Since late 2020, historic adversaries Armenia and Azerbaijan have held a precarious ceasefire marked by rising tensions. While skirmishes have persisted since 1994, two years ago, war broke out in the Caucasus for the first time in decades that has resulted in thousands of casualties and Azerbaijan taking over contentious territory. Armenia had largely retained informal control of Artsakh (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh), an Armenian-populated region that is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan territory. However, a resurgence of fighting in September 2022 left Armenia once again at risk of conceding more land to Azerbaijan.
Artsakh has long been at the center of the conflict. During the integration of the Caucasus region into the USSR in 1923, Artsakh was given to Azerbaijan, along with Muslim-majority region Nakhchivan. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, Artsakh has been primarily controlled by Armenia and has expressed interest in independence from Azerbaijan, most notably in its 1991 referendum for statehood which was approved by 99.89% of voters. The region is nevertheless recognized internationally as Azeri after the land was retained by Azerbaijan in the post-USSR era.
While the war is highly territorial in nature, it does not just concern Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tensions in the region run deep and stretch far, drawing in Russia and Turkey — representing a state of unease reminiscent of Ottoman and Soviet Union disputes. Russia has historically provided support to Armenia while also attempting to remain neutral as demonstrated by its successful negotiation of the ceasefire in 2020 after previous failed attempts by the United Nations, France and the U.S.
But while Russia was brokering peace in the region, Turkey was providing direct support to Azerbaijan, its ethnically Turkic ally. In the 2020 war, Turkish combat planes were spotted in Azerbaijan, and Turkey sent Syrian mercenaries to Artsakh to fight for the Azeri army.
Such involvement reeks of Pan-Turkism, an ideology rooted in unifying all Turkish-speaking peoples across Western and Central Asia. Pan-Turkism is not simply an uplifting movement for Turkic peoples. Historically, it has been used to target many non-Turkic peoples in the region, namely Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds and Greeks, who are considered outsiders in Pan-Turkic ideology. During World War I, Pan-Turkish propaganda aimed to counter Russian influence. In an Azeri victory parade in Azerbaijan after the 2020 war, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised Enver Pasha, a Pan-Turkish wartime leader who aided in planning the Armenian Genocide, which from 1915 onwards killed 1.5 million Armenians and displaced countless others. Armenians living in Azerbaijan have also faced violence, most notably the Baku pogrom of the 1990s, which targeted Armenians living in the Azeri capital. The ideology has seemingly reappeared as Turkey’s alleged aerial and mercenary support efforts create a new level of danger for Armenia in the current war. In other words, Azerbaijan does not simply have an isolated vendetta for Armenia, rather, the most recent Azeri aggression signals the continuation of a historic persecution of the country and its people.
While both Armenia and Azerbaijan have claimed the other struck first, the war’s timing comes at a very strategically advantageous time for Azerbaijan. Since Russia began invading Ukraine in February, Armenia’s primary advocate in the region has been preoccupied. As a result, Armenia lacks the critical backup it usually found in Russia to counter Azeri attacks, and Azerbaijan enjoys a significant edge. As Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told NPR, “The timing, the fact that Russia is preoccupied, certainly led to what looks like an Azerbaijani offensive at this time.”
Armenia, and U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price, also reported that Azerbaijan has not just attacked disputed domain, but official Armenian land as well, with Price pointing to “significant evidence of Azerbaijani shelling inside Armenia and significant damage to Armenian infrastructure” back in September. Azeri troops were reportedly in Armenian territory, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan revealed that Azerbaijan gained about 10 kilometers of Armenian-controlled land, further confirming the underlying aim of the aggression: a campaign to capture more and more Armenian land. Additionally, since December 2022, Azerbaijan has instituted a blockade on Artsakh, meaning citizens in the region are cut off from necessary supplies.
In response to the most recent war, Pashinyan has attempted to pursue diplomatic concessions in order to placate Azerbaijan and avoid further conflict, a strategy that has prompted tense protests in Armenia. Pashinyan is speculated to concede Artsakh to Azerbaijan, triggering calls for his resignation. In contrast, the President of Artsakh, Arayik Harutyunyan, vehemently opposed any concessions to Azerbaijan.
Internationally, France, Russia, the U.S., and the European Union have called for peace in the region, reflecting their actions two years ago when they attempted to negotiate ceasefires. However, amidst the war in Ukraine, complications have arisen, with the World Bank noting that countries that rely on natural gas for energy will suffer from restricted access. Azerbaijan, which contains natural gas reserves, has thus garnered sympathy from the European Commission, leaving Armenia even more vulnerable.
Again, and unsurprisingly, Turkey has said it will support Azerbaijan, in line with its position in the 2020 war, providing more indication that Azerbaijan will continue to vie for Armenian land while being supported by a powerful ally who encourages the idea that Armenia is a Turkic ancestral territory. Turkey and Azerbaijan’s allyship goes beyond a simple matter of political interest: the two countries have a long history of anti-Armenian sentiment rooted in Pan-Turkism and have stated time and again their intent to “reclaim” land in present-day Armenia. Azeri Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev said in 2010, “I have repeatedly said that present-day Armenia, the territory, called the Republic of Armenia on the map, is an ancient Azerbaijani land.” Aliyev makes this claim despite evidence that Armenians have been living in present-day Armenia for around 3,000 years.
Still, the Azeri government has fixed its eyes within the borders of Armenia. Azeri politician Bahar Muradova was quoted asserting that, “Azerbaijanis will return to their historical lands, including Yerevan. There can be no doubt of it.” Her words echo the sentiments of her government, but while these Azeri politicians have been forward in their aspirations, the Turkish government has infamously denied some of its most egregious anti-Armenian acts, most notably its complicity in the Armenian Genocide, while praising the genocide’s architects.
History is not simply repeating itself, it is continuing. Turkey and Azerbaijan’s actions demonstrate their true, historic intention: control of Armenian land. While the Azeri government may claim defense of its land, its attack on Armenia following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its movements into official Armenian land, and its history of Pan-Turkish sentiments only serve as an indication that Azerbaijan is interested in much more than protecting its current borders.
Prime Minister Pashinyan has a duty to resist Azeri aggression. The Armenian people have demonstrated their refusal to succumb to the pressure, as has Artsakh itself, and their government must reflect their strength.
Azerbaijan, and its ally Turkey, have a long history of aggression against Armenia and have made clear their intentions to encroach further and further onto Armenian land. If Pashinyan concedes Artsakh completely, Azerbaijan will not be satisfied. As long as Aliyev and his allies contend that all of Armenia is their ancestral homeland, it would be foolish to think they will not keep pushing until they win what they think they deserve.
(c) 2023, Harvard Political Review