The Geopolitics of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
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Long considered one of the world's frozen conflicts, the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into full-scale military clashes twice in the last few years.
Populated by about 120,000 people prior to the most recent fighting in September 2023, the mountainous territory has been caught in a complicated tangle of international alliances and rivalries that has redrawn the geopolitical map.
The conflict between these two nations dates back to the end of World War I, when Armenians and Azeris both established independent states amid the collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires.
Each claimed the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh as their own, with fierce fighting and massacres of civilians on all sides before both countries were absorbed into the Soviet Union and the disputed territory was made an autonomous region of Azerbaijan.
As the USSR began collapsing in the late 1980s, inter-ethnic violence occurred not only in Nagorno-Karabakh but across Armenia and Azerbaijan, triggering waves of refugees in both directions and an armed conflict that would last until a 1994 ceasefire.
With the breakup of the USSR, the majority-Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh claimed independence as the Republic of Artsakh. To defend their position, the Armenian forces also occupied several neighboring Azerbaijani regions, driving out Azeri residents.
The territory is internationally considered part of Azerbaijan, and several UN Security Council Resolutions have called for occupying forces to withdraw. While Armenia did not officially recognize Artsakh, it provided vital economic, political, and military support, and also blockaded and directly occupied parts of Azerbaijan's Nakhichevan exclave.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has been accused of promoting genocidal policies, including the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage, refusal to punish crimes committed against Armenians, and pervasive anti-Armenian rhetoric at all levels of society.
Following the resumption of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh since 2020, Azerbaijani forces have been accused of committing war crimes against Armenian captives, and have occupied several border regions of Armenian territory.
Armenia and Azerbaijan currently do not have formal diplomatic relations. However, with Azerbaijan's military capture of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023, nearly all of the territory's Armenian population has fled to Armenia, and the two nations have been in talks regarding their future.
Under the Ottoman Empire, Turkish forces carried out mass killings and deportations of as many as one million Armenians during World War I - an act recognized as a genocide by much of the international community.
After the Ottoman collapse, over half of the territory granted to the new Armenian state was subsequently reconquered by the new Turkish government, with thousands more Armenians killed in the process.
Some Armenian political parties and organizations still lay claim to this territory, which they refer to as Western Armenia, as well as seeking official reparations for the genocide.
Successive Turkish governments have denied that the events were a genocide, and impeded efforts at international recognition.
Tensions have also been heightened by Turkey's close military and economic support for Azerbaijan and ongoing blockade of Armenia, including several regional infrastructure and energy projects that deliberately bypass Armenian territory.
Currently, the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations, and their land border has been closed since 1993. However, since 2021, both nations have been involved in a normalization process, with bilateral meetings set to continue.
Russia has traditionally been considered Armenia's main ally, going back to its role as protector of Christians in the Ottoman Empire.
In the First Nagorno-Karabakh War during the early 1990s, unofficial support from Russia, including equipment and volunteers, helped Armenians hold the territory.
Since then, Russia has been considered the main broker in peace talks, and Russian peacekeepers have been deployed to maintain ceasefires.
Armenia and Russia have a formal military alliance under the Collective Security Treaty Organization as well as economic integration via the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia also maintains a military base in Gyumri and a military airport south of Yerevan.
However, since the 2018 Velvet Revolution brought Nikol Pashinyan to the presidency through civil protests, Armenia has been seen as moving away from Russia's sphere of influence towards a pro-western orientation.
Pashinyan has previously criticized Armenia's reliance on Russia, and following the expulsion of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh has stated that Russia is no longer capable of guaranteeing his country's security.
Armenians and Georgians have a long shared history as Christian populations in the Caucasus, and have generally remained cordial despite a brief border war in 1918 when both countries first established independence.
Currently, Georgia provides Armenia's only land connection to Russia, as well as a trade link to Europe via its Black Sea ports. However, the two countries' entanglements with other neighbors have indirectly impacted their relationship.
Georgia has been aggravated by the Artsakh authorities' diplomatic recognition of the Russian-backed separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while Armenia has been wary of Georgia's close ties with Azerbaijan.
There have also been demands for autonomy among the majority-Armenian population of Georgia's Javakheti region, though Armenia itself has not encouraged separatism there.
Armenia was long part of the former Iranian empire, and Iran is still home to one of the world's largest Armenian communities as well as many Armenian churches and monasteries.
Despite their different religions and political systems, the two countries have found themselves aligned after the fall of the USSR.
For Iran, Armenia serves as a buffer from regional rivals Turkey and Azerbaijan as well as an important energy export market.
For Armenia, Iran provides one of its only overland export routes as well as 23 percent of its natural gas via the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline.
Azerbaijan and Georgia were allied before their absorption into the USSR.
Today, the two countries are major trading partners as well as founding members of the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, and are linked by a major pipeline and railway.
Due to its own issues with the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia has been supportive of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while still maintaining good relations with Armenia.
Azeris also make up over 6% of Georgia's population, and while some border areas and cultural sites remain disputed, the two governments have agreed to resolve the issue peacefully.
While Turkey is majority Sunni and Azerbaijan is majority Shiite, the two countries are largely secular and share close linguistic and cultural ties - a connection summed up by former Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliev as “one nation, two states”.
His son Ilham Aliev, Azerbaijan's current authoritarian president since 2003, enjoys a close friendship with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the two have often held joint public appearances.
The two governments cooperate closely on security and military training, as well as operating joint ventures in the defense industry. Turkey has also been a major consumer of Azerbaijani oil and natural gas, as well as financing key infrastructure projects and serving as a transit hub for Azerbaijan's energy exports to Europe.
In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkey has been Azerbaijan's main supporter, providing military aid and enforcing a blockade on Armenia.
However, Azerbaijan has objected to Turkey's recent attempts to thaw relations with Armenia, insisting that a final resolution on the territorial dispute must be a precondition for opening the border.
Azerbaijan first became part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century and was later absorbed into the USSR upon its formation.
During the early stages of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the still-functioning Soviet government collaborated with Azerbaijani forces in disarming and violently deporting thousands of Armenians in the region.
On the other hand, Soviet forces also massacred nearly 150 Azerbaijani civilians while suppressing independence protests in 1990 - an event known as Black January.
After the fall of the USSR, Russia's support shifted towards Armenia. Yet Russian-Azerbaijani relations have remained strong, partly due to the shared KGB background and similar governing styles of Vladimir Putin and Heydar Aliev.
Russia's formal alliance with Armenia has not prevented it from pursuing integration with Azerbaijan in military, energy, and cultural sectors. Russia is one of Azerbaijan's primary arms suppliers, and its largest single source of imports.
While the EU has sought to secure Azerbaijan's energy exports as a replacement for Russian oil and gas, Azerbaijan has increased its own imports of Russian hydrocarbons, leading to criticisms that they are helping Russia evade sanctions.
Azerbaijan was part of the Iranian Empire before being conquered by Imperial Russia in the 19th century, and today the two remain the only countries where Shia Islam is overwhelmingly the majority religion.
However, since its independence from the USSR, the largely secular and Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan has kept its distance from Iran's theocratic government.
Iran, for its part, has been wary of Azerbaijani leaders' references to a 'Greater Azerbaijan' and demands of autonomy for Iran's northwestern region of Iranian Azerbaijan, home to 18 million ethnic Azeris.
Partly due to Iranian support of Armenia, Azerbaijan has pursued close ties with Iran's chief regional rival, Israel, who has become its chief supplier of advanced military tech in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Given their close cooperation in trade and security, Iran fears that Israel may use bordering Azerbaijan as a staging ground for attacks on the Islamic Republic.
The mistrust runs both ways, as in 2012 Azerbaijan arrested and jailed 22 men for allegedly plotting to attack US and Israeli targets inside the country on Iran's behalf.
Iran also seeks to prevent construction of a 'Zangezur corridor' connecting Azerbaijan to its Nakhichevan exclave, as this would cut off Iran's border link with Armenia.
The Sunni Ottoman Empire and Shia Persian Empire were rivals for centuries, and the Caucasus region was largely shaped by conflicts between these two powers.
The emergence of the modern Turkish and Iranian states in the wake of World War I was followed by a period of mutual cooperation for most of the 20th century.
This changed with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, after which Iran became an adversary of the US and NATO, where Turkey is a leading member.
Iran has strongly protested the deployment of a NATO missile defense system in Turkey, which Iran considers to be aimed at limiting its ability to defend against a future attack by Israel.
The two governments have often taken opposing sides in regional conflicts such as Syria, where Iran has backed Bashar al-Assad's government while Turkey has supported the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups.
Iran has strongly denounced Turkish military offensives in northern Syria as violating their ally's sovereign territory, as well as the Turkish government's promotion of pan-Turkism and irredentist claims over Iranian Azerbaijan.
Nevertheless, the two countries have cooperated on some security issues, particularly as both are home to significant Kurdish communities and have faced threats from separatist movements.
The neighbors also maintain extensive trade, with Turkey importing nearly a third of its natural gas from Iran.
Although Turkey has complied with US sanctions by halting purchases of Iranian oil, its government has publicly opposed the sanctions and called for their repeal.
The Russian Empire conquered much of the Caucasus region from Iran beginning in the 19th century.
During both World Wars, neutral Iran was occupied by both Russia and Britain, and in the aftermath of World War II, the USSR attempted to sponsor Kurdish and Azeri separatist states in northern Iran before diplomatic pressure forced them to withdraw.
During the Cold War, the Iranian Shah was a staunch anti-communist ally of the US.
The Islamic government following the 1989 revolution also proved hostile to Soviet ideology, and the USSR sponsored and armed Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran.
However, relations greatly improved after the fall of communism. Due to the void left by Western sanctions, Russia has become Iran's primary arms supplier, and the two countries have held joint military exercises along with China.
Iran and Russia have both heavily backed Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria, and Iran has supplied missiles and drones to Russia during its invasion of Ukraine.
Both countries are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Iran has a free-trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Georgia and Iran have a long and complex history, with parts of Georgia having been at times under Persian rule.
However, relations between the two countries have been delicate due to Iran's alliance with Russia.
During the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Iran defended Russia's actions but did not join Russia in recognizing the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Since then, Georgia and Iran have deepened cooperation in energy and trade, with Iran interested in Georgia as a transit route to Europe.
Georgia is also home to several thousand Iranians, including dissidents who fled the Islamic regime.
Georgia is part of a strategic regional partnership with Turkey and Azerbaijan, serving as the middle link in joint infrastructure projects.
Turkey has supported Georgia's territorial integrity against its separatist regions, and Georgia has deepened ties with Turkey as part of its push for NATO integration.
Currently, Turkey is Georgia's largest trade partner, and a major source of tourism and investment for Georgian cities like Batumi. At the same time, this increased influence along with Turkey's glorification of its Ottoman era has at times led to local resentment.
Turkey is also home to a large Georgian community.
Russia and Georgia had been allied as two Orthodox Christian nations before Russia unilaterally annexed Georgia in 1801.
Following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, Georgia declared an independent republic that lasted three years before being invaded by Russia's new Bolshevik government, despite a treaty in which the Bolsheviks had recognized Georgian sovereignty.
As the USSR began to disintegrate, Georgia's attempts to re-establish national independence were hampered by separatist movements in its regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both containing non-Georgian majority populations.
Although Russia presented itself as a neutral mediator, its military intervened in favor of the separatists, and has since maintained a presence in Georgia under the guise of peacekeeping operations.
Russia has also previously accused Georgia of supporting separatists in Chechnya.
Relations deteriorated further with Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003.
The removal of an autocratic leader through popular protests unnerved the Russian government, as did the new president Mikheil Saakashvili's pro-Western views and efforts to secure NATO membership.
After a period of rising military tensions, Georgia's move to regain control over its territories in 2008 was met with an invasion by Moscow, official Russian recognition of the separatist states, and the end of diplomatic relations.
Since the war, there has been some normalization of trade and tourism, and the ruling Georgian Dream coalition has tried to steer a middle course, continuing towards European integration while avoiding direct confrontation with Russia.
Although Georgia has condemned the invasion of Ukraine, its government has resisted calls to impose bilateral sanctions on Russia due to the perceived economic impact.
Georgia has also been a primary destination for both Russians and Ukrainians fleeing the war.
The Russian and Ottoman Empires fought many wars throughout their existence before both collapsed in World War I.
While the new nationalist Turkish government received Soviet support in its early years, later disagreements over Turkey's control of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits drove it into the Western camp, joining NATO in 1952.
Since the fall of the USSR, Russia and Turkey have had a complex relationship.
Turkey remains a NATO member, and an alternative to Russian influence in majority Muslim and Turkic-speaking former Soviet states.
Turkey and Russia have also backed opposing sides in the Syrian Civil War, resulting in the shooting down of a Russian bomber by Turkish forces, and the assassination of the Russian ambassador by an off-duty police officer in Ankara.
Following these incidents, however, presidents Putin and Erdogan have made a concerted effort to normalize and even improve ties.
Turkey's purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system was sharply criticized by NATO allies and resulted in partial US sanctions on Turkey's defense industry.
Turkey has also served as a mediator in the Russo-Ukranian war, helping to negotiate the Black Sea Grain Initiative. However, it has resisted implementing sanctions, citing its dependence on Russian energy imports.
Writer: Alex Gendler