcing the end of the six-week war, both on Russian terms and in Azerbaijan's favor [44]. Protesters even beat MP Ararat Mirzoyan so badly that he required minor surgery afterward. The President of the Republic of Artsakh, Ararik Harutyunyan, declared that the deal had become unavoidable [45]. However, in a country of three million people, and over 4,000 killed and 91,000 displaced, few are left untouched by the devastation of Armenia's loss in 2020.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan welcomed the ceasefire with three days of partying and a formal victory parade attended by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 10, 2020. This parade was commemorated as the Baku Victory Parade of 2020 - full with 3,000 military servicemen, military equipment, unmanned aerial vehicles, and Turkish soldiers while jets and helicopters flew above the city and navy vessels performed maneuvers in the Bay of Baku [46]. To many Turkey observers, this is yet another foray of Erdogan's new muscular foreign policy, at odds with Russian interests, similar to recent Turkish military expeditions and proxy conflicts in Syria and Libya [47]. On a deeper level within Turkey, Erdogan declaring Azerbaijan and Turkey were "one nation, two states," serves as a distraction to his economic mismanagement of the country in order to score points for his upcoming elections [48]. 

Strategic but not Ideological: How Non-State Actors Shape the Karabakh Conflict

Turkey has transported thousands of Syrian insurgents to the battlefront in Nagorno-Karabakh from their Free Syria Army—loyal fighters to Turkey bent on deposing the Assad regime in Syria which is propped up by Russia [49]. Syrian fighters are reported to have been paid $1,600 (31,046 liras) to go fight Armenia on the side of Azerbaijan and on the off chance of their death, their families receive their bodies along with $16,000 liras for compensation [50]. While many Syrian families condemn this highly exploitative proxy dynamic, the Turkish government denies the allegations as baseless, instead claiming that Armenia has hired Kurdish YPG fighters. Matteo Pugliese asserts that proxy fighters for Azerbaijan are better categorized as mercenaries than religious fanatical militants considering their motives were high salaries and not ideology [51].  In a telling display, the infamous jihadist ideologue, Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi, stated that dying for Nagorno-Karabakh would not assure martyrdom considering Salafist condemnation of Turkey as a NATO member and secular state [52].

On the Armenian side, members of the Armenian diaspora have traveled to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh while its high-profile celebrities have voiced support, from Kim Kardashian to former Arsenal soccer player, Henrikh Mkhitaryan [52]. Armenia's official Twitter account, run by the country's Foreign Ministry, posted a picture of an Orthodox priest holding an assault rifle and a cross, with a caption stating, "Faith & Power!", in a clear attempt to mobilize Orthodox Christians in the war [53]. This propaganda mobilization proved effective as a number of volunteers from the diaspora and the region heeded the call, including from Greek-Armenians, 20,000 volunteers from the Union of Armenians in Russia, and a unit composed of the Yazidi community of Armenia [54].

The month before the war broke out, between July 29 and August 10, 2020, Azerbaijan and Turkey performed two-week long joint military exercises in Nakhchivan, Baku, Ganja, Kurdamir and Yevlakh involving ground and air forces from both countries [55]. This coincided with Turkish military exports to Azerbaijan growing tenfold during the third quarter of 2020. These exports followed a growing trend in Azerbaijan which, between 2008 and 2019, spent $24 billion on its military while continuously reiterating its claim to Nagorno Karabakh through its political rhetoric among parliament members and the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev himself, [56]. Azeri defense spending was clearly stockpiling in the early 2000s and 2010s as Azerbaijan spent $700 million in 2007 and $3.7 billion in 2013 in addition to $5 billion from Russia [57]. These Azeri military expenditures were well over six times larger than Armenia throughout the course of the past decades. Of particular notice and combat recognition among Turkish military exports, was the Bayraktar TB-2 drone, which displayed devastatingly successful results against Armenian artillery, infantry positions and military vehicles similar to its game changing results in Libya, Syria and now in Ukraine. 

Israeli military hardware also gained considerable recognition in the 2020 conflict, as Hikmet Hajiyev, Aliyev's top foreign policy adviser, confirmed his country deployed Israeli-made military drones in the contested region and the Israeli Harop drone, in particular, was "very effective [58]." Israel also surfaced during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh as not just a key military supplier to Azerbaijan, but a major power broker with strategic interests in the region and longstanding ties as well. Israel provided stinger missiles in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War from 1988 to 1994, and to this day Israeli weapons comprise 60% of Azerbaijan's weapons stockpile [59]. In 2009, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev claimed in regards to the country's dealings with Israel that "nine-tenths of it is below the surface." Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, stated in 2012 that "Azerbaijan is more important for Israel than France [60]."

During the initial victory parades at the close of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Israeli flags were waved by everyday Azeris in the capital of Baku. However, this intimate and lucrative embrace of Israel by Azerbaijan has aroused much suspicion from Iran, with whom Azerbaijan shares a 428-mile-long border. On Monday, October 4, 2021, nearly a year after the start of the conflict, Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Leyla Abdullayeva, released a public statement in response to Iranian military drills on their border: "We reject the allegations of a third party's presence near the Azerbaijani-Iranian border [61]." Clearly, the repercussions of Azeri-Israeli cooperation and trade have resulted in Israel gaining a strategic foothold in Azerbaijan, while distancing a regional neighbor who was also in support of Azerbaijan.

Early in the conflict, Iran came out as a supporter of Azerbaijan, despite its close and friendly relations with Armenia since its independence in 1991, including expanding relations with trade, tourism and military cooperation. However, the Ayatollah regime in Tehran recognized the conflict within three days, shifting away from a stance of neutrality and negotiator between Yerevan and Baku to totally siding with Azerbaijan [62]. 

The premier reason for Iran's support of Azerbaijan stemmed from its own self-preservation and realpolitik more than anything else—appeasement of its own ethnic Azeri minority. Tehran's fears that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could spill over into its Western borders triggered Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Supreme Leader Khamenei's Foreign Policy Advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati, to demand Armenia to leave Nagorno-Karabakh, claiming it has occupied it since 1994. Even more adamantly, a Grand Ayatollah, Hossein Nouri Hamedani, demanded of the situation in more religious terms: "Nagorno Karabakh is part of the Islamic World and should return to the Islamic country and be liberated [63]." 

Clearly, the Second Nagorno Karabakh Conflict garnered a wide coalition of regional powers from Iran, Russia, Turkey and even Pakistan, which was the second country after Turkey to recognize Azerbaijan's independence in 1991 [64].

As for Armenia's supporters, only France stands out as the most promising, which had its Senate adopt a Resolution on November 25, 2020, to recognize the Republic of Artsakh as the premier authority over the Nagorno-Karabakh region following its loss of territory to Azerbaijan [65]. France, Russia and the U.S. established an OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) Minsk Group in 1992 to resolve the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, but has reaped no sustainable results and is widely criticized for its inefficacy [66]. Evidently, shrewd deployment of nationalist narratives and non-state actors within a wider arena of the shifting balance of power in the Caucasus, brought Azerbaijan success, although Armenia similarly deployed its own nationalist narratives and non-state actors whether proxy fighters or claims for Orthodox Christian reclamation in the South Caucasus.

How Azerbaijan and its Proxies get Free Rein as the West taps into its Energy Sector

Azerbaijan's reclamation of Nagorno Karabakh territories comes at the cost of not just human life, particularly the elderly whose circumstances didn't allow for them to migrate quickly, but the cultural monuments which Armenians were forced to leave behind. Alex Galitsky, Communications Director of the Armenian National Committee of America's Western Region, reports an ongoing cultural genocide of over 28,000 historic Armenian monuments occuring in the region of Nakhchivan [67]. A 2019 report in the art journal, Hyperallergic, declared that over the past three decades since the Soviet retreat from the region, the Azerbaijani government has been undertaking a huge systematic erasure of Armenian heritage including the destruction of 89 medieval churches, 5,840 intricate crosstones, and 22,000 tombstones — 'the worst cultural genocide of the 21st century' according to Simon Maghakyan, the Executive Director of Save Armenian Monuments [68].

Azerbaijan accelerates its escalating racial antagonism towards Armenians following their 2020 victory, as President Aliyev praised architect of the Armenian Genocide Enver Pasha during the Baku Victory Parade, issued a postage stamp of Armenians being attacked militarily and opened a war trophy park [69]. While US and EU condemnations resurface to stave off full-on military conflict and Russian peacekeepers attempt to prevent more bloodshed, the war in Ukraine's and Azerbaijan's energy diplomacy allow more legroom for Azeri maximalist aggression to go unquestioned and ongoing Armenian grievances to go unaddressed.

Europe sees Azerbaijan as uniquely positioned to fill in the gap left by Russia to be a gas supplier. Azerbaijan is greatly endowed with gas fields near the Caspian Sea in addition to connectivity between Greece and Italy via the Southern Gas Corridor. On July 18, 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyden visited Baku in order to strike a bilateral agreement to more than double EU imports of Azeri gas — from 8.1 million in 2021 to 20 billion by 2027 [70]. Two weeks later, Azerbaijan launched Operation Revenge in early August 2022, which earned the condemnation of the US and spelled fears of a Third Nagorno-Karabakh War.

However, skepticism arises over Azerbaijan's capacity to fill in the energy gap resulting from the absence of Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine. Gubad Ibadoghlu, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Azeri Economist, speculates how 20 billion promised in the July 2022 deal with Aliyev is "just an eighth of the 155 billion cubic meters the EU bought from Russia in 2021 [71]."


Azerbaijan's expanding energy footprint and triumphalism in the Southern Caucasus is coming at a huge humanitarian cost in the region at Armenia's expense. The Russian peacekeeper's inefficacy, in addition to their shifted attention with the war in Ukraine, gives reason to believe that the truce deal and ceasefire which ended the Second Nagorno Karabakh War, are tenuous and subject to ongoing violations. A month before the breakout of the Second Nagorno Karabakh War, Canadian Journalist Neil Hauer published an article on Foreign Policy reporting over 300 ceasefire violations since January 2015 [72]. This was only with Azerbaijan's increased military expenditures at hand, but now the Aliyev regime holds economic leverage of the EU, which may lead to more repeats of the ceasefire violations witnessed in early August 2022. Azerbaijan's gloating through political rhetoric and provocation through one-off military operations only exacerbates the conflict further.

The international community will be left in a more precarious position than it was in 2020, considering the US and EU are tied with the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine to serve as an obstacle if another war breaks out between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The pro-Azerbaijan positions of Turkey, Iran and even Russia have not changed, allowing for cultural destruction and further forced displacements of Armenians in their fledgling Republic of Artsakh. Meanwhile, Turkey and Azerbaijan provide media coverage of Azeris returning to Nagorno Karabakh and are calling it the "Great Return." The zero-sum game here could not be more prevalent, which only spells the worst for Armenia.


Download footnotes here.

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