Fighting flares between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry on Tuesday declared an “anti-terrorist” campaign in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region under Armenian control, as Armenian media reported air-raid sirens and mortar fire in the regional capital of Stepanakert.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have repeatedly clashed over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but largely populated by ethnic Armenians and largely governed by the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh.

The two nations fought two wars over the region: one in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, and another in 2020 when Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, regained territories bordering Karabakh from Armenia, which held them since 1994. The six-week-long hostilities ended after a truce brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin was signed in November 2020, but a full peace agreement remained elusive.

Tensions have been mounting in the region for months, since Azerbaijani forces blockaded the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, called the Lachin corridor, triggering shortages of food, medicine and other goods for the local population of about 120,000 people.

“In order to … suppress large-scale provocations in the Karabakh economic region, disarm and withdraw formations of the Armed Forces of Armenia from our territories … local anti-terrorist measures have been launched in the region,” the Azerbaijan Defense Ministry said in a statement, adding that “civilians and civilian infrastructure” are not being targeted.

Armenia denied having troops in the area, with the Foreign Ministry saying Azerbaijan “unleashed another large-scale aggression against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, aiming to complete its policy of ethnic cleansing.”

Local Karabakh authorities accused Azerbaijani forces of hitting civilian areas, saying that at least two people died and 11 were injured.

“The attack follows 9 months of blocking access to the territory, a blockade that grew in severity since mid-June,” Laurence Broers, an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program, said in a tweet. “The Karabakh Armenian population is physically weakened, food and medicine are lacking and there is a shortage of fuel for ambulances to move around in the territory.”

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said the country will not “undertake any ill-calculated, abrupt and adventurous actions” and plans to refrain from engaging in hostilities. Meanwhile, several hundred protesters flocked to central Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, demanding that Pashnyan take more decisive action to protect Armenians in the enclave.

Azerbaijan’s military said that ahead of hostilities, it warned Russia, which has leverage with both parties of the conflict — a claim Moscow denied.

Armenia heavily relies on Russia in security matters, and both countries have a defense pact, though it does not cover Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Armenia has once again called on Russia for help, but Moscow, distracted by its war in Ukraine, has been mostly inactive throughout the blockade and simmering tensions that threatened to reignite the war in the region.

“The Russian side urges the conflicting parties to stop the bloodshed, immediately cease hostilities and return to the path of political and diplomatic settlement,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Russia deployed about 2,000 soldiers as peacekeeping forces along the Lachin corridor under a five-year mandate, but despite the Armenian Foreign Ministry’s plea for those Russian troops “to take clear and unequivocal steps in order to put an end to Azerbaijan’s aggression,” they are unlikely to intervene.

“As long as the Russian peacekeepers themselves are not threatened, they do not have the right to use weapons,” said Andrei Kartapolov, head of the defense committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma.

Armenian ambassador at large Edmon Marukyan has urged Washington to step in, saying in a tweet, “it is the US and international community’s turn now as to what measures will be used to stop the aggression and military attack on the starving civilian population of Nagorno Karabakh.”

The Kremlin responded to the remark, saying, “there should not be any turn; there is a need for concrete efforts based on the legal framework,” adding that it is “concerned” about the escalation and that contacts between Putin and leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan are being worked out.

“A question that many will be asking is the price of Russian acquiescence,” Broers said. “Russian irritation with Armenia’s complaints against the Kremlin also adds an ideal backdrop for such an operation.”

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