Following Azerbaijan’s lightning offensive and occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19, separatist authorities announced that the ethnic Armenian enclave would dissolve on January 1, 2024. Faced with the prospect of rule by Azerbaijan, more than one hundred thousand people, 80 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population, fled to Armenia in one week. Baku plans to “reintegrate” the region and its remaining population into Azerbaijan, promising economic development. Now, attention has turned to the Zangezur corridor, Armenian territory that separates Azerbaijan from its exclave, Nakhchivan; Azerbaijan’s president has said opening the corridor is a priority.
In 1923, the Soviet Union established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast—home to a 95 percent ethnically Armenian population—within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional legislature passed a resolution in 1988 declaring its intention to join the Republic of Armenia, despite its official location within Azerbaijan. Armed fighting between the two republics, which have a long history of ethnic tension, was kept under relative control during Soviet rule. But as the Soviet Union began to collapse, so did peace in the region. Amid Soviet dissolution in 1991, just as Armenia and Azerbaijan achieved statehood, Nagorno-Karabakh officially declared independence. War erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region, resulting in roughly thirty thousand casualties and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. By 1993, Armenia had gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s geographic area. In 1994, Russia brokered a ceasefire known as the Bishkek Protocol, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh de facto independent, with a self-proclaimed government in Stepanakert, but still heavily reliant on close economic, political, and military ties with Armenia.
Since the bilateral acceptance of a ceasefire in 1994, which formally remained in force until September 2020, the use of attack drones, shelling, and special operations activities by Armenian and Azerbaijani troops have led to intermittent clashes. Early April 2016 witnessed the most intense fighting since 1994, leading to hundreds of casualties along the line of separation. After four days of fighting, the two sides announced they had agreed to cease hostilities. However, a breakdown in talks resulted in both sides accusing each other of ceasefire violations, and tensions remained high.
Following a summer of cross-border attacks, heavy fighting broke out along the Azerbaijan-Nagorno-Karabakh border in late September 2020. More than seven thousand soldiers and civilians were killed, with hundreds more Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers wounded. Both countries initially rejected pressure from the United Nations, the United States, and Russia to hold talks and end hostilities, and instead pledged to continue fighting. Tensions escalated further when both sides switched from cross-border shelling to longer-range artillery and other heavy weaponry. After several failed attempts by Russia, France, and the United States, to negotiate a ceasefire, Russia successfully brokered a deal on November 9, 2020, reinforced by Russian peacekeepers, ending the six-week Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Azerbaijan reclaimed most of the territory it lost two decades prior, leaving Armenia with only a portion of Karabakh. The agreement also established the Lachin corridor, a small strip of land to be monitored by Russian peacekeepers that would serve as a transit route connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Negotiation and mediation efforts, primarily led by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have failed to produce a permanent solution to the conflict. The Minsk Group was created in 1994 to address the dispute and is co-chaired by the United States, France, and Russia. The three co-chairs are empowered to organize negotiations with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, separately and at summits. Although the group has successfully negotiated ceasefires, territorial disputes remain as intractable as ever.
Because of the proximity between Azerbaijani and Armenian military forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and the lack of open communication between the two groups, there is a high risk that inadvertent military action could lead to an escalation. The two sides also have domestic political interests that could incentivize a provocation of the other.
Without successful mediation efforts, ceasefire violations and renewed tensions threaten to reignite a full-scale conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Such a conflict would destabilize the South Caucasus region, potentially disrupting oil and gas exports from Azerbaijan—which produces about eight hundred thousand barrels of oil per day—to Central Asia and Europe. Russia is committed by treaty to defend Armenia in the instance of military escalation, while Turkey has pledged to support Azerbaijan. The United States’ vocal support for Armenia over the past few years, alongside Russia’s current embroilment in the war in Ukraine, could create a pretext for escalation and further complicate efforts to secure peace in the region. Given the United States and Russia’s diminished capacity to serve as honest brokers, the European Union, led by European Council President Charles Michel, has assumed a more active mediating role.
In 2022, the risk of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan increased due to the failure of mediation efforts, increased militarization, and frequent ceasefire violations. Periodic violations of the 2020 ceasefire eventually escalated into a two-day conflict beginning September 13, 2022—the most significant provocation since 2020. The death toll has been disputed, with estimates ranging from one to three hundred killed in the cross-border attacks. Azerbaijan launched attacks on several locations inside Armenian territory, which forced the evacuation of more than 2,700 civilians. Armenia and Azerbaijan have exchanged accusations of blame for initiating the violence. Despite its focus on the conflict in Ukraine, Russia claimed credit for mediating a truce between the warring parties. Additional border clashes were reported on September 21, September 23, and September 28, less than one week after the Russian-brokered truce.
In the days that followed, U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi led a congressional delegation to Armenia as a display of renewed U.S. commitment—making her the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country. She “strongly condemned” the “illegal and deadly attacks by Azerbaijan,” which Azerbaijan rejected as “Armenian propaganda” that could re-escalate the conflict. Her visit is said to have disrupted U.S. and international diplomatic efforts to reinitiate peace talks with Azerbaijan.
In December 2022, Azerbaijani activists occupied the Lachin corridor, ostensibly protesting environmental degradation caused by illegal mining in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the protesters reportedly had state backing from Baku, and they blocked all traffic except for Red Cross and Russian convoys. The Russian peacekeepers, in place to ensure the artery remains open for Armenian supplies, were unwilling or unable to secure and reopen the highway. As a result, residents in Nagorno-Karabakh faced severe shortages and rationing.
On April 23, 2023, Azerbaijan opened a checkpoint on the highway, which it claimed was necessary to intercept and deter military shipments from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. The protests ended days later, suggesting that the government’s true objective was to block Armenian passage. Armenia and ethnic Armenian leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh condemned the checkpoint, saying Azerbaijan seeks to isolate Karabakh Armenians and solidify its control over the region. Russia, meanwhile, issued only a mild statement criticizing the move. The peacekeeping force’s passivity in the face of repeated efforts to restrict Armenia’s access to the region has eroded trust in Russia as a viable security guarantor.
In a flurry of diplomacy in May 2023, the United States, European Union, and Russia all hosted peace talks. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted four days of talks with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan and said they made steps toward normalization and peace. Shortly after, European Council President Charles Michel mediated discussions between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and stated they made “clear progress” toward peace. Then, in late May, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted a trilateral meeting with the two leaders to discuss the reopening of transportation links between Armenia and Azerbaijan, though no agreement was reached. After three days of U.S.-held talks on Nagorno-Karabakh in late June, Blinken applauded “further progress” toward a peace agreement and said both sides showed a willingness to negotiate seriously.
In addition to the increased dialogue, Pashinyan said his government recognizes the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region as the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. In return, he called on Azerbaijan to acknowledge Armenia’s internationally recognized territorial boundaries and guarantee rights and protections for ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nonetheless, the security situation remains tense. Sporadic gunfire has occurred along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border throughout the peace talks, emphasizing the tenuous nature of the talks and how easily the two militaries could slide back into war. Furthermore, despite Pashinyan’s concession on territory, the two sides still disagree on important issues like the demarcation of their shared border and transport routes. Domestic concerns also factor into peace prospects; after the 2020 truce, Pashinyan faced popular backlash and a standoff with the Armenian military over the loss of territory. If talks drag on or a peace deal unacceptable to the Armenian military is reached, Pashinyan could again face pressure to change course or resign.
Further complicating diplomatic efforts, Azerbaijan tightened access to Nagorno-Karabakh, banning even Red Cross convoys from passing through the Lachin Corridor to the region over alleged smuggling of unsanctioned products. Azerbaijani security forces also detained an individual passing through a checkpoint for medical care in Armenia, leading to a suspension of medical evacuations for critically-ill patients. With no supplies allowed to pass through the corridor, shelves sat empty and two children died as the humanitarian crisis turned critical. Azerbaijan offered aid, but the region’s leaders rejected it, saying they would not accept aid from the country responsible for the crisis.
On September 19, days after an agreement to reopen the Lachin Corridor for aid deliveries sparked hopes of easing the crisis, Azerbaijan launched an “anti-terrorist” offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh. Karabakh officials said at least two hundred people died in the operation, which Azerbaijan said was aimed at neutralizing Armenian military installments. Within two days, Azerbaijan claimed to have regained full control over the region, and Russia-mediated negotiations began in Yevlakh, Azerbaijan, over the disarmament of Armenian separatists and the reintegration of Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, protestors took to the streets in Yerevan, Armenia, accusing the government of failing to protect ethnic Armenians and demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. At stake is the status of around 120,000 ethnic Armenians living in the disputed territory; thousands immediately fled to Armenia, fearing persecution if they stayed, and officials have demanded security guarantees for those who remain before they agree to give up their weapons.