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Posted by on Sep 1, 2017 in Featured, Foreign Policy & IR | 5 comments

A Boiling Point in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

A Boiling Point in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

After a difficult summer, Azerbaijan and Armenia’s precarious conflict is in danger of erupting. It is an issue nearly impossible to research without sifting through nationalist propaganda on both sides; however, bilateral hostility has been increasing measurably since April. In June, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventative Action published a report warning that “renewed conflict” over Nagorno-Karabakh would be highly likely in 2017. The death of an Azerbaijani child a few weeks later has escalated friction to a critical point: full-scale war is more likely to restart now than it has been at any point since the original Nagorno-Karabakh War ended in 1994.

The longstanding, poisonous vitriol between Azeris and Armenians can be illustrated by anecdote. In 2004, an Azeri army officer named Ramil Safarov axed to death a sleeping Armenian military officer at a NATO training conference in Budapest. At his trial, Safarov cited the 1990s war between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as his motives. After Safarov had spent five years in Hungarian prison, Azerbaijan requested to repatriate him and have him serve the remainder of his sentence in his homeland. The request was granted. Upon returning to Azerbaijan, however, Safarov was released a free man, receiving a hero’s welcome and a central plaza in Baku named in his honour. Such is the degree of state-sponsored hatred between Armenia and Azerbaijan, stoked by claims of wartime human rights violations on both sides and centred around the critical territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ethnic distribution of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas in 1995.

Nagorno-Karabakh is an Armenian-majority autonomous region in Azerbaijan, comprising approximately one-fifth of Azerbaijani territory. Today, it is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan —a prime example of the UN’s commitment to territorial integrity. However, in reality, the territory is supported and administered by Armenia. During the breakup of the Soviet Union, conflict erupted in 1988 when Nagorno-Karabakh declared its intention to join a newly independent Armenia rather than its surrounding Azerbaijan. Armenia supported the Nagorno-Karabakh separatists in their fight against Azerbaijani forces, creating a conflict in which approximately 30,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced since it began.

The violence continues today, as skirmishes occur regularly along constantly shifting boundary lines, resulting in regular military and civilian casualties. The largest outbreak of violence in the past few years was the Four Day War of 2016, in which hundreds of soldiers and civilians on both sides were killed or wounded. In this brief outbreak, Armenia lost key strategic locations, leading to civil unrest as outraged civilians demanded answers from their government about its inability to protect the region from the enemy.

At first, it seemed as though the tragedy of the Four Day War would provide an opportunity for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Minsk Group, responsible for reaching a peace settlement, to restart talks and make progress towards conflict resolution. Unfortunately, as of this summer’s developments, it is evident that these brokering organizations were unable to prevent escalating tension and have completely failed to mediate a conflict that is rapidly snowballing towards all-out war.

The deaths of two Azerbaijanis and ensuing cross-border uproar are key to understanding how this summer’s escalation of tensions has precluded peace. In July, a two-year-old Azerbaijani toddler named Zahra Guliyeva and her grandmother were killed by Armenian shelling in a small village in the Fizuli region of Azerbaijan near the border of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is difficult to overstate the uproar these deaths caused in Azerbaijan, as state media heavily publicized the deaths to vilify Armenia and garner support for increased militarization of the line of contact. Soon after the tragedy, Armenian officials claimed that Azerbaijan deliberately endangered its own civilians by setting up rocket launchers in densely populated areas, which put civilians in danger of conflict. This incident and Armenia’s response added fuel to nationalist and anti-Armenian sentiment amongst Azerbaijanis.

As of now, the territorial changes from the Four Day War, amplified by state-sponsored propaganda following Zahra Guliyeva’s death, have created an increasingly militarized line of contact and a ticking time bomb for these two countries’ relations. However, what makes the conflict so volatile, and so significant on the world stage, is the role of world players who would likely be drawn in should war break out again. Armenia, surrounded by enemies, pursues a close relationship with Russia as one of its only allied neighbours. Russia provides Armenia with virtually all of its energy, and the relationship is so close that a bill was recently introduced into the Armenian parliament that would give the Russian language equal status to Armenian. Most importantly, Russia is obligated under treaty to intervene on behalf of Armenia should Azerbaijan push into its territory. Although it is unlikely that Russia would uphold this obligation given its similarly close relationship with Azerbaijan, Russian involvement could trigger a response from a former adversary and close ally of Azerbaijan: Turkey. Azerbaijan’s relationship with Turkey can be summarized by Heydar Aliyev’s famous statement that the Turks and Azerbaijanis are “one nation, two states.”

For a conflict in which mediation is unlikely to succeed in the short term, calls for a “final solution” from either side are especially concerning, evoking memories of the past decades’ massacres, in which both Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been persecuted. If the states of Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to use propaganda to cultivate cultures of hatred, violence will no longer be avoidable.


  1. “Russia is obligated under treaty to intervene on behalf of Armenia should Azerbaijan push into its territory. Although it is unlikely that Russia would uphold this obligation given its similarly close relationship with Azerbaijan”

    This is silly. So you’re saying Russia will renege on their security treaty with Armenia and allow Azerbaijan to overrun it, and take Russia’s military bases and weaponry, including long-range Iskander missiles (of which only Armenia has outside of Russia), because they’re somehow afraid of Turkey, a country they’ve fought and beat 3 times in the last century?

    • It depends if Armenia is important enough for Russia to wage war on NATO. Although as you mentioned legally Russia is obligated to protect Armenia if attacked, and Turkey is obligated to protect Azerbaijan if attacked. Therefore the war will be localised in NK with no foreign intervention.

  2. I could not help myself from commenting an article posted by Ms Isabel Post from The McGill International Review on September 1, 2017, warning us about “A Boiling Point in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict”.

    This article attracted my attention by the fact that it was written by a U2 Political Science and Russian Language student Ms Isabel Post. MIR website states that her academic interests today include the development of transitional democracies in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, and the semi-autonomous breakaway republics in those regions. It is remarkable that students from the McGill have a genuine interest in our region. I thought someone from the region could help Isabel better understand the nuances of regional developments and not caught herself into trap of local radicals. Being a writer of such important publication, puts so much responsibilities on her shoulders. And the main responsibility is to be impartial and unbiased in presenting your observations. Unfortunately, I did not find a balanced analysis or overview of what happening in the Caucasian region. Instead, we notice one-sided biased view skewed towards the Armenian point of view. To be clear, I don’t ask Isabel to change her side. I would like simply demonstrate how her writing could better serve in educating readers about situation around the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

    After short introduction of escalation in the region Isabel Post starts her presentation by introducing anecdote about Azerbaijani officer Ramil Safarov who under physiological circumstances killed his classmate from Armenia. Whatever is a reason for Ramil Safarov’s behavior, no one should justify killing. But here Isabel puts this anecdote as a prism through which readers have to read the remaining part of her writing. Why Isabel would not use instead the anecdote about the Armenian terrorist Monte Melkonian from California? Number of innocent peaceful civilians killed by him globally is countless. Check out the article by NY Times (
    Before giving some information about the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the author uses a map from Wikipedia site obviously prepared by Armenians. The map colored in light green shows Armenian population in Armenia itself and in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. Then it shows three letters of “a” indicating the Armenian population outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. What is missing here is the indication of the Azerbaijani (not Azeri!) population in the Nagorno-Karabakh region itself and around it. Such map demonstrates and proves the fact of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Armenian military establishment. For your information, Azerbaijan as a result of this conflict homed more than 1 million refugees and IDPs from Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabakh region and territories of Azerbaijan surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Interestingly enough, authors of that map by dark green color indicated Kurds and nothing about Turkish population.

    Isabel Post correctly states that the Nagorno-Karabakh region is internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan. Yet, to be objective, Azerbaijan did not fight separatists with support of Armenia. Azerbaijan was fighting the regular army of Armenia and lately after territorial gains and in order to escape international blame, these military forces from Armenia were disguised under local separatist forces.

    Four Day War 2016 was inevitable. Azerbaijan will never support fait accompli situation on his territory. Times when Armenian forces could shoot and kill peaceful citizens along the Armenian-Azerbaijan border and so called the Line of Contact in the Nagorno-Karabakh region are over. Armenia counted on the external support and ignorance by international community. It would be better if we could spent more on education and economic growth not for military expenses. But when you think of nation’s survival there is no other way around.

    Recent killing of 2-year girl and her grandmother created a huge wave of anti-Armenian sentiments on international arena. Is there any guarantee that this will not happen again? I am not sure. Can we prevent this? We can only if international community will take tough position against Armenia’s leadership and demand withdrawal of its forces from Azerbaijan. Also, please remember that hundreds of children were killed along that line of contact since of conclusion of “cease-fire” agreement in May 1994. Please also do not forget that current Armenian leadership faced with strong opposition internally against usage of Armenian solders in the occupation of Azerbaijan’s territories. No knows what such leadership can do in order to save their positions.
    Isabel Post rightly concludes why this conflict is so volatile by explaining the role of world players. But stating that Armenia “surrounded by enemies” is pre-mature and misguides readers who do not really understands the geography of this region. Armenia has 4 neighbors: Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey. Importantly, Armenia does not have a common border with Russia. As of today, Armenia can perceive only Azerbaijan as direct enemy. It is natural as Armenia illegally occupies about 20% of Azerbaijan. Turkey probably is another “enemy” of Armenia though there is no territorial issues at the moment. It is enemy because of strategic alliance with Azerbaijan. Another neighbor of Armenia is Iran which cannot be seen as enemy. Without getting into details of Iran’s role in the conflict, Iran was instrumental in Armenia’s survival during active phase of war at the beginning of 90s. The fourth neighbor of Armenia is Georgia, with whom Armenia recently managed to worsen its relationships due to territorial and religious claims. Georgia provides Armenia access to the Black Sea. Speaking of Russia, we should remember that Russia stationed there 2 military bases.

    Finally, the author gives us a main important message with which it is hard not to agree: “If the states of Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to use propaganda to cultivate cultures of hatred, violence will no longer be avoidable.” So true! That is why when I had finished reading this article I felt into a cognitive dissonance. At start, I was reading biased and unbalanced statements, which could seen as a tiny part of propaganda, and at the end you read Isabel’s conclusion about negative role of propaganda in cultivating hatred. That triggered me to write and explain some issues around the conflict without getting into details.

    If you ask people around the globe how you would describe your conflict, everyone will say that it is a unique one. The conflict around the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan is also unique. One can research it from different aspects: political, social, military, ethnic, religious, geopolitical, irredentism, cultural, historical, toponymic and other. Regardless of what aspect you choose, one must be accountable what she or he is writing.

    I did not go to details purposely. Nevertheless, if you need more clarification or explanation, please let me know. I am ready to present my points along with someone with alternative position. I avail myself of this opportunity to thank Isabel Post for bringing this issue to our attention.

    Best wishes,


    • For your information, the map mentioned above is taken from a declassified range of 1990’s maps from CIA. I doubt they had any interest to falsify this knowing it was unvailable for public purpose until 2009.

    • Vugar’s verbal diarrhea is remarkable. Isabel Post’s article is not skewed toward the Armenian point of view. In fact, to keep a balance (however painful it can be regarding the aggressor is the Azerbaijani corrupt dictatorship) Ms Post makes critical errors in equalizing the victim with that of the victimizer. Azerbaijan not only carried out genocidal attacks on the civilian Armenian population of the then Soviet Azerbaijan but continued the military attacks on Karabakh’s Armenian citizen until with the help of Armenians from Armenia the aggressor was defeated. Nagorno- Karabakh declared its independence in the same manner any nation on Earth with the slightest self-respect would have done, and indeed has done in the past. History has shown that this is a legitimate and legal self-determinaiton struggle by nations wanting to live in peace and security.

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