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Briefer: The 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Anna Milukas, October 19th, 2020

Editor's Note: October 20th, 2020

In paragraph two, refugees of Nagorno-Karabakh were previously incorrectly referred to as Armenian. This has been corrected to Azeri. In paragraph four, Turkic people in Azerbaijan were incorrectly referred to as “Turkish.” this has been corrected.


On September 27th, conflict erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the violently contested border territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a 1,700 square mile area within Azerbaijan with an ethnically Armenian majority population of approximately 150,000 people. It is unclear which side initiated this latest episode of the conflict. Armenia has claimed that Azerbaijan’s military instigated the fighting by bombing civilian towns in Nagorno-Karabakh, including the regional capital city of Stepanakert. On the other side, Azerbaijan claimed that Armenia had been the original aggressor and that the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense had stopped an attempted attack by shooting down two Armenian helicopters and three drones, and it was only after this attack that Azerbaijan retaliated with tanks and drones. Stepanakert has taken heavy shelling since October 2nd, and Azerbaijan has reported that Armenia has shelled their second-largest city, Ganja. As of now, the conflict has yielded over 710 military casualties and scores of civilian deaths, as well as hundreds of injuries, and is shaping up to be the bloodiest incident in the ongoing regional cold conflict since the 1994 ceasefire between the countries.

History of conflict

The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR) was established by the Soviet Union in the 1920s as a breakaway region in Azerbaijan with a 95% ethnically Armenian population. As both Armenia and Azerbaijan were Soviet countries, conflict over which country should retain ownership of the NKAR was suppressed until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The government of the NKAR had previously resolved to leave Azerbaijan and join Armenia in 1988, officially declaring its independence in 1991. This sparked a vicious war between Azerbaijan and Armenia that lasted three years and caused approximately 30,000 casualties, hundreds of which were civilians. The war displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees - an estimated 1 million according to one UN report, of which the majority were ethnic Azeris residing in Nagorno-Karabakh. The refugees fled into surrounding nations such as Georgia and further afield into Russia and Western Europe, and while many later returned home, the UN estimates that about 400,00 remained in other countries.

In 1994, exhausted by years of conflict, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to negotiate a ceasefire mediated by Russia, in an attempt for the former Soviet regime to reassert itself as a peacekeeping force. Since 1994 the conflict has continued to simmer with minor skirmishes. Before the events of this September, the last notable altercation was in April 2016, where fighting lasted four days with numerous casualties. At that point, a ceasefire negotiation was attempted, but talks failed and tensions have risen since. This September chapter of the conflict is the culmination of a summer of contention: last July, Armenian forces killed an Azerbaijani general and several other officers with a missile strike during a border dispute.

International involvement

The Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict is currently being exacerbated by the potential involvement of Turkey. The majority of Azerbaijan is ethnically Turkic and has historically supported Turkey. The two countries share strong linguistic, religious, and economic ties. Armenia has claimed that Turkey is involved in the fighting on behalf of Azerbaijan. Specifically, allegations from Armenian forces suggest that a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down an Armenian jet and that Turkey has sent about 1,000 Syrian militants into Armenia. This claim comes as Turkish forces joined the Azerbaijani army for two weeks of military drills following an Armenian missile strike in July. Furthermore, the drones sent by Armenian forces into Azerbaijan are Turkish-made. There is a historical basis for Turkish involvement when considering the Armenian Genocide of 1915, where Turkey slaughtered over 1.5 million ethnic Armenians, an action which strengthened Turkey’s ties to Azerbaijan and set it against Armenia for the foreseeable future. Turkey denies all involvement in the current conflict, although both France and Russia confirm Armenia’s claims.

There is also a chance of Russia becoming directly involved in the conflict. Russia has brokered peace agreements between Azerbaijan and Armenia before and is currently waging proxy wars with Turkey in Libya and Syria by funding opposition forces in these countries; two strategically important targets that could grant the victor access to valuable oil reserves and a geographical position of potential influence over NATO and the EU. Russia also holds a defense agreement with Armenia that could be triggered if Azerbaijani forces attack civilian areas further into the country.

Turkey’s potential use of American-made F-16s has drawn attention to the United States and its potential response to the conflict. Nikol Pashinyan, the prime minister of Armenia, reached out to the White House for comment about the potential use of American weaponry but was unable to speak to President Trump. The US along with the UN and Russia have condemned the Armenian-Azerbaijani violence, but have yet to reply to Pashinyan’s concerns.

Looking to the future

It seems unlikely the fighting will abate at any point soon, given the contentious history between the two states and the failure of the 1994 ceasefire without any immediate incentive to re-establish peace. So far, diplomatic efforts from previous actors such as Russia have been ineffective, and a ceasefire negotiated by the joint efforts of Russia and France that came into effect this past Sunday has already broken down overnight. The awkward position of Nagorno-Karabakh as a conclave of ethnic Armenians within Azerbaijan will prove a difficult issue to mend after decades of strained relations between the two countries. Previously, war between the two countries took several years to burn out and only abated after massive damages were suffered by both sides.

It seems more likely that Turkey could leverage a role in the conflict to increase its regional power, either by convincing Azerbaijan to step down or by lending their military strength to the dispute. There is a high likelihood that Turkey is already invested in the conflict, and is close to Azerbaijan geographically, culturally, and politically, and establishing an even greater regional sphere of influence could prove very tempting to Erdogan’s government.


Efron, Sonni. “Armenia, Azerbaijan Agree to a Cease-Fire : Caucasus: Moscow brokers truce in former Soviet Union’s longest-running conflict. But fighting continues.” Los Angeles Times, May 17th, 1994.

Higgins, Andrew. “Armenia’s Leader Makes Plea to US as Conflict Rages with Azerbaijan”. The New York Times, Oct. 4th. 2020

Ibrahim, Arwa and Elizabeth Melimopoulos. “UN Chief Urges Nagorno-Karabakh rivals to respect truce.” Al Jazeera, 18 October 2020.

Kramer, Andrew E. “Why is Conflict Flaring Again Between Armenians and Azerbaijan?” The New York Times, October 5th, 2020.

MacKinnon, Amy. “Russia and Turkey’s Proxy War in Libya Heats Up” Foreign Policy, June 19, 2020.

“Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict”. The Council on Foreign Relations, Global Conflict Tracker, October 7th, 2020.

“UNHCR CDR Background Paper on Refugees and Asylum Seekers from Armenia”, Centre for Documentation and Research, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 1 August 1995.

Ward, Alex. “The Conflict Between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Explained.” Vox, October 7th, 2020.



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