icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: A Visual Explainer

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the longest-running in post-Soviet Eurasia. In 1988, ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh demanded the transfer of what was then the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) from Soviet Azerbaijan to Armenia. As the Soviet Union collapsed, tensions grew into an outright war. When fighting ceased in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts were wholly or partially controlled by Armenian forces. More than a million people had been forced from their homes: Azerbaijanis fled Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent territories, while Armenians left homes in Azerbaijan.

From 1994 until 2020, intermittent deadly incidents, including the use of attack drones and heavy weaponry on the front lines and activities of special operations forces, demonstrated the ever-present risk that war would reignite. In April 2016, four days of intense fighting at the line of separation shook the region, foreshadowing what was to come.

The dam broke in September 2020, and full-fledged war indeed resumed on the 27th of that month. Six weeks of bloody armed conflict finally ended in the early hours of 10 November with a ceasefire brokered by the Russian Federation. Although the deal remains short of a clear and stable peace, it brought an end to the deadliest fighting the region had witnessed in nearly three decades. By its terms, Azerbaijan now again controls in full the seven districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian forces had held since the previous war. It also holds a substantial part of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. The balance is patrolled by a Russian peacekeeping force but still governed by self-proclaimed local authorities.  

This Visual Explainer has been designed as a resource for those seeking to understand this conflict. It is also intended as a tool for policymakers and others involved in the peace process or in mitigating the conflict’s humanitarian impact. It includes:

  • Casualty figures from the 2020 war.
     
  • A timeline tracking critical political events from the beginning of 2015 to the present.
     
  • Graphics that track inter-war incidents and resultant casualties between January 2015 and just prior to the start of the second war on 27 September 2020, including a map of the region with lines of contact as of 26 September 2020.
     
  • A brief discussion of the April 2016 escalation, which is not included in the data tracking above.
     
  • A methodology and terminology section.
     
  • A new section, reflecting the situation since the end of hostilities in November 2020, is under construction. We hope to be able to post it very soon and are grateful for your patience in the meantime.

The Toll of a Renewed War

Azerbaijani howitzers firing munitions towards Armenian positions on 28 September 2020. MINISTRY OF DEFENCE OF AZERBAIJAN

At Least

0

killed during the 2020 war *

0

Armenian Combatants Killed (including volunteer militias and police)

0

Azerbaijani Combatants Killed (including volunteer militias and police)

0

Armenian Non-combatants Killed

0

Azerbaijani Non-combatants Killed

* The data reflects official government figures as of June 23. It does not include persons who remain missing. The Armenian leadership reports higher number of combatants killed in the recent war. We have not yet been able to verify their reports due to the lack of detailed lists of all the Armenian casualties. 

Timeline of Events

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan meet in Vienna. PRESS OFFICE OF THE GOVERNMENT OF ARMENIA

The timeline of events maps key developments in the peace process, including meetings and political statements made by the conflict parties, mediators or foreign actors since 2015. It includes periods of relative calm as well as those of escalation and conflict. Domestic political events are included where they have bearing on the conflict’s dynamics.

The Inter-war Period: Visualising the Data

An Armenian soldier stands in a trench along the frontline. CRISISGROUP

Map of the Conflict Zone Before the 2020 Escalation

This one-of-a-kind map portrays the situation as it was before the 2020 escalation. The front line was drawn using the then-latest satellite imagery, while the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast's borders are based on Soviet-era maps.

Nagorno-Karabakh (former NKAO)
Adjacent Territories
Front Line

Inter-war Casualties

Between 2015 and 2020, Crisis Group collected a database of casualties in the conflict zone, dozens of which were reported each year, even absent the 2016 escalation and 2020 resumption of war. The data presented in this section were based on reports by the Azerbaijani and Armenian ministries of defence, the de-facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities and media on all sides. Crisis Group only included reports of fatalities and wounded in this dataset if it can identify through official or media reports the names of those killed or injured. Military casualties included contracted soldiers and conscripts, along with border guards deployed along the front lines. Most civilian casualties occurred near the front lines or were caused by explosions of mines installed close to military positions. The data presented here does not include information from 2-11 April 2016, when an escalation took place along the LoC, both because it is intended to track incidents between major escalations and because of a paucity of publicly available, verifiable and agreed information for that period of time (the escalation is discussed here). The bar charts show the breakdown of military and civilian casualties by nationality.

At least

0

killed and wounded in incidents between 1 January 2015 and 27 September 2020 (excluding 2-11 April 2016)

0

Military Killed

0

Military Wounded

0

Civilians Killed

0

Civilians Wounded

Inter-war Reports of Incidents

Crisis Group has sought to identify all incidents reported by Azerbaijan, Armenia and de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities in the conflict zone between 1 January 2015 and 26 September 2020, including both those that resulted in casualties and those that did not. Reports of incidents by the parties have been cross-checked against open-source media reports. The data does not include information from 2-11 April 2016, when the escalation took place along the Line of Contact, due to the paucity of publicly available, verifiable and agreed information for that period.

At least

0

incidents have been reported along the Line of Contact since January 2015 (excluding 2-11 April 2016)

0

Heavy Weaponry

Since 2006, both sides have built up their arsenals, including with the purchase of attack helicopters, fighter planes, surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank artillery systems, and long-range mortars. Crisis Group tracks the use of such heavy weaponry.

0

Special Operations

Since 2015, deployment of special diversionary groups has become a regular practice. Crisis Group tracks reports of Azerbaijani or Armenian forces crossing the front line.

0

Drones

Since April 2016, both sides have used kamikaze drones and drones for surveillance.

The 2016 Escalation

Servicemen attend Sunday service at Gandzasar monastery in May 2017. The Talish unit suffered heavy casualties in the April 2016 escalation and since then has been one of the main hotspots along the Line of Contact. CRISISGROUP

In the early morning of 2 April 2016, clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces along the line of separation flared into outright fighting. Although Russia helped broker a ceasefire on 5 April, ending the worst of the violence, flare-ups continued through 11 April. The escalation left Azerbaijan in control of slightly more territory in the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and the adjacent territories for the first time since 1994’s ceasefire, a shift reflected on our map of the conflict zone prior to the 2020 war.

The spring of 2016’s fighting killed hundreds of people. However, exact numbers of dead and wounded remain disputed to this day. Because we do not have reliable data on casualties, and because we categorise the clashes of this period as an escalation rather than inter-war incidents, we have not included the time period from 2-11 April 2016 in our datasets for 1 January 2015-27 September 2020.

Methodology and Terminology

A gate riddled with bullet holes near the Line of Contact. CRISISGROUP

Crisis Group has generated a timeline of political developments and two datasets by listing casualties and incidents (uses of drones, heavy weaponry and special operations) reported in open sources in Armenia, Azerbaijan and de facto Nagorno-Karabakh from 2015 onward.

The timeline of events includes: 

  • Diplomatic activity such as contacts between the two sides and OSCE Minsk Group meetings;
     
  • Statements by Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, OSCE Minsk Group Co-chair countries, the OSCE, UN, EU and other relevant actors;
     
  • Political consultations between the Armenian government and the de facto leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh;
     
  • Domestic developments in Azerbaijan, Armenia and de facto Nagorno-Karabakh.
     

Crisis Group used Armenian and Azerbaijani government websites, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh sources and online media outlets in Baku, Yerevan and Stepanakert to identify reports of incidents and casualties. No systematic official data on incidents and casualties, let alone data specifying their cause, is publicly available. A detailed list of the sources we used may be found here.

The availability and specificity of data differs among the areas affected by the conflict. For specific time periods (in particular during the flare-up of fighting between 2 and 11 April 2016), data is limited, disputed, or unavailable. Due to the lack of accurate data and because we judge the events of early April 2016 to represent an escalation, rather than inter-war incidents, Crisis Group chose to exclude that period from our datasets and discuss it separately. We also discuss separately the war fought between 27 September 2020 and 9 November 2020. In this way, we avoid comparing wartime violence to inter-war incidents, which would distort the data and make it difficult to draw useful conclusions, but we also present the information available to the best of our ability. Since the end of hostilities, we have once again begun tracking incidents and are preparing a revised dataset appropriate to the post-war period, which will be posted once it is completed.

In tallying incidents, Crisis Group faces several limitations. For incidents that span multiple days, we use the last reported date. For incidents categorised as involving heavy weaponry, only those for which reports specify what type of heavy weaponry was used are included. The true number of incidents involving the use of heavy weaponry is therefore likely higher than that reflected in the bar charts. In cases when several instances of heavy weaponry, drone use or special operations were reported in the same location and at the same time, we count these as one incident. For instance, a report detailing three types of heavy weapon use in the same location at the same time is counted as one incident involving heavy weaponry. However, when a report cites different types of actions (heavy weaponry, drones or special operations) in the same report, we count each as a separate incident – eg, the simultaneous use of heavy weaponry and drones is counted as two incidents: one involving heavy weaponry, and another involving drones.

In counting inter-war casualties, Crisis Group only includes those dead and wounded that we can identify by name, using statements by Armenian, Azerbaijani and de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, media reports and/or social media postings for basic biographical data, unique photos and funeral reports. For wartime casualties we rely on data regarding fatalities provided by the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments, which offers the most accurate information available at this time. We do not have data regarding non-fatal casualties that we feel confident presenting at this time.

Crisis Group’s datasets, upon which this Visual Explainer is based, are available here

We value feedback, which will be considered in updates to the Visual Explainer and other data visualisations. Please send information and inquiries to NKVisualExplainer@crisisgroup.org.

Terminology:

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone: the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and the former Armenian-controlled adjacent territories.

Front lines: the Line of Contact and the Armenian-Azerbaijani international border.

Civilian casualties: non-combatants identified by name by the conflict parties or in media reports. Most have been killed or wounded near the Line of Contact or the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

Military casualties: Azerbaijani and Armenian armed forces and border guards dead or wounded in the conflict zone.

Reports of incidents: incidents involving drones, heavy weaponry and/or special operations by armed forces.

The use of heavy weaponry: use of grenade launchers, rocket systems, tanks, military helicopters and/or other heavy armament, such as 110mm mortars and up.

Special operations: crossings of the front line by Azerbaijani or Armenian forces.

Drone use: drones used for reconnaissance or strikes in the conflict zone.