The war of opportunity: How Azerbaijan’s offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh is shifting the geopolitics of the South Caucasus

Geopolitical shifts created an opportune moment for Azerbaijan to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh. With the current ceasefire on shaky ground, the EU needs to use the leverage it has to prevent further escalation

FILE – A convoy of cars of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh move to Kornidzor in Syunik region, Armenia, Sept. 26, 2023. Thousands of Nagorno-Karabakh residents are fleeing their homes after Azerbaijan’s swift military operation to reclaim control of the breakaway region after a three-decade separatist conflict. (AP Photo/Vasily Krestyaninov, File)
A convoy of cars of ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh move to Kornidzor in Syunik region, Armenia, Sept. 26, 2023.
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Vasily Krestyaninov

The Azerbaijani government justified its recent offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh as a response to “provocations”. But given Azerbaijan’s preparations, it seems likely the offensive was planned. For Baku, this is a war of opportunity: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its consequences, as well as Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan and Europe’s inattention, created a chance for Azerbaijan to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh. These conditions make the current ceasefire precarious and call for renewed European engagement.

Conditions for conflict

The Russian-brokered ceasefire after the war in 2020 mandated an Armenian withdrawal from the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh isolated. Russia sent paratroopers as “peacekeepers” to guard the remaining Armenian settlements around Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, using the protection of the Armenian community as a pretext to justify its military presence. Azeri troops immediately cleansed the territory they had conquered of Armenian civilians and cultural and historical heritage, from churches to cemeteries. The agreement made Moscow the arbiter not only of Stepanakert’s survival, but also of two strategic routes: the Lachin corridor, connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is secured by Russian forces; and a planned land connection between Azerbaijan and its enclave in Nakhichevan, which would also be protected by Russian forces.

Beyond this, Moscow has not attempted to implement any of the provisions of the 2020 ceasefire agreement, including the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the land connections, or the delimitation of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This allowed Russia to keep its troops on the ground and maximise Armenia’s dependency on Moscow.  

But Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the geopolitical realignments it has caused, disrupted this fragile power dynamic and emboldened Azerbaijan to reassert its claim over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine has undercut the credibility of its guarantees to Armenia, and its enormous losses make it impossible for it to react to any other major contingency. The war has also made Moscow more dependent on Azerbaijan, through which its north-south corridor to Iran runs. Furthermore, by blatantly violating the commitment to the non-use of force in Ukraine, Russia has empowered other former Soviet states to resort to military means to settle bilateral issues.

Rifts between the Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and Russian president Vladimir Putin have also grown in recent years, as Russia failed to support Armenia during the war in 2020 and later episodes of military violence. Moscow also objected to Armenia’s developing relationship with the United States and the EU. This left Armenia perfectly isolated.

At the same time, the European Union, eager to substitute its Russian gas supplies, started to court Baku, turning a blind eye to its record on human rights and democracy and increasing gas purchases. Militarily, the West is preoccupied by supporting Ukraine, an effort which has also revealed the weakness of some Western allies’ armies. Azerbaijan has denounced the occupation by Armenia-backed separatist forces of Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent regions since the early 1990s as a violation of territorial integrity – which Western countries are proclaiming as a fundamental principle of the global order in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Iran has sent warnings to Baku not to touch Armenia proper, but has said nothing about Nagorno-Karabakh.  

In an attempt to reduce the country’s isolation, Pashinyan has tried to diversify Armenia’s foreign policy options, first and foremost by seeking to normalise relations with Turkey. Ankara, in turn, conditioned this normalisation on a settlement of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The two countries began negotiations with three separate tracks: one led by Moscow; a very active track led by the US; and another, closely coordinated with the US, led by President of the European Council Charles Michel, with the regular involvement of the French president Emmanuel Macron and, more recently, German chancellor Olaf Scholz. Until recently, despite recurring violent episodes, both sides were indicating that they were making progress and that a peace deal was possible. As part of these negotiations, Armenia gave up on its long-term claim to self-determination of Artsakh (the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh). It declared itself willing to recognise it as part of Azerbaijan’s territory on the condition that Baku provide specific guarantees for the rights and security of the local Armenian population, which Azerbaijan considers a domestic matter and does not intend to negotiate.

With these factors working in Azerbaijan’s favour, it started to increase pressure on Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and test the water of the response from the rest of the world. Since December Azerbaijan has blocked traffic through the Lachin corridor, effectively blockading Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the severe humanitarian crisis caused by the blockade, Baku did not encounter any serious pushback, not even from the Russian contingent supposed to secure the corridor. Air cargo traffic between Azerbaijan and Israel has significantly increased since spring, indicating that Azerbaijan was purchasing ammunition and drones. Finally, in early September Azerbaijan started to move military units close to Nagorno-Karabakh and the border with Armenia. Baku still met no international pressure, even with preparations for war out in the open. Finally, on 12 September, Putin apparently washed his hands of the situation, declaring: “There is nothing to say here if Armenia itself has recognised Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan”.

A precarious ceasefire

Against this backdrop, the ceasefire agreed on 20 September will not end the conflict. The agreement comprises three points: the ceasefire itself; the surrender and disarmament of the Armenian-Karabakh forces; and discussions with local representatives on the future status of Armenians in Azerbaijan in the framework of Azerbaijan’s constitution. But the last point will prove highly contentious: Azerbaijan is a highly centralised, authoritarian state and its constitution does not foresee self-government for any group. In addition, Azerbaijan demands the resettlement of Azeris to Karabakh. After three wars and decades of nationalist hatred between Armenians and Azeris, it is incomprehensible how the two populations could live alongside each other. As a result, Russia, which mediated the agreement, will probably try to extend the presence of its military contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh beyond 2025 (the date agreed under the November 2020 ceasefire memorandum), presenting it as the best guarantee for the local Armenian community. However, the passivity that the Russian contingent displayed in the face of Azerbaijan’s military actions, combined with the limited availability of Russian forces due to the war in Ukraine undermine this guarantee. Indeed, Armenians are already leaving the territory en masse.

It is unclear how this influx of refugees will impact the domestic situation in Armenia itself. Pashinyan has faced protests over his unwillingness to let the country be dragged into a new war over Nagorno-Karabakh. With a lack of reliable allies, and Azerbaijan’s significant military superiority, attempting to avoid defeat by refusing to fight may have been the only option left for him. He has prioritised the fate of Armenia over that of Nagorno-Karabakh. But refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh may resent this decision and join the protests.

With a lack of reliable allies, and Azerbaijan’s significant military superiority, attempting to avoid defeat by refusing to fight may have been the only option left for Pashinyan

With the support of Turkey, Baku may try to push its luck and launch further attacks on Armenian territory. Moscow is unlikely to step in and with Iran as Armenia’s only other supporter, the West’s options to support Yerevan are limited. If that scenario materialises, we may witness the forceful resolution of what used to be the longest open conflict on the Eurasian continent, with tremendous political repercussions both for Armenia itself and for the geopolitical landscape of the South Caucasus.

If it is serious about playing a geopolitical role, the EU cannot ignore these repercussions. It should increase its support to Armenia to help it cope with the influx of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh in the coming days. It should also start making use of the economic leverage it has over Azerbaijan – the EU has committed significant funding to develop energy cooperation and investments in the country – to persuade Baku to discuss real guarantees and international monitoring of the situation of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. Finally, it should use the next European Political Community summit in early October to bring Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev and Pashinyan together and increase efforts to conclude a peace agreement, including the mutual recognition of international borders and a formal recommitment to respect each other’s territorial integrity and not use military violence against each other.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Wider Europe programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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