The Fight Between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Explained

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in New York this week for the first direct talks since more than 180 people were reported killed last week in fighting between the two countries. The flare-up subsided within days, but the high-level meeting reflects worries that the causes of the conflict — and the full-scale war that preceded it in 2020 — are nowhere near resolved.

Those worries are aggravated by the underlying geopolitical tensions. Russia is a longtime protector of Armenia. Turkey, a NATO member, is a key ally for Azerbaijan, and backed it in the 2020 war. And although U.S. diplomats have sought to maintain a mediating role, Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped into the middle of the fray last weekend, visiting Armenia to show support and declaring that the recent violence “was initiated by the Azeris.”

The trip was widely seen as a political move by Ms. Pelosi ahead of the midterm elections in November. She was accompanied by Representatives Jackie Speier and Anna G. Eshoo, both Armenian Americans from her home state of California, where there is a large Armenian community.

Here’s a guide to what happened in the most recent clashes, what lies behind them, and the potential stakes of the dispute.

The mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh has long been at the heart of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but with a majority ethnic Armenian population, it declared independence in the late Soviet period.

A yearslong war between Armenia and Azerbaijan followed, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving hundreds of thousands displaced. It ended in a 1994 cease-fire that left Armenia in control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts that were legally part of Azerbaijan. During the war in 2020, Azerbaijan — with powerful Turkish backing including attack drones — recaptured much of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts. The death toll was in the thousands, and tens of thousands of people were forced to flee.

A cease-fire brokered by Russia left Azerbaijan holding most of the territory, with Armenian forces pulling back and heavily armed Russian peacekeepers moving in.

Now, analysts say, Azerbaijan is pushing to have Armenia recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, and to make other concessions.

Each side has a different story about how the fighting started last week.

Armenia said that Azerbaijan attacked and that 105 of its service members were killed and six civilians wounded. Azerbaijan said its military actions were “retaliatory measures” in response to provocation from Armenia, and it reported 71 of its service members were killed.

Although tensions between the two countries spring from who controls Nagorno-Karabakh, fighting this time took place directly between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the border remains undemarcated.

Other details about the latest conflict remain disputed. The United Nations said that heavy fighting involving artillery and drones had been reported along the international border between the two nations on Sept. 12.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke of “an incident” on “the deemed border,” but Armenia said Azerbaijan had attacked three towns in Armenia itself: Jermuk, Goris and Kapan.

Several analysts also pointed to fighting inside Armenia. “This was an Azerbaijani attack in Armenia proper,” said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and the author of a book about Nagorno-Karabakh. The International Crisis Group, a research institute, said troops from Azerbaijan had entered Armenia.

Several Biden administration officials declined to discuss the issue of whether Azerbaijani soldiers had entered Armenia, although the U.S. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said early on that the United States had seen “significant evidence of Azerbaijani shelling inside Armenia and significant damage to Armenian infrastructure.”

On Monday, Armenia’s foreign minister, Ararat Mirzoyan, said that forces from Azerbaijan were still inside Armenian territory and should withdraw.

The exact location matters, not least because Armenia is part of a mutual defense alliance led by Russia which, like NATO’s founding treaty, declares an attack on one member to be an attack on all. Many analysts suggested that Azerbaijan had been seeking to capitalize on Moscow’s preoccupation with Ukraine after recent setbacks in the war there, and they noted a lack of military support for Armenia emanating from the Kremlin.

One problem is that peace talks after the 2020 war have not yet yielded a resolution.

Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has said he intends to come to terms, but his domestic opponents have denounced the sort of deal that would be on the table as treasonous. He already faced angry protests after the 2020 cease-fire.

Analysts said that Azerbaijan’s government had three demands: a renunciation by Armenia of its claims in Nagorno-Karabakh, the demarcation of the international border on its terms and security control of a yet-to-be-built road and rail corridor to Nakhchivan, an island of Azerbaijani territory inside Armenia. That would also connect Azerbaijan with Turkey.

Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said that Azerbaijan’s military action amounted to probing that aimed to alter the facts on the ground where possible and to press Armenia to negotiate a treaty on its terms.

Russia has laid claim to two roles in this dispute, brokering cease-fire deals while also guaranteeing Armenia’s security. The first role has so far helped it avoid the full potential costs of the second.

Mr. Pashinyan spoke by phone with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia when fighting reignited last week, and the Kremlin brokered a rapid cease-fire, calling on the two sides to respect the 2020 agreement. But that initial cease-fire did not hold — leading the United States to use its influence with both sides to halt fighting. And Mr. Putin did not offer military aid.

Moscow’s ability to project strength in the South Caucasus, for example by supplying arms or providing other military support to Armenia, is constrained by its war in Ukraine, according to Arkady Dubnov, a Russian expert on the country’s ties with former Soviet republics.

But Moscow may also find its double role in the South Caucasus harder to maintain if the situation grows more dangerous. In 2020, Mr. Stronski said, the line between the two forces was in territory occupied by Armenia inside Azerbaijan. Now, “the Armenian and Azerbaijani militaries are pretty much facing each other on the still undemarcated state border between the two countries.”

Turkey says it will stand by its ally Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan’s gains in 2020 reflected more extensive Turkish backing than in previous confrontations, part of a turn to a more assertive foreign policy by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr. Blinken this week urged the two sides to return to negotiations and prevent further hostilities. This is in line with the stance of the Minsk Group of states, the United States, Russia and France, which have been cautious in assigning blame, according to Mr. Stronski. More broadly, Washington has long sought influence in the South Caucasus and other states in the former Soviet empire.

The European Union, meanwhile, has redoubled efforts for a peace deal since the 2020 war: The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan held peace talks in Brussels in late August under the auspices of a top E.U. official, Charles Michel.

But Europe’s position is now complicated by its search for additional natural gas supplies to make up for the loss of Russian imports given the war in Ukraine. In mid-July, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, visited Azerbaijan to sign an agreement with Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev. During the visit, she said Azerbaijan was a “reliable, trustworthy” partner.

Reporting was contributed by Cora Engelbrecht, Carlotta Gall, Anton Troianovski, Michael Crowley and Andrew E. Kramer.