In Nagorno-Karabakh, A “Frozen” Conflict Turns Hot. Thousands of Lives Are Now Hanging in the Balance

The worst tensions since a war killed thousands in the 1990s flared last week in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the southern Caucasus.  Dozens of Armenians and Azeris have been killed and experts warn that war between Armenia and Azerbaijan appears increasingly likely. If past is precedent, a return to war would be disasterous.  In the 1990s, conflict over the territory left 30,000 people dead and over one million displaced.   

Thomas DeWall succinctly sums up the exceedingly high diplomatic stakes of a return to all out war.

A new all-out Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the stuff of nightmares. Given the sophisticated weaponry both sides now possess, tens of thousands of young men would most likely lose their lives. Russia and Turkey, already at loggerheads and with military obligations to Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively, could be sucked into a proxy war. Fighting in the area would also destabilize Georgia, Iran and the Russian North Caucasus. Oil and gas pipeline routes from the Caspian Sea could be threatened, too.

Nagorno-Karabakh suffers from border disputes and ethnic tensions left in the blast radius of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region in Azerbaijan, but populated largely by ethnic Armenians. As the Soviet Union collapsed, ethnic Armenians sought reunification with Armenia, leading to war. Today, Nagorno-Karabakh – a region roughly the size of a large Caribbean island (1,700sq miles) – is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is run by a defacto Armenian government. It home to around 150,000 people, around 95% of whom are ethnic Armenian.


As in most conflicts, the burden of violence falls mostly on ordinary people living or fighting in the territory. Reports have circulated of a 12-year old boy Vaghinak Tatuli Grigoryan killed in the clashes. Ezidi Press published pictures of the beheading of an Ezidi solider serving in the Armenian army, allegedly carried out by Azeri soldiers to gain a trophy prize.

One of the most worrying aspects of the recent clashes has been the apparent enthusiasm of many Armenians to support war. Armenian journalist Hovhannes Ishkhanian in Yerevan told UN Dispatch that people from all walks of life are now united in their readiness to fight a war for Nagorno-Karabakh.  In an astonishing report, BBC News described how in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, a peace activist denounced her work and declared support for Armenian soldiers fighting in the conflict.

This eagerness is partially explained by Armenia’s history. In 1915 up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a genocide carried out by the Ottoman government. Today, Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire (whose government deny the Armenian genocide) is considered by Armenians as a great threat to their existence. According to Hovhannes Ishkhanian, feelings of vulnerability and exposure to attack from their neighbours is partly driving Armenian desire to protect what they see as Armenian territory and heritage.  “We understand that this conflict for us is a question of existence, when you have neighbors like Turkey and Azerbaijan who wish your disappearance,” he said.

For Azeris, the displacement of hundreds and thousands of people from Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s and the refusal of Armenia to recognize its borders is partly driving acrimony. During the 1990s, Azeri towns and villages were looted and civilians taken hostage. The political and economic ascent of Azerbaijan, with oil sales boosting its ability to stockpile arms, is likely fueling the confidence of the Azeri government to assert itself over the separatist movement. Last weekend President Aliyev of Azerbaijan threatened to shell Stepanakert in a ‘major attack’.

The dispute continues to be a venue for proxy war. Turkey traditionally offers strong support for Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, whilst Russia supports Christian Armenia. The patience of regional actors has also been tested by instability in the fallout from the Syrian war. Russia and the US have called on both Armenia and Azerbaijan to cease aggression. For now it is clear that the ‘frozen’ conflict is anything but.