The Expected Duration of Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

How long will the Azerbaijan-Armenia military clashes last? There are already 600 military casualties that both sides suffered. Azerbaijan is quite optimistic that it can easily seize Nagorno-Karabakh. The Aliyev administration recently acquired an undisclosed number of Turkish military drones[1], which reinforces its optimism for a big victory. Armenia is also optimistic that it can break Azerbaijan’s willingness to fight. First, it has a decent ballistic missile supply.[2] Second, the Nagorno-Karabakh region is considerably mountainous which is easy to defend against invading ground forces.[3]

Naturally, one of the sides must be wrong with their anticipations about the conflict outcome. Wars do not result with both opposing sides as victors. In the current conflict, both Armenia and Azerbaijan anticipate victory on their behalf. Unfortunately, as long as they both have conflicting expectations about the unfolding of the present military clashes, they will fail to conclude hostilities.[4]

Russia’s cease-fire attempts?

Russian Federation has great interest in peace around the Caspian Sea region. For decades, it sought to establish its economic and military sphere of influence that peacefully involves both Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, currently the failure of the cessation of hostilities implies that Russia does not have adequate resources to play the role of a mediator. This is not surprising given how harshly COVID-19 hit the Russian economy and affected its people.[5] Yet, successful mediation often requires an impartial mediator with ample resources to prevent the resumption of hostilities. For example, one reason why Algeria failed to mediate a peace between Iran and Iraq in 1982 was its lack of resources.

The more important implication behind the failed Russian cease-fire attempt is Armenia and Azerbaijan’s inability to maintain the hostilities for long periods. Hours after the cease-fire, the Armenian army shelled large urban areas in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani army retaliated in kind in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Thus, the cessation of hostilities currently is not feasible for neither Armenia, nor Azerbaijan. They both prefer rushing to get the outcome they desire over heeding the words of their mediator – Russia.

In militarized conflicts, time is the enemy. Every new second in a military conflict is an additional cost to the belligerents. In the current case, their unwillingness to abide by the cease-fire indicates that Armenia and Azerbaijan cannot afford to extend the fight further for months. Especially with their COVID-19 ridden economies, it is farfetched to anticipate that both Armenia and Azerbaijan will be able to fight for long. The failure of the cease-fire reveals how the circumstances are actually dire for both sides.

So, why not settle on a ceasefire if both countries’ economic conditions are dire? Both countries still have conflicting expectations about the outcome of their conflict. However, as the time goes by, they likely will lose their optimism. Then, it is better to fight now than to fight later when the costs of doing so will potentially be too burdensome. Therefore, Armenia and Azerbaijan will continue to shell each other’s towns while they still can afford it. Cease-fire potentially means little to them, despite the humanitarian need for one.

Outside Forces

Holding all else constant, the anticipated remaining duration of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan is short. As I argued, this is due to their implicit willingness to rush to get the outcome they each desire. Yet, the old rivals are not fighting in a vacuum. There is the risk of third parties being directly drawn to the conflict. Currently, Turkey does this involvement explicitly on the side of Azerbaijan. By supplying the Azerbaijanis with military drones and Sunni militants[6], Turkey likely increases Ilham Aliyev’s optimism that he can seize the whole Nagorno-Karabakh region. He already stated with an apparent grin in an interview that his Turkish drones caused more than $1 billion worth damage to the Armenian army.[7]

If Turkey remains the only third party, this can actually lessen the duration of the war. Turks are already supporting the seemingly stronger side, and potentially decreasing Armenia’s optimism of achieving a victory. Nevertheless, if another third party joins Armenia’s side as actively as Turkey, then this can become a recipe for a long and bloody conflict (hint: France[8]). To understand why this will be the case, look no further than to the Syrian Civil War. Both factions are supported by third parties, and the war has not ended yet.

The problem is that Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan can still create incentives for other third parties to be drawn into the conflict. This is similar to how Germany joined the World War I in the side of Austro-Hungary after Russia joined the Serbian side. Similar instances are plenty in both World Wars.[9] With Turkey’s participation in the side of Azerbaijan, Armenia becomes significantly disadvantaged. Hence, this increases the chances of other third parties such as France and especially Russia to be drawn into the conflict in the side of Armenia. The result will be a significant increase in the time until a more permanent ceasefire is established.

To sum up, first, Armenia and Azerbaijan have conflicting expectations about how this fight will unfold. Thus, neither side is ready to give up. However, second, they may not be able to afford a long fight to realize their goals, which is indicated by their impatience for a cease-fire. Third, involvement of outside parties can drastically increase the expected duration of this fight. Turkey’s greater involvement will likely attract other third parties and increase the duration of fight – and even cause it to turn into a war.


[1] https://bulgarianmilitary.com/2020/06/27/azerbaijan-buys-the-deadly-turkish-bayraktar-tb2-mid-range-strike-uav/

[2] https://edam.org.tr/en/military-alert-the-armenian-military-could-escalate-the-conflict-by-using-iskander-ballistic-missiles/  

[3] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/10/15/drones-tanks-obsolete-nagorno-karabakh-azerbaijan-armenia/

[4] Geoffrey Blainey (1973) Causes of War NY: The Free Press

[5] https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-russia-putin-analy/putins-problems-mount-as-coronavirus-hits-russian-economy-idUKKCN2242WO

[6] http://asianews.it/news-en/Turkey-sends-4,000-Syrian-ISIS-mercenaries-to-fight-against-the-Armenians-(VIDEO)-51151.html

[7] https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20201014-azerbaijani-president-ilham-aliyev-we-never-deliberately-attacked-civilians

[8] https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2020/9/30/macron-and-turkey-spar-over-karabakh-conflict

[9] Geoffrey Blainey (1983) Causes of War

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