Azerbaijan’s anti-Armenian attacks in 1988-91 only confirmed Nagorno Karabakh’s worst fears. After proclaiming independence by unilaterally breaking away from the USSR in 1991, Azerbaijan unconstitutionally "abolished” the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region and organized full-scale military aggression against its people. This eventually emptied Azerbaijan of all ethnic Armenians residing in places outside of Nagorno Karabakh’s self-defense zone. Overall, nearly 370,000 Armenians (out of their total number of 475,000, according to the USSR ’s 1979 Census) were permanently displaced from Azerbaijan. Most of them were dumped in refugee camps in Armenia.
Despite all expectations, mass acts of retaliatory vengeance against ethnic Azerbaijanis residing in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh never took place, chiefly because of vigilantly enforced self-discipline of Armenian activists who did not want to provide the Kremlin an excuse to suppress the Karabakh freedom movement. As to Azerbaijanis, they cared much less because the Kremlin ended up supporting Baku. Nonetheless, Azerbaijani residents of Armenia responded to rumors generated by Baku’s Soviet-style propaganda machine and left the country in a parallel wave of migration.
Before 1991, Azerbaijan depended on anti-reform elements in the Kremlin who defied Gorbachev and regarded the Nagorno Karabakh freedom movement as an initiative that posed danger for the Communist regime because of its liberal and democratic appeal. These reactionary forces considered Azerbaijan as a staunch ally of the Communist dictatorship. To support Baku, the Kremlin placed under Azerbaijan’s disposal Soviet punitive police units that operated together with Azerbaijani death squads against Armenian political activists and defiant Armenian villagers in 1990-1991. In its ethnic cleansing and mass-murder operations, Baku relied on a virtually bottomless pool of ammunition and military hardware that Azerbaijan inherited from the Soviet Army.
In its effort to depopulate Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan employed all available means, including the use of foreign mercenaries. These included several thousand mujahideen fighters from Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere, including those who later became the core of Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network.
In 1988-1994, the US Congress, institutions of the European Union as well as Soviet and European human rights organizations protested against these retaliatory actions and expressed their support for the Nagorno Karabakh people in their official proclamations.
In the United States, Article 907 of the Freedom Support Act, passed in 1992, restricted US assistance to Azerbaijan because of its blockades of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.
Armenia was limited in its ability to assist their brethren in Artsakh due to the aftereffects of a devastating earthquake that in December of 1988 ruined the country and made one in five of Armenia’s residents homeless. Taking advantage of this situation, Azerbaijan attacked Nagorno Karabakh from every corner and sought to flatten its settlements with aerial and artillery bombardments that mainly targeted civilians. The region’s provincial capital, Stepanakert, was thus reduced to piles of smoldering debris. At the same time, Azerbaijan initiated a total land and air blockade that kept Nagorno Karabakh cut-off from the outside world from mid-1988 to 1992. By 1992, the blockade caused starvation and an outbreak of epidemics throughout the province.