Explained | Who won the war over Nagorno-Karabakh?

Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to end military operations in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in a ceasefire brokered by Russia

November 18, 2020 05:48 pm | Updated 06:20 pm IST

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev greets his supporters as he visits Fuzuli and Jabrayil districts in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, November 16, 2020.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev greets his supporters as he visits Fuzuli and Jabrayil districts in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, November 16, 2020.

The story so far: After six weeks of fierce fighting, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to end military operations in and around Nagorno-Karabakh in a ceasefire brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some 2,000 people, including combatants and civilians, are estimated to have been killed in the war. Armenian leader Nikol Pashinyan has described the decision to accept truce as “painful”, while Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, backed by Turkey, has claimed victory. Russia, which has enforced the ceasefire, seems to have reinforced its influence in the South Caucasus.

What led to the war?

In 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been an autonomous region within Azerbaijan during the Soviet years. Armenians have made historical claims over the enclave, which is largely populated by ethnic Armenians. By the time the all-out war came to an end in 1994, Armenia had captured Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts from Azeri forces, which amounted to some 13% of Azerbaijan’s territory.

Also read | Nagorno-Karabakh | Battle for the black mountains

In September, Azerbaijan President Aliyev launched the offensive vowing to take back Nagorno-Karabakh and other Armenian-occupied districts. In six weeks of fighting, Azeri forces, backed by Turkey-supplied armed drones and other equipment, cut through Armenian defences and retook territories, including some 40% of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

How the ceasefire was achieved?

Russia, which has a security agreement with Armenia, remained neutral in the early days of the war when Turkey threw its weight behind Azerbaijan. Russia brokered a ceasefire two weeks into the conflict, but it didn’t hold. When Azerbaijan defeated Armenian troops and captured territories, Armenian Prime Minister sought Russian help. But Mr. Putin said the security guarantee is for Armenia, not for the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. But Russia was apparently concerned about the rapid change in the status quo and the more assertive security role Turkey was playing in its backyard.

Editorial | Crisis in Caucasus: On Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh

By the third week of October, Russia established small military outposts along the Armenian border, apparently to prevent the conflict spilling into mainland Armenia and also to send a message to Baku. In the same week, Russia conducted a massive air strike in Syria’s Idlib against Turkish-backed militants, killing dozens of them, which is seen as Moscow’s warning against Turkey. Mr. Putin accepted Azerbaijan’s victory (as the ceasefire allows Azeri troops to control the territories they have seized) but prevented a total defeat of Armenia. Under pressure from a decisive Moscow, both sides agreed to cease the operations.

What are the terms of the ceasefire?


According to the ceasefire, Armenia agreed to withdraw its troops from much of the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh. The core of the enclave with ethnic Armenians and Stepanakert as its capital would remain outside the control of Azerbaijan. Baku will build a road linking the newly captured territories to Nakhchivan, an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan which had been geographically separated from the mainland. As the broker of the truce, Russia would send some 2,000 peacekeepers to the region, who would patrol between the Azeri troops and Nagorno-Karabakh, including the Lachin corridor, which connects the enclave with Armenia.

Editorial | Fragile ceasefire: on Armenia–Azerbaijan clashes

In sum, Azerbaijan gained territories, but not the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia lost territories it controlled since the 1990s but avoided a total defeat as much of Nagorno-Karabakh would remain independent of Azeri control. And Russia gained a bigger foothold in the region with its troops being deployed within Azerbaijan.

Did Russia get what it wanted?

It’s complicated. That Russia could enforce the ceasefire and keep Turkey and western countries out of the final talks shows that Moscow remains a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Moscow had also wanted to send peacekeepers to the region (the Lavrov Plan), but both Armenia and Azerbaijan were not open to the idea earlier. Now, Russia can do that . But the war also showed that the Russian dominance in the region could be challenged. Turkey backed Azerbaijan throughout the war against Moscow’s wishes and made sure that the Azeri side prevailed. On Wednesday, Turkish Parliament approved sending troops to the region to join an observation post despite the ceasefire mandating only Russians to deploy peacekeepers. If Turkey continues to play an assertive role in the region through its ally Azerbaijan, a reluctant Moscow would face a new rival in its backyard.

Is the conflict over?

It’s not. The war has altered the balance of power in favour of Azerbaijan. It stopped short of taking the entire Nagorno-Karabakh for now, but it doesn’t mean that it won’t go for it again. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh remains unsettled, which means the conflict has only been postponed, not resolved.

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