September 25, 2023

IntelBrief: Azerbaijan Seizes Control of Nagorno-Karabakh

Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Azerbaijani troops launched an attack to secure control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory inside Azerbaijan but inhabited and run mostly by ethnic Armenians, which has been fought over by Armenia and Azerbaijan since the Soviet Union collapsed.
  • Armenia and the ethnic Armenians living inside the territory, as well as Russian peacekeepers, put up little or no resistance to the offensive, enabling Azerbaijan to gain control of the enclave.
  • The Azerbaijani assault reflected Baku’s perception of Russia’s distraction with its war against Ukraine, Baku’s full backing from Türkiye, and the inability or unwillingness of other actors to intervene.
  • Many ethnic Armenians are fleeing the disputed territory to avoid living under Azerbaijan’s control, and public unrest erupted in Armenia over the lack of response by Yerevan to the attack.

On September 19, Azerbaijan began a military operation, including air strikes on military targets manned by ethnic Armenian separatists, to seize full control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan and Armenia have feuded over Karabakh, which is inhabited by an estimated 120,000 ethnic Armenians who constitute 95% of the population and run a self-declared autonomous administration. The enclave is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. The operation was intended to complete Baku’s goal of reversing its defeat in the first post-Soviet war over Karabakh in which Armenia forces, by 1994, seized control of not only the Karabakh territory itself but also most of its surrounding districts. Retrained and re-armed with weapons from Türkiye, including the sophisticated Bayraktar (TB-2) armed drones, Azerbaijan’s forces recaptured the districts surrounding Karabakh in 2020, and maintained those gains under a ceasefire brokered by Russia and monitored by a contingent of 2,000 Russian peacekeeping troops.

Over the past several weeks, Azerbaijani forces and irregular surrogates have encroached on a corridor of territory, the Lachin Corridor, that connects Armenia to Karabakh, including blocking the delivery of humanitarian supplies and exports to the Karabakh population. Converting its pressure on Karabakh into a full-scale drive to seize control over it, Baku called its September 19 attack an “anti-terror” operation, even though the assault was not responding to any reported provocation coming from the enclave. Upon launching its assault, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said it was using “high-precision weapons” to “incapacitate” Armenian-backed forces and force out “formations of Armenia’s armed forces.” However, Armenia did not have troops deployed in the enclave, and neither Yerevan nor Russian peacekeepers intervened to stop Baku’s advance. The overmatched ethnic Armenian separatists in the territory quickly agreed to lay down their weapons as part of a Russian-brokered “ceasefire” that accepts Azerbaijani control of Nagorno-Karabakh. The death toll in the two days of fighting varied between 25 and 200, depending on the sources reporting casualty figures.

Baku’s offensive represented President Ilham Aliyev’s calculation that regional and global conditions set the stage for Azerbaijan to establish control over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian forces were not willing or able to break through Azerbaijan’s blockade of the roads into the territory. Russia, the only power able to quickly deploy enough force to stop Azerbaijan’s advance, is an ally of Armenia and committed to its defense under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that groups Russia and five post-Soviet states – Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. However, Aliyev’s government assessed, correctly it seems, that Russia is consumed by battlefield difficulties in its war with Ukraine and would not be willing to intervene militarily. Iran – increasingly aligned with Russia strategically – is another adversary of Azerbaijan and supporter of Armenia, even though the Iranian and Azeri people share much common history and adherence to Shia Islam. However, Iran’s forces are spread thin on the country’s borders and throughout the broader region, and Azerbaijan assessed that Tehran was in no position to militarily assist the Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani officials also expressed confidence that they had the unwavering backing of Türkiye, which helped Baku rearm and has supported its efforts to confront Ankara’s historic adversary, Armenia.

Baku benefitted from its cooperation with both Washington and Tel Aviv by offering the use of strategic facilities to conduct surveillance and launch covert operations against Iran – giving Baku confidence that the United States would mute its condemnation of the Azerbaijani offensive. Aliyev apparently judged accurately that Washington would not intervene directly to halt the Azerbaijani advance, despite the substantial support for the Armenian people in the U.S. Congress. Rather, reflecting the U.S. assessment of Azerbaijan’s strategic value in containing Iran, Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not condemn Baku’s offensive, instead appealing for an end to hostilities and dialogue to resolve the conflict in calls to Aliyev as well as Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The European Union condemned the military operation by Azerbaijan and “deplore[d] the casualties and loss of life caused by this escalation,” but took no direct action against Baku. After failing to gain leverage by keeping its troop contingent out of the battle, Russia’s foreign ministry called on Aliyev to cease the military action and subsequently claimed credit for brokering the end of hostilities that left Baku in effective control of the enclave. Still, even after the ceasefire was announced, Azerbaijani forces killed eight of the Russian peacekeepers traveling in a military vehicle under unclear circumstances. The Russian contingent remains in the enclave and has been collecting weapons from the surrendering ethnic Armenian fighters there.

There is no clear roadmap of what a Nagorno-Karabakh might look like under Baku’s rule. Azerbaijani officials reportedly have begun talks with ethnic Armenian representatives in the territory but insist that the Armenian population there dissolve their self-rule institutions, calling the structures, including a parliament, part of an "illegal regime." President Aliyev has sought to reassure the Nagorno-Karabakh population by assuring that the ethnic Armenians would be able to take part in Azerbaijani elections, receive state education, and be able to freely practice Christianity in his Muslim-majority nation. However, Armenian officials and other supporters of the Armenian population accuse Baku of planning an “ethnic cleansing” of the territory. Ruben Vardanyan, a former top official in Karabakh's ethnic Armenian administration, told journalists that Azerbaijan is “…basically saying to us that we need to leave, not stay here, or accept that this is a part of Azerbaijan - this is basically a typical ethnical cleansing operation." European leaders express concerns that the Azerbaijani takeover will produce another large flow of refugees into Europe. Fearful of atrocities by Azerbaijani troops and security forces, thousands of Armenians massed at the airport in Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh, as the offensive proceeded. Others took shelter with Russian peacekeepers in the hope of being flown out. The scale of ethnic Armenian flight from Nagorno-Karabakh might become clearer in coming weeks and potentially depend on how Azerbaijani forces authorities treat the population in the enclave.

Baku’s offensive also has the potential to upend politics throughout the South Caucasus. As the attack proceeded, large numbers of protesters, frustrated by their country's lack of response, clashed with police outside parliament in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, condemning Prime Minister Pashinyan as a traitor and calling on him to resign. Opposition politicians gave speeches from a stage denouncing Pashinyan, who took power in a 2018 revolution during which he addressed rallies on the same square. Many anti-Pashinyan protesters evoked the memory of the Armenian genocide of 1915, referring to the massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. However, the protest movement did not appear to have sufficient momentum to topple Pashinyan’s government. The Azerbaijani takeover is likely also to widen the emerging rift between Pashinyan’s government and Russia, and potentially move Yerevan closer to Washington. Pashinyan has publicly accused Russia in recent months of not doing enough to support Armenia. As a potential indicator of closer U.S.-Armenia relations, 175 Armenian soldiers took part in military drills with U.S. forces in mid-September.