The region of Karabakh, located in modern day Azerbaijan has seen some of the most brutal fighting in the world the past several years. In September of 2020, a war broke out between the Azerbaijani military and the Artsakh Defense Forces, backed by the Armenian military. Azerbaijan won this war with an Armenian capitulation two months later.
A trilateral agreement was brokered by Russia over the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, in which most of the remaining cities would be handed over to Azerbaijan. A peacekeeping force of several thousand Russian troops would also be deployed to the region for a period of five years. Though most of Azerbaijan did not want a timeframe, their president, Ilham Aliyev abided by it—for now.
Despite Azerbaijan’s forced capitulation in Armenia, tensions continue to boil. Aliyev has demanded a corridor through Armenia to connect with Nakhichevan and deadly clashes have taken place this past autumn when Azerbaijan’s armed forces invaded points along Armenia proper.
Recently, Azerbaijani protestors and provocateurs have blockaded the Lachin Corridor, effectively cutting off much needed aid to the remaining Armenians who live in the Karabakh region. This move has come with international condemnation with calls to end the blockade, which is now in its second month.
There has been a pattern in these provocations under Aliyev’s regime, which has come under international scrutiny by human rights organizations for its lack of free speech, targeting dissidents, and promoting sectarian tensions against not just Armenia, but Armenians as a whole.
Armenians and Azerbaijanis have had a dark history of ethnic tensions and massacres dating back to the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Despite Soviet authorities attempting to quell the ethnic tensions between both groups, the Kremlin would only exacerbate the tensions. One such instance was when Josef Stalin, the General Secretary of the USSR transferred the Armenian majority region of Karabakh to Azerbaijan, a main cause in the start of the conflict between both South Caucasus states.
The post-Soviet collapse saw the brutal First Nagorno-Karabakh War in which numerous massacres took place. The result was an Armenian victory and a refugee crisis that still to this day has not been resolved.
Ilham Aliyev has used the loss as a national shame and embarrassment; using the opportunity to have a state sanctioned hate policy towards Armenians as whole. The demonization of an entire group of people mirrors Milosevic’s hate speech during the Yugoslav Wars.
As Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, the OSCE Minsk Group continued to negotiate over the status of the region. Baku would use the legality status effectively, as there were several resolutions calling for the end of Armenia’s occupation of the region. With Armenia firmly under Russia’s grasp since the late 1800s, their case would be ignored if Moscow and pro-Russian Armenians continued to hold power.
Attempting to erase ancient Armenian heritage completely in modern day Azerbaijani lands, Aliyev has continued to hold a state sanctioned policy of cultural genocide, right under the nose of UNESCO. One such example was the destruction and desecration of the ancient Armenian graves of Julfa by the Azerbaijani military, documented by satellite imagery and Hyperallergic. This policy continued into 2022 where American researchers confirmed cultural destruction of Armenian antiquities in the region by Azerbaijan after their 2020 victory.
Along with cultural destruction, policies have been directed at ethnic hatred directly with the Twitter account of the president calling Armenia “not worthy enough of being a colony.” It should be noted that Azerbaijan’s national hero is Ramil Safarov, who hacked an Armenian Lieutenant to death in his sleep with an axe during a NATO training course in Hungary. Safarov would be transferred back to Azerbaijan and pardoned by Aliyev, despite UN warnings that it would inflate ethnic hatred.
With Russia implementing the trilateral agreement with Turkish oversight, the region would quickly become a geopolitical chessboard. One could argue a flashpoint in the conflict came from Russian border manipulations and Moscow looking out for its own interests.
In the early 2000s, Armenia was led by pro-Russian oligarchs, one of which is close to Putin’s inner circle. Their refusal to repatriate Azerbaijani refugees and only having a foreign policy dependent on one superpower backfired for Yerevan, whereas Baku made major geopolitical moves. Their domestic policies would culminate in the Velvet Revolution, as Armenia’s new inexperienced government could not outclass Aliyev’s.
Preparing for war, Aliyev would solidify a mutual defense pact with Turkey, with Turkish generals and their drones playing a key role in the 2020 war. He would also have a strategic partnership with Israel, as both nations have conflicted with Iran.
Now that the EU has diversified energy consumption away from Russia in the wake of their invasion of Ukraine, Aliyev jumped on the opportunity to have the oil rich nation become an energy supplier to Europe. This, along with a large Russian investment in the Caucasus oil fields has put Azerbaijan in the forefront of value between two different spheres—the East and West.
Armenia’s foreign policy has continued to remain stagnant, though some strides have been made with India and potential partnership with France and America. With Yerevan in a weakened state, Baku has continued to encroach, even outside of the Karabakh region with an invasion of Armenia, which saw several massacres take place against POWs and the desecration of a female Armenian.
With renewed tensions in late 2022 into 2023, the situation will only continue to exacerbate. Along with Russia’s ongoing military collapse and depleting influence in countries they used to dominate, the conflicts will continue to grow in this powder keg region.
There is zero sign Azerbaijan will stop with the current regime in power and emboldened by the global geopolitical shift with the Kremlin’s waning influence, the only major players that can stem the violence now are Azerbaijan’s primary benefactors—the EU, Turkey, Russia, and the U.S.
The EU continues to placate Aliyev’s aggressive posture due to the need for alternative energy sources away from Russia. Turkey effectively controls Azerbaijan, as the nation relies on the growing Turkish defense industry to maintain its war posture against Armenia, and the U.S. can mitigate the violence by halting military aid.
By denying the Armenians of the Karabakh region basic human rights, necessities, and even a limited degree of autonomy, Ilham Aliyev has shown his true colors. A man who claims to care about peace, only cares about unlimited authority over those he rules over.
With a continuation of state sanctioned hate along with statements that the Armenians of the region would have zero autonomy and statement that parts of Armenia proper belong to Azerbaijan, Baku has made its demands clear—it does not want any negotiations, just submission.
[Photo by The Presidential Press and Information Office’s of Azerbaijan
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”