Why did Armenia occupy Azerbaijani territories

Conflict over Nagorni Karabakh: Armenia sues Turkey before the ECHR

The latest developments

In a six-week war for Nagorni Karabakh, the Armenian side suffered a devastating defeat. Azerbaijan has reclaimed large areas. The future status of Karabakh continues to be disputed.

The latest developments:

  • Armenia is referring to the European Court of Human Rights because of Turkey's role in the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting. As the Strasbourg court announced on Tuesday (May 18), a corresponding application was received a few days ago. It will now be checked whether the complaint will be admitted. According to the court, Armenia accuses Turkey of assisting the Azerbaijani armed forces in the conflict. The court has also received complaints about human rights violations from both sides between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
  • Amid new tensions with Armenia, Azerbaijan has begun large-scale maneuvers. Up to 15,000 soldiers as well as 300 tanks and other military vehicles are involved in the multi-day exercises, the Ministry of Defense announced on Sunday (May 16). According to this, 400 different missile and artillery systems are also used. At the same time, the Foreign Ministry on Sunday rejected allegations of Armenia as "completely unfounded" to have violated the border. According to Armenian sources, Azerbaijani troops had occupied heights in the southern area of ​​Syunik, which Armenia regards as its own territory. This is an “absolutely unacceptable encroachment” on Armenia's sovereign territory.
  • Half a year after the end of the fighting over Nagorni Karabakh in the South Caucasus, Armenia sees the conflict with Azerbaijan far from being resolved. Foreign Minister Ara Aivazyan said on Thursday (May 6) at a meeting with his Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov in the capital Yerevan. The future status of the Nagorni Karabakh region is still unclear. "Only through peaceful negotiations can a political solution be found that takes everyone's rights into account," he said, demanding that the status should be based on the borders established by the Karabakh Armenians excluding Azerbaijan. Since a ceasefire brokered by Russia, things have been largely calm in the region of the conflicting parties. The Russian peacekeeping forces are a guarantee of security, said Aivazyan and complained that Azerbaijan was still not releasing all Armenian prisoners of war.
  • Armenia has lifted the state of war in the conflict region of Nagorni Karabakh. More than four months after the end of the fighting, the parliament in the capital Yerevan voted with a large majority for this measure on Wednesday (March 24th), as reported by the Armenian media. The opposition had long called for this step. Martial law restricts the rights of the opposition and democracy as a whole, argued their representatives. On June 20, a new parliament is to be elected prematurely in Armenia as a result of the domestic political crisis after the lost war.
  • Under pressure from protests after the lost war for Nagorni Karabakh, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is offering early parliamentary elections. Pashinyan made the proposal after demonstrators broke into a government building on March 1 and demanded his departure. As a condition for his resignation, however, the head of government makes that parliament does not simply elect a successor, but actually schedule new elections. Last week the army leadership also called for Pashinyan's resignation, whereupon he spoke of an attempted coup and ordered the removal of the army chief. However, a rope has been pulled around this question. The country’s president, Armen Sarksyan, refuses to sign the relevant decree, thus opposing Pashinyan. The armed forces accuse Pashinyan of having handled the conflict with Azerbaijan in a catastrophic manner.

How did the armed conflict over Nagorni Karabakh go?

In recent years there have been several military clashes between the armed forces of Armenia and the Republic of Nagorni Karabakh (self-designation Arzach) on the one hand and Azerbaijan on the other, including in April 2016. It showed how great the tensions between Yerevan and Baku are in July 2020 when there were skirmishes on another section of the border that had nothing directly to do with the Karabakh conflict. On September 27, Azerbaijan launched an offensive against Nagorni Karabakh. This marked the beginning of the second war between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the region. Nagorni Karabakh and Armenia declared a state of emergency and general mobilization. In the course of its ground offensive, Azerbaijan brought parts of the Artsakh Republic under its control, particularly areas in the south that Armenia had captured in 1993 as a safety buffer.

On October 10, the warring parties agreed on a ceasefire, mediated by Russia, which was broken by both sides a day later. In the subsequent heavy fighting, Azerbaijan gained further territorial gains. Further attempts at a ceasefire also failed.

On November 8, Azerbaijan took the strategically important city of Shusha (Armenian: Shushi). On November 9th, the warring parties signed a declaration with the aim of ending the fighting on November 10th. Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the "President" of the unrecognized Nagorni Karabakh Republic, Araik Arutjunjan, said the situation had not allowed anything else. This officially ended the war, although there were still isolated armed clashes until mid-December.

Under Armenian control
Recaptured from Azerbaijan
Returned to Azerbaijan
Former Nagorni Karabakh autonomous region

What were the causes of the war?

Since the end of the war in 1994 there have been repeated fighting on the front line in Nagorni Karabakh. However, various factors contributed to the outbreak of the new war in autumn 2020. Above all, Azerbaijan's willingness to go to war seems to have increased significantly in recent months. According to my observers, this was partly because in Baku, after all these years, the hope of concessions from Armenia had evaporated. The role of Turkey also contributed to this. As an ally of Azerbaijan, President Erdogan was ready to get involved in the military. The corona pandemic may also have been a factor. It dampened the willingness of the EU to intervene and at the same time increased domestic political pressure on the regime in Baku.

What does the Baku-Yerevan agreement contain - and what does it mean?

Armenia and Azerbaijan pledged a ten-point plan in their November 9 declaration to freeze their current positions. Armenia should withdraw in several steps from the held areas around the core area of ​​Nagorni Karabakh and hand them over to Azerbaijan. Russian troops took control of the ceasefire agreement. Azerbaijani refugees are allowed to return to Karabakh. The presence of the Russian peacekeeping forces is temporarily limited to five years and is automatically extended if neither party objects.

The declaration seals the defeat of Armenia, which Azerbaijan and Turkey must go far to meet. In Baku the news of the agreement was received with jubilation. In Yerevan, however, angry Armenians stormed the government building.

What are the direct consequences of the war?

Apart from the loss of territory, there are domestic political changes in Armenia. After massive protests, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced early parliamentary elections in 2021 on December 25, 2020. These should take place next June 20th. Pashinyan has been under massive domestic political pressure since the end of the fighting. The opposition and its supporters are demanding his resignation. They blame the head of government for the military defeat against Azerbaijan.

Where is Nagorni Karabach and who controls it?

The predominantly Armenian mountain region lies within the territory of Azerbaijan. In Soviet times Nagorni Karabakh had the status of an autonomous region, which gave the Armenians living in the enclave certain rights of autonomy within the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, an open conflict broke out between the newly independent countries Armenia and Azerbaijan. In doing so, Armenia conquered areas that connect the former autonomous region with Armenia. This enabled Karabakh to be supplied by land from Armenia. One, later two well-developed roads led through these former Azerbaijani districts to Stepanakert. Since the end of the fighting in November 2020, only one of these routes has been in operation, the Lachin Corridor, which runs through territory returned to Azerbaijan.

The situation in Nagorni Karabakh before the current war began

Nagorni Karabakh Autonomous Region
Territory occupied by Armenia

Nagorni Karabach is officially called the Artsakh Republic and was de facto independent from 1994 onwards. Armenia took on the role of guarantor of security. With the defeat in the second Karabakh War in autumn 2020, it effectively lost it to Russia. Statehood is not recognized by any UN member - not even Armenia. Under international law, the entire area still belongs to Azerbaijan. Although there has been repeated fighting over the past twenty years, the course of the front barely shifted until autumn 2020.

What is the historical background of the conflict?

The ethnic conflicts between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis go back a long way. Until the middle of the 19th century, the Armenians in the South Caucasus were in the minority, then between 1846 and 1915 their number increased eightfold. This increased tensions between the two ethnic groups. In 1905/06 and 1918/19 there were massacres in Baku and in Armenian and Azerbaijani villages in Nagorni Karabakh, killing tens of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

With the founding of the Soviet Union, the slogan of friendship between peoples was applied. The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin granted the Armenians in Nagorni Karabakh a certain autonomy, but the arbitrary drawing of boundaries was also a means of weakening national movements.

In the final phase of the Soviet Union, control by Moscow waned. The Armenian was one of the first national movements to be heard. In 1987 the Karabakh Committee was formed, which demanded that the General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev transfer Karabakh to Armenia.

In February 1988 there were massacres of Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait, and thousands of Armenians demonstrated in Stepanakert for the annexation of Karabakh to Armenia. After the end of the Soviet Union, an open war broke out that lasted from 1992 to 1994. The number of deaths is estimated at 25,000 to 50,000. More than a million people were displaced: Azerbaijanis fled Armenia, Nagorni Karabakh and the neighboring areas; Armenians had to leave Azerbaijan.

How is the connection between Armenia and Karabakh?

The independence of the “Republic of Nagorni Karabakh” declared in Stepanakert is not recognized by any UN member, not even by Armenia. Erewan also shies away from a formal merger. Nagorni Karabach has been striving for international recognition for years. The defeat in the fall of 2020 and the loss of a large part of the previously held territory only increased the need for it. Artsakh is not economically viable on its own. Before the war, 50 to 70 percent of the budget was directly or indirectly financed by Armenia. Since the ceasefire in November 2020, Nagorni Karabach has become an enclave again: the northern connection via the Kelbajar district, which was returned to Azerbaijan, has been blocked, the southern one via the so-called Lachin Corridor runs through Azerbaijani territory again. Russian peacekeepers secure the road.

In Armenia, the September 2020 Azerbaijani attack on Karabakh was understood as a direct attack on Armenia and the Armenian people. The experience of the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915/16 as well as the massacres and expulsions of the Armenian population on the territory of the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic and the independent Azerbaijan before and after 1991 have an effect to this day. That is why numerous volunteers in Erewan reported for the fight in Nagorni Karabakh.

Time and again, Karabakh Armenians have held the highest positions in Yerevan, for example the former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan. The current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, on the other hand, has no ties to Karabakh. When he took office in 2018, hopes arose that he could bring movement to the muddled Karabakh question. Paschinyan's originally conciliatory attitude changed quickly, precisely because he had to secure himself in a political environment that is defined by standing up for Karabakh. So he demonstratively sent his son to the region for military service.

Where are the neighbors and the international organizations?

Traditionally, Russia is the protective power of the Christian Armenians in the Caucasus, whereas Turkey is close to the Muslim Azerbaijanis, whose language is closely related to Turkish. Russia sees the southern Caucasus as its sphere of influence and would most likely have the opportunity to intervene arbitrarily. Moscow has a large military base in Armenia. Russia has increased its presence since the November 2020 ceasefire. Russian peacekeepers are stationed on Azerbaijani territory under international law, on the remaining territory of the Nagorni Karabakh Republic, which is not recognized by anyone, and guarantee security in the Lachin Corridor, which connects Stepanakert with Armenia.

Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance of former Soviet republics. In the event of an attack, Armenia could count on the support of its allies. However, this does not apply to an attack on the territory of Nagorni Karabakh.

In addition, Moscow has not only maintained good relations with Armenia in recent years, but also with the authoritarian leadership in Azerbaijan. It supplied arms to both warring countries. Moscow would react sensitively to a diplomatic offensive by Western countries or organizations.

Since the end of the first war in 1994, the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been looking for a long-term solution to the conflict. The process led by Russia, France and the USA has so far been unsuccessful. The OSCE is currently struggling with internal problems. Russia single-handedly negotiated the ceasefire and the ten-point declaration of November 2020 with the warring parties. However, President Putin repeatedly emphasized that the steps had been agreed with the co-chairmen of the Minsk Group and that there was a regular exchange.