Armed Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh: Crisis, Exodus, and Ethnic Cleansing

October 2023

The mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh has been a source of ethnic conflict for centuries. At the end of the Soviet Union, this conflict took on a new intensity, as the various former Socialist Republics sought independence and territorial acquisition. The First (1988-1994) and Second (2020) Nagorno-Karabakh Wars were substantial in destabilizing the region and severing the long-term relational potential between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The most recent Azerbaijani military operation has resulted in the dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-declared government, the Republic of Artsakh, and a regional humanitarian crisis due to the entire population of Nagorno-Karabakh fleeing.

The ongoing crisis poses numerous threats to the region’s stability and challenges to the international community. A humanitarian mission should be the immediate priority, ensuring that the roughly 100,000 Karabakh Armenians have access to basic food, shelter, and medical aid. Open communication and mediation between Azerbaijan and Armenia are also critical. Initial peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, mediated by Germany, France and the President of the European Council, have not come to fruition, but this setback should not halt any future attempts at mediation. This recent episode of conflict and crisis also must bring the principle of the Responsibility to Protect to the forefront of regional and global responses to the conflict, as preventing similar conflicts in the future will require both the co-operation of individual states and effective responses from both regional and international organizations, including United Nations peace, security and humanitarian actors.

Nagorno-Karabakh: Decades of Armed Conflict

Armed conflict erupted once again over the violently contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, an enclave inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians and located within the mountainous region of western Azerbaijan. On 19-20 September, Azerbaijan executed a 24-hour military campaign, resulting in the swift defeat of Armenian forces, triggering a potential humanitarian disaster for the region. The Karabakh Armenian population responded to Azerbaijan’s actions by fleeing their homes and the region due to the uncertainty of their well-being.[1] Daily life for Karabakh Armenians had been challenging before the military operation: the Lachin Corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia was blocked by Azerbaijan since December 2022, resulting in shortages of basic food, sanitary goods, and medical treatment.[2]

Conflict dynamics over Nagorno-Karabakh date back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The Soviet period of glasnost and perestroika in the mid-1980s prompted the rise of numerous nationalist independence movements, including mass protests within Soviet Armenia for both independence and reunification with Nagorno-Karabakh, then an autonomous oblast within Soviet Azerbaijan. Soviet Armenian demands for independence and reunification with Nagorno-Karabakh sparked controversy among the authorities in Moscow and anger among the people of Soviet Azerbaijan. The 1988 anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan signaled the decay of inter-ethnic relations and the onset of small-scale guerilla warfare between the two states over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.[3] By 1992 the conflict escalated to a full-scale war and a growing list of atrocities, including the mass deportation of civilians. The First-Nagorno Karabakh War ended in 1994 under a ceasefire agreement; the territorial boundary of Nagorno-Karabakh was significantly extended due to the occupation of Azerbaijani territory, resulting in the ethnic cleansing of roughly 500,000 Azeris.[4]

A provisional peace was sustained between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh (the self-declared Republic of Artsakh) from 1994 to 2020, when conflict re-escalated. In this instance, Azerbaijan was better prepared for conflict, having forged closer economic and military ties with Turkey since the end of the first war.[5] The transformation of the Azerbaijani army, with crucial assistance and co-operation with Turkey, was the pivotal factor for the Azerbaijani success in military operations; the operationalization of Turkish unmanned combat aerial vehicles and ground-based missile systems gave Azerbaijan significant advantages over the equally-sized but qualitatively out-manned Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War ended in a ceasefire after one month of fighting (September-November 2020), under the provision that Azerbaijani territory seized during the first conflict be ceded, and Russian peacekeepers remain present within the region.

The Cumulation of Repression

The most recent developments from 19-20 September 2023 mark the de facto end of a semi-autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh and a threat to the residing Karabakh Armenians who called the mountainous region home. Azerbaijan’s assault on Nagorno-Karabakh came after months of cutting off the region from humanitarian aid through the Lachin Corridor. The offensive was preceded by the death of six Azerbaijanis in the Lachin Corridor, four soldiers and two civilians, from a land mine that Azerbaijan accuses Armenia of planting. Azerbaijan’s immediate “anti-terrorist measures”[6] ended with the Russian-mediated ceasefire and agreement for the disarmament of Nagorno-Karabakh.[7] The future of Karabakh Armenians has become even more precarious as an agreement between the government of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan calls for dissolution and reintegration with Azerbaijan.[8]

From Crisis to Cleansing

Karabakh Armenians are currently facing unseen dangers: the Azerbaijan military offensive has been the latest in existential challenges that residents face. The crisis of Karabakh Armenians has received the attention–but not the action–of regional and global organizations, as roughly 100,000 are now fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.[9] The large displacement of persons under the threat of violence raises the question of whether this instance can be defined as ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is defined by the United Nations final report S/1994/674 as “… a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”[10] Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has already accused Azerbaijan of committing ethnic cleansing with this latest military operation.[11] Azerbaijan has rejected these claims, stating that “They [Karabakh Armenians] are free. If somebody puts down his gun, they are free and they have decided on their own choice to go to the [R]epublic of Armenia.”[12] Preliminary investigations and interviews with displaced persons reveal the chaotic nature of the internal situation within Nagorno-Karabakh and the necessity for a rigorous international investigation. Radio Free Europe’s interview with a Karabakh Armenian refugee reveals that she was encouraged by Russian peacekeepers to remain calm and that Karabakh Armenians were allowed to stay in the region.[13] One day later, civilians were instructed by local Karabakh Armenian authorities to flee to Armenia.

Role of External Actors

What has been the impact of the role of external actors in the conflict and subsequent exodus of Karabakh Armenians? The Russian state has played the biggest role, outside that of the immediate belligerents. Armed conflict occurring in the presence of the roughly 2,000 Russian troops has brought about condemnation from a variety of states for the lack of effectiveness and inability to protect the civilian population. The delayed Russian response to the onset of armed conflict and later statements criticizing Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan indicate growing tensions between Russia and Armenia, tensions that were undoubtedly worsened by Armenians’ participation in joint military exercises with the United States.[14]

This recent episode of violence and the Russian response should also raise more fundamental concerns about the feasibility of Russian “peacekeeping operations” within the region–something that needs prioritization during periods of mass displacement and instability. The response of the United Nations is another factor for concern. The arrival of the United Nations missions only after the bulk of Karabakh Armenians began to flee relegates the largest international organization, responsible for ensuring political stability and global security, to purely ad hoc measures. The recent European Union (EU)-led peace talks with Azerbaijan and Armenia have fell through, as the former has pulled out of the talks citing an “anti-Azerbaijani atmosphere.”[15] Part of the “anti-Azerbaijani atmosphere” includes the participation of France–partially the result of the newly agreed arms contracts with Armenia–[16] and the lack of Turkish participation in the talks. This decision marks a setback for the peacemaking efforts by the EU and a worsening for the relations between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the EU.


The immediate task at hand is the safeguarding of the refugees fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh. Nearly the entire region has been emptied in the span of days, thus placing those fleeing in highly precarious situations in which access to basic food and medical care is difficult. The United Nations (UN) missions must continue with greater depth and co-operation with local governments–Armenia and Azerbaijan–to maintain stability, keep open communication channels, and monitor the well-being of the refugees. The EU must also leverage its position as a longtime partner with Azerbaijan (the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 1999) to assist in ensuring Azerbaijan respects the rights and cultural integrity of the Karabakh Armenians. The EU Council president’s recent public invitation of both sides to mediation talks later in October will have to be followed up on within an increasingly challenging context.

Stable and open lines of communication must be facilitated primarily between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and with the neighboring powers of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Mistrust and animosity are most likely to be generated between Armenia and Azerbaijan during such periods of armed conflict and humanitarian disaster; however, open communication is of utmost importance to prevent further humanitarian catastrophes from occurring, or from potential armed conflict to diffuse to the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic–the landlocked enclave of Azerbaijan, bordering with Armenia, Turkey, and Iran.

Lastly, core states, the UN and regional organizations must reconsider and re-establish its relationship with the adopted principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). States should be better encouraged to fulfill their responsibility for ensuring the safety and provision of their citizens, and in the same instance, the international community must act towards preventing, through both long-term and short-term measures, the conditions of repression and exploitation that serve to be the primary determinants of ethnic conflict and eventually ethnic cleansing.

[1] “Azerbaijan: Ensure Civilians’ Rights in Nagorno Karabakh,” Human Rights Watch, September 23, 2023.

[2] “Azerbaijan/Armenia: Sides must reach ‘humanitarian consensus’ to ease suffering,” International Committee of the Red Cross, July 25, 2023.

[3] Robert Kushen, Greg Wallance and Dmitri Leonov, Conflict in the Soviet Union: Black January in Azerbaijan (New York, Washington, Los Angeles: Human Rights Watch, 1991).

[4] Christopher Panico, Azerbaijan: Seven Years of Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (New York, Washington, Los Angeles: Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, 1994).

[5] Cagla Gul Yesevi and Burcu Yavuz Tiftikcigil, “Turkey-Azerbaijan Energy Relations: A Political and Economic Analysis,” International Journal of Energy Economics and Policy5, no. 1 (2015): 27-44; Michael Kofman and Leonid Nersisyan, “The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Two Weeks In,” War on the Rocks, October 14, 2020.

[6] “Ilham Aliyev addressed the nation,” President of the Republic of Azerbaijan: Ilham Aliyev, September 20, 2023.

[7] Felix Light and Andrew Osborn, “Azerbaijan halts Karabakh offensive after ceasefire deal with Armenia separatists,” Reuters, September 20, 2023.

[8] Christian Edwards, “Nagorno-Karabakh will cease to exist from next year. How did this happen?” CNN, September 28, 2023.

[9] “UN team completes mission to Karabakh,” United Nations Azerbaijan, October 2, 2023.

[10] United Nations, Security Council, Final Report of the Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 (1992), S/1994/674, pp. 33 (27 May 1994).

[11] “As a result of the ethnic cleansing policy implemented by Azerbaijan, the exodus of NK Armenians continues, it is our duty to receive our brothers and sisters with care. Prime Minister,” The Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, September 28, 2023.

[12] “Baku denies Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic cleansing claims,” France 24, October 1, 2023.

[13] Karine Simonian, “Armenian Refugee From Nagorno-Karabakh Says Her Village Was Given Two Days To Leave,” Radio Free Europe, October 03, 2023.

[14] “Foreign Ministry statement regarding an address by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, and the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh,” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, September 25, 2023.

[15] Mark Trevelyan, “Azerbaijan’s Aliyev pulls out of talks with Armenia and EU,” Reuters, October 04, 2023.

[16] “France agrees to deliver military equipment to Armenia,” Le Monde, October 03, 2023.

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