On September 27, 2020, intense fighting erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia when the Azeri military went on the offensive. The Azeris’ objective was to recapture the territories lost to Armenia in 1994. But to understand the underlying reasons for the current conflict, one must look back to the root of hostilities and to the role of other powers in the region.
In the 1920’s the Soviet Union established the Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region within the borders of Azerbaijan. Though the land was within Azerbaijan, it was home to nearly 95% ethnic Armenians. The region remained relatively stable until the collapse of the Soviet Union, which opened the door for the inhabitants of the enclave to declare independence. This move resulted in a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia with Russia initially playing a role by providing weaponry and mercenaries to both sides. Russia ultimately brokered a 1994 cease-fire to reduce instability in the region. This cease-fire allowed the Nagorno-Karabakh to achieve military and political independence despite being constrained within Azerbaijan’s borders. But after two decades of little movement toward reconciliation, Azerbaijan and Armenia would remain in a battle over the region, killing more than 20,000 people, displacing millions, and solidifying the ethnic Armenians’ hold within Azerbaijan.
Despite the 1994 cease-fire agreement, there have been 7,000 breaches. But it would be the April 2016, “Four Day War” along the “line of contact” that would mark one of the region’s deadliest. After decades as a frozen conflict, the “Four Day War” demonstrated to the Azeris that their strategic objectives could be achieved by force. And it would be this lesson, along with new military capability and a powerful ally, that would set the conditions for the September 2020 conflict.
This latest war lasted 44 days and left Azerbaijan in control of nearly one-third of the territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh. Unlike previous skirmishes and cease-fire violations, the warfare that erupted in September 2020 included post-modern characteristics and multi-domain combat operations. At only six days into the conflict, Azerbaijan already claimed to have destroyed 250 armored vehicles, a similar number of artillery pieces, and 39 air-defense systems, including a Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile system. Armenian forces faced a persistent threat of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that could attrite traditional defenses and minimize their overall defensive capability.