A historic victory of Azerbaijan in restoring its land in the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh was declared on the ninth of November after six weeks of fighting that saw Azerbaijan’s army overwhelm Armenian-backed forces. In a televised address, President Ilham Aliyev said “We’ve restored our territorial integrity. We’ve ended the occupation.”
The story of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and the regions surrounding it started back in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union began to collapse and it intensified in early 1990s as both nations gained independence. Since majority of the residents in the region at that time were ethnic Armenian, Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional parliament officially voted to become part of Armenia, although the land is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.
In an attempt to protect its ruling of the region, Azerbaijan sought to suppress the separatist movement while Armenia, backed by Russian troops, backed that movement. Tens of thousands died and up to a million were displaced amid reports of ethnic cleansing and massacres against Azerbaijanis with over half a million of them ended up displaced. But even after 30 years, the bloody events of 1990, when Soviet tanks rolled over demonstrators in Baku’s central square, are still present in the memory of every Azerbaijani.
Nagorno-Karabakh was forcefully out of Azerbaijan’s control in a war after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union that left over 30,000 people dead and half a million Azerbaijani displaced.
Ever since that incident, Russian troops have repeatedly intervened in troubled corners of the Caucasus, often under the moniker of peacekeepers but acting more like an invading army. Although the Nagorno-Karabakh region declared independence, the move was never recognised by any country. After nearly 30 years of failures to end the issue through diplomatic talks or repeated devastating militant clashes, Azerbaijan began an offensive on 27 September to retake the area by force, benefiting from a number of factors including the political and militant support from Turkey.
Experts agree that this round of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia was different. Azerbaijan was determined to put an end to the occupation of its lands and Armenia had not choice but to accept the defeat. On 9 November, a peace accord signed by Russian President, Vladimir Putin; Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev; and Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan. It called for Armenia’s army to withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh and be replaced by Russian peacekeepers. The army of Azerbaijan also entered the liberated lands
The agreement came hours after official confirmation that the key city of Shusha, which is regarded as the second-biggest city in the enclave, had been taken by Azeri forces. Also, as part of the agreement, Armenia agreed to hand over the three districts: Agdam, Lachin and Kalbajar to Azerbaijan. Following the singing of the agreement, President Ilham Aliyev appeared on the national TV to celebrate the dawn of what he calls “a new reality.” “We’ve driven the enemy out of our lands. We’ve restored our territorial integrity. We’ve ended the occupation,” he said.
Following the announcement of the ceasefire agreement, Azerbaijanis marched the streets of the country’s capital celebrating the victory.
At the end of the six weeks of fighting, Armenia has reported more than 2,300 military casualties. Although this number is thought to be an underestimate, Azerbaijan has not disclosed any military losses. However, more than 100 civilians were reported killed on both sides. But what is new this time is that Russia’s peacekeepers will not be alone in the region after the announcement of the cease-fire agreement. The Turkish Ministry of Defence reportedly said that the two countries agreed to monitor the truce from a joint peacekeeping centre.
The support Azerbaijan received from Turkey during the last round of the battle with Armenia has been a significant factor of its victory. This support is expected to continue in the comings months to ensure sustainability of the peace agreement. Historically, the relationships between the two Muslim majority countries have been strong. Turkey was the first nation to recognise Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. The former Azeri President Heydar Aliyev once described the Azerbaijan and Turkey as “one nation with two states.”
On the other side, Armenia has not only lost the militant battel and was forced to withdraw from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, but it also incurred a political loss regionally and internationally. This is particularly true in view active Armenian efforts to strengthen its relationships with the West over the past years, which have always been impacted by the Russian influence that remained critical to Armenia’s security. The role played by Russia to finalise and implement the current peace deal and its evident of this influence.
Turkey has played a significant role in the efforts to return Karabakh to Azerbaijan, through different types of support. Turkish troops will also be part of the peacekeeping forces.
Another significant change that took place during the last couple of months is the mediating role of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), better known as the Minsk Group, in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Minsk Group is a body that was established in 1992 and chaired by France, Russia and the United States. The credibility of this body is now doubted because its efforts over the past decades were not effective in creating a long-lasting solution in the region, possibly due to certain political agendas.
A number of factors were in Azerbaijan’s favour to declare victory during the last battle with ethnic Armenian fighters.
Specifically, France’s position in future negotiations may be further under threat after a recent demand by Azerbaijani legislators that the country should be expelled from the Minsk Group. The move came after the French Senate adopted a non-binding resolution calling on France to recognise Karabakh as an independent state. On the other hand, the role of Turkey in the region may become more visible and effective, especially looking at the level of involvement it has shown in the last clashes which ended up with Turkish military being part of the peacekeeping forces.
Factors of Victory
In addition to the changes that took place within the region and the rising or declining of some forces over the other there are a number of factors that favoured Azerbaijan and made its victory a reality. Perhaps the number one factor of all is the frustration of Azerbaijan’s leadership and its people as the negotiations to settle the conflict in NagornoKarabakh reached a deadlock. This frustration coupled with the improved abilities of country’s military, which is believed to be of comparative advantage in relation to Armenia, encouraged the leadership to start the operation to liberate the Azerbaijani lands.
Over the past years, Azerbaijan has spent over USD 12 billion to purchase armaments. The other important factor which helped Azerbaijan is the precise timing of its militant operations. This factor is two-fold. First it relates to the slump in oil prices which has caused heavy pressure on the country’s economy, especially in view of its declining oil reserves. This makes it difficult for Azerbaijan to sustain high amounts of military spending in the future. Therefore, a quick operation was necessary to put an end to the conflict.
The other part relates to the COVID-19 pandemic and the global crisis in has caused since the beginning of the year. All the big countries that are usually involved in the conflict were busy with their own issues fighting the outbreak in addition to facing other challenges regionally and internationally. For example, the United States was busy with the presidential election, whereas Russia has been occupied with the crises in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan and with conflicts in the Ukraine, Syria and Libya. All these factors helped the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.