The Nagorno Karabakh conflict has both modern and pre-modern roots. Modern origins of the conflict are better known to Western audiences because they are better documented. The pre-modern platform on which the conflict stands is no less important but understanding it requires knowledge of historical context.
The territory called “Nagorno Karabakh” by international journalists and policymakers is a historical, Armenian-peopled region in the Southern Caucasus, known to its native inhabitants as Artsakh.
Alongside Georgia, Mount Lebanon, Assyrian-controlled highlands of Hakkari, fortified Armenian communities of Cilicia (e.g. Zeitun), and a number of other free territories, Artsakh is one of the few self-ruled Christian regions in the Near East that continued semi-independent existence despite multiple attempted invasions by the region’s dominant Islamic states and tribal alliances.
An important part of the historical Armenian homeland, Artsakh preserved the Kingdom of Armenia’s feudal class, who, from time to time, acted on the international stage as the only representative of the collective will of the Armenian people.
In this sense, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is partly rooted in geopolitical confrontations that involved two population categories: 1) indigenous inhabitants of Iran, Armenia, the Caucasus, Anatolia and the Balkans, and 2) Turkoman nomads from Central Asia who used the ideology of Islamic jihadism to justify invasions and dispossession of native populations of these lands of their freedom, statehood, territories and wealth.
Roots of the conflict: theory
The ethnic conflict in Nagorno Karabakh has both modern and pre-modern roots. Modern origins of the conflict are better known to Western audiences because they are better documented. The pre-modern platform on which the conflict stands is no less important but it requires the understanding of historical context.
Exploring the pre-modern origins of the conflict is often regarded as politically inconvenient because it adds to the observation that the conflict may be old and, thus, hard to resolve. In addition, there are experts who simply do not believe that any conflicts may have pre-modern or historical roots. Such specialists are often ridiculed since their arguments have little convincing power and fly in the face of factual evidence. They can, nonetheless, be influential because their “insights” are better positioned to justify agendas of various state bureaucracies and NGOs that are tasked with conflict analysis or resolution.
The premodern origins the conflict
The premodern origins the conflict are rooted in the events of the mid-1750s, and represent the aftereffects of the Ottoman-Persian wars. At that time, a migrant Turkoman clan from Central Asia, known as Otuz-Eki, gained access to Artsakh’s important fortress of Shushi by entering into an opportunistic coalition with an Armenian feudal lord from central Artsakh’s county of Varanda who needed allies to fight against his feudal rivals. Capturing the fortress of Shushi allowed Otuz-Ekis to eventually unleash a war against the feudal leaders of Artsakh’s monoethnic Armenian population who held full administrative control of Artsakh since the Roman times almost without interruptions. The war represented an attempt to establish the domination of the Muslim Turkomans over the region’s monoethnic Christian population who temporarily lost their ability to fight back in full force because of the devastation caused by the Ottoman-Persian wars.
As a result of the civil war unleashed by the Otuz-Eki Turkomans – future “Azerbaijanis,” 11,000 families were reported as becoming refugees in the 1790s. Armenian refugees from Artsakh migrated mainly to southern and eastern Georgia, territories around the city of Gandja, other regions of Eastern Armenia, and to Russia-held territories in the Northern Caucasus, establishing numerous settlements whose names often mirrored those ones left behind in Artsakh.
Most historical accounts from that period of time come from correspondence of the meliks – Artsakh’s Armenian feudal lords – with Russian imperial authorities. Additionally, there are also sources in Persian-language and contemporaneous European records.
The modern origins the conflict
In 1805, the Russians incorporated the region into their expanding empire, chopped it up into governorates, and held Artsakh for more than one hundred years. After the Russian annexation, the Turkic Otuz-Ekis, later named by Russians as “Caucasian Tatars,” chose not to return to their previous location in the eastern steppes in what is now central Azerbaijan. Although their political power was destroyed, Otuz-Ekis remained in one of the quarters of the city-fortress of Shushi – Artsakh’s only settlement with non-Armenian population – and preserved their hostility to the region’s Armenian natives. This hostility was mutual but largely latent because the Russian imperial state curbed ethnic clashes. Furthermore, Artsakh developed into a wealthy agricultural region and its capital city of Shushi became a burgeoning metropolis that produced many talented artists, writers, entrepreneurs, educators and statesmen.
The modern phase of the conflict began in 1905, when the Caucasian Tatars, inspired by anti-Armenian and Pan-Turkist agitation from the Ottoman Empire, organized anti-Armenian riots in the industrial city of Baku. The violence that became known as the Armenian-Tatar war, quickly spread to other parts of the Southern Caucasus, including Artsakh, claiming the lives of thousands of Armenians and Caucasian Tatars – future “Azerbaijanis.”
The Russian Empire started disintegrating in the aftermath of the Bolshevik October Revolution that took place amid WWI. This phase of the Karabakh Conflict is tightly connected with the Armenian Genocide of 1915. At that time Armenians and the Caucasian Tatars – along other peoples of the empire –transformed their imagined ethnic homelands into states. Artsakh and other Armenian-peopled lands that had Tatar minorities were immediately claimed by the newly-proclaimed state that unceremoniously borrowed its name ,“Azerbaijan,” from the neighboring province of Iran.
Azerbaijan was the history’s first-ever state of the Caucasian Tatars. It would be very hard to proclaim “Azerbaijan” without the support of the Turkish expeditionary army that arrived from the Ottoman Empire, marching through the fields of WWI from Anatolia through the Southern Caucasus to Baku. This became possible because the Russian Army that successfully fought the Ottomans during WWI evacuated to Russia following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that withdrew Russia from the war. Because of such a large Ottoman role in creating “Azerbaijan,” the new Caucasian Tatar state became a close ally of the Ottoman Empire. In this context, it immediately subscribed to the genocidal anti-Armenian policy of the Ottoman government that by that time had already killed more than a million Armenians in Ottoman-held Western Armenia, Anatolia, and on the lands of the newly-created Republic of Armenia.
In the newly proclaimed “Azerbaijan,” the Ottoman expeditionary army created a combined military force that was called the Army of Islam. After invading the Bolshevik-held Baku in September of 1918, the Army of Islam massacred close to 30 thousand of Baku’s Armenian residents.
The violence spread to Artsakh as well. During this tragic period, in March 1920, local Tatar (“Azerbaijani”) Muslims, abetted by expeditionary Ottoman forces, massacred the Armenian population of Shushi and burned down the Christian-populated half of the city. Several thousand of Shushi’s residents were killed and 7,000 buildings were burned and demolished. There exists extensive photographic material that documented the destruction of Shushi’s Armenian quarters in dozens of black-and-white images. The images are the largest collection of photographic evidence that shows the magnitude of destruction inflicted on Armenians during the Armenian Genocide.
In 1918-1920, during the Russian civil war, Nagorno Karabakh designated itself as part of Armenia and was a self-ruled Armenian province that had its own government and armed forces which fought against Azerbaijani and Ottoman armies.
In 1920, the Bolshevik armies from Russia re-invaded the Caucasus and forced the three nations inside what later became the Soviet Union.
Nagorno Karabakh under the Bolshevik Rule
In 1921, the Bolsheviks temporarily recognized Artsakh as an integral part of Armenia, together with two other Armenian-peopled regions, Nakhichevan and Zangezur (i.e. ancient Syunik, which remained in Armenia). However, in an effort to placate the oil-producing Azerbaijan and Bolshevik Russia’s Kemalist allies in Turkey, that decision was reversed, and Joseph Stalin, Russia’s commissar for nationalities (who later became the USSR’s ill-famed dictator), forcibly placed Artsakh under the administration of Soviet Azerbaijan. Nagorno Karabakh’s status of an autonomous region (oblast) was formally confirmed in 1923, an act that was met with enthusiastic protests in the Armenian province.
Thus, Artsakh – Nagorno Karabakh was turned into the world’s only Christian territorial autonomy inside a largely Muslim state entity. For the next 70 years, Azerbaijan bombarded Artsakh with various forms of ethno-religious discrimination, economic mistreatment and gerrymandering, in an attempt to eliminate its Armenian Christian majority and replace it with Azerbaijani Muslim settlers.
The USSR’s Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region
The premeditated maltreatment of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh by the authorities in Baku was an open secret that Azerbaijan tried to cover up for some time. However, beginning from 1999, Azerbaijan’s Soviet-era leader and its post-independence President Heydar Aliyev launched a series of public confessions in which he bluntly admitted that the goal of his administration—between 1967 and 1987—was to intentionally abuse the region’s Armenian majority, drive them into exodus and thus change Nagorno Karabakh’s demographic balance in favor of ethnic Azerbaijanis (Source: “Heydar Aliyev: A State is Better Off with an Opposition,” newspaper “Echo” (Azerbaijan), No. 138 (383) CP, July 24, 2002).
In Nakhichevan, Aliyev’s birthplace, which, similarly to Nagorno Karabakh, was placed under Azerbaijani control, this policy resulted in a complete expulsion of Armenians who in the 1930s still comprised one half of all residents. In Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s demographic operations stopped the growth of the province’s Armenian majority population and boosted its Azerbaijani minority: as a result, while Armenians kept emigrating, the percentage of ethnic Azerbaijanis increased from 5 percent in 1923 to 24 percent by 1986. 
The Armenians of the province periodically petitioned the Kremlin to protect them from Baku’s abusive policies. Mass public appeals signed by thousands of Nagorno Karabakh’s residents—requesting to re-unify their land with Soviet Armenia—were launched in 1935, 1953-55, 1965-67 and 1977.
Although the official Baku’s reaction to Armenian complains was highly negative, Azerbaijan was not able to use violent measures to punish the Nagorno Karabakh people because of regime-specific restraints that characterized the Soviet totalitarian police state. However, when the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal policies gradually decreased Moscow’s influence on ruling elites in peripheral union republics, the situation began changing. In Azerbaijan, this resulted in the resurgence of the long-suppressed chauvinist sentiment. By 1987, the intensity and austerity of Baku’s ongoing process of demographic manipulations in Nagorno Karabakh drastically increased, amounting to a stealthy anti-Armenian ethnic cleansing campaign.
As confirmed by President Heydar Aliyev and his lieutenants (such as the Interior Minister, Gen. Ramil Usubov), he pursued this strategy more openly in the provincial capital city of Stepanakert and in areas adjacent to the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (especially in the district of Shamkhor), which were not included into the Autonomous Region back in 1923, and where Armenians lost their majority status in the 1960s-70s. 
Part of the Azerbaijani campaign was the destruction of Armenian architectural monuments in Soviet Azerbaijan and publication of revisionist narratives by the Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences aimed at purging Azerbaijan’s history of all traces of Armenian political, cultural and demographic presence, and advancing irredentist claims to some territories in Soviet Armenia. 
Nagorno Karabakh’s Secession from Soviet Azerbaijan
The people of Nagorno Karabakh, fearing that history was repeating itself and that Azerbaijan’s strategy would eventually result in their destruction if met with no resistance, protested by organizing peaceful rallies. They confronted Azerbaijan’s oppression with the first peaceful, pro-democracy movement in the Soviet Union, setting an example for the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. The Nagorno Karabakh Freedom Movement was endorsed by all Soviet human rights activists (e.g. Andrei Sakharov), both inside and outside the USSR. That marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire. It was also supported by analogous freedom movements in the USSR’s Baltic republics.
In an unprecedented example of direct democracy, in February 1988, Nagorno Karabakh’s regional parliament, which for 70 years functioned as a powerless “rubber stamp,” officially appealed to Baku and Yerevan to consider the possibility of reunifying their homeland with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. This grassroots initiative stunned the Kremlin, reversing the normal top-down pattern of the Soviet system and its totalitarian Communist Party.
Azerbaijan’s reaction to Nagorno Karabakh’s nonviolent and constitutional measures was totally unexpected and shocking. Instead of responding to Nagorno Karabakh’s appeal by launching a constitutional dialogue, the Azerbaijani leadership organized a series of pogroms and massacres of unsuspecting ethnic Armenian civilians living in remote corners of Azerbaijan. This campaign of violence began in February 1988 in the country’s principal city of Sumgait, located hundreds of miles away from Nagorno Karabakh, and continued in Kirovabad (November 1988), Baku (January 1990), and other Azerbaijani cities and towns.
The carefully planned anti-Armenian acts of mass public sadism that defined Soviet Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1991 were unprecedented in the entire history of the USSR and totally incomprehensible by its leadership and ordinary Soviet citizens.
Azerbaijan’s Military Aggression Against Nagorno Karabakh
Azerbaijan’s anti-Armenian attacks in 1988-91 only confirmed Nagorno Karabakh’s worst fears. After proclaiming independence by unilaterally breaking away from the USSR in 1991, Azerbaijan unconstitutionally “abolished” the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region and organized full-scale military aggression against its people. This eventually emptied Azerbaijan of all ethnic Armenians residing in places outside of Nagorno Karabakh’s self-defense zone. Overall, nearly 370,000 Armenians (out of their total number of 475,000, according to the USSR ’s 1979 Census) were permanently displaced from Azerbaijan. Most of them were dumped in refugee camps in Armenia
Despite all expectations, mass acts of retaliatory vengeance against ethnic Azerbaijanis residing in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh never took place, chiefly because of vigilantly enforced self-discipline of Armenian activists who did not want to provide the Kremlin an excuse to suppress the Karabakh freedom movement. As to Azerbaijanis, they cared much less because the Kremlin ended up supporting Baku. Nonetheless, Azerbaijani residents of Armenia responded to rumors generated by Baku’s Soviet-style propaganda machine and left the country in a parallel wave of migration.
Before 1991, Azerbaijan depended on anti-reform elements in the Kremlin who defied Gorbachev and regarded the Nagorno Karabakh freedom movement as an initiative that posed danger for the Communist regime because of its liberal and democratic appeal. These reactionary forces considered Azerbaijan as a staunch ally of the Communist dictatorship. To support Baku, the Kremlin placed under Azerbaijan’s disposal Soviet punitive police units that operated together with Azerbaijani death squads against Armenian political activists and defiant Armenian villagers in 1990-1991. In its ethnic cleansing and mass-murder operations, Baku relied on a virtually bottomless pool of ammunition and military hardware that Azerbaijan inherited from the Soviet Army.
In its effort to depopulate Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan employed all available means, including the use of foreign mercenaries. These included several thousand mujahideen fighters from Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere, including those who later became the core of Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network.
In 1988-1994, the US Congress, institutions of the European Union as well as Soviet and European human rights organizations protested against these retaliatory actions and expressed their support for the Nagorno Karabakh people in their official proclamations.
In the United States, Article 907 of the Freedom Support Act, passed in 1992, restricted US assistance to Azerbaijan because of its blockades of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.
Armenia was limited in its ability to assist their brethren in Artsakh due to the aftereffects of a devastating earthquake that in December of 1988 ruined the country and made one in five of Armenia’s residents homeless. Taking advantage of this situation, Azerbaijan attacked Nagorno Karabakh from every corner and sought to flatten its settlements with aerial and artillery bombardments that mainly targeted civilians. The region’s provincial capital, Stepanakert, was thus reduced to piles of smoldering debris. At the same time, Azerbaijan initiated a total land and air blockade that kept Nagorno Karabakh cut-off from the outside world from mid-1988 to 1992. By 1992, the blockade caused starvation and an outbreak of epidemics throughout the province.
Self-Defense and the Emergence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic
In response to Baku’s invasion, the people of Nagorno Karabakh organized a heroic self-defense effort. Outgunned and outnumbered, they overcame incredible odds and made painful sacrifices for the right to live in their homeland. In the end, primarily due to their discipline, motivation and superior fighting skills, Artsakh’s Armenians succeeded in driving Azerbaijani occupying forces out of their territory. Another key factor of success of Armenian resistance was the collapse of the USSR, which left Baku without Moscow’s military and political backing
With the help of volunteer groups that were airlifted into Nagorno Karabakh from Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh’s Armenians also established a wide demilitarized area, the Security Zone, around Nagorno Karabakh. In addition to ending the region’s geographic isolation, the Security Zone became the backbone of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic’s strategic defense system by virtue of encompassing rear territories with key heights and mountain passes. The Security Zone is guarded by the armed forces of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic—the Nagorno Karabakh Defense Army (NKDA).
Some territories of Nagorno Karabakh proper, however, were never recovered, and to this day they remain under Azerbaijani occupation. These include the entire former Shahumian District, the Getashen sub-region and eastern portions of the districts of Mardakert and Martuni.
In January of 1992, with the disintegration of the USSR, the democratically elected leaders of Nagorno Karabakh exercised their right to self-determination. In accordance with international legal norms and through a referendum based on the USSR’s Law on Secession from union republics (adopted in 1990), they once again re-established Artsakh’s statehood and instituted a free and sovereign nation—the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.
In May 1994, Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a Russian-mediated ceasefire agreement that stopped hostilities. Since that time, the Nagorno Karabakh Republic has been in the process of rebuilding its economy, strengthening the foundations of liberal democracy and preparing itself for the formal recognition by the international community of nations.