Third Anniversary of the Second Karabakh War: How It Changed the South Caucasus?

On November 8, Azerbaijan celebrates the third anniversary of the Second Karabakh War, also known as the 44 Day War, which the country fought with Armenia to liberate its occupied territories [the Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijan]. The war, which lasted 44 days from September 27 to November 10, 2020 resulted in the liberation of significant part of the Azerbaijani territories that had been occupied by Armenia in the early 1990s.

Azerbaijan took care to conduct the military operations against the occupying forces of Armenia without jeopardizing the lives of the civilian population of the Karabakh region. As opposed to the Armenian side that intentionally targeted civilian areas in the Azerbaijani cities that were far from the combat zone and killed 100 civilians, Azerbaijan did not attack against the civilian population. Thanks to this humanist approach of the Azerbaijani government, there were minimal casualties amongst the Armenian civilians (60 civilians) in Karabakh during the 44 Day War. According to the expert reviews, the civilian casualty rate in this war was unprecedented (below 2 percent) which is significantly lower than other conflicts of the recent decades.

The implications of this war were multifaceted, extending their influence not only for the conflicting sides but also throughout the broader region. These consequences were not limited solely to the political or geopolitical sphere but also encompassed various other domains, including the economy, connectivity, and regional integration. Three years later, it is safe to assert that the 44 Day War has ushered in a new era for the South Caucasus.

The war shattered the long-standing impasse in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, paving the way for a comprehensive resolution.

Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in protracted peace negotiations for nearly three decades leading up to the Second Karabakh War. This period was marked by sporadic escalations and the loss of both military personnel and, at times, civilian lives on both sides. Armenia’s strategy was straightforward: its leaders aimed to prolong the negotiations as much as possible while the separatist regime in the occupied territories solidified its control over the region and facilitated the settlement of illegal residents from Armenia and the Middle East. Concurrently, the international community failed to exert pressure on Armenia to adhere to the United Nations Security Council resolutions from 1993, which called for the immediate withdrawal of occupying forces from Azerbaijani territories. Acknowledging the erosion of the negotiation process, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan publicly criticized the international mediators and condemned Armenia’s destructive approaches on July 6, 2020, declaring that the peace process had become “meaningless.”

The 44 Day War broke the impasse in the process but fell short of producing full resolutions. Armenia refused to implement the critical provisions of the trilateral [Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia] statement signed on November 10, 2020 that ended the war. Most importantly, Yerevan rejected the Azerbaijani demands to withdraw its armed forces from the territories of Azerbaijan where Russia’s peacekeeping mission was deployed in accordance with the trilateral statement. Armed Forces of Armenia, together with the illegal units of the local separatist regime in Russia’s peacekeeping zone, posed military threats to Azerbaijan’s national security. The problem remained even after Yerevan officially admitted the presence of its troops on the Azerbaijani soil in July 2022 and pledged to withdraw them. At the same time, the leaders of the separatist entity in Karabakh ignored Azerbaijan’s calls for peaceful reintegration of the Armenian residents in Karabakh to Azerbaijan’s constitutional framework.

This process was negatively affected by biased policies of the French government and some other political circles in the West who indirectly emboldened the separatist leaders and encouraged them into uncompromising position against Azerbaijan.

This situation led to a deterioration of relations, even though Yerevan officially acknowledged Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, including Karabakh, on multiple occasions after following the 44 Day War. In September 2023, Azerbaijan’s one-day anti-terror operation against the separatist regime in Karabakh marked the decisive blow for the separatist leadership. Confronted with no alternative, the separatist leaders were compelled to capitulate and fully accept Azerbaijan’s conditions.

The operations resulted with the mass exodus of the local Armenian population from the Karabakh region. International organizations, including the United Nations that sent an observer mission to Karabakh in the aftermath of the anti-terror operations in September, dispelled the claims regarding the forced displacement and ethnic cleansing. Armenians who fled Karabakh reported no coercion or maltreatment. They acknowledged that it was their own leaders who instructed them to leave Karabakh after the region came under control of the Azerbaijani side. Nevertheless, Baku has launched various reintegration projects to bring back the Armenian people and offered them Azerbaijani citizenship, social benefits, and other rights.

Thus, the collapse of the separatist regime in Karabakh marked the conclusive end of the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh” project, initially established in 1923 by the Soviet government as a tool to exert pressure on Azerbaijan and utilized by Armenia to carve up a part of Azerbaijani lands.

The war opened up opportunities for regional integration.

The territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the occupied territories of the latter posed a significant obstacle to the rapid economic progress of both nations and also hindered regional economic and political integration in the South Caucasus. Over the past three decades, since the re-establishment of independent statehood in the early 1990s, the region missed out on numerous opportunities. The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict destabilized regional peace and security, generated unnecessary additional expenses for various regional economic initiatives, presented challenges to the transformation of the entire South Caucasus into a key transportation hub for the broader region, and discouraged investments from flowing into the area. As a result, the South Caucasus has not fully realized its economic development potential and connectivity projects over the past thirty years.

The trilateral statement signed on November 10 by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia was not a mere ceasefire agreement; it went beyond that by providing a framework for the region’s post-war development. Notably, the 9th article of the statement focused on the re-establishment of regional transportation and communication links, which had been closed off since the First Karabakh War in the early 1990s. This article stipulated the full restoration of these links, including the establishment of a transportation corridor that would enable unobstructed movement between mainland Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave through Armenia’s Syunik region, also known as the Zangezur corridor.

In a similar way to the negotiations over the withdrawal of the Armenian troops from Karabakh, Armenia refused to honor its commitments under the trilateral statement of November 10, 2020. Therefore, the talks over the Zangezur corridor have yet to deliver practical results. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has succeeded to obtain an alternative to this corridor via the Iran territory and hence lost interest in the trans-Armenia passage. Nevertheless, we can assume that the Zangezur corridor will be opened soon as it is beneficial to Yerevan and it will help Armenia to overcome self-isolation in the region and integrate into regional transportation networks. Notably, this road has been included in the “Crossroads for Peace” project announced by the Armenian government in October 2023, which envisions more integrated connectivity channels in the South Caucasus with Armenia part of it.

The resolution of the conflict created a good chance also for the regional integration both within the region amongst the three countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) and around the region together with Russia, Iran, and Turkiye. It is important to note that there were meetings amongst the high-level representatives of those countries on both tracks in October, a month after the collapse of the separatist regime in Karabakh. These developments take place in parallel with the intensification of peace treaty talks between Baku and Yerevan.

That said, the resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict has been a historic movement for the South Caucasus and brought about various opportunities that is set to contribute to peace and stability in the South Caucasus. It is therefore high moment for the international community, including the European Union and the United States, to support the peace and regional integration efforts in the region. The South Caucasus cannot afford to miss the present opportunity.

Dr. Vasif Huseynov
Dr. Vasif Huseynov
Dr. Vasif Huseynov is a senior fellow at the Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center) in Baku, Azerbaijan.