Analysis of the Nagorno-Karabakh war through the just war theory principles / Анализ Нагорно-Карабахской войны через призму принципов теории справедливой войны (резюме статьи на русском в конце текста)

18 октября, 2017 - 19:00

Nelli Efremyan, M.A. in International Relations, Research assistant at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen

Нелли Ефремян, магистр международных отношений, научный сотрудник в Исследовательском центре Восточной Европы при Бременском университете

(резюме статьи на русском в конце текста)

Analysis of the Nagorno-Karabakh war through the just war theory principles

Just war theory principles

According to Nicholas Fotion (2000), there are principles or criteria that help a nation to determine when it is morally justified in going to war (justice of the war) and how that war is to be morally fought (justice in the war).

Justice of the war (Jus ad Bellum). The principles or criteria for helping determine when it is morally justified in going to war usually come to six.

1. Just cause. This criterion is about nation’s reasons that give moral permission to go to war. Just war theorists define a few sub-criteria that should be satisfied:

a. National self-defense. If one nation aggresses and victimizes another nation by crossing its borders, deconstructing and occupying some of its parts, then an offended nation is justified in responding and has a very good reason for entering into the war.

b. Aggressive behavior against nation’s own people. If the government of one country discriminates or has an intention to systematically eliminate a group of people on the racial, ethnic, religious, cultural or national basis, then another country is justified to enter the war on the humanitarian ground.

c. Preemptive strikes. If one country lives under a clear and present threat of attack from another country and has a clear evidence of this threat (for example, documents, satellite reports or any other intelligence reports which prove that the attack is imminent), then this country is justified to strike first.

2. Good intentions. This criterion means that by entering the war the nation has an intention to act accordingly to the just cause that provoked the war. In that sense, for example, if one country faced with an aggression of another country, the intention of this country will be just to stop this aggression and nothing more (like to gain territory later).

3. Proportionality. This means that expected costs of fighting the war should not be incredibly higher than benefits, but be approximately on the same level.

4. Likelihood of success. This criterion and the criterion of proportionality are related because both of them are dealing with the consequences of fighting the war. According to this criterion, if the country has no chance or an extremely little chance to get good consequences resulting from going to war, then this country should not go to war. The reason is that only bad consequences will come from resisting.

5. Last (reasonable) resort. This criterion is applied to the cases when there are no other options for the offended nation. The last resort criterion should be reasonable to discourage any trigger-happy responses when one is provoked.

6. Legitimate authority. This criterion does not explain what to do with an upcoming war, but it says that only certain people have an authority to decide whether to go or not go to war. These people are only the governmental leaders that have a legal right and authority to send a nation to war.

Justice in the war (Jus in bello). The principles or criteria for helping determine how the war is to be morally fought are applied only after the war starts. Usually, two criteria are distinguished.

1. Proportionality (in respect to costs and benefits of doing things in war). The conduction of just war should be governed by the principle of proportionality. Warring parties should be sure that the harm and damage caused to civilians and their property are not excessive in relation to the military advantages anticipated by a strike on a legitimate military objective.

2. Discrimination. This principle defines those in war who are supposed to be discriminated from the enemies. Some enemies are targets of a legitimate attack while others are not. The way of discriminating is in terms of who is in uniform and who is not. The problem of this principle is if forces attack only those in uniform, it will attack not only fighters, but also chaplains and medical personnel, but it will definitely decrease the number of killed people anyway.

‘Justice of the war’ principles (jus ad bellum)

Just cause

It is clear that the desire to be independent itself cannot be a justified cause to start a war, but for Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh, the secession from Azerbaijan was something more than independence. This was an end, in the short term, for cultural and economic discrimination and, in the long term, for the elimination of the threat to their existence.

Until the mid-1980s, the requirements to change the status of Nagorno-Karabakh were not often available to the general public and any actions in this direction were immediately suppressed. After the started by Mikhail Gorbachev policy of democratization, in the beginning of 1988, the Armenian population in the Nagorno-Karabakh received an opportunity to express the discontent with their socio-economic status through demonstrations and acts of protest. According to a number of different research made on this conflict (Brown 1997; Furman 1994), the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh had good reasons to be unsatisfied. The region was economically exhausted and exploited by the Azerbaijani authorities while Armenian culture was also under suppression. In spite of its closeness to the border with Armenia, Armenians in that region could not receive any television or radio podcasts from Armenia and the teaching of Armenian history was forbidden in the schools.

Moreover, after the acts of protest started, there was the so-called Sumgait pogrom in 1988 that targeted Armenian population of the seaside town of Sumgait in Soviet Azerbaijan. This was the first outbreak of mass violence and the turning point in exacerbating ethnic conflict between Azeri and Armenians (Vartanyan 2011; De Waal 2013).

According to Russian scientist Dmitry Furman (1994), this situation and its development were largely affected by interaction of three main socially active groups in Azerbaijan: a) economically poor people that are prone to the rebellion and bigotry; b) intellectual, economic and political elite; c) and pan-Turkic and pro-Western stratum of Azeri intellectuals that were inspired by the example of the short-lived independent Republic of Azerbaijan in 1918-1920. Elites and related to them people were afraid of the poor strata and intellectuals with an intent to the rebellion. That is why the anger of these groups of people was often directed by elites to aggression towards Armenians and later to national military efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Good intention

As was stated above, it was an Azerbaijan’s decision to first start the ethnic cleansing and later full-fledged military actions that shaped most of right intentions of the Armenians, who wanted to protect innocent lives from unjust strikes and to protect an existence of Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh (which was cast into doubt when Azerbaijan started to use brutal force in an effort to stop the Armenians’ session drive).

One more intention was to reinstate satisfactory living conditions by setting up a land connection with Armenia. At the beginning of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Nagorno-Karabakh region was surrounded by the regions with Azerbaijani, Kurdish and minority Armenian population and there was no land border with Armenia. The Human Rights Watch (1992: 12) reported that “by the winter of 1991-1992, as a result of Azerbaijan’s three-year economic and transport blockade, Nagorno-Karabakh was without fuel, electricity, running water, functioning sanitation facilities, communication facilities and most consumer goods”. Also, in 1992 Section 907 was added to the Freedom Support Act of 1992 by the United State Congress, which blocked direct support of the US government to the Azerbaijan’s government because “the government of Azerbaijan is taking demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh”. As the result of this blockade, there was a massive deficit of such basic necessities, as medicine and even food in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian air transport capabilities were too limited to provide all necessary things. That is why the Lachin corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh was established in 1992 (when the armed conflict already started).

The protection of innocent lives and the existence of Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh through the establishment of the land link between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and continuation of armed hostilities in this case – all of these is an example of good intentions because by fighting and winning the war the living conditions for people were significantly improved.

Last resort

As was explained above, Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh had a just cause to go to war. But the question is, did they really try all other peaceful alternatives? To answer this question, it is necessary to analyze their actions before the war started.

Starting from 1988, Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh first convened a session of its regional parliament and voted for the reunification with Armenia. Both Soviet and Azerbaijani parliaments rejected this request. The Nagorno-Karabakh parliament continued to seek a peaceful way out of Azerbaijan. Even after aggression against Armenians during the Sumgait pogrom and another ethnical cleansing of Armenian population on the territory of former Azerbaijan SSR. In June 1990 a delegation of Nagorno-Karabakh officials met with Ayaz Mutalibov, the former president of Azerbaijan, to negotiate and try to stop violence, but they could not. One more delegation visited Soviet officials in Moscow, but it also did not bring any result because the Soviet Union was living its last days and had another more significant for the Union problems. Later, Nagorno-Karabakh applied to the international community and asked to interfere into this conflict. This appeal was also not heard because the region of South Caucasus was the Russian zone of influence and no one wanted to challenge Moscow by peacemaking mission in Nagorno-Karabakh.

All this shows that Nagorno-Karabakh authorities tried to resolve the conflict by all peaceful means before starting self-defend actions against Azerbaijan’s efforts to resolve this conflict with the help of brutal force.

Likelihood of success

The truth is that at the beginning of the conflict, Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh even with the help of Armenians of Armenia were not outgunned and outnumbered to go to war. But the Nagorno-Karabakh still had different advantages. First of all, the idea of protection of Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh was kind of an idea of protection of national interests. This led to the fact that on the Armenian side were fighting a lot of Armenian volunteers , who came from all over the world (from Russia, the US, Middle Eastern Countries etc.). Secondly, the Nagorno-Karabakh mountainous terrain extremely decreased advantages of Azerbaijani superiority in personnel and weapons because Armenian side was more familiar with the terrain features. Sometimes, during the active hostilities, because of these features, Azerbaijani troops had to leave the battlefield without their weapons. And these two advantages led to the third advantage. In the course of the conflict, Armenian troops were becoming more skilled and armed and, as a consequence, more self-confident.

As was stated above, it was a last resort for Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to go to war. And even if they did not really have a reasonable hope of success, they had to resist an aggression from Azerbaijani side. As was pointed by Childressin his “Just War Theories” (1978), “even if a nation has good reason to think that it will be defeated anyway, its vigorous resistance may preserve significant values beyond the number of lives and retention of territory and sovereignty”.


It is hardly possible to estimate proportionality of using force in this case. The decision of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians to go to war had two sides.

On the one hand, the decision of Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to abstain from armed resistance would result in the deportation of these people from their historical homeland. It would mean that around 145.5 thousand Armenians would have to flee or face annihilation.

On the other hand, without using force it would be possible to avoid 20 thousand causalities that both sides suffered in the conflict. Moreover, the Azeri minority of Nagorno-Karabakh, around 40.6 thousand people, would have remained in place.

All in all, it is possible to say that Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians should go to war anyway because the exodus and a big number of causalities would take place even if Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh did not launch their independence bid. After the disintegration of USSR, there were lots of ethnic conflicts on its former territory and there was no reason to expect that Armenian and Azeri people would have avoided such a conflict.

Legitimate authority

Just War Theory requires that nation should go to war only when it acting under proper and legitimate authority. Did Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have a proper and competent authority? There is no clear answer to this question.

From April until August in 1991, the Soviet Army together with the Azerbaijani police started actions of disarmament of Nagorno-Karabakh villages and forced deportation of their residents to Armenia (so-called Ring operation). Thus, 17 villages were deported (De Waal 2013). However, after August 22 all Moscow’s influence on events in Nagorno-Karabakh stopped. Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, who created their own ‘self-defense groups’, and Azerbaijan with its police and militaries, remained one on one against each other. On September 2, 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh authorities declared an establishment of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as a part of USSR. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s Declaration on Independence (1991) stated the following: “[…] recognizing that Azerbaijan’s policies of apartheid and discrimination have created an atmosphere of hatred and intolerance with respect to the Republic’s Armenian population […]”. In November 1991, the Supreme Council of Azerbaijan adopted a resolution on elimination of the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh. For that reason, on December 10, 1991, a referendum on the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh was held (which was boycotted by Azeri minority) and independent state was officially declared. This provoked aggressive actions from Azerbaijan, which later developed into a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Speaking about the criterion of legitimate authority, it should be noted that with the end of the Cold war the non-state actors started entering the scene where previously two superpowers with their allies ensured the territorial integrity of states. And the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh became such an actor like Kosovo Albanians.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians constituted an overwhelming majority of the population, had an operating autonomous government, legislature and other paraphernalia that qualified them as a self-organized distinct people entitled to both self-determination and self-defense.

‘Justice in the war’ principles (jus in bello)


There were two strategic stages of the war fought by Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh:

a. defense stage;

b. counter-offensive stage.

During the first stage, the actions of Armenians were largely proportionate to their original goals if defending their community. As for the counter-offensive stage, Armenians actually did not stop at liberating occupied Nagorno-Karabakh districts, which would mean the end of the war. On the contrary, they continued by occupying some of the Azeri districts around the Nagorno-Karabakh region and driving their population out to create a so-called security belt around the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. On the one hand, this security belt provided security of Nagorno-Karabakh borders. On the other hand, it provoked a massive exodus of the Azeri population from the occupied by Armenians districts.


The justice in the war principle required Armenians to discriminate between combats and civilians, to refrain from the intentional and direct targeting of non-combatants as well as from unnecessary damage and cruelty.

There is strong evidence that Armenian side did not always discriminate between combats and civilians and refrain from unnecessary damage. Sometimes, if not often, just like their opponents Armenians destroyed residential areas under their occupation and did not always respect non-combatants’ immunity, weakening of the Azerbaijani economy and instigating mass panic. They also resorted to indiscriminate shelling and taking hostages, often to swap them for their own compatriots captured by Azerbaijani side.


The analysis of Nagorno-Karabakh war (1991-1994) through just war theory has several conclusions:

1. Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians had a just cause to go to war as well as good intentions when considering whether to use force or not. The Armenian side was nor seeking revenge for years of racial and economic discrimination from Azerbaijani side, but trying to stop this discrimination.

2. Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians used force as their last resort and this was done for self-defense because Azerbaijan was trying to resolve this conflict by using the brutal force.

3. Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians had a reasonable hope of success when deciding to resist the aggression because they had several advantages over Azeris.

4. In spite of a lot of causalities from both sides, a proportionate price was paid for the prevention of aggressive actions from Azerbaijani side.

5. Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians had a proper authority to go to war. The Nagorno-Karabakh region had a right to self-determination. For that reason, the referendum on the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was held and then the independent republic was declared. Also, Nagorno-Karabakh had an independent and good operating government and other things that could qualify them as a self-organized distinct people.

From this analysis, it is possible to see that actions of Armenians during the Nagorno-Karabakh war (1991-1994) meet all criteria and principles of justice of the war. As for principles of justice in the war, the actions of Armenians more reflected the realists’ beliefs that believe that war is not able to be a rule-governed activity rather than just war theorists’ beliefs.


1. Brown, A. (1997). The Gorbachev factor. Oxford University Press.

2. Childress, J. (1978): Just War Theories: The Bases, Interrelations, Priorities, and Functions of Their Criteria. In: Theological Studies, 39, 427-445.

3. De Waal, T. (2013): Black garden. New York: New York University Press.

4. Declaration on proclamation of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (1991). Available at:

5. Fotion, N. (2000): Reactions to War: Pacifism, Realism, and Just War Theory. In: Valls, A. (ed.): Ethics in International Relations: Theories and Cases. Lanham: Rowman & Little field, 15-32.

6. Furman, D. (1994): The cancelled revolution. A political struggle in Azerbaijan (1988-1993). In: Friendship of nations, 4, 155-156.

7.  Human Rights Watch/Helsinki (1992): Bloodshed in the Caucasus: escalation of the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. New York: Human Rights Watch.

8. Vartanyan, A. (2011). The problem of the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the role of international organizations. Ph.D. The Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

Анализ Нагорно-Карабахской войны через призму принципов теории справедливой войны

В данной статье автор анализирует Нагорно-Карабахскую войну 1991-1994 годов, используя принципы, описанные в теории справедливой войны.

Справедливая война – это морально допустимая война, которая соответствует определенным принципам. Ник Фоушин, говоря о теории справедливой войны, отмечает, что существуют критерии или принципы, согласно которым нация может определять, когда ведение войны морально оправдано (Jus ad Bellum) и каким образом данная война должна вестись, чтобы оставаться в рамках морали (Jus in bello)

К принципам Jus ad Bellum относятся следующие шесть критериев:

1. Война должна начинаться по справедливым мотивам и ради морально оправданной цели. Сюда входят:

• национальная самозащита;

• защита людей, страдающих от дискриминации и систематического агрессивного поведения по отношению к ним;

• превентивная мера для предотвращения постоянно нависающей над нацией угрозы;

2. Война должна вестись в соответствии с установленной справедливой целью и выражать «добрые, или правильные намерения»;

3. Предполагаемое бремя войны должно быть адекватным целям войны;

4. Военные операции должны начинаться при наличии разумных шансов на успех;

5. Начинаемая война действительно должна являться последним (крайним) средством;

6. Войну может начинать только легитимная власть.

Принципы Jus ad Bellum представлены двумя критериями:

1. Допустимо лишь пропорциональное использование насилия по отношению к противнику;

2. Гражданское население должно обладать правом неприкосновенности и следует соблюдать принцип различия в отношении людей в форме и без нее (гражданское население, военнопленные, раненые).

В процессе анализа Нагорно-Карабахской войны через призму описанных выше критериев автор статьи приходит к нескольким выводам:

1. Армяне Нагорного-Карабаха имели справедливый мотив для начала войны, вели её в соответствии с установленной моральной и справедливой  целью, а также выражали «добрые» намерения;

2. Армяне Нагорного-Карабаха использовали силу в качестве последнего и крайнего средства. Данная мера была принята исключительно для самозащиты, так как Азербайджан пытался решить конфликт, используя грубую силу;

3. У Нагорного-Карабаха были действительно разумные шансы на успех;

4. Несмотря на большие потери с обеих сторон, адекватная цена была уплачена Нагорным-Карабахом для предотвращения агрессивных действий со стороны Азербайджана;

5. Нагорно-карабахские армяне имели надлежащие полномочия для ведения войны. Нагорно-карабахский регион имеет право на самоопределение. По этой причине был проведен референдум о независимости Нагорно-Карабахской Республики, после чего была объявлена независимая республика. Кроме того, в Нагорном Карабахе существовало независимое и хорошее действующее правительство и другие элементы, квалифицирующие население региона как отдельных самоорганизованных людей.

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