In 1923, the Soviet Union established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast—home to a 95 percent ethnically Armenian population—within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional legislature passed a resolution in 1988 declaring its intention to join the Republic of Armenia, despite its official location within Azerbaijan. Armed fighting between the two republics, which have a long history of ethnic tension, was kept under relative control during Soviet rule. But as the Soviet Union began to collapse, so did peace in the region. Amid Soviet dissolution in 1991, just as Armenia and Azerbaijan achieved statehood, Nagorno-Karabakh officially declared independence. War erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region, resulting in roughly thirty thousand casualties and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. By 1993, Armenia had gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s geographic area. In 1994, Russia brokered a ceasefire known as the Bishkek Protocol, leaving Nagorno-Karabakh de facto independent, with a self-proclaimed government in Stepanakert, but still heavily reliant on close economic, political, and military ties with Armenia.
Since the bilateral acceptance of a ceasefire in 1994, which formally remained in force until September 2020, the use of attack drones, shelling, and special operations activities by Armenian and Azerbaijani troops have led to intermittent clashes. Early April 2016 witnessed the most intense fighting since 1994, leading to hundreds of casualties along the line of separation. After four days of fighting, the two sides announced they had agreed to cease hostilities. However, a breakdown in talks resulted in both sides accusing each other of ceasefire violations, and tensions remained high.
Following a summer of cross-border attacks, heavy fighting broke out along the Azerbaijan-Nagorno-Karabakh border in late September 2020. More than seven thousand soldiers and civilians were killed, with hundreds more Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers wounded. Both countries initially rejected pressure from the United Nations, the United States, and Russia to hold talks and end hostilities, and instead pledged to continue fighting. Tensions escalated further when both sides switched from cross-border shelling to longer-range artillery and other heavy weaponry. After several failed attempts by Russia, France, and the United States, to negotiate a ceasefire, Russia successfully brokered a deal on November 9, 2020, reinforced by Russian peacekeepers, ending the six-week Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Azerbaijan reclaimed most of the territory it lost two decades prior, leaving Armenia with only a portion of Karabakh.
Negotiation and mediation efforts, primarily led by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have failed to produce a permanent solution to the conflict. The Minsk Group was created in 1994 to address the dispute and is co-chaired by the United States, France, and Russia. The three co-chairs are empowered to organize negotiations with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, separately and at summits. Although the group has successfully negotiated ceasefires, territorial disputes remain as intractable as ever.
Because of the close proximity between Azerbaijani and Armenian military forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and the lack of open communication between the two groups, there is a high risk that inadvertent military action could lead to an escalation. The two sides also have domestic political interests that could incentivize a provocation of the other.
Without successful mediation efforts, ceasefire violations and renewed tensions threaten to reignite a full-scale conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Such a conflict would destabilize the South Caucasus region, potentially disrupting oil and gas exports from Azerbaijan—which produces about eight hundred thousand barrels of oil per day—to Central Asia and Europe. Russia is committed by treaty to defend Armenia in the instance of military escalation, while Turkey has pledged to support Azerbaijan. The United States’ vocal support for Armenia over the past few years, alongside Russia’s current embroilment in the war in Ukraine, could create a pretext for escalation and further complicate efforts to secure peace in the region. Given the United States and Russia’s diminished capacity to serve as honest brokers, the European Union, led by European Council President Charles Michel, has assumed a more active mediating role in 2022.
The risk of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is increasing due to the failure of mediation efforts, increased militarization, and frequent ceasefire violations. Periodic violations of the 2020 ceasefire eventually escalated into a two-day conflict beginning September 13, 2022—the most significant provocation since 2020. The death toll has been disputed, with estimates ranging from one to three hundred killed in the cross-border attacks. Azerbaijan launched attacks on several locations inside Armenian territory, which forced the evacuation of more than 2,700 civilians. Armenia and Azerbaijan have exchanged accusations of blame for initiating the violence. Despite its focus on the conflict in Ukraine, Russia claimed credit for mediating a truce between the warring parties. Additional border clashes were reported on September 21, September 23, and September 28, less than one week after the Russian-brokered truce.
In the days that followed, U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi led a congressional delegation to Armenia as a display of renewed U.S. commitment—making her the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country. She “strongly condemned” the “illegal and deadly attacks by Azerbaijan,” which Azerbaijan rejected as “Armenian propaganda” that could re-escalate the conflict. Her visit is said to have disrupted U.S. and international diplomatic efforts to reinitiate peace talks with Azerbaijan.