Does the Offence– Defence Theory Explain War Onset Between Small States? Causes and Consequences of the 2020–2023 Armenia–Azerbaijan War

Published date01 June 2024
AuthorJavadbay Khalilzada
Date01 June 2024
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Does the Offence–
Defence Theory Explain
War Onset Between
Small States? Causes
and Consequences of
the 2020–2023 Armenia–
Azerbaijan War
Javadbay Khalilzada1
The article explores the causes and consequences of the 2020–2023 Karabakh War
between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan reclaimed large parts of territories
within 44 days of the war in 2020, the country lost control in the early 1990s
and was only hindered from full control by a Russian-brokered ceasefire. Over
the subsequent three years, Azerbaijan gradually asserted dominance, reclaiming
all lost territories by 2023. The study probes the war’s causes and Azerbaijan’s
military success. It focuses on power imbalances and strategic dynamics between
the two countries that led to the war. By applying the offence–defence theory,
it argues that shifting economic and military strengths rendered war inevitable
due to deadlock in negotiations. Azerbaijan’s military investment, modernisation
and purchase of advanced technological armament changed the balance between
the two states and increased its offensive advantage. The article also examines
underlying regional power competition, shaping post-war dynamics in the South
The Karabakh War, causes and consequences of the Karabakh War, offence–
defence theory, Azerbaijan, Armenia
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
11(2) 190–213, 2024
© The Author(s) 2024
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970241250099
1 Department of Political Science, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio, USA
Corresponding author:
Javadbay Khalilzada, Department of Political Science, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio 44240, USA.
Khalilzada 191
Introduction: A Shaky Ceasefire Between Armenia
and Azerbaijan
Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was under the jurisdiction of
the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (AzSSR) since it was established by
the Bolsheviks in 1923 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December
1991. The Armenian majority of the region and the Armenian Soviet Socialist
Republic (ArSSR) disputed its status and demanded the transfer of the region
to ArSSR. However, until the glasnost and perestroika reforms by Soviet leader
Mikhail Gorbachev, it did not transform into a public movement. During the last
years before the Soviet dissolution, Armenians started the public demand for
the unification of the NKAO with ArSSR. The Soviet Union did not last long
in solving the problem, and newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan found
themselves at odds over the region. The dispute eventually transformed into a
full-scale war in 1991 and continued until the Bishkek ceasefire in May 1994.
Armenia has taken control of NKAO and seven adjacent regions of Azerbaijan,
more than it was objected to.
There have been ongoing negotiations between the two sides since the 1990s,
mediated by the Minsk Group co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States;
but it was ineffective in resolving the conflict (Abilov, 2018; Gasparyan, 2019).
Both Azerbaijan and Armenia resisted any compromise. Azerbaijani side never
accepted its defeat and the consequences of the war and only promised autonomy to
the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh under the sovereignty of Azerbaijan. Victorious
Armenia resisted autonomy under Azerbaijan and demanded recognition of the
consequences of the war (De Waal, 2013). Even the narratives of seven occupied
adjacent regions started to change as Armenians recognised these territories as
homeland rather than occupied territories (Kucera, 2018; Toal & O’loughlin, 2013).
It is noteworthy to highlight that despite the overthrow and change of
governments, both Armenia and Azerbaijan were not free and democratic.
Azerbaijan has been ruled by Aliyevs since 1993, first by Heydar Aliyev and since
2003 by his son Ilham Aliyev and recognised as a non-democratic country
(Altstadt, 2017; Hale, 2014; Khalilzada 2019; LaPorte, 2015; Radnitz, 2012).
Armenia’s victorious elite, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan ruled Armenia
from the mid-1990s until the Velvet Revolution, the latter overthrown by Nikol
Pashinyan in 2018. Since then, Pashinyan consolidated his power and conducted
several reforms declaring his adherence to democracy and transparency (Ohanyan
& Broers, 2020). Although it is too early to assess whether the Pashinyan
government will democratise Armenia, the change of the regime in Armenia
brought new approaches to the negotiations as a new government represented
Over the years, the two states have followed different foreign-security strategies
to achieve objectives in international politics. Armenia’s priorities were to achieve
political recognition of the de facto control over Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite
Nagorno-Karabakh being an independent entity established on the NKAO and
seven occupied adjacent regions (the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and later the
Republic of Artsakh), even some scholars defined it as a ‘phantom state (Byman

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