Nagorno-Karabakh: The Volatile Core of the South Caucasus

Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian women take a selfie in 2016 at the "We Are Our Mountains" monument, located on the outskirts of Stepanakert, the capital of the de facto Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). The sculpture, hewn from volcanic tufa and completed in 1967 by Sargis Baghdasaryan, depicts an old man and woman who represent the mountain people of Karabakh.

The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of four frozen conflicts that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Legally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, it declared independence in 1991 and then defended that independence in a war with Azerbaijan that lasted until 1994. While it enjoys no international recognition of sovereignty, Nagorno-Karabakh has been de facto independent since its declaration and has been supported militarily and economically by neighboring Armenia.

The modern Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is slightly smaller than the American state of Connecticut and has a population comparable to Syracuse, New York. However, despite its modest size and small population, the mountainous territory has dominated the destinies of both Azerbaijan and Armenia for more than two decades.

Thus, although the region may be little-known outside of geopolitical circles, Nagorno-Karabakh’s unresolved status remains one of the most potentially explosive issues in the volatile Caucasus region today.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict at a Glance

While the name is ancient and specific reference unclear, the region can be well understood through its name: “Nagorno” is a Russian modifier meaning “mountainous,” while “Karabakh” is an amalgamation of Turkish and Persian words that together mean “black garden.” Nagorno-Karabakh features several small, fast-flowing rivers cutting several deep ravines through mineral-rich mountainous country on their way to a central valley. The result is a rugged, yet agriculturally abundant land – a garden with rich black soil that is likely to get as much shade as sun.

Geopolitically, Nagorno-Karabakh was long contested by the Ottoman, Persian, and Russian Empires as part of the Caucasus Mountains, which formed a formidable natural barrier between those rivals. Nagorno-Karabakh is of particular interest as it represents an overlap in the declared homelands of two different peoples: the Christian Armenians and the Muslim Azerbaijanis. Under the nearly perpetual conquest of the area, one of these two groups was generally favored by whichever side was in power at the time. This helped build a centuries-old animosity between the two geographically intertwined peoples.

By the time that Soviet planners attempted to draw ethnic republics in the Caucasus, the region between Armenia and Azerbaijan was an irreconcilable mess. Some compensation was made via a system of enclaves and autonomous provinces and the situation remained relatively stable while both republics were part of the larger and more powerful Soviet state. When that state began to crumble, however, a powerful arbiter was lost and ethnic tensions flared into war.

The majority-Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh attempted to declare independence from Azerbaijan just two months after Azerbaijan declared independence from the USSR. In response, Azerbaijan invaded. Armenia joined the conflict and helped secure for Nagorno-Karabakh not only its de facto independence, but also de facto expanded borders. While Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh was completely enclosed within Azerbaijan, Armenia effectively won control of the narrow strips of land to the west and south for it, giving the unrecognized state direct borders with Armenia and Iran. Thus, Nagorno-Karabakh secured access to the outside world and the ability to conduct limited trade.

The war never really went away, however, with Armenia and Azerbaijan building up ever-bigger armies. Skirmishes on the border were fairly common. In 2020, war broke out again, this time with Azerbaijan reversing nearly all the gains made by Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh is now connected to Armenia only via the narrow Lachin Corridor. As of March, 2023, even that corridor was blockaded by Azerbaijan, leaving the unrecognized state without food or fuel imports.

Although most fighting has stopped, the conflict seems far from over and Azerbaijan has kept the upper hand.

The Early History of Nagorno-Karabakh

The history of the Karabakh region, the section of the Lesser Caucasus between the Aras and Kura rivers, stretches back into prehistoric times: in 1968, a jawbone dating back to 300,000 BC was found in Azikh Cave in Nagorno-Karabakh. The discovery indicates that one of the earliest examples of proto-human habitation in Eurasia was in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In ancient times, Karabakh was populated by Caucasian tribesmen who spoke a Lezgic language. Located between the competing empires of Urartu, Assyria, and the Medes, the region was absorbed by the Persians under Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC. It is not known exactly when the mountainous areas of Karabakh first came under Armenian influence, but the borders of the Armenian province of Artsakh established in 189 BC roughly correspond to the borders held by Nagorno-Karabakh between 1994-2020. In fact, Armenia still refers to the area as “Artsakh.”

In 387 AD, the Kingdom of Armenia was partitioned between the Romans and the Persians after an extended war. Artsakh was awarded to the neighboring state of Albania—often referred to as “Caucasian Albania” to avoid confusion with the modern state in the Balkans—as a reward for its loyalty to the Sassanid kings of Persia. The Caucasian Albanians were ethnically similar to the original inhabitants of Karabakh and spoke the Lezgic Udi language. Under the Albanians, an historical account of the region was written by the Armenian Movses Kaghankatvatsi, and the Armenian and Albanian alphabets were both created by the Armenian Mesrop Mashtots. In 461 AD, Caucasian Albania was absorbed into Arran, a province of the Sassanid Empire.

Arabic invasions of the Caucasus followed in the seventh and eighth centuries. Revolts by Armenian princes against the Arabs in the early ninth century led to the establishment of the Principality of Khachen on the territory of the former province of Artsakh. As an Armenian polity, The Khachen Principality survived later pressure from the Byzantine Empire to the west and a series of invasions by nomadic tribes from the east: the Seljuks in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Mongols and Timurids in the 13th, and the Turkic federations of Kara Koyunlu and Aq Qoyunlu in the 14th and the beginning of the 16th centuries. This largely ended in the mid-16th century, when the Turkic Persians conquered and placed the entire region under the control of another Turkic tribe, the Qajars. However, Armenian political and cultural life endured within five semi-independent principalities called melikdoms that formed in the highlands of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenian settlements had been strongest.

The modern Azerbaijani people now speak a Western Turkic language, likely in part due to the gradual Turkification of the native Caucasian and Iranian populations during the Middle Ages under Turkish influence. The Azerbaijani people also converted fully to Islam while the Armenians effectively resisted it and stayed Christians. These were major shifts that would separate the modern Azerbaijani and Armenian peoples.

In 1724, Persia was partitioned between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, with Nagorno-Karabakh awarded to Russia. Twelve years later, the region was retaken by the Persian general Nader Shah with the help of the Armenian melikdoms. As a reward, the Armenian principalities were granted much greater independence. A power struggle, however, ensued between the melikdoms with the Varanda Melikdom allying with the Turkic leader Panah-Ali Khan of the Karabakh Khanate. In the end, all five melikdoms were absorbed into the Turkic Karabakh Khanate, after which many Armenians emigrated out and Turkic peoples immigrated in, especially to the Karabakh lowlands.

Nagorno-Karabakh Under Russian and Soviet Rule

In 1805, the Khanate became a vassal state to the Russian Empire. By 1823, it was liquidated into the larger Russian Karabakh Province. Russian tax surveys revealed that while Azerbaijanis were a majority in Karabakh—almost two-thirds in 1845—the mountainous districts were populated almost exclusively by Armenian villages. However, the survey was conducted in winter and did not reflect the fact that the majority of Karabakh’s Azerbaijanis lived a nomadic lifestyle and spent their summers in the highlands of Nagorno-Karabakh, forming the Azerbaijani herdsmen’s claim to the lands there.

The Russian authorities favored the Christian Armenians over the Muslim Azerbaijanis. Throughout the 19th century, the Armenian population of the Karabakh lowlands grew steadily, encouraged by Russian policy, while increasing numbers of Muslims left for Iran and Turkey, reversing the demographic processes that had occurred under the Turkic Karabakh Khanate. The 1897 Russian census revealed that Karabakh was 43% Armenian and 55% Azerbaijani.

Tension between the two populations grew under Russian rule, erupting into pogroms that killed thousands on both sides in the chaos of the 1905 Russian Revolution. This was repeated on a much larger scale following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917. When a newly independent Azerbaijan laid claim to Karabakh in 1918, the Armenian-dominated provinces of Nagorno-Karabakh resisted, forming the Armenian National Council of Karabakh. The British forces stationed in the region lent their support to Azerbaijan, hoping to wrest the country away from Soviet influence and gain access to Baku’s significant oil reserves. Fearing encirclement by the enemy, Karabakh Armenians attacked Azerbaijani garrisons in 1920. In response, the Armenian quarters of Shusha, Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest town, were completely razed, and thousands of Armenian civilians were slaughtered by the retaliating Azerbaijanis.

With its army occupied with Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan lost control of its capital, Baku, located on the other side of its territory, to Bolshevik forces in April 1920. By 1921 the entirety of the South Caucasus was under Soviet control. With the exit of the British there was some indication that Nagorno-Karabakh would be transferred to the Armenian state, but the geopolitical situation changed in 1921 with the normalization of relations between the USSR and Turkey.

As a concession to Turkey, which feared a strong Armenian state, Nagorno-Karabakh was incorporated as an autonomous province into the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. However, Azerbaijani emigration had continued during the years of revolution in Russia and, by 1926, the province was 94% Armenian. The seasonal Azerbaijani presence in Nagorno-Karabakh was further curtailed during the anti-nomadic collectivization campaigns of the 1930s. All of this helped bolster Armenian claims to the territory.

The Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh soon chafed under what they saw as excessive Azerbaijani interference: although autonomous regions in the Soviet Union were theoretically granted broad cultural and linguistic freedom, teachers of the Armenian language could study in Stepanakert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh) or Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital), for example, but were never given permission by Azerbaijani officials to study in Yerevan (the capital of Armenia). Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh sought greater autonomy, but because of the strict hierarchy of the Soviet administrative system, their demands had to be addressed to Azerbaijan, which consistently rejected them.

As the Armenians felt their situation worsen, the Armenian birthrate dropped and many left the region for work in larger cities. The area’s rural population again took on an increasingly Azerbaijani character, assisted by programs from Baku that encouraged Azerbaijani settlement of the area. By 1979, Nagorno-Karabakh was roughly 25% Azerbaijani. This shift again exacerbated tensions, leading to escalated rhetoric by local political leaders. Armenian and Azerbaijani historians at this time also began to propagate radically divergent views on the region’s history and culture, setting the stage for the coming conflict.

The First Nagorno-Karabakh War

Glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the region’s simmering ethnic tensions to be expressed openly. Demands for greater cultural, economic, and linguistic freedom by the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh escalated to demands for full reunification with Armenia by 1988. Ethnic clashes broke out later that year, with anti-Armenian riots claiming the lives of many in the Azerbaijani cities of Baku and Sumgait. Isolated attacks on Azerbaijanis occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh and then spread to Armenia. Moscow placed Nagorno-Karabakh under martial law in the winter of 1988, but the weakening state could do little to reconcile the two factions. Fighting grew even fiercer and, by November 1989, the Soviets resigned the situation, lifting martial law without a solid peace plan in place. The situation spiraled out of control after Azerbaijan declared independence from the USSR in October 1991, and Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan in December 1991. Full-scale war erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The armed forces of both countries consisted of former Red Army units, volunteer irregulars, and, occasionally, mercenaries. A greater share of the military equipment left behind in the region fell into Azerbaijani hands, but the Armenians possessed the advantage of greater manpower and a larger share of former Soviet officers.

An estimated 15,000-20,000 people, including civilians, were killed during the fighting and hundreds of thousands displaced: some 200,000 Armenians left Azerbaijan; 185,000 Azerbaijanis fled Armenia; 50,000 Azerbaijanis left Nagorno-Karabakh; and as many as 500,000-600,000 Azerbaijanis fled Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani lands. Thousands of refugees and displaced persons still languish in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Numerous cases of ethnic cleansing were reported, such as the Khojaly riots in February 1992 that claimed the lives of hundreds of Azerbaijanis.

The two countries became more ethnically homogeneous then they had at any other time in their histories. Today, there are officially no Azerbaijanis living in Armenia and no Armenians in Azerbaijan. This was unprecedented in their long histories.

By 1994, the Armenians had pushed Azerbaijani forces out of Nagorno-Karabakh and expanded its borders, taking about 14% of Azerbaijan’s former territory. On May 12, 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire, but a treaty was never signed and status of Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved.

Nagorno-Karabakh Between the Wars

In 2013, Nagorno-Karabakh’s population was estimated at 143,600, with 53,000 persons residing in its capital, Stepanakert. The population was almost entirely Armenian.

Conflict Studies Banner The question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status dominates political life in both countries. At least two Armenian prime ministers came from Nagorno-Karabakh, a place that has occupied a huge place in Armenian identity and pride and is even presented as an “Armenian Eden.” Azerbaijan’s government often reminds it populace of the conflict and often blames the troubles caused by the occupied territories for any shortcoming in the government’s performance.

Nagorno-Karabakh saw most of its infrastructure destroyed in the war, but has been quick to rebuild. As Armenians have lived for centuries under political pressure or dominance, a significant number have sought their fortunes outside of Armenia’s historic borders. However, they have traditionally retained familial and even cultural ties with their homeland. In their new countries, they have often gained reputations as successful entrepreneurs, craftsmen, and industrialists. The vast majority of Armenians, in fact, live outside Armenia, with several hundred thousand each residing in the US, Europe, and Russia.

A significant percentage of the region’s budget is supplied by Armenian diaspora organizations such as the Hayastan All-Armenia Fund which has put forth millions of dollars into building and reconstructing housing, roads, schools, and universities. The diaspora has also heavily lobbied on behalf of the unrecognized state to their various governments. Thus, Nagorno-Karabakh is the only former Soviet breakaway state with permanent representation in the US and the only one to have ever received US aid ($10 million in 2002).

During Soviet times, Nagorno-Karabakh was a significant producer of wheat, grapes, and animal products. Figs, citrus fruits, and pomegranates are also grown in its mild subtropical climate. After the war, the country’s agricultural potential remained underdeveloped due, like that of Armenia, to a lack of equipment, fertilizer, and the rugged terrain. However, investment allowed production to recover to above Armenia’s overall per capita levels.

Mineral deposits were prospected and mined, many for the first time. Gold, silver, copper, and molybdenum mines were opened, often with American, British, and Armenian investment. These helped fund the reconstruction of the area, but also increased the area’s strategic value to both sides of the conflict. Azerbaijan consistently accused Armenia of leading “illegal” mining operations, with the implications that the mines were ecologically disastrous.

Perhaps the best opportunity for economic independence that the region has comes from its steep mountains and abundant water resources, which are highly favorable for the development of hydroelectricity. In accordance with Armenia’s energy development strategy, mini-hydroelectric plants were constructed along Nagorno-Karabakh’s waterways to the point that the republic was independent in its energy production and exporting its surplus to Armenia.

That said, development has been hampered by Turkey and Azerbaijan’s economic blockade; further, a lack of international recognition disqualifies the region from most foreign aid and discourages investment by raising the perceived political risk.

Politically, Nagorno-Karabakh’s democracy has been often ranked higher by NGOs such as Freedom House than that in Azerbaijan and occasionally even Armenia. Elections have been certified as free by international observers, although the ruling party routinely gains over 80% of the vote and almost no critical voices are heard in the now largely-homogeneous society.

The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War

The Nagorno-Karabakh frozen conflict has been one of the continually hottest of the region. From 1994 to the present day, dozens of soldiers are killed along the line of contact each year. Rhetoric on both sides remained fiercely militaristic, with Azerbaijan, for instance, reacting to plans to rebuild an airport in Nagorno-Karabakh by saying that it would shoot down any unauthorized aircraft – including passenger craft – over its internationally recognized territory. In 2010, Azerbaijan signed a mutual assistance pact with Turkey, its only regional ally.

Both Azerbaijan and Armenia maintained high military budgets and large armies, building up stockpiles for what both assumed was the next inevitable conflict. Azerbaijan, however, consistently outstripped Armenia in both GDP production and percent of GDP spent on the military.

Further, geopolitical winds significantly shifted by 2020. Previously, pressure had been applied to both sides equally to restrain the conflict. An Azerbaijani invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, many feared, could potentially draw both Russia and Turkey (a NATO member) into war, with potentially disastrous global consequences. Russia has historically backed Christian Armenia while the US and Turkey have been more likely to support Muslim, oil-rich Azerbaijan as the internationally recognized holder of the land.

However, in 2018, Armenia was rocked by protests and its leadership was changed to one that was much more willing to criticize Russia to gain improved relations with the west. Further, COVID meant that most of the world was deeply focused on internal economic and health issues by mid-2020.

The situation escalated significantly in July, 2020 when both sides engaged in the deadliest fighting in years, resulting in the deaths of at least 16 people. The July clashes raised fears of a wider conflict, and both sides accused each other of violating the ceasefire agreement that had been in place since 1994. The situation remained tense for months, with both Armenia and Azerbaijan conducting military exercises and increasing their military presence in the region.

On September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military operation to retake Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict quickly escalated, with both sides using heavy artillery, tanks, and drones in the fighting. Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan, provided military and diplomatic support during the conflict, while Russia, Armenia’s historic ally, remained largely neutral, calling for a ceasefire and beginning diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

After six weeks of fighting, it was clear that Azerbaijan had the clear upper hand. Azerbaijan became one of the first countries in history to effectively use drone attacks to win large-scale battles, taking the Armenians by surprise. Further, it became clear that instability in Armenian society had also affected relations between its military leadership and politicians, with blame for losses being traded between them.

On November 10, 2020, a ceasefire agreement was reached, brokered by Russia. Under the agreement, Azerbaijan kept the territory that it had gained through military means and Armenia further agreed to cede all the additional territory that it held outside of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Soviet-era borders.

Nagorno-Karabakh After the Wars

Like the first war, the second resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of people and the destruction of infrastructure, including homes, schools, and hospitals.

In Armenia, the results of the war were met by mass protests and calls for Prime Minister Pashinyan to resign. In Azerbaijan, the results were met with street celebrations.

Azerbaijan is planning the rapid reconstruction of its recaptured territory. It has quickly dealt out contracts to companies to run mining operations and take over agricultural land. Azerbaijanis, particularly those families displaced by the first war, are being encouraged to move to the affected areas to repopulate it.

Nagorno-Karabakh itself, now greatly shrunken, remains de-facto independent. However, it is also now cut off from the outside world. The Lachin Corridor, a strategic road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, has been blocked by Azerbaijan. Officially, this blockade is being carried out by environmental activists demanding an end to Armenian mining operations in the disputed territory. But the activists are being supported by Azerbaijan and even Russian peacekeepers, charged with maintaining the corridor, have largely sat on the sidelines.

Although the international community has provided some emergency assistance to those affected by the war, the blockade has meant that food and heating fuel are in short supply. Many schools are closed because they are damaged or unheated. Imported food items have disappeared from stores. Residents that were outside the area when the war occurred cannot get home and those that are inside cannot get out. The situation is growing increasingly critical.

Since the end of the war, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have remained high and the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved. The international community has called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict through negotiations, but the US, EU, and China, for instance, have all remained largely neutral in not picking sides. Azerbaijan, especially now that it has Russia’s backing in the agreed-upon truce, remains by far the more powerful of the two combatants.

Given how deeply the area is ingrained in the identities of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, it is unlikely that the states will find a lasting resolution soon.

More About Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenia: A Global People

The Modern Republic of Armenia lies in the turbulent south Caucuses. Although the Armenians as a people have existed for thousands of years, they have…


Karabakh: Youth, War Zones, and Unrecognized Borders

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of GeoHistory or SRAS. This fascinating interview is presented here as documentation of what…


Azerbaijan: A People from the Mists of Time

Azerbaijan’s name comes from the Persian words, azer, which means “fire” and baygan, which means “protector.” The name was first applied in ancient times to…


Introduction to Conflict in the Post-Soviet Space

As the Soviet Union crumbled, it left behind ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse successor states. As these states tried to form domestic policies and governing…


About the Author

Josh Wilson

Josh has been with SRAS since 2003. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. He lived in Moscow from 2003-2022, where he ran Moscow operations for SRAS. At SRAS, Josh still assists in program development and leads our internship programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: All Programs

View all posts by: Josh Wilson

David Parker

David Parker holds degrees in Russian and East European Studies from Middlebury College and Stanford University. He studied abroad in SRAS's Translation Abroad Program in Moscow. At the time he wrote for this site, he resided in Seattle and worked for a tour operator that specializes in Russia and Eastern Europe.

View all posts by: David Parker