The decades-long conflict between the Muslim Azerbaijanis and Christian Armenians has entered a new phase. At the center of the dispute is the area known as Nagorno-Karabakh. Once part of the Soviet Union, this land was, until recently, a separatist ethnic-Armenian enclave located inside Azerbaijan. Today, it is a mostly uninhabitable wasteland that lies in ruins, destroyed by war.
Almost three decades ago, with help from Russia, Armenia captured this territory – even though it was internationally recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan – claiming it was, as a homeland, essential to its identity. The six-year war ended with hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis forced into exile.
The Armenians felt justified in these actions because, during the fall of the Ottoman Empire, they had suffered what many throughout the world (including the United States) recognize as genocide as they were violently forced out of Turkey.
On September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan, with the help of Turkey, finally declared war to get the land back. After six weeks of brutal fighting – which included the use of drones by Azerbaijan, a game changer – Azerbaijan conquered the cities of Fizuli and Aghdam.
Soon after, Russia helped broker a peace deal – signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia – that allowed Azerbaijan to keep the majority of the territory it had regained. Most importantly, they were keeping Shusha, a town on a hill that holds great cultural significance for them.
However, the agreement left the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, in control of the Armenians. Under Armenia’s security agreement with Russia, Russia will provide an armed peacekeeping force there for the next several years. Turkey will also operate a peacekeeping command in Azerbaijan.
The deal also authorizes a transport corridor from eastern Turkey through Nakhchivan (a territory that borders Turkey) to the Caspian Sea. In fact, no one benefits from this more than Turkey since the corridor grants them much greater access to Central Asia.
Although the bloodshed is over for now, there are a couple of things we need to keep in mind – one from a geopolitical perspective and one from a humanitarian perspective.
From a geopolitical perspective, Turkey and Russia inserted themselves into this war and subsequent peace from the beginning. Obviously, they are both operating from a place of 100% self-interest, and their opportunistic fingerprints are all over the terms of this peace deal. It’s safe to assume that they could not care less about the human beings involved. Rather, they want access – which they both got in spades.
Also, to Turkey and Russia’s benefit, the new peace agreement leaves a lot of issues unresolved – like the fate of refugees and associated humanitarian issues, rebuilding, and the future role of the United Nations – and lots of wiggle room for the issues that are considered settled.
From a humanitarian perspective, the bitterness and hatred between the Azerbaijanis and Armenians will likely last for generations to come. As a preview: Armenians in one town, Kelbajar, chose to burn their homes instead of seeing Azerbaijanis move into them.