Fighting re-ignites in Karabakh
Clashes broke out between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces on Wednesday in Nagorno Karabakh, leaving at least three people dead.
The latest flare of violence has jeopardized a fragile truce in the region, with European leaders urging restraint.
Armenia accused Azerbaijan of violating the fall 2020 agreement ending the 44-day Karabakh War, while Azerbaijan’s Foreign ministry states that the claim is “nothing but mere hypocrisy.”
The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense said one of its soldiers died following a “terrorist act” by “illegal military formations.”
As a consequence, Baku said it carried out a “retaliatory operation,” leading to an unspecified number of “illegal Armenian militants” being injured.
Baku also demanded the complete withdrawal of Armenian troops around Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Karabakh army, which is ethnically Armenian, said two of its soldiers were killed and 14 were wounded by Azerbaijani forces.
The enclave’s separatist leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, announced a partial mobilization Wednesday, further escalating the crisis.
Armenia’s foreign ministry called on the “international community to take measures to stop the aggressive actions and attitude of Azerbaijan.”
Yerevan said Azerbaijan attacked areas which are patrolled by peacekeepers.
Azerbaijani officials and pro-government commentators said that the offensive was the result of Armenia’s failure to withdraw its troops from its protectorate of Nagorno-Karabakh. That pullout was one of the conditions of the ceasefire agreement that ended the 2020 war between the two sides, and on July 19 Armenia said the pullout would be complete by September.
“What are illegal Armenian armed units still doing on Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory?” asked Azerbaijani diplomat Nasimi Aghayev on Twitter. “They should all have been withdrawn in line with [the ceasefire] statement. Armenia didn’t do it & bears all responsibility for current tension in the region.”
The violence drew immediate international reaction, with Russia accusing Baku of violating the brittle cease-fire and the European Union urging an “immediate cessation of hostilities.”
“It is essential to de-escalate, fully respect the ceasefire and return to the negotiating table to seek negotiated solutions,” a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
“The European Union remains committed to help overcome tensions and continue its engagement towards sustainable peace and stability in the South Caucasus,” Borrell’s spokesperson added.
The U.S. similarly voiced that it is “deeply concerned” by fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a State Department spokesperson said on the same day.
“We urge immediate steps to reduce tensions and avoid further escalation,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
Price called for “a negotiated, comprehensive, and sustainable settlement of all remaining issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
Russia accused Azerbaijan of breaking the cease-fire and vowed to stabilize the situation.
“The cease-fire regime was violated by the armed forces of Azerbaijan around the Saribaba height,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
“The command of the Russian peacekeeping force, with representatives of Azerbaijan and Armenia, are taking measures to stabilize the situation.”
The escalation came after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Tuesday.
Following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine on Feb. 24, an increasingly isolated Moscow lost its status as the primary mediator in the Karabakh conflict.
If escalation continues, we could see Azerbaijan’s forces continue to regain territory in Nagorno Karabakh, eventually claiming the entire Karabakh region, which would see another military operation similar to the previous one, as Russia’s appeals fall on deaf ears.
Russia’s diminishing influence
Russia appears to be losing influence in the conflict, both as a balancing power and a peacekeeper. Russian peacekeeping forces failed to stop Armenian and Azeri attacks on opposing positions this week, and similar incidents have occurred in the past several months. There are also signs that Azeri troops are discontent with Russia’s peacekeepers as they view them as supporting the Armenian side. Indeed, Russia dropped its balanced and reserved stance as in recent days in clearly solely blamed Azerbaijan for attacking Armenian forces and breaking the ceasefire. This, along with Russia’s preoccupation with the Ukraine war, leaves it in a much weakened position in the region and both Armenia and Azerbaijan have noticed this and taken matters into their own hands. This could also mean that Turkiye will take advantage of the vacuum left by Russia.
The fierce fighting broke out in an area supposedly under the protection of Russian peacekeeping forces deployed under the cease-fire, which ended the swift but bloody Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. Both sides hailed the deal as a guarantee of stability and security. But with Moscow increasingly embroiled in its invasion of Ukraine, its commitment to the region has come into question.
The Kremlin has reportedly drawn down some of its more experienced peacekeepers, redeploying them to Ukraine. Instead, young conscripts are now manning the mountain outposts meant to act as a buffer against provocations. Locally, Russia’s reputation is in tatters.
Russia, alleged Stepanakert’s human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan, isn’t punishing Azerbaijan for cease-fire violations — and the country is “taking advantage of the situation.”
Not so, Azerbaijani media counters. Russia, outlets allege, is in fact supporting the Armenian-backed forces in Stepanakert, even stockpiling weapons for the separatists.
Russia is still a regular presence — both physically and in conversation — in Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former members of the Soviet Union.
Yet while Moscow has intermittently served as a peacekeeper in the region since the countries became fully independent, local frustration is growing with the Kremlin.
On the Armenian side, there is anger that Russia does little to actually police the cease-fires it helps negotiate.
“In the past year and a half, we have seen that despite the presence of Russian peacekeeping troops, Azerbaijan regularly violates the cease-fire and uses physical force against the civilian population,” said Stepanyan, the Stepanakert human rights ombudsman.
On the Azerbaijani side, many still blame Moscow for the outcome of a 1994 cease-fire that ended the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, which left the region under the control of pro-Armenian troops.
With Russia’s role being questioned by both sides, not only Turkiye but also the EU has increasingly worked to fill the gap. In May, Brussels hosted Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev for talks on how to avert future clashes.