The early April clash between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh was the bloodiest since Russia brokered a cease-fire between the countries to end the fighting in the region in 1994. The fighting in April left some 30 people, soldiers and civilians, dead. And it did nothing to resolve a conflict that has simmered since the Russian intervention.

The dispute’s intractability stems both from present-day complications and from incompatible historical narratives, conceptions of justice, and feelings of victimization on both sides. Emotion-laden issues of land, identity, and honor have made it nearly impossible over the last 20 years for mediators to nudge the adversaries toward the compromises essential for any durable political settlement.

It was Stalin, the Bolsheviks’ chief expert on the regional nationalities, who oversaw the crafting of the borders of the union republics that would eventually make up the Soviet Union. During two years of independence between the collapse of imperial Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union, 1918–20, Armenia and Azerbaijan had fought over three territories with mixed populations along their purported border. Under Stalin’s oversight, one region went to each of the new Soviet republics: Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan and Zangezur to Armenia. The third, the mountainous Karabakh, was awarded to Azerbaijan but as an autonomous region with cultural and administrative rights for its Armenian majority. The resulting mismatch between national and administrative boundaries was not unique—similar zones were created in Georgia and elsewhere, and most produced discord between ethnic groups striving to defend their “historic” patrimony.

Not surprisingly, Stalin’s decision on Karabakh sowed the seeds of conflict. Rumblings of discontent were quashed when the central Soviet government was strong. But as it weakened under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, nationalist rhetoric demanding the transfer of Karabakh to Armenia heated up and armed conflict soon followed. When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan proclaimed independence. Within days, the Armenians of Karabakh proclaimed secession from Azerbaijan based on the right of self-determination. Azerbaijan rejected the move, invoking the principle of states’ territorial integrity. The newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan were now states at war in a progressively escalating armed struggle.

Armenian artillery is seen near Nagorno-Karabakh's town of Martuni, April 8, 2016.
Armenian artillery is seen near Nagorno-Karabakh's town of Martuni, April 8, 2016.
By the time the guns fell silent in May 1994, Azerbaijan had lost nearly 15 percent of its land— Karabakh plus seven surrounding districts (Agdam, Fizuli, Jabrail, Kelbajar, Lachin, Qubadli, and Zangilan). The Armenians of both Armenia and Karabakh seemed to view these regions not as bargaining chips to trade for Karabakh independence but as essential buffers to secure their territorial gains. Azerbaijanis, who accounted for a quarter of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population, fled, were driven out, or were killed. The same fate met Azerbaijanis from the seven districts—in all some 750,000 refugees left. Azerbaijan’s Armenian minority, long part of the commercial and cultural life in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku, was forced out or killed. The massive displacement and bloodshed hardened attitudes and spurred mutual vilification.

Armenians celebrated their victory in the 1994 war as justice finally delivered; Azerbaijanis denounced it as a naked land grab that had to be undone. The imperative of regaining the lost territories and erasing the humiliation of defeat may be the only matter on which Azerbaijanis today, regardless of their political persuasion or attitude toward the authoritarian government of President Ilham Aliyev, can agree. One needn’t spend much time in Azerbaijan to understand the extent to which the shame of 1994, and an officially fostered narrative of victimization, still shapes its identity and politics.

Although policy wonks consider the Karabakh dispute an example of a “frozen conflict,” the cliché misleads by conjuring the image of icebound immobility. In fact, the “line of contact” created by the 1994 armistice has been neither stable nor peaceful. Armenian and Azerbaijani troops have routinely traded fire across it. Scores of people—soldiers and civilians—have been killed. A particularly serious spike in the violence occurred in 2014–15, with tanks, mortars, and other heavy weapons put into action and the Azerbaijanis managing to down an Armenian military helicopter for the first time. Talk of war pervaded. An anxious Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a statement urging restraint.

Feverish third-party diplomacy ended that bout of violence. Happily, the same pattern appears to have prevailed this time around. Moscow, while stoking fires in Ukraine, engaged high-level Armenian and Azerbaijani officials as soon as the skirmishing began and did so repeatedly until it was resolved. Moscow avoided condemning Azerbaijan, even though Armenia, a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is its ally. The OSCE Minsk Trilateral Contact Group, co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States, also called for an end to the fighting.

Russia, still smarting from Turkey’s downing of its warplane along the Turkish-Syrian border last year, did not hide its displeasure with Turkey when Ankara publicly blamed the Minsk Group’s failure for the latest bout of violence and vowed to back Azerbaijan “to the end.” When senior Russian diplomats castigated unnamed outsiders for churning up the tensions, there was no doubting whom they had in mind.

So once again, a breach of the 1994 cease-fire that could have segued into full-blown war has been averted. Yet the issues underlying the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain unresolved. The cease-fire may prove fragile given the gains Azerbaijan has made on the ground.

The 2009 Madrid Principles presented by the Minsk Group’s co-chairs proposed a package deal for a settlement that both antagonists had once accepted: Armenia’s withdrawal from the seven districts, followed by the placement of international peacekeepers and then the staging of a referendum to decide the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh, which would be connected to Armenia by a land corridor.

But an impasse over implementation emerged quickly and has yet to be overcome. Azerbaijan wants Armenia to evacuate all, or least some, of the seven districts as a precondition for deciding Nagorno-Karabakh’s fate. The Armenians insist on a sequenced withdrawal, with the last step being Kelbajar and Lachin, the most westerly of the districts lost by Azerbaijan in the war, which connect Armenia to Karabakh. The details over Lachin, which will serve as the land corridor linking Karabakh to Armenia, have yet to be worked out. Moreover, the Karabakh Armenians, who occupy important political positions in Armenia (including the posts of president and defense minister), balk at a referendum whose timing and participants remain unspecified. Baku wants Azerbaijani refugees who return to Karabakh as part of a peace agreement to qualify as voters.

Ethnic Armenian soldiers chat standing in a trench at artillery positions near the Nagorno-Karabakh's town of Martuni, April 7, 2016.
Ethnic Armenian soldiers chat standing in a trench at artillery positions near the Nagorno-Karabakh's town of Martuni, April 7, 2016.
Further complicating the prospect of settlement is the hate that both sides cultivate. Armenians as well as Azerbaijanis point to Karabakh as a cultural wellspring, and both are correct. Both stress their historic oppression, with Azerbaijani political and academic leaders associating World War I–era massacres of Azerbaijanis with later repressions as the Armenians succeeded in getting genocide resolutions passed in Western capitals. A 2012 study of history textbooks commissioned in Armenia and Azerbaijan revealed venomous rhetoric against the “historic enemy” next door. Students, having been taught from these books and living in nationally homogeneous societies, parrot the narrative of blame and distrust. Finally, Armenians using the term “Artsakh” for Karabakh mean not merely the former Soviet-era autonomous region but the entire occupied area, which works against a final deal that would entail compromises on much of that land.

So the dispute festers, the cease-fire remains fragile, and the potential for another spate of violence remains undiminished. The status quo suits Armenia politically, but it is hazardous. Azerbaijan finds it intolerable. The recent violence amounts to a signal from Baku that it wants to strengthen its position on the ground to gain leverage in negotiations.

To demonstrate its resolve and to boost its chances of retaking the lost territories, Azerbaijan has used the wealth accumulated during the energy boom to buy vast quantities of weapons. It ranks second in Europe for military imports, with Russia accounting for 80 percent of the dollar value. Azerbaijan’s 2015 defense budget, which totaled $3.7 billion—a 30-fold increase since 2000—had surpassed Armenia’s entire budget by 2011. Armenia’s 2015 military budget, by contrast, amounted to $448 million. Despite being outclassed in resources, Armenia, which likewise relies on Russian arms, has also strengthened its military, helped by a $200 million credit line from Moscow in June 2015. The recent fall in oil prices has forced Azerbaijan to cut back on weapons purchases, but with a GDP that exceeded Armenia’s by a factor of seven in 2014, it has more cash on hand.

Because Armenia and Azerbaijan have bulked up militarily, a war between them would be far more lethal than the one in 1992­–94. Still, Azerbaijan may decide to take the risk if it concludes that the diplomatic track is at a dead end or if domestic unrest leads Aliyev to seek a distraction. Azerbaijan has been restive since the devaluation of the national currency, the manat, last December caused steep price increases. Anger over political repression has been limited, but the Panama Papers revelations about the Aliyev family’s hidden wealth may amplify public distrust of authorities.

Despite the pressure to act, a renewed war would damage Azerbaijan’s business interests in which the ruling family is deeply involved. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which transports a million barrels of oil a day to international markets and runs close to the conflict zone at one stage of its 275-mile transit through Azerbaijan, could be hit, deliberately or accidentally. The state’s share of oil revenues goes into an oil fund (the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan, or SOFAZ) that is controlled by the president. Aliyev himself has spearheaded vanity projects to bring in international tourists, ranging from staging the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 to hosting the European Games in 2015 and the planned Formula One race this summer. The country’s ruling oligarchs have much to lose if fighting reemerges. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Azerbaijan’s leaders would have moved in Karabakh had they not been confident about controlling the momentum or been assured by a powerful partner that the duration of the fracas would be kept short.

Yet should fighting recur, escalation would be a great danger. No sooner were the first shots fired in April than Armenians volunteered to join the fight. The international diaspora would support Armenia in the event of war. Turkey could be drawn in to help Azerbaijan, a fellow Turkic Muslim country. Quite apart from ethnic solidarity, Ankara’s credibility would be on the line given its bombastic rhetoric. A Turkish intervention would put Russia on the spot since Armenia, as a member of the CSTO, is its ally. Iran, which sees Azerbaijan as a rival for the loyalty of its Turkic millions along their shared border, would be likely to aid Armenia, as it did in the previous war.

The April flare-up should serve as a reminder that the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute cannot simmer indefinitely. Even though neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan likely wants an all-out war, what one of them intends to stage as a limited show of force could spiral out of control.

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  • AUDREY L. ALTSTADT is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and the author of the forthcoming Frustrated Democracy in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan fromthe Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Press and Columbia University Press.
  • RAJAN MENON holds the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair in Political Science at the Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York, and is Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University. His most recent book is The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, published in March by Oxford University Press.
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