“Two States, One Nation”: Pan-Turkic Military Cooperation in the Synchronous Collapse of Nagorno-Karabakh and International Law

Christina Panossian, Apr 16, 2024

Broken “khachkar,” an Armenian religious symbol resting in the Lachin district following capture by Azeri forces.


On the eve of Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler affirmed his plans of territorial expansion eastward, boasting, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of Armenians?” [1] While Hitler delivered this statement almost a century ago on the imperceptible plight of Armenian communities fighting ethnic cleansing and genocide by Ottoman Turks, this assertion rings eerily true in our contemporary geopolitical climate.


In 1923, the Soviet Union formally established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, an ethnically Armenian enclave situated within the borders of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Thereafter, Soviet control over both Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan ameliorated some of the conflict between the two entities. However, this peace was short-lived as the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s rekindled conflict between the Armenian and Azeri Soviet Socialist republics. Armenians within Nagorno-Karabakh advocated for unification efforts with Armenia, while Azerbaijan utilized borders drawn by the Soviets to reason the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh into Azeri control. The first of many to come, this conflict created around 30,000 total casualties and initiated an exodus of refugees from the region [2]. While Armenia possessed total control over Nagorno-Karabakh by 1993, Russia intervened a year later in 1994 to implement the Bishkek Protocol, a ceasefire that would regard Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent entity despite its steady reliance on Armenia’s political order, economic stability, and military assistance. 


Despite periodic shelling and military operations from both Azerbaijan and Armenia, this 1994 bilateral agreement to a ceasefire remained in full effect until September 2020. On September 27, 2020, full-scale war erupted for six weeks, signaling the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and “​​the deadliest fighting the region had witnessed in nearly three decades with over 7,000 military and about 170 civilians killed” [3]. Agreed upon by both parties, a ceasefire arranged by the Russian Federation on November 10, 2020 temporarily relieved the region of bloody conflict. This agreement also entailed the transfer of seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that were once under Armenian occupation back to Azerbaijan. Additionally, it partitioned a significant portion of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and assigned it to Azeri control, while the rest of Nagorno-Karabakh remained under local Armenian authorities and Russian peacekeepers’ third-party monitoring. Furthemore, the ceasefire implemented by the Russians established the Lachin Corridor, a strip of land monitored by Russian peacekeepers that serves as Nagorno-Karabakh’s lifeline to directly receiving aid, communications, and support from Armenia. Since its establishment, this Corridor has been weaponized by Azeri forces to deprive native Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh of food, water, and other vital medical supplies to make life within Nagorno-Karabakh uninhabitable and catalyze the cleansing of Armenian populations from the land. Following the 2020 war, tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia became more volatile—the distance between military forces shrunk to a 30-100 meter span where they once had been hundreds of meters apart [3]. Between the war in 2020 and September 16, 2023, it was calculated that Azeri forces endured 570 casualties, while Armenian forces suffered 654 casualties from the intermittent conflict [3]. Negotiation efforts spearheaded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been to no avail, making the potential for renewed escalation in conflict quite high.


Contemporary ethnic cleansing of native Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh afforded global powers a distinct opportunity to condemn genocidal injustice and establish an international precedent in support of human rights, good governance, and sovereignty of diminishing cultural enclaves. The flare up of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border is not merely a land grab—Azerbaijan is motivated by less conspicuous political and imperial interests. This turmoil in the Caucasus region is motivated by Turkish-Azeri collaboration towards building a new pan-Turkic empire, spanning from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. Other neighboring countries, such as Iran and Israel, also act as facilitators in this conflict, providing military support to Azerbaijan as they consider Nagorno-Karabakh Azeri territory. Fundamentally, the successful cleansing of ethnic Armenian communities within the region, through blockades of life-saving aid, the use of banned chemical weapons, and the destruction of religious monuments dating back to the 12th century, suggest an egregious failure of international law.


Throughout Azerbaijan’s relatively short history as an independent Republic, the country has maintained close ties with Turkey, an alliance that ideologically emboldens Azerbaijan as an offspring nation sharing in the same nationalist zest for expansion. Turkish-Azeri solidarity has played an instrumental role in the Azeri’s military impact as Turkey supplies Azerbaijan with enhanced and newer military capacity. Turkey and Azerbaijan’s shared motivation for the eradication of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians stems from the belief that indigenous Armenian communities should surrender their land, a region recognized internationally as a part of Azerbaijan due to Soviet-era border distinctions. In fact, Turkey’s Erdogan regards formal diplomatic relations with Armenia entirely contingent on the withdrawal of Armenian communities from Nagorno-Karabakh. There is little potential to remediate tense relations between Armenia and its neighbors without Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians conceding their land to Azeri authorities. The fragile geopolitical conditions at the Armenia-Azerbaijan border will intensify as Azerbaijan grows its alliance with Turkey. According to statistics from the Turkish Exporters’ Assembly, Azerbaijan purchased $123 million of military goods, which includes drones, ammunition, and missiles, from Turkey in the months prior to the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in September 2020. This substantial dependence on Turkish military led Azerbaijan to become the greatest arms buyer from Turkey by September 2020, even surpassing  the United States in purchases of Turkish arms [4]. Evidenced by the price tag on these deals, it is clear that “Ankara is very determined in providing Baku with its needs,” a growing military cooperation “getting stronger by the day,” according to Turkish defense analyst Turan Oguz [4].


Furthemore, Turkey-Azerbaijan relations, which have catered to the suffering and eventual expulsion of ethnic Armenian communities from their ancestral lands, thrives off of similar demographic compositions between the two nations. Azerbaijan is a Turkic nation linguistically and also shares in the same religious fundamentals of Turkish society [5]. The Azerbaijani language falls within Oghuz, a group of Turkic languages that includes Anatolian and Turkmen dialects of Turkish. Such overlapping linguistic patterns cultivate shared understandings of culture and values in Azerbaijan and Turkey, linking the two countries through a shared national identity. Furthermore, similarities in religious composition facilitate a singular national identity that unifies Turkey and Azerbaijan. 96% of Azerbaijan’s population is comprised of Muslim individuals [6]. In Turkey, 99% of the population identifies as Muslim, signifying that Islam influences societal values in both Azerbaijan and Turkey [7]. The religious linkages between Azerbaijan and Turkey intensify hostility towards Armenia, one of the few Christian nations within the Caucasus and the first to adopt Christianity in 301 AD. Armenia, therefore, impedes a fluid Islamic empire championed by Turkey in alliance with Azerbaijan. Reinforced by linguistic and religious parallels, the notion of “two states, one nation” is especially critical to understanding the joint political and imperial motivations of Azerbaijan and Turkey, which shape their foreign policy with respect to the landlocked Christian nation of Armenia [8]. Shared nationalism sets the backdrop for Azerbaijan’s aggressive military approach towards Nagorno-Karabakh’s indigenous Armenian communities and explains how Turkey’s unwavering alliance with Azerbaijan has subsidized the ethnic cleansing and forced removal of Armenians from the homeland to which they have been linked to since before the Antiquities.


Military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey, augmented by mutual linguistic, religious, and political interests, has effectuated several violations of international law, particularly during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Beyond leading to many casualties on both sides, this conflict and the brutal expulsion of ethnic Armenian communities suggest a decline in the integrity of international humanitarian law. One of the most clear breaches of humanitarian law conducted by Azeri forces involves a nine month blockade in December 2022 of the Lachin Corridor. Under the facade of an Azeri-led environmental protest claiming to condemn illegal Armenian control of mines, Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin Corridor denied more than 120,000 ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh life-saving goods, creating shortages of food, electricity, and medical supplies for Armenian households battling difficult winter climates. Azerbaijan’s government claimed no responsibility for the protests, yet the specific demands and precise execution of the demonstration incriminated the Azerbaijani government and clarified their goal: to ethnically cleanse Nagorno-Karabakh by depriving the local Armenian population to encourage and accelerate their surrender of the land [9]. Following the blockade, starvation, malnutrition of children, and unaddressed chronic illnesses such as diabetes became rampant among Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh, making life uninhabitable and leaving Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians with no sufficient recourse besides abandoning their land [10]. Russian peacekeepers and the Red Cross were the only ones allowed to pass through the Azeri blockade, but their assistance was not enough to sustain the large population of marginalized Armenians. Deprivation of life necessities, such as food, water, and medical care has become a textbook tactic of mass suffering globally: similar trends of denial of necessary resources for stable and humane living have been denied to those in Leningrad by Nazi Germany during World War II and more recently, civilians in Ukraine by Russian maritime presence in the Black Sea. 


The Azeri-led blockade of life-saving support for ethnic Armenians to expel them from Nagorno-Karabakh is not the only violation of humanitarian law that occurred during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war. Through an independent investigation in 2020, the United States Department of State concluded that Azerbaijan committed a variety of human rights violations, including torture of prisoners of war and deliberate targeting of civilian structures. The State Department determined the accuracy of two videos published on social media depicting Azerbaijani soldiers executing two Armenians detained in the Armenian town of Hadrut from October 2020 [11]. One of the featured captors donned an Azerbaijani special forces military helmet, although the Azerbaijani government denies its authenticity. On December 10, 2020, Amnesty International published a report on twenty-two verified videos. Within this collection of gruesome videos, Amnesty International unearthed a video depicting the decapitation of two Armenian civilians by Azerbaijani soldiers, one wearing a helmet associated with Azeri special operations forces [11]. 


Another common violation of humanitarian law that materialized throughout the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War involves the targeting of civilian structures, specifically places of worship. As the oldest Christian nation, religion provides a network of security and kinship for Armenians, binding the Armenian community in the homeland to those in the Diaspora. Religion is one of the most culturally significant practices that sustains the Armenian people—faith has kept Armenians united and persevering through the 1915 Armenian Genocide and the modern genocide of 2020. Thus, the deliberate targeting of Armenian churches in Nagorno-Karabakh proved to be a symbolic attack on the self-determination of Armenian people—the foundation of their culture is undergoing absolute elimination. On October 8, 2020 in the city of Shushi, the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, one of the largest Armenian churches in the world underwent two air strikes by Azeris, while the city was still under Armenian control. Although Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev denied direct targeting of the church, onsite weapon remnants collected by the Human Rights Watch suggested the deployment of precisely focused munitions by Azerbaijan [12]. This extent of cultural extermination intensely fractures Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh and attempts to destroy any historical footprint they may have to claim rightful ownership of the land. More recently, Aliyev announced his newest effort to remove Armenian inscriptions from the walls of Dadivank Monastery, a religious site from the 9th century that Azerbaijan claims belonged to Caucasian Albanians [13]. Azerbaijan’s Minister of Culture formulated a group to restore these supposed Albanian temples that Aliyev’s government ironically says were desecrated by Armenian capture. Azerbaijan’s extensive cultural erasure in Nagorno-Karabakh is an undeniable facet of genocide. The eradication of Armenian religious origins in Nagorno-Karabakh substantiates that the Christian nation of Armenia inhibits the proliferation of one pan-Turkic, Islamic empire. This brutal denial of human rights and the unchecked elimination of humanity by Azerbaijan highlight that international humanitarian law possesses epically failing enforcement mechanisms to protect marginalized communities.


While the ideological dimension of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War is fundamental to understand why Armenians have faced genocide by the Turkish-backed efforts of Azerbaijan, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge the role of other international powers in this conflict. Each nearby country hosts its unique interests for involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia attempted to play a mediating role, but ultimately failed to stop Azeri attacks on Armenians. Russians have utilized their military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh to project an aura of security, externalize their military control, and acquire a firmer hold within the region to prevent the total expansion of Turkey-backed Azerbaijan [14]. Iran supported resolutions that recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan’s territory, affirming Iranian support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and recognizing that Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijani control is crucial for Iranian foreign policy. Israel has also transferred some of its military equipment to Baku during the Second Nagorno Karabakh war in support of Azeri forces [15]. These geopolitical complexities leave some room to question how different nations have played central roles in the enhancement or denial of self-governance and human rights in Nagorno-Karabakh. 


The relinquishing of Armenian ancestral lands to Azerbaijan has serious implications for the future of humanitarian law. Similar strategies of extermination and ethnic cleansing to achieve land confiscation have crystallized in other regions of the world. Such extermination of heritage cultivates a distasteful decay of the fundamental tenets of international law: self-determination, human rights, peace, and security. This war and its dark culmination for Armenian communities illustrate the undermining of human value and a wanton disregard of human rights by Azerbaijan, Turkey, and other complicit international powers. Armenian existence need not be justified by potential economic value or natural resource availability within the region. Armenian existence in Nagorno-Karabakh is sufficiently reasoned by the clear historical link Armenians have to the land—Armenian presence in Nagorno-Karabakh is nurtured in the texts cradled within 12th century churches, the inscriptions of formal Armenian on the walls of 9th century monasteries, and the surviving ethos that lingers in the homeland despite the forced eviction of Armenians from their homes. 


As outlined in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Crime of Genocide, the legal definition of genocide includes any “act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” [16]. From utilizing innocent Armenian civilians as target practice to staging a nine month long blockade of life-saving necessities to desecrating Armenian churches, Azerbaijan and Turkey are guilty of genocide and have delivered on their supreme intent to eradicate ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Weak Armenian foreign policy will embolden Azerbaijan and Turkey to tread their way towards the capital of Armenia, Yerevan—it is only a matter of time. Armenians have steadily overcome the scars of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, and now, over a century later, their existence is still being questioned and threatened by the same genocidal aggressor in arms with its little brother nation.


In 1939, Hitler asked, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of Armenians?” In 2024, nearly no one.


[1] “Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Nazi Germany (1933-1945).” ArmenianGenocide.org. Armenian National Institute. https://www.armenian-genocide.org/hitler.html.

[2] “Azerbaijan Toddler Killed in Nagorno-Karabakh Shelling.” BBC News, July 5th, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40504373.

[3] “The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: A Visual Explainer.” International Crisis Group, September 16th, 2023. https://www.crisisgroup.org/content/nagorno-karabakh-conflict-visual-explainer.

[4] Toksabay, Ece. “Turkish Arms Sales to Azerbaijan Surged before Nagorno-Karabakh ...” Reuters, October 14th, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/armenia-azerbaijan-turkey-arms-int-idUSKBN26Z230.

[5] Curtis, Glenn E, ed. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia: Country Studies. 1st ed. Library of Congress, 1995.

[6] Rep. Azerbaijan 2022 International Religious Freedom Report. United States Department of State, 2022.

[7] Rep. Turkey (Turkiye) 2022 International Religious Freedom Report. United States Department of State, 2022.

[8] Fraser, Suzan. “AP Explains: What Lies behind Turkish Support for Azerbaijan.” AP News, October 2nd, 2020. https://apnews.com/article/turkey-territorial-disputes-azerbaijan-ankara-armenia-9a95d9690569623adedffe8c16f3588d.

[9] Snell, Lindsey. “Uncovering the Truth behind Azerbaijan’s ‘Ecological’ Blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh: The Role of Government-Linked Volunteer Organizations in the Lachin Corridor.” Genocide Studies International 15, no. 1 (Spring 2021): 69–76.

[10] Gale, Robert Peter, Armen Muradyan, Jemma Arakelyan, Gevorg Tamamyan, Stella Arakelyan, Maria V Babak, Narek Manukyan, and Samvel Danelyan. The humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh. 10410th ed. Vol. 402. The Lancet, 2023.

[11] Rep. Azerbaijan 2020 Human Rights Report. United States Department of State, 2020.

[12] “Azerbaijan: Attack on Church Possible War Crime.” Human Rights Watch, December 16th, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/16/azerbaijan-attack-church-possible-war-crime.

[13] Chapple, Amos. “‘Forgeries’: The Armenian Art That Azerbaijan May ‘erase’ from Churches.” Radio Free Europe, February 9, 2022. https://www.rferl.org/a/azerbaijan-armenia-churches-inscriptions-erase/31693154.html?fbclid=IwAR1iYTdjlkVoXwjyZ7ZIYHYI9rWl6Bd90NTHh83ylP-W_S0_HXnjtA6_zyY.

[14] Atasuntsev, Alexander. “Long-Standing Ties between Armenia and Russia Are Fraying Fast ...” Carnegie Politika, October 13th, 2023. https://carnegieendowment.org/politika/90768.

[15] Motamedi, Maziar. “Iran’s Delicate Balancing Act in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict.” Al Jazeera, October 5th, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/5/iran-nk.

[16] “Genocide.” Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, January 2023. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/genocide.