Why are Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region?

an image of Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Nagarno-Karabakh, a disputed region between Armenia and Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan recently bombed and damaged Holy Savior Cathedral, also known as Ghazanchetsots, a revered site in the disputed region of Nagarno-Karabakh. (Image credit: Aldo Pavan/Getty)

Since the end of September, hundreds of soldiers and civilians are thought to have been killed in a rapidly developing conflict between the rival Caucasus nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

But why are they in conflict?

It turns out that they're fighting over the landlocked, mountainous and kidney shaped Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is not much larger than Rhode Island, and that the conflict over this region goes back a century.

Related: 10 epic battles that changed history

When Russia's Red Army marched on both countries back in the 1920s and later incorporated them into the U.S.S.R, the Armenian-majority area of Nagorno-Karabakh was lumped in with the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. When communism began to fall  in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were calls for Nagorno-Karabakh to be handed over to Armenian control from the then-independent Azerbaijan. Those demands eventually escalated into a full-on war in 1992, which left approximately 30,000 dead and 1 million refugees. In 1994, a ceasefire was negotiated; by then, Armenian militia — which are said to have coordinated with the official Armenian government — had taken control of the disputed region along with a number of additional parcels of land in Azerbaijan proper.

In other words, by the mid-1990s, Armenia had de facto taken control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. 

"Those parts of Azerbaijan were occupied and kept kind of as bargaining chips," said Scott Radnitz, an associate professor in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. 

That's more or less how things have been since, with periodic violence cropping up now and then, notably in 2016. So, for analysts who have been watching events unfold over the decades, none of the recent happenings are shocking. 

"I am not surprised by the current escalation since Azerbaijani military capabilities have substantially increased in recent years," said Arsen Gasparyan, a former senior advisor to the Prime Minister of Armenia and a professor of international relations at the Lomonosov Moscow State University's Yerevan branch in Armenia. "This change in capability has been matched by a change in intent."

That view isn't shared by the Azerbaijani government. Unsurprisingly, both countries cast blame on the other for kicking off this latest round of violence. "I don't think anyone knows for sure why this recent conflict started now. It looks like Azerbaijan started it, but it's difficult to know what really happens in the confusion when skirmishes break out," Radnitz told Live Science. 

Why has conflict returned to Nagorno-Karabakh now, rather than last year or next year? "A lot of people say that COVID is causing people to become dissatisfied with their governments and lash out, which makes governments do things like this," said Radnitz. "I'm skeptical of that. A lot of stuff happened before COVID and will happen after COVID," Radnitz said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What has changed, however, is Turkey's attitude toward the discord. The regional power has now given its tacit backing to Azerbaijan. This could be one of the major factors that has emboldened Azerbaijan to try to recapture the land it lost in the war before the 1992 ceasefire. "That's one hypothesis and, to be honest, it might be the only thing that's notably changed the last two months," said Radnitz. 

If Turkey's new geopolitical backing is truly one of the major reasons for the recent fighting, it could make a resolution to end hostilities — whatever form that may take — all the more complex, Gasparyan told Live Science. "The situation in this conflict zone has changed with the shift in Turkish foreign policy," he said. "Turkish officials have already stated that they are supporting Azerbaijan."

Perhaps the most worrisome part of this recent violence is the tone of statements coming from Azerbaijan, Radnitz said. "They're saying that they won't stop short of recovering all the occupied territories and [Nagorno-]Karabakh. It's hard to get a face-saving compromise when that's the wording."

Originally published on Live Science.

Benjamin Plackett
Live Science Contributor

Benjamin is a freelance science journalist with nearly a decade of experience, based in Australia. His writing has featured in Live Science, Scientific American, Discover Magazine, Associated Press, USA Today, Wired, Engadget, Chemical & Engineering News, among others. Benjamin has a bachelor's degree in biology from Imperial College, London, and a master's degree in science journalism from New York University along with an advanced certificate in science, health and environmental reporting. 

  • dds12
    The borders of AZ and AR were first determined in 1918 by Transcaucaucasian Federation and then recognized intl-ly in 1919 Paris Peace Conf. At the time, not only Karabakh also Zangezur (or Syunik) province on AR were recognized as parts of AZ. However, due to ongoing disputes, massacres of the Azerbaijani population of Zangezur by the guy who escaped the Armenian genocide (oh the irony), and other factors, the corridor was given to Armenia by the Russian SSR, while Karabakh remained in AZ. We can go on and on about how the two nations disputed and massacred each other over centuries, but as far as Karabakh is concerned, this fact may suffice. And a bonus fact that even though Azerbaijan SSR didn't bother Armenians living in Karabakh for 70 yrs, however, Armenia SSR deported all the Azerbaijanis living in Zangezur in the 1940s, that is how you get a "majority Armenian" population, you just have to kick out the other minority. Bonus fact #2, if you Google "Capture of Erivan" you will find several paintings with mosques in the background, which do not exist anymore because Armenians demolished them. I thought I 'd bring it up since you start your article with an image of a cathedral.
  • tjcoop
    Interesting that Turkey is siding against the Armenians considering their massacre of thousands previously toward the end of the Ottoman empire.
  • Darmanija
    You need to know mych more about Armenia and Azerbaijan to understand their history and the reasons for the conflict! First of all, Armenia is a Christian country (the Armenian Apostolic Church is one of the Oriental Orthodox, ie ancient Eastern churches), better known as the Monophysites. The Kingdom of Armenia FIRST recognized Christianity as an equal state religion back in 301.

    In the First World War, from 1915 to 1917, the Turks, justifying that the Armenians, as Christians, were prone to the Russians and from undermining the security of the country from within, began a conscious plan to destroy the Armenians! Under the supervision of German officers and with their advice, a network of collection centers was created throughout the country and the route of expulsion of an entire nation! And the people who lived in their historical areas (this is the area of the so-called Turkish Anatolia - otherwise ancient Cilicia Armenia, which was conquered by the Ottomans). First, all Armenian soldiers were disarmed, and then, according to pre-made lists, intellectuals, writers, politicians, MPs, doctors, pedagogues, priests were arrested in all cities. In the villages, they first arrested men, and then women, the elderly and children. In endless columns, they were chased towards the gathering centers, and then all directions led to the Syrian desert of Der Zor. Needless to say, all this was accompanied by uncontrolled killing, rape, looting and devastation of their villages and properties. Among the main direct executors of the extermination plan were the Kurds, and the minority themselves, but Muslims! About 500,000 Armenians reached the Der Zor desert and died there on bare ground and in the sun for days without water and food. Up to 2 million Armenians died in this second genocide. It was then that children's camps were seen for the first time, and Armenian women hung on crosses along the roads. After the expulsion of the people, the names of all the villages and towns, mountains and fountains and everything that had the Armenian language root in its name was changed and called Turkish. Armenian churches and monasteries were destroyed to the very foundations, so that only a few stones testified about the building ... " - These were taken to their country by German officers (Turkish allies in the First World War) and already tried in the Second World War to solve the "Jewish question". While the Ustashas from the Independent State of Croatia tried this recipe mainly on the Serbian, but also the Roma and Jewish population!

    Armenians say that when viewed from a distance, Mount Ararat, the very one on which Noah stepped on the ground after the Great Flood, looks like a pregnant woman, who is lying and expecting childbirth. It is a woman who gives birth to her son Hay (Armenian in the Armenian language, the mythical great-grandson of Noah since the Armenians were born). And indeed, that biblical mountain is the mother and consolation of this ancient people who, in addition to it, welcomed the days of glory and their sad downfall. But he survived! There, even today, he stares at the snowy peaks of Ararat, while dreaming and praying to welcome the day in the embrace of Mother Mountain. Because Ararat is outside the borders of Armenia today, it is in Turkey by force, and in Armenia by heart! Nagorno-Karabakh, a province that has been disputed for years and due to which the armed conflict has escalated again, has long since declared independence and is in fact part of Armenia, but no one in the world has the courage to recognize it, mostly due to Turkey's influence, protector of Azerbaijan and member of NATO (by chance - or not, the largest NATO base was built on the abducted Armenian land, as well as Bondsteel in Serbian Kosovo)! So, as usual, nothing isn't black and white!