Azerbaijan’s brutal offensive in Karabakh has killed hundreds and forced countless Armenians to flee their homes. And its expansionist agenda isn’t over yet.

This photograph taken on October 1, 2023 during an Azeri government–organized media trip shows weapons, vehicles, and other military equipment captured by the Azerbaijani army and displayed for the press in the village of Signag in the territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images)

On September 19, Azerbaijan’s army launched a full-scale invasion of the largely Armenian-populated region of Karabakh. The breakaway state, also known as the Republic of Artsakh, surrended within twenty-four hours, agreeing to transfer its territory to Azerbaijan’s control and dissolve at the end of this year. Its fall came at the cost of hundreds of lives and the massive displacement of the Armenian population from Karabakh.

If Artsakh is now rapidly reaching its end, this owes to a dramatically changed domestic and regional balance of hegemony, which has shifted in Azerbaijan’s favor since the forty-four-day war in the autumn of 2020. It also owes to a process in which Azerbaijan has built partnerships with the dominant powers, from Turkey and Russia to the West, amid wider geopolitical turmoil.

It was clear that Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war — the largest fighting since the 1994 ceasefire agreement — did not bring an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This was not only because Azerbaijan was unable to win total control of this territory, but also because a war that aims to create and maintain social order can have no end. It must involve the continuous, uninterrupted exercise of power and violence. In other words, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri put it: “one cannot win such a war, or, rather, it has to be won again every day.”

Perpetual War

From the 2020 war onward, new policing tools were necessary for the Azerbaijani state to maintain its control. It created an ongoing mise-en-scène of war, virtually indistinguishable from police activity. When war is reduced to “police actions,” its techniques of control and torture also become a central part of military operations. It was such policing that would define the future security of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The pursuit of blockade, war, and control becomes a tool to serve Azerbaijani elites’ interests at the expense of the working class and broader society.

In December 2022, Azerbaijan had started to control the lives of people in Karabakh by imposing a siege. The oldest form of total war, it seeks a total victory, with no distinction made between civilian and combatant targets. This brutal nine-month blockade, which resulted in critical shortages of food, medication, hygiene products, and fuel in the breakaway region, left Karabakh severely drained. Then, just two weeks ago, Azerbaijan attacked Karabakh under the name of an “anti-terror” operation, targeting an already vulnerable region. The city of Stepanakert and surrounding areas, once inhabited by over one hundred thousand Armenians, are now under the watchful eye of Azerbaijani police, with their former population having hastily evacuated to Armenia.

At the crossroads between military and police activity aimed at imposing “security,” there is ever-less difference between those inside and outside the nation-state. Building up the image of an outside enemy is still important, yet this can no longer fulfil the narrative of danger required by the Azerbaijani state and President Ilham Aliyev. Armenia presents no strong threat to it. The Azerbaijani state now needs a more abstract animosity, and new forms of supranational friendship to justify its war — just like how Russia’s “denazification” in Ukraine and the United States’ “war on terror” claim that their wars embody a general human interest in order to legitimize an eternal just war. Considering the ongoing and escalating warfare since 2020, it is clear that we’re headed toward a grim future — of perpetual war, not peace.

Azerbaijan has, indeed, achieved its objectives thus far. But its pursuit of the so-called Zangezur Corridor — a strip of land connecting it with Turkey, by cutting through Armenian territory — shows that enmities with its neighbor are set to persist.

Between Imperialism, Capitalism, and Nationalism

This perpetual conflict fuses imperialist power contests, the building of nation-states in the post-Soviet period, and the ravenous competition stirred by capitalist globalization. Nationalist sentiments in Armenia and Azerbaijan following the collapse of the Soviet Union served the interests of the established nomenklatura. Ruling elites in both countries used nationalist rhetoric to consolidate their political dominance and divert discontent from their authoritarian rule. But there were also considerable power imbalances between the two. Azerbaijan has a significantly larger economy driven by natural resource wealth — particularly oil and gas.

Nagorno-Karabakh is to be dissolved next January 1. Yet the state of conflict keeps going.

The exploitation and suffering of the masses in times of war often goes hand in hand with profits for elites, and this conflict is no exception. In this case, the power of the Azerbaijani state and its crony-capitalist political elites goes beyond the massive arms trades and security infrastructure. It extends to offshore money laundering and corrupting political elites globally, wherever they can.

We see this in the expanded presence of UK-based Anglo Asian Mining’s new extractivist projects in Karabakh, in which the Azerbaijani ruling family has its own stake. The pursuit of blockade, war, and control becomes a tool to serve its interests at the expense of the working class and broader society. The family’s authoritarian governance of the nation-state secures the population’s compliance for its stabilizing and overseeing capitalism.

Because of the complexity of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including Russia’s huge role in controlling its backyard, for a certain period it was not easy for Baku to maintain such control and hegemony. The imprint of Russia’s imperial and colonial legacy has significantly influenced the dynamics of peace and war in the post-Soviet territories, including Nagorno-Karabakh.

This influence goes beyond the liberal/illiberal dichotomy of peace-building, counterposing a democratic settlement to an illiberal peace based on coercion and authoritarianism. While Moscow, as a hegemonic power in the post-Soviet space, has challenged the liberal norms established after the Cold War, a closer examination reveals that its positioning has been more nuanced over time. Indeed, in the 1990s and early 2000s, there were instances when the approaches of Russia and the West toward conflict management seemed remarkably similar.

A gradual divergence in these approaches became evident when Russia’s engagement in the war in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996 redefined its role from that of a peacekeeper to an active participant — and when, conversely, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 created a profound rift between the United States and Russia. External hegemonic powers, particularly Russia, had a major role in shaping the conflicts in the Caucasus, yet long Moscow refrained from direct participation.

Prior to the outbreak of the war in 2020, Russia, in its role as a cochair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, often hosted peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, paradoxically, it also contributed to the escalation of tensions by engaging in the arms trade, which itself helped contribute to the deadlock in negotiations.

Beginning of the End

The 2020 war in Karabakh ended with Azerbaijan’s victory and a trilateral agreement signed in a rush, with the participation of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The text agreed upon on November 9, 2020 encompasses nine articles, including the withdrawal of Armenian forces, the deployment of Russian peacekeepers, the return to Azerbaijan of seven Armenian-occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs), the exchange of hostages and prisoners of war, and the unblocking of all economic and transport connections.

The euphoria that followed the 2020 war, and claims about the conflict coming to an end, soon waned.

While it touched on many issues, the agreement did not clearly define many details, such as the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers or the strategy for unblocking transport routes. This provided Azerbaijan a pretext to proceed with its wars and military operations, able to draw on almost any casus belli.

The ambiguous ceasefire agreement that became the basis for the new negotiations sparked anger in Armenia, and celebrations in Azerbaijan. Karabakh Armenians lost important territories that had been under their control, including some regions of what had, in the Soviet Union, been known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast. On the other hand, Azerbaijan regained control over the “seven regions” and some parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, mainly the area of Shusha/Shushi, a majority-Azerbaijani populated city during Soviet times. The de facto agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan was based on the formal demarcation lines that Soviet maps had used for the republics of the USSR.

Despite these major changes, after November 2020, great uncertainties endured. A Russian peacekeeping mission was deployed in Karabakh, with a mandate to stay there until 2025, and the dominant mediation attempts came from that country. The OSCE and other multilateral actors remained marginalized and lacked clear entry points for redefining their roles. Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan continued over various issues from detainees to minefields to border demarcation, frequently escalating into lethal violence. This happened in summer and fall of 2021 in March 2022, and finally in September 2022, when Azerbaijan invaded some border territories of Armenia.

The clear power asymmetry between Armenia and Azerbaijan established a new postwar reality. Armenian political elites were constantly challenged domestically for this loss; in contrast, Aliyev’s government in Baku was totally unchallenged for the victory that many in Azerbaijan consider just. The domestic panic in Armenia during the postwar political crisis pushed the Armenian government to reorganize itself and reconsider its foreign policy relations and priorities. But in Azerbaijan, too, the euphoria that followed the 2020 war, and claims about the conflict coming to an end, soon waned.

If Azerbaijani authorities complained that Russia’s presence in Nagorno-Karabakh prevented them from gaining full control over the region, the war in Ukraine changed the situation.

A significant new reality of the post-2020 war was the active Russian presence in the region. Around two thousand Russian soldiers and emergency-services staff were deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh with the peacekeeping mission. This evidently increased the Karabakh Armenians’ dependency on Russia for their security.

But if Azerbaijani authorities complained that Russia’s presence in Nagorno-Karabakh prevented them from gaining full control over the region, the war in Ukraine changed the situation. Aliyev’s speeches repeatedly mentioned the idea that the status quo was now dead, and this become his government’s new central idea for the resolution of the conflict — meaning, no autonomy for Karabakh. As Russian power dwindled after the attack on Ukraine, and Armenia drifted toward the West, Azerbaijan found that it had a clear signal from Russia, granting it the green light to assert complete dominance over Karabakh, starting on September 19, 2023.

Turkish Influence

The imperialist interests in this region are not, however, limited to Russia only. For also notable is the Turkish state’s active involvement in the region. Ankara’s influence in Azerbaijan is rising: not only on the political level by sharing the victory of the war in 2020, or on the economic level with increased cooperation and transportation plans, but also on the cultural level, through the ethnic framing of cultural hegemony. The concept of “one nation, two states,” once articulated by Azerbaijan’s former president Heydar Aliyev, is experiencing a revival. Turkey’s influence is bolstering a new form of nationalism in Azerbaijan, framed through pan-Turkist and pan-Islamist ideologies, contributing to its regional hegemony.

After the 2020 war, Turkey got its reward with participation in infrastructure and extractive mining projects in Karabakh, in addition to further possibilities for transportation routes. With the growing Turkish presence in the region, Armenia was left with no choice but to seek rapprochement with Turkey. Yet, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration seemed rather less interested, with its economic and political interest instead bound up with Aliyev. With the continuous demands to the Zangezur Corridor, it seems that an embryonic new rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey was nothing more than a ruse to push Armenia to make even more concessions.

Azerbaijan strengthened its strategic alliance with both Turkey and Russia — powers whose relations have long been highly contradictory. Their complex relationship dismantles any simple dichotomy of friendship/enmity between states. Instead, it shows how the continuity of imperial ambitions connects former empires together, no matter how visible their grievances may be or how much they are in competition with each other. Their evolving power in the Caucasus region owes to a longer-term imperial past, but also to the present-day decline of Western powers, offering them extra spaces of influence through new mechanisms of economic and financial interdependence in the region.

After the 2020 war, Azerbaijan strengthened its strategic alliance with both Turkey and Russia.

Azerbaijan, exploiting the moment of opportunity following the 2020 war, managed to cement its alliance with Turkey and Russia. It signed a strategic alliance (the Shusha Declaration) with Turkey in June 2021, and a similar agreement with Russia just two days before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. With these agreements, Azerbaijan secured its loyalty to these imperial powers, enjoying their support as well as Western neutrality.

This explains why Azerbaijan encountered minimal opposition, both globally and within the region, when it launched its “anti-terror” operation in the name of restoring constitutional order in September 2023. Not surprisingly, Russia pointed fingers at Armenia, and Turkey escalated threat narratives with Erdoğan’s immediate visit to the Nakhichevan region, an Azerbaijan enclave bordering Turkey. Western states maintained their stance of “being concerned,” but stopped there. The conflict — marked by significant loss of life, displacement, poverty, and precarious living conditions for many — thus produced its tragic outcome, at the crossroads of imperial power contests and the pursuit of the formation of the national capitalist state.

The Day After “the End”

The forceful displacement of hundreds of thousands of Armenians from Karabakh has made their return to their homes a distant and uncertain prospect. They have no guarantees of their security, and there are no visible efforts for reintegration by Azerbaijan, revealing a pattern of ethnic cleansing. This situation indicates a perpetuation of violence, aiming to permanently separate the Armenian and Azerbaijani people, fueling hatred and animosity. Consequently, it allows the administration in Azerbaijan to sustain power and exert control over its population by imposing “securitized” narratives on their precarious lives.

Already after the 2020 war, Azerbaijan enjoyed an unchallenged and more advantageous political climate than ever before. With his victory, Aliyev managed not only to galvanize his popular support and legitimacy but also to maintain his justification for a limitless autocratic power. Currently, there is no political opposition in Azerbaijan that challenges Aliyev on his decisions related to the conflict around Karabakh, an acquiescence that also involves turning a blind eye toward many domestic problems. Small groups of activists against the war have been continuously targeted and marginalized. Aliyev holds full powers to make decisions on conflict resolution and dictates both public and political discourse around it; he took full ownership of the victory, not least in his symbolic references to the “iron fist.” The increased authoritarianism and centralized power around the president keep the public distant from all political decision-making around the decades-old conflict.

In Armenia, during Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s tenure after the Velvet Revolution in 2018, there were discussions about involving the wider public in conflict-resolution talks. Yet, in Azerbaijan, conflict resolution was a decision deliberated and made solely in the top echelons of government. Mindful of the prevailing public discourse and the expectations it had long raised, Aliyev’s government remained fully entrenched in a narrative catering to nationalist sentiments. This dictated that conflict resolution could only equate to a complete defeat of Armenia, essentially implying the de-Armenization of Karabakh. This has now become the reality.

War Regime

People’s uncertainties and hesitations surrounding conflict resolution were long attributed to governments’ failure to set out real plans for peace-building and reconciliation processes, as well as the lack of meaningful public debate on these questions. The surge in conflict-related grievances, rising nationalist sentiments, and the experience of a generation divided by the conflict, make it increasingly challenging to envision peaceful coexistence in the near future.

Since war was considered an exceptional circumstance in the modern era, the suspension of democratic politics during times of war was typically imagined to be temporary. Yet the state of war has been a permanent feature of everyday life in Azerbaijan since the beginning of the war in the 1990s. This has justified the prioritization of security and stability over democracy and the prosperity of the majority of citizens. And this is not about to change.

After the 2020 war, and the recent complete defeat of Karabakh, the narrative “war is over” has again raised its head. Yet new forms of war, through extensive policing and militarization, continue the illusion that we are in a state of exception. Azerbaijani police forces have already been deployed in Karabakh, and the Azerbaijani army is preparing to assert expansionist claim over the Zanzegur Corridor.

Nagorno-Karabakh is to be dissolved next January 1. Yet the state of conflict keeps going. The suspension of democracy, said to be the exception, has instead become the rule. Today we are again pitched back into the nightmare of a perpetual and indeterminate state of war, suspending the international rule of law. The authorities speak of security, but with no clear distinction between maintaining peace and further acts of war.

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