What was the 44-day War of 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia and why it happened?

During the 30 years of occupation of the territories of Azerbaijan, the Armenian side wanted “to use the power of facts (i.e., military control) to maintain the de facto status and change the de-jure status”[1] in order to get recognition of the former Nagorno-Karabakh region as an independent state or unify it with Armenia. However, with the counter-offensive operation along the entire front to the Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan, on September 27, 2020, Azerbaijani Army started the liberation of the territories, which had been occupied by Armenia in the wake of the First Karabakh War of the early 1990s. The war that lasted 44 days and was labeled as ‘the Patriotic War’ or the ‘44-day War’ depicted the strength of the Azerbaijani Army and ended with the decisive victory of Azerbaijan. By December 1, Azerbaijan had restored its territorial integrity as a result of the successful military operation during the 44-day War and Trilateral Statement between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia that was signed on November 10, 2020, right after the liberation of the Shusha, the cultural capital of Azerbaijan, by the Azerbaijani Army. This 44-day War brought an end to the long-lasting occupation of all occupied territories of Azerbaijan and restored its sovereignty over these territories with the Russian peacekeeping forces in the region in order to preserve peace and security between Azerbaijan and Armenian communities of the region. By the Trilateral Statement, the peacekeeping forces of Russia had a right to stay in the region for five years until November 2025. However, if any parties to the conflict will not ask for the withdrawal of this peace contingent up to six months before the expiration date, this period should be automatically extended an additional five years.[2] On April 23, 2023, Azerbaijan established a border checkpoint at the beginning of the Lachin road that is linking the Karabakh region with the Armenian Republic. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry stated that the checkpoint’s installation was aimed at curbing the persistent and widespread abuse of the road by Armenia. The creation of a border checkpoint signifies the complete reinstatement of Azerbaijani sovereignty over its entire officially recognised territory.[3]

Coming to the outbreak of the 44-day War, there have been various assumptions as to the causes that pushed the conflicting sides, namely Armenia and Azerbaijan, into the deadly War, such as, failure of the countless peace attempts and numerous rounds of the mediation efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group and ferocities and arbitrariness, as well as provocative political statements and actions of the new Armenian leadership since 2018.

As stated before, the main aim of the OSCE Minsk Group was to provide a political solution and a peaceful settlement to the dispute, over the former Nagorno-Karabakh region, between Azerbaijan and Armenia.[4] Since the involvement of the Minsk Group in the negotiation process, the parties to the conflict have placed great hopes on this negotiating institute. Thus, for almost three decades, the mediation efforts of the Minsk group helped to avoid a resumption of military hostilities between the parties but failed to bring them into a closer compromise on the settlement of the conflict due to various reasons. After a variety of meetings at the presidential and ministerial level, the negotiation process gradually faded and entered into gridlock, and, as it was stated, “the exchange of the shootings and violations of the cease-fire in the Line of Contact was intensified, which brought about many human losses.”[5]

Therefore, the effectiveness of the OSCE Minsk Group, particularly the co-chair countries: Russia, the USA, and France, as the peace broker over the dispute of the former Nagorno-Karabakh region was brought up for discussion by academicians and the parties to the conflict, particularly Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan raised concerns about the impartiality of the Minsk Group co-chaired by Russia, the USA, and France, countries where large Armenian communities exist and enjoy significant influence on the governments. It was asserted that while assuming the role of the Minsk Group co-chairs, it became apparent that the aim of the OSCE “Troika” was to keep the stability in order to preserve their national interests in the region rather than to provide a forum for the ongoing negotiation process and bring about a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Along the light of the failure of the Minsk Group, the aggressive position of Armenia since the cease-fire agreement of May 1994, its illegal action in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, and its destructive stance in the negotiation process also showed that Armenia was not intended to find the solution to the conflict but instead prolong the negotiation process further in order to consolidate the result of its aggressive policy. Based on this approach, the old regime of the Armenian government did not contribute to the development of the negotiation process but pushed it into gridlock, which made the situation stagnant until 2018.

When Nikol Pashinyan came to power in Armenia as a result of the Velvet Revolution in 2018 as a Prime Minister while toppling Serzh Sargsyan from power, the hope increased for the peaceful settlement of the conflict.[6] Because unlike the previous leaders of Armenia, Pashinyan was not a member of the Karabakh clan and did not have any association with the First Karabakh War. That is why there were expectations that the new Prime Minister of Armenia would present a more constructive approach to the negotiation than his predecessors while consigning the old criminal regime of Armenia into history. In the beginning, there were positive developments regarding the solution to the conflict. In September 2018, in Dushenbe the leaders of both states agreed to establish a joint hotline between the military commanders of both side for the first time, which may reduce tension as well as ceasefire violation. In addition, according to the information with the initiative of the Armenian leadership, there was private communication between Ilham Aliyev and Nikol Pashinyan.[7]

However, gradually quite the opposite happened. After consolidating his power, Pashinyan began to follow the policies of his predecessors in the negotiation process and used different rhetoric regarding the resolution of the conflict.[8] As it is stated “it later became clear that Pashinyan may have aimed for a degree of stability on the front line while he was busy with domestic power struggles. He soon abandoned his peace-building initiatives and demonstrated a more radicalized, nationalistic position towards the conflict.”[9]

Thus, as stated before, after Pashinyan consolidated his power internally, the Armenian ferocities and arbitrariness reached their peak, which was significantly blocking the peaceful settlement of the conflict. Thus, the more aggressive and intractable action of the Armenian government: like an intention to cement the acquisitions of those occupied territories beyond the former Nagorno-Karabakh region permanently; repudiation of the “Basic Principles” that had been initiated by the OSCE Minsk Group and accepted both parties to the conflict; planning to move the administrative center of the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic from Khankendi to Shusha, the cultural capital of Azerbaijan; illegal settlement of Armenians from different part of the world in the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan, which “violate the Geneva Convention of 1949, aim at the consolidation of control over the region and the creation of a fait accompli for future negotiations”;[10] building a new road from Armenia to Jabrayil, one of the occupied region of Azerbaijan; as well as changing the toponyms and falsification of the historical monuments triggered the tension between the sides.

Additionally, the Armenian new leadership tried to change the format of the negotiation process while stating that Azerbaijan should negotiate with the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh authorities.” If accepted, this may change the negotiation format completely, which has been elaborated for more than twenty years. “This attempt was challenged not only by Azerbaijan but also by the OSCE’s Minsk Group.”[11] Hereby, it should be mentioned that when the Minsk Group took on a mediator role in the conflict in 1992, one of its first tasks was to draw up the so-called Baker rules, named after the US Secretary of State James Baker. These rules, which were agreed upon by all sides in the conflict, recognized Azerbaijan and Armenia as “principal parties” to the conflict, while the two communities, Azerbaijani and Armenian, in the former Nagorno-Karabakh region were designated as “interested parties.” Since then, these rules have been known as the “Baker rules” and from that time on, the format of the negotiations between the parties has not changed.[12]

Furthermore, Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan said in New York in March 2020 that the policy “new war for new territories” replaced that of “territory for peace,” still further undermining any peaceful resolution. This statement of the Armenian Defense Minister was made right after the joint statement of Ilham Aliyev and Nikol Pashinyan during the OSCE-mediated meeting in Vienna for the establishment of a favorable environment for peace. According to Tonoyan this policy “will rid Armenia of this trench condition, the constant defensive state, and will add the units which may shift the military actions to the territory of the enemy.”[13]

In addition to all, at a rally in Khankendi on August 5, 2019, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called for miatsum (“unification” in Armenian) between Armenia and Karabakh while declaring, “Artsakh is Armenia, and that is it.” This remark of Pashinyan seriously destroyed the possibility of further negotiation, angered Azerbaijan, and was repeatedly condemned by President Ilham Aliyev.[14]

However, the attack on the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan in the summer of 2020, which is situated out of the conflicting zone, and violating internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan since that time became the last straw to break the status-quo in the region. Consequently, Azerbaijani service members, including General Polad Hashimov, and a civilian were killed as a result of artillery fire in the direction of Tovuz on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. After the escalation, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan organized a ceremony where he presented military honors and awards to service members who had participated in the July clashes. During the ceremony, Prime Minister Pashinyan declared that “it is obvious and unequivocal that the reforms [in the army] were successful as evidenced by the July defensive operation. In fact, we proved that Armenia can achieve a military advantage through intellectual work, tactical and strategic innovations, without having to engage in an exhaustive arms race.”[15] Referring to the escalation in July, Prime Minister Pashinyan further stated that “the Azerbaijani myth that its army can defeat the Armenian army, and thus Armenia and Artsakh should make concessions, has vanished.”[16]

In August, Armenia launched yet another military provocation. This time a sabotage group was sent to Azerbaijan. The head of the sabotage group was detained by the Azerbaijani military and gave evidence. His statements clearly showed that this sabotage group came to Azerbaijan with a plan to commit acts of terror. Targeting oil and gas export pipelines passing through the Tovuz district was threatening European energy security. In this regard, a fragile ceasefire was established, although frequently broken in subsequent months by Armenia.[17]

On September 27, 2020, the armed forces of Armenia, blatantly violating the ceasefire regime had launched another aggression against Azerbaijan by intensively attacking the positions of the armed forces of Azerbaijan along the frontline, as well as by deliberately subjecting to artillery shelling residential areas of Tartar, Aghdam, Fuzuli, and Jabrayil districts. In the following days, densely populated residential areas – Shamkir, Beylagan, Aghdam, Fuzuli, Jabrayil, Goranboy, Tartar, Barda, Aghjabadi, and the city of Ganja were subjected to heavy bombardment, including mid-range missiles. The new aggression by Armenia against Azerbaijan was yet another blatant violation of fundamental norms and principles of international law, IHL, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and its Additional Protocols, as well as the United Nations Security Council resolutions 822, 853, 874, 884 of 1993 demanding the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of the armed forces of Armenia from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. In this context, referring the Armenian ferocities and arbitrariness since 2018, President Ilham Aliyev during his interview with ‘Russian RBC TV channel’ on October 10, 2020, said “we were expecting this attack. I spoke about this from the UN platform a few days before the escalation. You can see the text of my speech – I said that Armenia is preparing for war. Armenia must be stopped. There were many arguments in favor of that.”[18] However, the world blatantly closed its eyes to the provocative Armenian actions, which encouraged it further to begin a “new war for new territories,” as Armenian Defense Minister David Tonoyan stated.

[1] Babayev, Azer, “Nagorno-Karabakh: Why did the Second Armenia-Azerbaijan War Start?” PRIF BLOG, November 5, 2020; https://blog.prif.org/2020/11/05/nagorno-karabakh-why-the-second-armenia-azerbaijan-war-started/. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[2] Górecki, Wojciech and Strachota, Krzysztof, “The Caucasus deregulated. The region on the anniversary of the end of the second Karabakh war,” OSW Commentary, No. 418, 2021, p. 2.

[3] Muradov, Murad, “Lachin checkpoint: the ultimate step towards peace?” TOPCHUBASHOV Center, April 24, 2023; https://top-center.org/en/expert-opinion/3495/lachin-checkpoint-the-ultimate-step-towards-peace. Accessed on May 4, 2023.

[4] Abilov, Shamkhal, “OSCE Minsk Group: Proposals and Failure, the View from Azerbaijan,” Insight Turkey, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2018, p. 145.

[5] Abbasov, Namig, “Minsk Group Mediation Process: Explaining the Failure of Peace Talks,” Journal of Caspian Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2015, p. 69.

[6] “Armenia-Azerbaijan: Why did Nagorno-Karabakh spark a conflict?” BBC, November 12, 2020; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54324772. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[7] Shafiyev, Farid and Huseynov, Vasif, “Peace Negotiations Cannot Be Held Forever: Breaking the Deadlock in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict,” Insight Turkey, Vol. 22, No. 4, 2020, p. 101.

[8] Yavuz, M. Hakan and Huseynov, Vasif, “The Second Karabakh War: Russia vs. Turkey?” Middle East Policy, Vol. 27, No. 4, 2020, p. 107.

[9] Shafiyev and Huseynov, “Peace Negotiations Cannot Be Held Forever,” p. 102.

[10] Shafiyev and Huseynov, “Peace Negotiations Cannot Be Held Forever,” p. 105.

[11] Shafiyev and Huseynov, “Peace Negotiations Cannot Be Held Forever,” p. 102.

[12] Huseynov, “Karabakh Peace Process Must Be Fully Inclusive”.

[13] Shafiyev and Huseynov, “Peace Negotiations Cannot Be Held Forever,” p. 102.

[14] “Ilham Aliyev was interviewed by Al Jazeera TV channel,” President.az, October 2, 2020; https://president.az/en/articles/view/41429. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[15] Gamaghelyan, Philip and Rumyantsev, Sergey, “The road to the Second Karabakh War: the role of ethno-centric narratives in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” Caucasus Survey, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2021, p. 7.

[16] Welt, Cory and Bowen, Andrew S., “Azerbaijan and Armenia: The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict,” Congressional Research Service Report, R46651, January 7, 2021, p. 8.

[17] “Ilham Aliyev addressed the nation,” President.az, September 27, 2020; https://president.az/en/articles/view/40968. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[18] “Ilham Aliyev was interviewed by Russian RBC TV channel,” President.az, October 10, 2020; https://president.az/en/articles/view/42449. Accessed on December 4, 2022.