The Odd Czar Against Us

Zamaneh Media
7 min readOct 4, 2023

by Jose Rosales — 28September2023

The historically diverse composite of differing ethnic groups in what is known as the Caucuses is a result of the region’s location at the crossroads of three empires: Russian, Ottoman, and Persian. Such diversity can be seen in Nikolaus von Seidlitz’s 1881 map with its use of color coding to indicate the ethnic composition of a given region. However, when considering events as recent as the surrender of Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan’s de facto military victory, there still remains the risk of “viewing this coexistence of peoples too much through the lens of ethnic identities. National forms take time to crystallize. They remain in competition with religious, geographical, linguistic and social factors, often equally important, which complicate initial attempts at classification.”

Flag of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, Artsakh. Photo Credit: Nikita Mao.

1905: The First Russian Revolution

Simultaneous with the mass display of anti-tsarist sentiment, the first Russian Revolution of 1905 witnessed the outbreak of violence between the Armenians and the “Azeri Tatars” (i.e., Turkish-speaking Shia Muslims). Revolution and inter-ethnic conflict, thus, coincided during these chaotic months, replete with urban pogroms and riots, alongside clashes across the countryside. Moreover, while the founding of the independent republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in 1918 is typically viewed as the origin for present-day tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, regional tensions between these former soviet republics pre-date the victory of Bolsheviks in 1917. As Étienne Peyrat points out in the article titled “The Creation of Nagorno-Karabakh“:

The new republics challenged each other, reusing maps and statistics already produced during the debates in 1915–16 over the reform of [the South Caucasus] provincial autonomy (reform of the zemstvos, organs of rural self-government). This had revived questions about how the region was divided up and how to respond to the influx of Armenian refugees fleeing genocide in the Ottoman empire.

In 1919, Karabakh Armenians rejected the regional governorship of Khosrov Bey Sultanov. Not only was he the representative appointed by the Azeris; the Azeris moved forward with Sultanov’s nomination given the approval of Great Britain. This dispute would result in armed conflict between two of the newly founded independent republics: Armenia and Azerbaijan. Due to the relative weakness of both nation-states, however; and against the backdrop of regional economic and political collapse; neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan could claim themselves as the victor. In response, the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, United States, China, and the USSR) intervened as the acting, third-party, arbitrator. By 1920, the territorial sovereignty of the Soviet Union grew to include the South Caucasus. In June 1921, the USSR’s Caucasian Bureau annexed Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia in an attempt “to satisfy Armenian nationalist feelings when revolt was increasing in the republic.” However, the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities of the RSFSR — headed by Stalin for the entirety of the bureau’s existence (1917–1923) — quickly rescinded the 3 June 1921 decision. [1]

At the End of History, Inter-Ethnic Conflict

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the majority ethnic-Armenian autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh has long been acknowledged by the international community as part of Azerbaijan. Moreover, the protracted ceasefire brokered in the wake of the Armenian-Azerbaijan War (1991–1993) has largely been upheld save for three exceptions: the “four-day war” in 2016; the 44-day war in 2020; and, most recently, the 24-hour war ending with the surrender of armed-separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh. The immediate cause of the 2020 war came from Azerbaijan’s attempted reclamation of territory located within Azerbaijan’s Soviet-era borders. In September 2020, with the peace process stalled, “Azerbaijan received military support from Turkey and set out to reclaim its lost territory. It recaptured around a third of the enclave but its president Ilham Aliyev, under pressure from Russia, decided against trying to take Stepanakert. A ceasefire agreement signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia on 9 September 2020 authorized the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to the enclave to protect its population of 55,000–120,000 Armenians, and secure the Lachin corridor. This was a masterstroke for Russia, both reasserting its position as the Caucasus’ policeman and sidelining the Minsk Group (co-chaired by Russia, the US and France), which was set up to negotiate an end to the conflict.”

As a result of their 44-day military campaign, “Azerbaijan reconquered almost all the territory it had lost” in the 1991–1993 Armenia-Azerbaijan War. Then, in December 2022, individuals posing as environmental activists began blocking the Lachin corridor. Soon after, in April 2023, Azerbaijan established a new security checkpoint along the corridor’s entry. As Reuters reports, “These moves have cut off the flow of people and goods between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh except for urgent medical evacuations, creating what the United States and others have called a “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation.” In response, “Azerbaijan says it acted to prevent the road being used to smuggle weapons.”

The First Documented Use of Pegasus Spyware in an International War Context

In a recent report on the 2020 War published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), ‘Arms Transfers to Conflict Zones: The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh,’ the authors conclude their report on the following note:

“Although the immediate causes for the war in 2020 are difficult to assess, the fact that Armenia and Azerbaijan had access to more weapons than it had in the past — including new types of weapon, such as UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] — appears to have at least partly driven the escalation of the conflict.”

This is perhaps nowhere better seen than in the discrepancy in military spending for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 2020, “Armenia’s military spending accounted for 4.9% of its GDP and Azerbaijan’s accounted for 5.4%. In both cases, the national share of each country was considerably higher than the 2020 world military spending average of 2.4% of global GDP. That said, the military spending levels considered in absolute terms significantly differed for the two countries: in 2020, Armenia spent $634 million and Azerbaijan spent $2.23 billion.

Given that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan have significant arms industries, both countries have had to rely on external suppliers, and their resulting arms import levels were visibly asymmetric. Between 2011–2020, “the volume of Azerbaijan’s arms imports is estimated by SIPRI to be 8.2 times higher than that of Armenia.” And the consequences of this arms race between the two countries are already being felt: during “some of the most intense fighting of the [2020] war,” researchers from Access Now, CyberHUB-AM, Citizen Lab, Amnesty International’s Security Lab and independent Armenian mobile-security researcher Ruben Muradyan discovered the Israeli-made spyware, Pegasus, “on the phones of then-Armenian official ombudsman Kristinne Grigoryan, two journalists from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Armenian Service, a United Nations official and a former spokesperson (and now an NGO worker) of the country’s foreign ministry.” As Access Now put it in their 25 May report: “this is the first documented evidence of the use of Pegasus spyware in an international war context.

Amnesty, Integration, Armenia-Russia Relations

While international media outlets and observers have been barred from entering Nagorno-Karabakh throughout the duration of Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin corridor, the ICRC was allowed to bring humanitarian aid and food supplies via the Lachin corridor on 14 June. This was also the last time any such aid made it to this region where food, medicine, water and fuel are prevented from entry. On 10 September, after an almost nine month blockade that began in December of last year, Karabakh authorities announced that an agreement has been reached between separatist leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijani officials. According to the terms of the agreement, the delivery of much needed aid to the region came in exchange for Azerbaijan pledging to allow Russian peacekeepers and the International Committee of the Red Cross (IRCR) to resume humanitarian supplies through the corridor.In addition, the agreement would allow for the delivery of “Russian-provided aid […] directly from Baku-controlled territory via the Aghdam road,” thus “opening a transport link from Azerbaijan proper for the first time since Karabakh broke away from Baku in the 1991–1993 Armenia-Azerbaijan War.”

However, given “Azerbaijan’s lightning 24-hour military operation this week,” ethnic Armenians of Karabakh were forced to agree to “a ceasefire, stoking calls for the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan,” on Wednesday (20 September). Two days after Nagorno-Karabakh separatists called for a cease-fire, Azerbaijan announced it would be delivering food and other humanitarian aid to the region. While Azerbaijan’s stated interests in the on-going peace talks include the “integration” of Armenians back into Nagorno-Karabakh as well as amnesty for “Karabakh Armenian fighters who give up their arms,” there has yet to be any concrete outcome from the talks thus far. Speaking to Reuters after the first day of peace talks, David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh, said “these questions must still be resolved. There are no concrete results yet.”

Whatever the outcome of the current peace process may be one thing is certain: we are witnessing, in real time, the process of statecraft and its formation of nation-states. Thus, Peyrat’s dictum — “national forms take time to crystallize” — is not simply a reminder of the false equivalences when comparing the socio-political relations between various ethnic groups in the south Caucasus; our historical present appears to be nothing if not this time of crystallization.


[1]. For contemporary historian and lecturer at Sciences Po Lille, Étienne Peyrat, while Stalin “is an unavoidable presence in discussions of the Caucasus, his appointment as People’s Commissar for Nationalities in Bolshevik Russia set him challenges far beyond the rivalries in his native region. The creation of Nagorno-Karabakh was a tactical move by the Soviet authorities, combining ideological principles and political realities in a turbulent region, rather than a conscious strategy of divide-and-rule.” Echoing Peyrat, Arsène Saparov, an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, has offered remarks to a similar effect: “Of all the documents I have seen, there is no direct evidence of Stalin doing or saying anything…that [that resulted in this decision on Karabakh].” Moreover, Saparov adds, “my conclusion is that the decision [on putting Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan] simply reflected the situation on the ground and that the Armenian Communists had no control over Karabakh. The Dashnak rebellion in Zangezur had already been crushed and the only argument used for making Karabakh part of Armenia — that granting Karabakh to Armenia would undermine the position of the Dashnaks — had disappeared.”

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