Blood Feud: The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

By Justin Tomczyk

The surge in fighting between Azerbaijan and the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Republic came as a surprise to many. Tucked between Iran and Russia and flanked by the Caspian and Black Seas, the Caucasus is a region few associate with American foreign policy. To some, Nagorno-Karabakh is simply one of many frozen conflicts peppered throughout the former Soviet Union. The reality of the situation is that Nagorno-Karabakh represents the long-lasting lack of security in Eurasia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result of the historic complexities of the region and the greater backdrop of Armenian tension with Turkey and Azerbaijan, this post will be focusing on the history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the years following.

The territory is administered by an unrecognized government located in Stepanakert with support from the Armenian state. The legitimacy of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence is disputed by some countries and is comparable to that of Kashmir, Cyprus, and the Palestinian Territories. Under Soviet rule Nagorno-Karabakh was considered an autonomous oblast. It was surrounded on all sides by the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. At the time there was little concern since Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast were all components of the Soviet Union rather than individual states.

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Initial troubles began in 1988 during the start of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Armenians within Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrated in favor of reunification with Armenia. This demand was met with outright refusal from Azerbaijan as allowing Nagorno-Karabakh to reunite with Armenia would place Azeri citizens under Armenian jurisdiction. The deteriorating bureaucracy of the
Soviet Union complicated this process and lead to no viable solution. The Azeri declaration of Nagorno-Karabakh as its own territory was met with a joint Armenian-NKR directive to transfer Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian S.S.R (RSFSR). Jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh was becoming less and less clear.

There was no flashpoint in the Nagorno-Karabakh war but rather a slow slide into conflict. Demonstrations and protests by Armenians in Azerbaijan grew into riots and ethnic clashes. Police actions steadily grew more intense as Azeri OMON units (a Soviet-style SWAT equivalent) moved to secure areas of Armenian majority in Azerbaijan [1]. After providing the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh with arms and supplies in preparation for a coming war, the Armenian military began their offensive. A small strip of land – known as the Lachin corridor – separated Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian government pushed through this mountainous region and connected with Nagorno-Karabakh. At the time both Armenia and Azerbaijan were considered independent states and this military incursion was considered an invasion. At the end of the offensive, Armenian forces were stationed in both Nagorno-Karabakh and western Azerbaijan. In 1992 Azerbaijan launched a massive counterattack known as Operation Goranboy. The goal of this action was the reclamation of Nagorno-Karabakh and expulsion of Armenian forces from Azerbaijan. While Operation Goranboy was able to reclaim certain parts of Nagorno-Karabakh the republic and its Armenian occupation remained.

After two years of fighting an uneasy ceasefire was established. In 1994 the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE, then CSCE) drafted an agreement known as the Bishkek Protocols that was signed by the defense ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh. These protocols outlined basic ceasefire clauses and remain in effect to this day. They are enforced by the trilateral Minsk Group – Russia, France, and the United States.

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The long term effects of the Nagorno-Karabakh War were devastating to Azerbaijan and Armenia. The conflict created a refugee crisis within Azerbaijan as thousands were displaced from their homes. Accusations of ethnic cleansing, forced relocation, and indiscriminate civilian killing fell upon both sides. Armenia was preparing for the very real possibility of Turkish intervention in support of Azerbaijan. As of now, roughly 20 percent of Azerbaijan is under occupation by Armenia or the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic [2]. Skirmishes between Azeri and Armenian forces – similar to the ones seen this month – have occurred with varying frequency since the ceasefire.

The future of Armenia and Azerbaijan under the current ceasefire is uncertain. The ceasefire has kept both countries in an arms race against one another in an effort to deter future conflict. The inability to secure the integrity of its borders has complicated prospects for Azeri membership in NATO and the European Union. Concerns regarding security have driven much needed infrastructure projects away from the region and have removed any possibility of oil production near Nagorno-Karabakh [3]. As long there is no resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, peace in the South Caucasus will be all but a dream.

[1]Caroline Cox and John Eibner (2005), Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh, retrived April 15th,

[2] Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2001), The Encyclopedia of World History p. 906., retrieved April 8th

[3] Lionel Beehner (2005), Nagorno-Karabakh: The Crisis in the Caucasus,

[4] The Supreme Council of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic
Human Rights Committee report to the Comittee of the supreme Soviet RSFSR on human rights following hearings on human rights violations in areas of armed conflict in some areas of Azerbaijan Republic and the Republic of Armenia ( the end of April – May 1991 ), retrived April 16th,