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Armenia-Azerbaijan: Increasing Instability Likely Following Nagorno-Karabakh Capitulation

The recent capitulation of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic-Armenian leadership to Azerbaijani authorities raises the likelihood of domestic instability within Armenia and renewed military conflict between Yerevan and Baku. Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan’s profoundly unpopular decision not to intervene in Nagorno-Karabakh will trigger sustained unrest and may weaken his hold on power. Simultaneously, emboldened by a quick and decisive military victory, Baku may attempt to extract additional concessions from Yerevan through direct military confrontation.

Nagorno-Karabakh authorities’ capitulation to Baku on Sept. 20 likely marks the end of the ethnically Armenian region’s quest for independence from Azerbaijan. Military hostilities resumed between Baku and Stepanakert (Xankəndi) on Sept. 19; however, unlike previous flare-ups, Yerevan declined to intervene. Subsequently, following rapid Azerbaijani advances, Stepanakert and Baku announced a ceasefire entailing complete disarmament and disbandment of militarized Armenian elements in Nagorno-Karabakh. Further talks are underway to determine a path forward for integration into Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh’s population remains deeply distrustful of Azerbaijani authorities, claiming that Baku intends to ethnically cleanse the area, and many residents are fleeing to Armenia. Large-scale population transfer to Armenia is likely in the coming weeks.

Pashinyan’s Decision Not to Intervene

Pashinyan’s decision not to intervene has been met with fury from many parts of Armenian society. Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence is enshrined in the Armenian constitution, and many Armenians feel that ensuring Nagorno-Karabakh’s separation from Azerbaijan is an integral role of the Armenian state. Demonstrations calling for Pashinyan to resign will likely grow as Stepanakert begins its integration with Baku and will intensify in the event of large refugee flows from Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. Should allegations of atrocities committed by Azerbaijani forces against the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh emerge or reports that Azerbaijan has crossed Armenia’s international border, demonstrations across Armenia will drastically escalate. Furthermore, given the overwhelming unpopularity of Pashinyan’s decision and the Armenian government’s alleged failure to enforce its constitutional responsibility to defend Nagorno-Karabakh, it is possible that mass protests may transform into an uprising aimed at toppling the Pashinyan government; similarly, opposition parties have formed a committee to design an impeachment plan. Within this context, an attempted military coup cannot be ruled out in the coming weeks.

Threat of Azerbaijani Military Action

The continued threat of Azerbaijani military action against sovereign Armenian territory is an additional destabilizing factor. At the very least, Azerbaijan may use the threat of force to coerce further concessions from Yerevan. Azerbaijani authorities have for years demanded Armenia open transport links to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan in line with the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and members of his government have also publicly discussed the establishment of the “Zangezur Corridor,” a proposed Azerbaijani-controlled strip of land to be seized from Armenia along the Armenia-Iran border that would connect contiguous Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan. Baku’s military superiority over Yerevan as demonstrated in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, Turkiye’s continued strong military and political support for Azerbaijan, and Russian peacekeepers’ unwillingness to intervene in the September military operations or recent Azerbaijani activities targeting Armenia proper, likely give Azerbaijani authorities the perception that they are in a dominant position against an isolated Armenia. Baku, therefore, has significant incentives to press its advantage via renewed interstate military operations.

The Path Forward

The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is entering a volatile new stage likely characterized by deep Armenian vulnerability. Armenian instability, particularly any potential uprising, will likely encourage more assertive Azerbaijani military actions against Armenia, promoting further Armenian unrest. The primary factor dictating the conflict’s path forward will be Pashinyan’s ability to weather an intense political storm: should he effectively contain the institutional blowback to Nagorno-Karabakh’s collapse as an ethnically Armenian entity and prevent unrest from spiraling into serious instability, he may be able to successfully dissuade Azerbaijan from a direct military confrontation. However, it is far from certain that Pashinyan will be able to maintain control. Should impeachment or a military coup topple Pashinyan, Armenia’s new leaders will be under intense pressure to attempt to restore Stepanakert’s autonomy through military means, likely resulting in Azerbaijan extracting harsh political concessions regarding access to Nakhchivan. The development of Armenia’s public response to Nagorno-Karabakh’s defeat and Azerbaijani military movements near the Armenian border will be crucial indicators in the coming weeks of whether the conflict will escalate; any direct confrontation will likely result in further Armenian concessions. All outcomes entail political, economic, and military uncertainty for Armenia in the coming months.

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