Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: The History Behind the Six-Week War and What the Peace Deal Means for the Region

Azerbaijan military artillery firing
Credit: Ministry Of Defence Of Azerbaijan

Violence has finally ended in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, following an intense war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that lasted six weeks. Nagorno-Karabakh is no stranger to violence; this year’s war was the third the area has seen in just 30 years. 

Now, a peace deal signed on Nov. 10 has put an end to the fighting, but tensions remain high, and the region’s future is still uncertain.

Why did the conflict start?

Conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region first began during the Soviet era. Whilst the Soviet Union gave Azerbaijan official control over the region the population is majority Armenian Christian. When the Soviet Union began to collapse, Nagorno-Karabakh voted to become part of Armenia, which sparked a bloody war beginning in 1988. The war killed tens of thousands and only ended when a ceasefire was finally called in 1994. Armenian’s took control over the region following the war, but the territory remained disputed as it continued to be internationally recognised as part of Muslim majority Azerbaijan.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, which is chaired by Russia, France and the U.S., has held peace talks between the two countries ever since the ceasefire in 1994. But little progress was ever made, and another war broke out in 2016, this one lasting just four days.

The four-day war saw the deaths of dozens of troops, following the bloodshed another ceasefire was called and peace talks once again resumed.

But peace talks collapsed again as tensions began to rise in July this year and another war officially broke out on Sept. 27 when Azerbaijani forces launched an offensive along the border of Nagorno-Karabakh, aided by Turkish forces. What followed was 45 days of intense artillery fire and shell bombardments that targeted both troops and civilians, including schools and hospitals. Azerbaijani forces have also been accused of using cluster bombs, a weapon banned in international law.

An estimated 5000 people, from both sides, have lost their lives during the war, leaving behind a trail of devastation. 

What could the new peace deal mean for the region?

Since fighting started in September, multiple ceasefire agreements had been signed by both sides, but all failed. Now though, the latest peace deal brokered by Russia could see more success.

The peace deal came into effect on Nov. 10 and is signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

Under the new deal, Azerbaijan will hold control over the regions it took during the war, including the second biggest town in Nagorno-Karabakh, Shusha. But it also means that military operations have now stopped and 2000 Russian Peacekeepers are being deployed in the region to help maintain stability. The peacekeepers will remain in the area for at least five years, as part of their role they will also guard the “Lachin corridor”, which links the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, to Armenia.

The peace deal looks promising in many ways, Russia’s monitoring measures could mean that long term stability is finally in sight for the region, but there are still concerns over the deal’s fragility. This is particularly true amongst the Armenian population, for which the peace deal has failed to instil a sense of safety. Whilst thousands of Armenian refugees have begun returning to Nagorno-Karabakh, many still don’t feel that they are able to.

Hrant Yardumyan, a 62-year-old pensioner from Lachin, which was transferred to Azerbaijan on Dec. 1, told Politico: “They say there has been looting. Do we even have a house to go back to? I don’t trust anyone, not Azerbaijan, not Russia, not Armenia. Lachin isn’t safe anymore, the enemy is next door.”

For now, the war has ended but the loss of both life and land has been significant, with many Armenians feeling that those who lost their lives have died in vain. The peace deal signifies a new chapter for the region, and the balance of power has vastly shifted with both Russia and Turkey seeing their authority over the territory increase as the ineffectiveness of the Minsk group means that their role in the region has become insignificant. Both sides now rely on Russia’s continued mediation to maintain the peace, only time will tell whether this will be enough.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Reanna Smith is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation that offers legal aid support to asylum seekers and refugees in the UK.