Historicising the War in Nagorno Karabakh

Abstract: The case of Nagorno Karabakh is one among many examples of territorial disputes between bordering regions that can be observed in the former USSR territory. Territorial disputes continue to be a source of trouble for locals. A literature review and expert survey were conducted to analyze the status quo. This article argues that the main reasons for the victory of Armenia/Nagorno Karabakh during the status quo period (from the end of the war in 1994 till the 2020 war) were the unstable political situation in Azerbaijan and Russian support.

Problem statement: How can the root causes of the 1992-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh war be understood?

Bottom-line-up-front: Seemingly, war was the only way Azerbaijan could resolve the issue.

So what?: Economically vulnerable countries should not always rely on the strength or support of a strong ally. In the case of Armenia/Nagorno-Karabakh, developing its economy and utilizing the support of Russia at the time thereafter made it necessary to consider the issue of legitimizing the independence of the contested territory.

Historicising the War in Nagorno Karabakh
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Soldier on a Nagorno Karabakh Map
Source: shutterstock.com/fifg

A Historical Overview

Nagorno Karabakh (NK) is an administrative-territorial entity located in the Transcaucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia. According to the Ministry of Defence of Azerbaijan, the territory is 4.400 km2. As of 2015, the population was about 189,000 people, most of whom were ethnic Armenians (76.9%).[1]

NK has long been the subject of a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a matter of fact, its status remained uncertain after the October Revolution of 1917. The disputed territory is a central element in the political identities of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and NK. In 1921, NK was declared to be an autonomous region of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). According to the office of the President of Azerbaijan, in 1923, the regions of the Azerbaijan SSR with their predominantly Armenian population were merged into the Autonomous Region of Nagorno Karabakh (ARNK), and since 1937 – the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR).[2] Some of the territories with Armenian ethnic groups remained outside the region and were included in the two districts (rayons) of the Azerbaijan SSR bordering the NKAR. In the 1923 census, the share of Armenians in NK was 94,8%. However, the figure declined to 75,9% according to the Soviet census of 1979.[3], [4]

According to the office of the President of Azerbaijan, in 1923, the regions of the Azerbaijan SSR with their predominantly Armenian population were merged into the Autonomous Region of Nagorno Karabakh, and since 1937 – the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region.

Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region.
Adapted from www.dw.com

The transmission of NK to Armenia was raised by the Armenian side several times (in 1945, 1963, 1977, and 1983), but it did not receive support from the central executive body of Azerbaijan.[5] In the 1960s, socio-economic tensions in the NKAR escalated several times into mass riots. The leader of the Azerbaijan SSR was accused of economic discrimination against the NKAR.[6] However, until the mid-1980s, requirements for changes in the status of the NKAR rarely entered the public domain. Any action in this direction was immediately suppressed. However, the process of democratizing Soviet public life and easing political restrictions provided other opportunities.

In the NKAR, conflict began to flare up from 1985-1986. In 1987, a campaign in NKAR sought to collect signatures for reunification with Armenia, whereby 75,000 signatures were submitted to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in early 1988.[7] The chief decision-makers of the USSR did not support the idea, and later in 1988, armed clashes broke out between Azerbaijanis and Armenians.[8] In December 1989, the Armenian SSR and the NKAR signed a joint resolution on the region’s incorporation into Armenia.[9]

In 1987, a campaign in NKAR sought to collect signatures for reunification with Armenia, whereby 75,000 signatures were submitted to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in early 1988.

At the beginning of 1990, artillery exchanges began on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Moscow responded by declaring a state of emergency in the NKAR and its surrounding areas. That same year, troops from the USSR’s Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) and the Soviet Army conducted an operation to disarm “Armenian illegal armed groups”. Within three weeks, Armenians in 24 villages in NK were deported, and more than 100 people had been killed.

With the USSR’s collapse, Armenia and Azerbaijan embarked on the path of independent development. The first point of friction between the two neighbouring states was the NK. Both states expressed opposing views on the status of NK. The international community was divided into those who supported the Armenian perspective, those who adhered to Azerbaijan's position, and those who took a neutral position, trying to find the best way to resolve the territorial dispute. On August 30, 1991, the declaration on the restoration of the independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan was adopted, and NK became part of Azerbaijan.[10] On September 2, 1991, NK was proclaimed as part of the USSR. Baku declared this illegal, thus marking the beginning of an armed confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region. This was the first armed conflict on the territory of the former USSR.

On December 10, 1991, at the referendum on the status of the NKR, 99.98% of its participants voted for the region's independence. However, neither Soviet decision-makers nor the international community recognised the result. The Azerbaijanis noted that the so-called referendums were held without the participation of the Azerbaijani population and in conditions that developed after the ethnic cleansing of the region.[11] According to the OSCE, Armenia carried out an illegal settlement of the occupied territories by ethnic Armenians, including those from the Middle East, which contradicts the Geneva Conventions.[12] Armenia tried to change the population's demographic composition in the occupied territories. Although it began as an inter-communal and inter-republican confrontation, the conflict soon transformed into a movement for secession from the USSR.

Both newly-formed states were involved in an armed conflict almost from the first days of independence. There were no diplomatic relations or economic ties between the countries, and the borders remained closed. Between December 19-27, 1991, Soviet troops were withdrawn from NK. The situation in the conflict zone escalated with the Armenian government and the NK separatists demanding either the declaration of independence for NK, or its unification with Armenia. Azerbaijan declared its readiness to leave the maximum possible autonomy to NK.

The situation in the conflict zone escalated with the Armenian government and the NK separatists demanding either the declaration of independence for NK, or its unification with Armenia.

The status of the city of Shushi was no less controversial. Most of the Azerbaijanis in NK lived in Shushi. It was the only district of the former NKAR with a predominantly Azerbaijani population. Shushi is also of great cultural importance for Azerbaijanis, being as it is the historical center of NK and the birthplace of many Azerbaijani artists. The Armenian side claimed that in case of the transfer of these territories to Baku, the Armenians of NK would feel unsafe, even though Azerbaijan guaranteed the population's safety. Baku insisted on restoring territorial integrity and returning refugees and internally displaced people to NK. The Azerbaijani authorities were ready to grant the region autonomy within the republic. At the same time, Azerbaijan refused to conduct direct negotiations with NK. For Armenia, the primary issue was the self-determination of NK – return to Azerbaijan was excluded – and the international community's further recognition of its status.

At the end of the first half of 2002, supporters of independence or reunification of the NK with Armenia prevailed among political parties/politicians in Armenia. These politicians were endorsed by 75% to 80% of the citizens of Armenia. About 14% to 19% of people, both politicians and citizens, saw the answer to the Karabakh problem in including Armenia and NK as a Union State of Russia and Belarus. This scheme was followed by most parties and organisations which were part of the broad coalition of the socialist forces of Armenia. However, all political forces supported the region's independence by Armenia.

About 14% to 19% of people saw the answer to the Karabakh problem in including Armenia and NK as a Union State of Russia and Belarus.

The positions of most political parties in Azerbaijan are indicated in the so-called “Charter of Four” document, which was signed by about 600 persons representing major political parties, NGOs, mass media, religious leaders, and intellectuals. According to the document, the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia can be resolved in the following steps: first, all the occupied territories must be liberated, and their territorial integrity must be restored; second, internally displaced people and refugees must return to their places of permanent residence; third, the NK can be granted the right of self-government, the issues of state sovereignty should be left to the authorities of Azerbaijan; fourth, if it is impossible to resolve the conflict peacefully, following the UN Charter and the resolutions of its Security Council, Azerbaijan should expel the aggressor by force.[13], [14]

The 1992-1994 War and the Status Quo Period

On January 6, 1992, the NKR Armed Forces adopted the Declaration “On the State Independence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic”, which Azerbaijan and the international community did not recognise. The dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis thereafter turned into another armed confrontation. Armenia was on the side of the authorities of NK and launched military operations.

The 1992-1994 war led to the formation of a military-political alliance between Russia and Armenia.[15] In 1992, Russia began withdrawing troops from Azerbaijan and closing its military bases. The last Russian units left Azerbaijan in 1993.[16] In Armenia, the ex-7th Soviet Army remained. In the early stages of the armed conflict, many volunteers and mercenaries appeared on both sides. The former Soviet soldiers, mostly Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, were also military specialists in great demand on the ground. Yerevan received weapons and military equipment to continue hostilities from Russia, material funds for the construction of statehood, humanitarian aid from Europe (delivered mainly through Turkey), and fuel for military operations against Azerbaijan from Iran.

In 1992, at a meeting in Tashkent, Armenia and Azerbaijan officially inherited large arsenals of ex-Soviet weapons left over after the Soviet withdrawal. On paper, both new states received the right to take 220 tanks, 220 armoured vehicles, 285 artillery pieces, and 100 combat aircraft.[17], [18] For the two warring parties, who were content with simple rockets and hunting rifles a year prior, it was a giant breakthrough in strengthening their destructive power. According to the military journalist Pavel Felgenhauer, “The partisan period of the conflict in Karabakh was over. A “normal” war begins …”.[19] By the summer of 1992, Azerbaijan had an arsenal that significantly exceeded the arms limits stipulated by the Tashkent agreements.[20] Armenia appealed to Russia to help restore military parity. Moscow authorized the supply of Russian weapons to Armenia.

“The partisan period of the conflict in Karabakh was over. A “normal” war begins …”

The division of the war participants into local and external categories is possible via the study of military operations and events during this period. The Azerbaijani Army suffered its first defeat on January 26, 1992.[21] The Virtual Karabakh Portal of the Youth Public Association indicates that when describing the capture of the city of Khojaly, in February 1992, the 366th motorised rifle regiment of the former USSR supported the Armenian armed forces.[22] In 1992, the NK self-defence units took control of the city of Shushi. Armenian forces broke the blockade around Lachin, establishing a line of communication between NK and Armenia - the so-called Lachin corridor.

In 1993, the NK Defense Army created a second corridor linking the NKR with Armenia. The Azerbaijanis gradually lost their military superiority. In 1994, the NKR defence forces established almost complete control over the region (92.5 % of the former NKAO). They occupied entirely or partially seven border regions of Azerbaijan (8% of the territory of Azerbaijan). In turn, Azerbaijan retained control over a part of the Martuni, Martakert, and Shahumyan districts of the NKR (15% of the declared territory of the NKR).

The fighting of 1992-1994 resulted in ethnic cleansing, looting, pogroms, famine, hundreds of thousands of refugees, large-scale destruction, and war crimes. The entire Azerbaijani population of the region (more than 700,000 people, 10% of the country's then population) was expelled from their homes.[23] The Armenian offensive caused one of Europe's most massive refugee crises since the Second World War. About 350 thousand people lost their homes, whereas hundreds of thousands of civilians became refugees.

With Russian troops' support, Armenia seized NK and a fifth of Azerbaijan's territory. However, the international community did not stand aside. It contributed to the settlement of the NK conflict. In March 1992, at the initiative of Moscow, the OSCE Minsk Group was established, which, in addition to Armenia and Azerbaijan, includes Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, and Turkey. Russia, the US, and France co-chaired the group.[24] The OSCE Minsk Group has been searching for a peaceful conflict settlement since 1992.

In March 1992, at the initiative of Moscow, the OSCE Minsk Group was established, which, in addition to Armenia and Azerbaijan, includes Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, and Turkey.

On December 21-22, 1993, at the initiative of Russia and Finland, the Interparliamentary Assembly of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a symposium of parliamentarians of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and NK, was held in the Aland Islands, where details of the Aland model were presented as a future model of relations between NK and Azerbaijan. This model was a proposal for a settlement based on the principle of “more autonomy, but not the state”. However, it was rejected by NK.

Within the region, major players took sides in the conflict; for example, Turkey did not establish diplomatic relations with post-soviet Armenia. Turkey expressed solidarity with Azerbaijan and, after some warming in bilateral relations, completely closed the border with Armenia in 1993. Furthermore, Turkey, a NATO member, declared its readiness to ensure the security of Nakhichevan, an area of utmost importance to Turkey due to its cargo transportation capacity, following its obligations under the 1920 Treaty of Kars. On the other side, Moscow confirmed its commitment to protecting the Armenian border with Turkey to repel the “Turkish threat”. On April 30, 1993, the UN Security Council adopted the first resolution on the conflict in NK. Calling on both warring parties to cease hostilities, the resolution contained a special appeal to Armenia, which called for the “immediate withdrawal of the occupying forces” from Kelbajar. The Armenian diasporas in France and the US also greatly influenced the settlement of the Karabakh conflict from the outside, using their influence to draw public attention to the conflict.

According to the 1994 ceasefire agreement, Armenians were to withdraw their troops from the Kelbajar region in exchange for security guarantees for NK.[25] On May 5, 1994, in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, with the mediation of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Interparliamentary Assembly, the conflicting parties agreed on the indefinite ceasefire, known as the Bishkek Protocol on the Armistice between Armenia, the NKR, and Azerbaijan. The truce was observed without the intervention of peacekeepers and the participation of third countries. Since the signing of the Bishkek Protocol in 1994, the conflicting parties have repeatedly accused each other of violating the ceasefire. There have been local incidents involving firearms on the border. However, the truce has generally been maintained.

Since the signing of the Bishkek Protocol in 1994, the conflicting parties have repeatedly accused each other of violating the ceasefire.

After the armistice, the territory of NK and seven adjacent regions of Azerbaijan remained under Armenian control.[26] They formed the unrecognised NKR. Baku considered this territory occupied.

The Nagorno Karabakh Republic, 1994.
Source: Shahnazarian, 2019

Yerevan did not officially recognize the independence of the NKR but called itself the guarantor of its security. Armenia's victory in 1994 was due to three factors: political and military chaos in Azerbaijan, Russian assistance to Armenia, and higher Armenian combat training.

Concluding Remarks

1. The expert survey respondents underlined that Armenians and Azerbaijanis fought the 1992-1994 war without the direct involvement of Russia’s military forces, as was observed, for example, in the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but rather with military assistance.[27] In 1994, full control over the autonomy of NK was established, and seven border regions of Azerbaijan were also fully or partially occupied. During the status quo period, armed conflicts were used as mechanisms to bring the changes that could not be achieved with the help of negotiations. However, until the 2020 war, NK remained de facto Armenian and de jure – Azerbaijani.

2. Interactions between actors before the 2020 war were formed in line with their national interests. The South Caucasus is a buffer zone for Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkey; it has excellent transit capacity and is a gateway to Central Asia. Therefore, the region is an object of permanent interest to the above-listed countries and the European Union, Ukraine, and the US. Mediation efforts were offered by all the actors listed, but the most active were those with historical ties or common borders. In addition to these countries, the conflict settlement in NK through peaceful negotiations was supported by the international intergovernmental organisations and regional integration associations. Joint efforts of all the actors helped to maintain negative peace for 26 years.

3. By 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan transformed into two different economies. Armenia’s debt reached $ 7.721 billion by June 2020 with internal political problems. Most important, Yerevan was losing Moscow as an ally while Azerbaijan armed its armed forces with petrodollars, developed allied relations with other countries such as the Council of Europe, and enlisted the support of Turkey.[28]


Botakoz Kazbek is an independent researcher whose research interests are centred on human rights, public administration, security studies, and peacekeeping. She is the author of “The Turkish “All-Inclusive” Package of Military Service and the Nagorny Karabakh Case 2020”. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the University of Padua, the University of Grenoble Alpes, or the Catholic University of Lyon.


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[2] Azerbaijan, Office of the President, "Armiano-azerbaijanskii nagorno-karabakhskii konflikt," files.preslib.az, accessed April 2021, https://files.preslib.az/projects/azerbaijan/rus/gl7.pdf.

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[4] Virtualkarabakh.az, Karabakh v 1920-1980 godah, 2009, accessed May 2021, https://www.virtualkarabakh.az/ru/post-item/22/36/karabah-v-1920-1980-godah.html.

[5] Vladislav Zubok, A Failed Empire: the Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev, The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

[6] Svante Cornell, "The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict," East European Studies, Uppsala University, 1999, accessed May 2021, https://is.muni.cz/el/1423/podzim2012/MVZ208/um/35586974/Cornell_The_Nagorno-Karabakh_Conflict.pdf.

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[11] Ali Abasov, and Arutun Khachatryan, Varianty reshenia karabahskogo konglikta: idei i realnost (Baku: Eni Nesil Publishing House, 2002), accessed May 2021, http://miris.eurac.edu/mugs2/do/blob.pdf?type=pdf&serial=1151923058147.

[12] OSCE, "Specialnoe zasedanie postoyannogo soveta," osce.org. Septembre 20, 2021, accessed May 2022, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/e/1/467487.pdf.

[13] Tofik Zulfuqarov, Obstacles to resolution: An Azerbaijani perspective, Accord, Issue 17, December 2005, https://www.c-r.org/accord/nagorny-karabakh/obstacles-resolution-azerbaijani-perspective.

[14] Alimusa Ibragimov, “Nagornyi Karabakh: razreshenie konflikta posdredstvom regionalnoi integracii”, Bakinskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/nagornyy-karabah-razreshenie-konflikta-posredstvom-regionalnoy-integratsii/viewer.

[15] Oleg Pavluk, Elena Kurenkova and Gromadskoe, “Azerbaijan i Armenia vouut za Nagornyi Karabakh. Kak nachalsia etot konflikt? I chto budet dal'she?,” September 20, 2020, accessed May 2021, https://vlast.kz/istorija/41880-azerbajdzan-i-armenia-vouut-za-nagornyj-karabah-kak-nacalsa-etot-konflikt.html.

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[17] Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Azerbaijan, Seven Years of Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (Helsinki: Human Rights Watch, 1994), 209.

[18] Aleksei Zakvasin, “Osobyi krai: 25 let nazad proizoshlo perelomnoe sobytie v nagornokarabahskom konflikte,” May 18, 2021, accessed May 2021, https://russian.rt.com/ussr/article/390819-nagornyi-karabah-konflikt-sng-lachin.

[19] Thomas de Waal, “Chernyi sad. Armenia i Azerbaijan mezhdu mirom i voinoi,” https://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/system/uploads/article_attachment/attach/0002/24358/Chernyy_sad._Armeniya_i_Azerbaydzhan_mezhdu_mirom_i_voynoy.pdf.

[20] Dmitiri Danilov, "Russia's Search for an International Mandate in Transcaucasia," Chap. V in Contested Borders in the Caucasus, by Bruno Coppieters, VUB University Press, http://poli.vub.ac.be/publi/ContBorders/eng/ch0501.htm.

[21] Euronews, "Карабахский конфликт: даты, события." https://ru.euronews.com/2016/04/05/key-dates-and-facts-to-understand-nagorno-karabakh-s-40-year-long-conflict, May 04, 2016, accessed May 09, 2021, https://ru.euronews.com/2016/04/05/key-dates-and-facts-to-understand-nagorno-karabakh-s-40-year-long-conflict.

[22] VirtualKarabakh.az, "Armyano-azerbaijanskii nagorno-karabahskii konflikt," https://www.virtualkarabakh.az/ru/post-item/28/48/ermenistan-azerbaycan-dagliq-qarabag-munaqisesi.html.

[23] Rusif Guseynov, "Armiano-azerbaijanskii konflikt: chto proishodit seichas?," Ukrainskaya Pravda, July 15, 2020, accessed May 20, 2021, https://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/columns/2020/07/15/7259469/.

[24] Olga Kepinski, "Nagorno Karabakh i Armenia vveli voennoe polozhenie," September 27, 2020, accessed May 12, 2021, https://ru.euronews.com/2020/09/27/ru-azerbaijan-armenia-clashes.

[25] International Crisis Group, “Nagorny Karabakh: Plan Ustanovlenia Mira”, October 11, 2005, https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/167-nagorno-karabakh-a-plan-for-peace-russian.pdf

[26] BBC NEWS, "Voina v Karabahe, den piatyi: Erdogan sovetuet Putinu i Makronu ne lezt' s mirnymi predlozheniami," October 1, 2020, accessed June 13, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-54371021.

[27] Botakoz Kazbek, Artificial Intelligence in Warfare: The Influence of Using Autonomous Weapon Systems on The Balance of Power in High Karabakh (Padua/Lyon: University of Grenoble Alpes, University of Padua, Catholic University of Lyon, 2020).

[28] Armbanks, "Armenia’s public debt grows by $6 million over one month," August 20, 2020, http://www.armbanks.am/en/2020/08/20/130165/#:~:text=Armenia%E2%80%99s%20public%20debt%20increased%20by%20%24%205.9%20million,public%20debt%20has%20grown%20by%20%24%20397.6%20million.