Responding to the Humanitarian Catastrophe in Nagorno-Karabakh
Responding to the Humanitarian Catastrophe in Nagorno-Karabakh
Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh on 19 September 2023.
Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh on 19 September 2023. The town suffered significant damage after Azerbaijan's military operation. Credit: Hagop Ipdjian.
Statement / Europe & Central Asia 14 minutes

Responding to the Humanitarian Catastrophe in Nagorno-Karabakh

Tens of thousands of people from Nagorno-Karabakh have streamed into Armenia following Azerbaijan’s one-day offensive ending the enclave’s de facto self-governance. Outside powers should focus on meeting the refugees’ needs, protecting those few residents who wish to remain and preventing renewed conflict in the region.

Azerbaijan’s 24-hour military operation of 19-20 September marked the end of three decades of de facto self-governance for the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and led to an exodus of its people. Baku’s definitive victory over local security forces shifted the power balance in the volatile South Caucasus, leaving residents uncertain of their future and international actors jostling to shape the emerging regional order. While the enclave is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, it is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians. For most of the post-Soviet period, it has been controlled by de facto authorities. Now, the inhabitants are streaming out by the tens of thousands. They are traumatised by the fighting and a months-long blockade maintained by Azerbaijan, fearful of being ruled by a Baku government with which they have fought three wars, and resigned to the reality that no outside force will come to their rescue. Armenia is receiving the people leaving Nagorno-Karabakh, but it did not intervene in the fighting, and the Russian peacekeeping force on the ground since 2020 is no longer seen as a bulwark of security.

With the mass departures under way, outside powers are left to bear down on a handful of key priorities. As concerns the humanitarian realm, those with influence in Baku should urge Azerbaijan to cooperate in the provision of urgent humanitarian aid to secure a safe exit for those who wish to leave the enclave, and to protect the rights of those who want to stay or may one day decide to visit or return. Baku should be encouraged to accept UN monitors to keep an eye on how the human rights situation develops on the ground. As for political priorities, the main one is to continue working toward a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in hopes of preventing yet another conflict in this war-scarred region. Knotty disputes over the interstate border and trade routes are among the issues that could too easily erupt into hostilities. The European Union has facilitated a leader-level meeting for 5 October. In the lead-up to this gathering, and thereafter, all actors with sway in the region – including the U.S., Russia and Türkiye – should work to increase the incentives for diplomatic, rather than military, resolution of the remaining points of contention between the South Caucasus neighbours.

Rising Tensions and a One-Day War

Azerbaijan’s military victory in mid-September built on its triumph in the 2020 war. In six weeks of fighting that ended in November of that year, Azerbaijan retook control of part of Nagorno-Karabakh (a Soviet-era name that it no longer uses) and seven adjacent territories, which it had lost in the 1990s, resulting in mass displacement of ethnic Azerbaijanis from the area. Under the terms of a Russia-brokered ceasefire, Armenian troops agreed to leave the region, and Moscow inserted peacekeepers to keep the parties at arm’s length from each other and to protect the region’s 120,000 residents. But since Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, neither the distracted Russian military nor any of multiple diplomatic efforts (separately led by Washington, Brussels and Moscow) has managed to keep hostilities from periodically breaking out along the new front lines between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces, on one hand, and Azerbaijani forces and the enclave’s local security forces, on the other. Over the course of three separate escalations along these lines in 2022 – culminating in an incursion by Azerbaijan into Armenia proper – Baku’s strategic position steadily improved.

The situation took a dramatic turn in December 2022, when Azerbaijan imposed what amounted to a blockade on the Lachin corridor – the only route into Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. Humanitarian conditions in the enclave steadily deteriorated, to the growing alarm of outside powers. Diplomatic pressure on Baku to reopen the corridor produced scant results.

In September, it became clear that a new war could be close at hand.

Then, in the first days of September, it became clear that a new war could be close at hand. Officials in Yerevan began reporting a military build-up in several areas along Armenia’s eastern border with Azerbaijan, while de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh released a video showing Azerbaijani armoured vehicles and trucks on the move near the front. An EU mission dispatched to monitor the Armenian side of the border earlier in 2023 echoed concerns about increased tensions. EU and U.S. officials set about what they described as intense diplomacy to get food, fuel and medical supplies through to Nagorno-Karabakh. They said they received assurances from Baku that it did not plan military action. According to Western officials who spoke to Crisis Group, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the threat of sanctions should Baku resort to force in an early September call with Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev.

For a moment, it appeared there had been a breakthrough. On 18 September – after months of often frustrating diplomacy that involved rare cooperation between Russia and the West – two trucks loaded with humanitarian supplies entered Nagorno-Karabakh. The next day, however, Azerbaijan launched its offensive.

Azerbaijan’s military advance, occurring just as world leaders were convening at the UN General Assembly in New York, drew condemnation from leaders in Europe and the U.S., but their sentiments were not universally echoed. Baku’s staunchest regional ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, used his opening statement at the General Assembly to aver: “We support every step Azerbaijan takes to defend its territorial integrity”. Russia, which was a guarantor of the 2020 ceasefire it brokered, but has since become bogged down with its invasion of Ukraine, did not deter Baku. Russian officials struck a defensive tone, saying Azerbaijan had given them notice of the operation mere “minutes” before it began. But Moscow also refrained from condemning Baku even after reports emerged that Russian peacekeepers had died in artillery fire. For their part, Azerbaijani officials said they would not halt the operation until it reached its aims of dismantling and disarming the de facto authorities – or until the latter “raised the white flag in surrender”.

It soon became clear that victory would be quick. Following heavy bombardment and a ground offensive, Azerbaijani forces confirmed seizing more than 90 of the local armed forces’ posts and destroying up to twenty of their military vehicles as well as other hardware. De facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh said dozens were killed in the fighting, hundreds wounded and scores still missing, including civilian adults and children. As Azerbaijani forces took up positions less than 2km from Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city, the de facto authorities surrendered. They agreed to disband and disarm local forces as part of a ceasefire announced by Baku on 20 September. The enclave’s beleaguered delegates were escorted by Russian peacekeepers to meet with Azerbaijani officials as part of the terms of their surrender. They emerged from the first rounds tight-lipped; sources close to the talks told Crisis Group they had been urged by Azerbaijani officials to speak only positively of the proceedings. On 28 September, Baku secured the prize it had long sought: the complete capitulation of ethnic Armenian leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh, who announced that their self-declared government would “cease to exist” by January.

Humanitarian Risks

The ceasefire following the military operation prompted a cascade of humanitarian problems. Thousands of ethnic Armenians from the villages taken over by Azerbaijani forces thronged the streets of Stepanakert. Many more residents of the region rushed to Russian peacekeeping compounds, fearing violence if the Azerbaijani military were to enter their villages and towns. These people on the move were the first to board cars and buses to flee Nagorno-Karabakh on 24 September when Azerbaijan opened the Lachin corridor, which as noted is the sole road that connects the region with Armenia. Rivers of cars and trucks flooded this single motorway, with many of the people inside telling Crisis Group they expect never to return home; one 70-year-old woman said she had destroyed her family photos and other personal belongings she could not carry with her. People arrived exhausted and hungry from what for some was a days-long journey without food.

The influx of displaced people will pose serious challenges for Armenia for years to come.

The influx of displaced people will pose serious challenges for Armenia for years to come. In the evening of 29 September, authorities in Yerevan reported that almost 100,000 people – over 80 per cent of the enclave’s population – had crossed into Armenia. The numbers already exceed the upper bound of what the authorities were prepared to accommodate. With many more refugees expected in the next days and weeks, Armenia, a country with a population of just under 3 million, is already struggling to cope. Both the EU and U.S. have pledged additional funding in support of the displaced. But finances likely will not be the biggest problem in the coming months. A senior representative of an international aid organisation told Crisis Group that there is simply a lack of knowledge and capacity for integrating “so many people at once, each of them deeply traumatised by the losses they have gone through”.

The refugees have indeed endured a great deal. Baku’s offensive and the outflow of local Armenians exacerbated what was already a humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh. As a consequence of the Lachin corridor blockade, the region has faced shortages of medication, food and fuel – with the last of these continuing to hamper attempts to evacuate the wounded. Residents have also contended with chronic disruptions to gas and electricity supplies, which originate in Armenia but must transit Azerbaijan.

In a move that seemed intended to respond to urgent needs, Azerbaijan announced a number of measures, including the provision of humanitarian aid, fuel and medicine, and also restored electricity to Stepanakert. It said it will grant amnesty to local fighters who lay down their arms. Azerbaijani diplomats told Crisis Group that Baku will allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access along two roads leading to the region, the Lachin corridor and a separate road from Agdam, Azerbaijan, recommending that the group use the latter so as to avoid checkpoints on the former. (Armenian diplomats said the ICRC has already encountered Azerbaijani restrictions on its movements.) Baku also promised to work with the ICRC and Russian peacekeepers to return the bodies of those who died in the fighting.

But the exodus of locals shows that the promises made are insufficient to build trust. Those fleeing note that the scope and terms of the amnesty are unclear. Azerbaijan detained a former de facto senior official of Nagorno-Karabakh, Ruben Vardanyan, as he tried to leave the enclave. He was the first of several former de facto leaders to be detained. On 25 September, when a powerful explosion at a fuel warehouse near the Stepanakert-Askeran highway took the lives of over 60 and injured almost 300, some local Armenians declined Azerbaijan’s support and asked for an airlift to Armenian hospitals for dozens of the hurt. Similarly, residents told Crisis Group that they refused to accept food and other aid sent by Azerbaijan. “First, they try to kill us and then they offer hugs”, one man said. “Why should I trust them?”

Escalatory Risks

While the guns have largely been silenced in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, there are other potential hotspots along the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenia says the Azerbaijani troop build-ups it spotted in early September are concentrated in the south, close to Iran, and between Azerbaijan’s Kelbajar and Armenia’s Gegharkunik region – the deadliest front in periodic skirmishes between the neighbours since the 2020 war.

Of course, the deployments do not by themselves mean that a confrontation at the border is imminent. Indeed, both sides appear at pains to exercise restraint. Baku seems aware of the dangers of escalation, which could draw in other regional powers – including Iran (which has repeatedly warned that it sees a military advance by Azerbaijan across this border as a red line), and rkiye, Azerbaijan’s stalwart ally – and bring greater international condemnation. Armenia worries about its weaker military position and the potential collapse of efforts to reach a peace settlement with Baku since the 2020 war. Officials in Yerevan – while despondent over the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh – have made clear that they have no appetite for being dragged into conflict with their more powerful neighbour. They also told Crisis Group that they believe the Azerbaijani troop build-ups at the border were most likely meant as a show of force to deter Armenia from interfering with the military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Yerevan worries that Baku may be tempted to press its advantage.

But there are perils nonetheless. It is risky to have large contingents in close proximity on the border, as they can too easily be provoked into clashes. Yerevan also worries that Baku may be tempted to press its advantage in pursuit of strategic goals. From their current positions, Armenian officials say, Azerbaijani forces could advance swiftly into Armenian territory, taking control of a gorge near the town of Jermuk, cleaving the country in two – and cutting off Yerevan from Armenia’s ally Iran. Armenia would struggle to defend itself. Its army is weak and lacking ammunition, having never fully replenished stocks after the 2020 war. Its relations with Russia, its key strategic ally, have frayed dramatically. The EU’s observation mission is civilian in nature and provides little protection, especially as Azerbaijan refuses to cooperate with it. Should Azerbaijan unleash aggression inside Armenia’s borders it could well force its neighbour to capitulate to any number of demands – for example with respect to the development of a transport corridor that would pass through southern Armenia and link Azerbaijan to its exclave, Nakhchivan, off Armenia’s western frontier.

Baku rejects that it would entertain such a scenario, with one Azerbaijani official describing it as a “suicide mission”. This official suggested that occupying Armenian territory and splitting it in two would invite not only sanctions but also diplomatic isolation, questioning whether gaining a road would truly justify such a loss.

Immediate Priorities

Against this rapidly developing backdrop, international actors have struggled to formulate salient objectives. Calls to avoid mass displacement in the immediate aftermath of the 19-20 September operation had to quickly yield to the reality that an exodus is already under way. Under the circumstances, the following priorities have emerged.

First, all parties, allies and partners should attend to the humanitarian situation. Thousands of refugees fleeing to Armenia require protection and support. The majority who are now on the move from Nagorno-Karabakh are leaving their homes because they do not feel secure staying under Azerbaijani rule. Few expect to return. While it should be a goal of international diplomacy that the displaced can safely visit and, eventually, return to the enclave, that is likely to require a long-term effort. More immediately, residents of Nagorno-Karabakh will need help to start new lives in Armenia, where they may be for some time, if not permanently. They will require assistance finding shelter, meeting their basic needs, educating their children and securing livelihoods. On a visit to Armenia, Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the U.S. would provide $11.5 million in humanitarian aid. The EU, for its part, announced a relief package worth €5 million ($5.1 million). France, Canada, Germany and Sweden have also pledged funds. Armenia’s full cooperation with donors and aid organisations will be important so it can profit from their expertise and funding.

Baku should make good on its promises to rule magnanimously over Nagorno-Karabakh.

For its part, Baku should make good on its promises to rule magnanimously over Nagorno-Karabakh – in part by cooperating fully with international actors seeking to protect locals who seek to flee as well as those who wish to remain or may seek to return some day. Critics of the government’s actions say its coercive tactics amount to ethnic cleansing. These accusations cause consternation among officials in Baku, who are sensitive to their international image. But soothing words – such as President Aliyev’s pledge to turn the region into a “paradise” where residents would enjoy the same cultural, linguistic and religious rights as Azerbaijani citizens do – are not likely to change opinions. Azerbaijani officials told Crisis Group that Baku is developing plans to integrate those few civilians who decide to remain in the region into Azerbaijan, including by providing national IDs, but an office opened to that end in Stepanakert was deserted as of the last week of September, locals said.

A better way to ease international condemnation (at least with respect to its actions going forward) would be for Baku to cooperate with efforts to deploy an independent UN monitoring mission that would keep an eye on the human rights situation as it evolves. In the past, Azerbaijan has flatly rejected such involvement, allowing only Russian peacekeepers and the ICRC to be present on the ground. Having a third party involved is arguably in Baku’s interests, too. Its military victory, already dimmed by the international outcry over the exodus, will be further tarnished if there are no meaningful human rights guarantees and safeguards for those few who may remain – or, over the longer term, for those who return. In a welcome sign that Baku’s position may be shifting, it agreed to a visit to the enclave by the UN resident coordinator in Azerbaijan. In addition, as this statement was going to press, the UN announced that it had agreed with Baku on dispatching a mission to the region, mainly to assess humanitarian needs.  

Thirdly, to avoid further escalation, Armenia and Azerbaijan – and the mediators between them – should approach peace talks with a fresh sense of urgency. Envoys from Baku and Yerevan met with EU, German and French officials in Brussels to prepare for a potential meeting between Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on the sidelines of a European leaders' meeting in Granada, Spain, on 5 October. Mediated talks that focus on resolving contentious issues such as border delimitation and South Caucasus trade routes offer the best chance of ending the cycles of violence between the two countries and achieving a lasting settlement. Other mediators and influential governments – especially in Moscow, Washington and Ankara – should throw their weight behind these efforts.

A good way to lend talks momentum would be to encourage confidence-building measures. One such measure that could also help underwrite stability would be for Azerbaijan to begin cooperating with Armenia and the EU mission that deployed earlier in 2023 to facilitate better coordination in maintaining border stability. But Baku has rejected this idea in the past, and an EU diplomat has acknowledged in conversations with Crisis Group that it seems no more amenable to the scheme now. Another step that Baku might take on the steep road to building trust would be to release scores of Armenian soldiers and civilians taken prisoner in the 2020 war and since. In return, Yerevan could free the two Azerbaijani soldiers it holds.

There is no way to restore the lives that were lost or repair the communities that were broken during September’s one-day war and the decades of conflict that preceded it. Nor can Nagorno-Karabakh return to the status quo under which it operated for almost a third of a century. Yet while that chapter in the enclave’s history is now closed, the bigger story – of the region’s people, their struggles and the relations between the two South Caucasus neighbours that have shaped their lives – will continue. Sadly, the steps recommended here are by no means sufficient to ensure that this story takes a happier turn. But they may at least help ease the long, uncertain road ahead for the tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes, and perhaps discourage further fighting in a region that has now seen three wars in as many decades.

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