In 1988, as disagreements over Nagorno Karabakh triggered violent pogroms and led to Soviet security operations in Azerbaijan and Armenia, the U.S. government – and its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – scrambled to understand the potential impact of the conflict on stability of the Soviet government. Most of the Karabakh-related reports were prepared by leading Soviet analyst at the CIA Robert Blackwell. In 2017 a number of these documents, previously declassified, became available via CIA online library.
The 21 April 1988 Warning Assessment by Blackwell, argued that although there was a pause in street protests that began in February, initial Soviet economic and cultural concessions made to Karabakh Armenians “will not be sufficient to satisfy the Armenians.” The assessment suggested that “there was risk of serious trouble” on April 24, the “anniversary of the massacre of Armenians.”
On 16 June 1988 a one-page explainer on the “History of Armenian-Azeri Animosity” was submitted by CIA director William Webster to vice-president George Bush, who raised the topic during a presidential daily briefing. The one-pager noted that the “enmity.. fundamentally is based on religious and ethnic differences” and that “over the centuries these differences produced acrimonious territorial disputes.”
The explainer noted the “resentment of what [Azeris] see as Russian favoritism toward the Armenians – based on religious affinity and larger Armenians’ representation of Armenians in Moscow’s political elite… These larger grievances indirectly feed into Armenian-Azeri tensions and increase the potential for Azeri violence against Armenian inhabitants of Azerbaijan.”
The August 1988 Research Paper on “Unrest in the Caucasus and the Challenge of Nationalism” took a deeper dive into the Karabakh topic with a focus on how Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of reform and transparency helped renew the old disputes and how the rival nationalist agendas could now undermine Gorbachev’s priorities by strengthening conservative challengers to his leadership.
The paper concluded that “the [Soviet] leadership appears to be groping toward a long-term compromise that just might work. This would be some new administrative arrangement whereby Nagorno-Karabakh is not transferred to Armenia but is either given some degree of genuine autonomy in Azerbaijan and, perhaps for the time being, is run de facto by Moscow’s representative.”
In fact, the paper accurately predicted the introduction of direct rule via Moscow representative Arkady Volsky in Karabakh in 1989. But amid continuing and expanding violence, and broader Soviet collapse, proposals to upgrade Karabakh’s status from autonomous oblast to autonomous republic, could not produce a solution to the dispute.
In 1991, following more than three years of violence, Nagorno Karabakh Armenians declared an independent Nagorno Karabakh Republic. The declaration was made based on international self-determination precedents and the Soviet law on secession. The Azerbaijani Republic, which also declared its independence, abolished the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and began military efforts to bring its area under control. These efforts proved unsuccessful.