Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1918 in Russia, many Caucasian states also became Soviet republics in the early 1920s. Joseph Stalin was the Commissar for Nationalities of the Soviet Union, and decided that the Nagorno-Karabakh region should be within the Azerbaijan Soviet. Historians disagree about whether this decision was intended to placate Turkey or to divide and rule ethnic groups in the region.
Soviet dominance in the region kept tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh under control until the late 1980s. With the breakdown of the Soviet system, Karabakh Armenians began to agitate for unification with Armenia. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan attained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but military conflict soon erupted in the absence of a Soviet military presence to prevent violence.
Nagorno-Karabkh was about 76% Armenian at this time, and the Karabakh parliament had voted in favour of union with Armenia. As tensions rose on both sides, pogroms like the Sumgait pogrom (1988), Baku pogrom (1990) and Khojaly Massacre (1992) resulted in the ethnic cleansing of people in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Soviet Union came to an end on 31 December 1991, and Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan on 6 January 1992.
Full-scale fighting erupted in 1992, with Russian, Ukrainian, Chechen and Afghan mercenaries being brought in to support the Armenian and Azeri militaries. By 1994, both sides were ready for talks, and the Bishkek Protocol, brokered by Russia, set a ceasefire line which left around 9% of Azerbaian’s territory under the occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, a state only recognised by Armenia. The region has since been renamed the Republic of Artsakh.
Azerbijan’s President Heydar Aliyev came to power in 1993, and ruled until 2003. When he died, he was succeeded by his son Ilham Aliyev. By 2008, increased oil and gas revenues in Azerbaijan were tipping the military balance in their favour, and clashes started to erupt more regularly. Breaches of the ceasefire occurred in 2008, 2010, 2014, 2016, and took place again in 2020.
Turkey is considered Azerbaijan’s leading supporter in the region, and has refused to normalise and establish diplomatic relations with Armenia in solidarity because of the Karabakh conflict. The Armenian-Turkish border has also been closed since 1993.
Two bilateral protocols were signed between Turkey and Armenia in Zurich in 2009, aiming towards the normalisation of relations between the two countries. The protocols were heavily criticised domestically in both countries, and were never ratified by the legislatures of either country.
Now, heavy fighting has once again broken out between Azerbaijan and the breakaway Armenian Republic. As is common, both sides accused the other of provoking the conflict, and it prompted Armenia and parts of Azerbaijan to declare martial law. President Aliyev said he had ordered the army to mobilise for a large-scale counter-offensive operation in response to Armenian attacks, while Armenia also began to mobilise troops.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Armenia was the “biggest threat to peace in the region”, and that “Turkey will continue to stand by its brothers in Azerbaijan as it has always done”.
The UN also voiced its concern about escalating conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, calling on both sides to immediately stop fighting.