April 22, 2022 | CTX Journal - Special Issue Hybrid Threats and Energy Security

Energy in Conflict: The Case of the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan War

April 22, 2022 | CTX Journal - Special Issue Hybrid Threats and Energy Security

Energy in Conflict: The Case of the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan War


With the rise in frequency of hybrid warfare, combatants in various conflicts are increasingly targeting domestic energy infrastructure and energy supply flows.1 In conventional warfare, militaries traditionally have sought to meet their operational energy needs, gain access to energy supplies, and deny energy supplies to their adversaries.2 However, new energy-related elements of warfare have emerged. During the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan War, energy played several key roles. First, threats to energy infrastructure served as the trigger that ignited this round of hostilities: the war broke out on the eve of the commencement of operations of the Southern Gas Corridor, which would bring Europe its first new natural gas supply in decades. Second, energy infrastructure was also “weaponized” during the fighting, as has happened in warfare throughout history. Finally, Armenia targeted Azerbaijan’s energy export infrastructure during the war. This article will first analyze the energy factor in the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan War, and will then discuss the implications for future warfare.

Background: The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

The wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, especially the first war, from 1992 to 1994, have been among the most lethal conflicts between former Soviet states. During the Soviet period, Moscow had categorized Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region in Soviet Azerbaijan, carving out its borders so that it created a region with an ethnic Armenian majority within Azerbaijan. This was a policy Moscow used to create division in many places in the USSR. When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, all the new states recognized their existing Soviet-era borders as their new international borders, with the exception of Russia and Armenia. In this initial post-Soviet period, Russia occupied two regions of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and a region of Moldova (Transnistria).3 Armenia invaded Azerbaijan and captured the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven additional regions of Azerbaijan, all of which had been recognized by the international community (including the United States) as part of Azerbaijan’s legal territory. Yerevan expelled all the non-Armenian population from the occupied territories, creating close to 800,000 new Azerbaijani refugees. The conflict left the region economically shattered for years.

Russia stoked the conflicts, especially the first war, because the state of belligerence rendered the two combatants more vulnerable to coercion by Moscow.4 While Moscow did not formally recognize Yerevan’s control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding seven districts, it used the conflict to reinforce its power in the region by maintaining two military bases in Armenia and controlling Armenian airspace and air defenses. Moreover, Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russian-led mutual defense pact.

Yerevan referred to the areas it occupied as the “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic,” even though Armenian military forces occupied the regions.

Armenia copied Moscow’s playbook in the regions it occupied, trying to convince the international system that these regions were under the sovereignty of independent entities instead of under occupation.5 Thus, Yerevan referred to the areas it occupied as the “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic,” even though Armenian military forces occupied the regions, Yerevan provided the budget for the regions, all the local officials were citizens of Armenia, and many had served as senior Armenian officials.6 During the Armenian occupation, Yerevan established settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh and provided financial and other incentives to ethnic Armenians, especially those from Lebanon and Syria, to move to the occupied territories. Officials in Armenia, local authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, and diaspora organizations flaunted their efforts to bring settlers to the occupied territories.7

In the period following the first war, the line of contact between the forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan remained tense, with an average of over a dozen soldiers killed each year. From time to time, the conflict flared up into full battles, including one in April 2016 that became known as the “Four-Day War” and led to over 200 deaths.

Energy Exports

Azerbaijan is a major source of energy resources, most of which are exported to Europe. Over the last fifteen years, it has produced between 750,000 and one million barrels of oil a day. In 2006, Azerbaijan also began to export natural gas to Georgia and Turkey. In late 2020, following the second Armenia-Azerbaijan War, Azerbaijan opened the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), which brings natural gas from the Caspian Sea region to Europe; this project was the first new source of pipeline natural gas for Europe in several decades. While the SGC supplies less than 10 percent of Europe’s gas imports, it has enabled specific states—Italy, Greece, and soon, Bulgaria—to diversify their gas supplies and thus greatly reduce their dependence on Russia.8 The SGC is anticipated to carry additional gas volumes from fields in Azerbaijan and also potentially from other producers in Central Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean in the future. It is intended to turn Azerbaijan into a major supplier of energy to Europe and provide Baku with a new revenue stream that would improve Azerbaijan’s strategic position.

Dr. Brenda Shaffer is a research faculty member of the Energy Academic Group at the US Naval Postgraduate School. Follow her on Twitter @ProfBShaffer. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

  1. This article is based on a previously published book chapter by the author: Brenda Shaffer, “The Trigger for War: Energy in the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan War,” in The Karabakh Gambit: Responsibility for the Future, ed. Turan Gafarli and Michael Arnold (Istanbul: TRT World Research Centre, 2021), 100-114.
  2. Operational energy is the “energy required for training, moving, and sustaining military forces and weapons platforms for military operations.” 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, section 138c, as cited in Department of Defense, Energy for the Warfighter: Operational Energy Strategy (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2011), 3: https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA544100.pdf
  3. In 2014, Russia also captured Crimea from Ukraine, formally
    annexed it, and occupied Ukraine’s Donbas region.
  4. On the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, see Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2001); Thomas de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through War and Peace (New York: New York University Press, 2013); and Svante E. Cornell, ed., The International Politics of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict: The Original “Frozen Conflict” and European Security (New York: Palgrave, 2017).
  5. For more on Russia’s and Armenia’s use of proxies to attempt to evade responsibility for occupying other countries, see Svante E. Cornell and Brenda Shaffer, “The United States Needs to Declare War on Proxies,” Foreign Policy, 27 February 2020: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/02/27/russia-iran-suleimani-the-united-statesneeds-to-declare-war-on-proxies/
  6. See Svante Cornell and Brenda Shaffer, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupations, Protracted Conflicts, and Territorial Disputes (Washington, DC: Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 2020), 22-23.
  7. Edik Baghdasaryan, “Repopulation is An Essential Question for All Armenians,” Hetq, 25 June 2007: https://hetq.am/en/ article/6744 ; Melania Harutyunyan, “Deputy Prime Minister of Artsakh Spoke about the Resettlement of Artsakh,” Aravot, 27 July 2013: https://www.aravot-en.am/2013/07/27/155729
  8. For more on the significance of Caspian energy, see Brenda Shaffer, “In the Era of U.S. Energy Abundance: The Role of the Caspian Region in U.S. Policy,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 26, no. 2 (spring/summer 2020): https://bjwa.brown.edu/26-2/in-theera-of-u-s-energy-abundance-the-role-of-the-caspian-region-in-us-policy/ ; Brenda Shaffer, “Gas Politics After Ukraine: Azerbaijan, Shah Deniz, and Europe’s Newest Energy Partner,” Foreign Affairs, 17 December 2013: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ russia-fsu/2013-12-17/gas-politics-after-ukraine
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