South of the Caucasus Mountains, between the countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan, are the contested territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. On Sept. 27, 2020, Azerbaijan launched a sustained military offense to retake territories it considers occupied by Armenians since a cease-fire agreement between the parties in 1994.
While there have been occasional military clashes, most notably in April 2016 and July of this year, the current fighting is the worst the region has seen since a devastating war killed around 30,000 and displaced more than 1 million people a quarter-century ago.
In February 2020, we conducted face-to-face public opinion surveys in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh on geopolitics in the region. We attempted to conduct a parallel survey in Azerbaijan but, despite considerable efforts, were unable to do so because of government interference. These survey results provide insights into what those at the center of this conflict think today about territory and geopolitics.
What happens in Nagorno-Karabakh doesn’t stay in Nagorno-Karabakh
The region is enmeshed in broader regional, continental and global geopolitics. The unrecognized Armenian “statelet” in the region, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (known locally as Artsakh and internationally as NKR), is deeply integrated (economically, culturally and politically) into the state of Armenia (see map).
Armenia hosts a large Russian military base and, through a defense agreement, depends on the Kremlin to guarantee its territorial defense. Turkey’s leadership has pledged to help Azerbaijan take back “occupied lands,” offering its support for the current offensive. Should Azerbaijan and Armenia get into a direct war across their shared border, rather than on the Nagorno-Karabakh “line of contact,” the conflict could pull in both Russia and Turkey. If Turkey comes under attack, that means NATO could become involved.
What we learned in our research
Here are three important findings from our surveys that shape the current conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
1. Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh have an expansive conception of their territory.
Before 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh was an Armenian-majority autonomous region within the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan (NKAO). The Armenian-majority population demonstrated in support of joining Soviet Armenia, triggering a cascade of violence that swept across both Armenia and Azerbaijan in the last years of the Soviet Union.
After fierce fighting and forced displacement in 1992-1994, Armenian forces captured not only the NKAO but significant territories beyond it, which they initially never claimed. After more than a quarter of a century, these territories are treated locally as integral parts of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).
Mapmaking in Armenia and Karabakh reflects this: The borders of the NKAO are nowhere to be seen in local maps, even though they still routinely appear in international newspapers. Replicating research we conducted earlier, we found enduringly expansive territorial attitudes among Karabakh residents. Only 18 percent saw the territory of the NKAO and the NKR as the same. The vast majority (92 percent) of residents think “all places in this region having historic Armenian churches and settlements are part of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh.”
2. People in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are not fully in agreement about unification.
Despite deep linkages, Armenia has never sought to annex the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Nor has it ever recognized it as an independent state.
However, in August 2019, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan visited Karabakh. Before a large crowd, he declared that “Artsakh is Armenia, period.” He then led chants of “unification.”
We asked respondents in both Armenia and Karabakh whether they agreed with Pashinyan’s call for unification for the two entities. Surprisingly, sentiment in favor of unification was stronger in Armenia than in Karabakh itself.
In previous research, we charted an intriguing split among Karabakh residents as to whether they wanted unification with Armenia, or formal recognition as an independent state. In the aftermath of Pashinyan’s call for unification in 2019, our recent survey shows that support for unification in Karabakh dropped to 33 percent vs. 55 percent support for independent status.
Within Armenia, by contrast, 78 percent in February 2020 favored unification over recognition by Armenia of NKR as an independent state. If Armenia were to unilaterally announce either annexation or recognition of NKR, it would be a major departure from its historic stance. Either move would probably further escalate the conflict — and mark the end of the Minsk Group process, a multilateral effort to reach a peaceful solution.
3. People in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are strongly supportive of Russia.
Russia has long been the key outside power in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, playing multiple roles. It has played the role of central peace broker (within and beyond the Minsk Group), alliance partner of Armenia, weapons supplier to both sides and major economic player in Azerbaijan. Turkey’s fresh support for Azerbaijani military action challenges Russia’s role in the region.
Residents in Armenia and Karabakh hold strongly pro-Russian views and, in our survey, have a high level of trust in Russian President Vladimir Putin. What does that mean geopolitically? We posed three questions that allow us to answer that question.
The figure shows respondents’ support and opposition to a scale of military involvement with Russia, from a generic “good and friendly relations” through a mutual “military cooperation” arrangement to a deepened commitment of hosting Russian “troops and bases” on the respective territories of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Large majorities (over 80 percent) in both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are in favor of the two lesser military commitments with Russia. For the more controversial hosting of troops and bases, 70 percent in Armenia support the policy (Russia has a base in the Armenian city of Gyumri), while 44 percent in Karabakh agree with that sentiment for their republic (another 19 percent are unsure). On Thursday, Russia, France and United States (co-chairs of the Minsk Group) called for an immediate cease-fire in Karabakh. Sending Russian troops as peacekeepers to Karabakh is sometimes discussed in diplomatic circles but remains a controversial idea.
Azerbaijan’s vision of the disputed Karabakh territories is radically different from that of Armenians. Azerbaijan’s Aliyev regime may be gambling on military success in Karabakh, amid Azerbaijan’s own mounting domestic problems — economic stagnation, endemic corruption, the covid-19 health crisis and weariness with authoritarianism. The bloody military conflict on the battlefields of Nagorno-Karabakh this week could shake the whole South Caucasus and beyond in ways we have not seen before.
Gerard Toal, professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech’s campus in Arlington, is the author of “Near Abroad: Putin, the West and the Contest for Ukraine and the Caucasus” (Oxford University Press, 2019), which won the ENMISA Distinguished Book Award in 2019.
John O’Loughlin, college professor of distinction at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is a political geographer with research interests in the human outcomes of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa and in the geopolitical orientations of people in post-Soviet states.
Kristin M. Bakke is a professor of political science and international relations at University College London and associate research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Her current research focuses on postwar state-building and wartime legacies, as well as geopolitical orientations in post-Soviet states.
The authors acknowledge funding for this work from a joint National Science Foundation/Research Council UK grant (NSF award #1759645; ESRC award # ES/S005919/1).