On September 27th, less than three months after the border clashes between the sides on July 12-15th, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated into the most intensive and largest military confrontation since the establishment of the Russia-brokered ceasefire in May 1994.
Armenia’s armed forces started a large-scale provocation and fired at positions of the Azerbaijani army in the frontline zone and civilian settlements with large-calibre weapons, mortars and artillery of various calibres at about six o’clock in the morning, the Azerbaijani defence ministry reported. “In order to suppress the combat activity of the armed forces of Armenia and ensure the safety of the civilian population, the command of the Azerbaijan army decided to launch a counter-offensive operation of troops along the entire front”, the press release of the ministry read. Azerbaijan had mobilised personnel, tank units with the support of missile and artillery troops, front-line aviation and unmanned aerial vehicles.
According to the official statistics of the third day of the war provided by the respective sides, the Armenian side has lost more than 60 military servicemen while Azerbaijan has lost more than 10 civilians including two schoolchildren (no information about the military casualties was reported by Azerbaijan’s defence ministry). In its counter-offensive, Azerbaijan has been able to overtake some strategic positions in its occupied territories.
Talking to the newly-arrived ambassador of Pakistan on September 29th, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev declared that his country is determined to liberate all the Armenian-occupied territories: “We are fighting on our own territories and we have the full right to restore territorial integrity of Azerbaijan that is recognised by all the states,” Aliyev added, referring to the four UN Security Council resolutions (adopted in 1993) which recognised Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and demanded immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the Armenian military forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.
While the process has just started and not much is clear, there are some important questions that need to be addressed here, including: First, how did the nearly 30-year-old conflict which did not cause large-scale clashes until the April War of 2016 suddenly succumb to almost full-scale war this week? How would the escalation evolve in the following days? What are the risks of further escalation?
As a matter of fact, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan had transformed into its most non-confrontational period following Armenia’s Velvet Revolution in 2018. The year after the government change in Armenia, which brought Nikol Pashinyan to the premiership, the conflict marked its arguably most peaceful year in 2019 when the casualties on the frontline declined substantially. For example, while 39 military servicemen were killed in 2017, the year before Armenia’s power change in 2018, casualties dropped to eight, including one civilian, in 2019.
This happened against the backdrop of secret negotiations between the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan initiated by the former. According to recently unclassified information, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had indirectly communicated its desire to resolve the conflict through negotiations which took place secretly in an unspecified European country. It later became clear, however, that Pashinyan may have aimed for certain stability on the frontline while he was busy with domestic power struggles. Soon he quickly abandoned his peace-building initiatives and demonstrated a more radicalised nationalistic position towards the conflict.
This was followed by numerous provocations by the Armenian. For example, dealing the severest blow to the negotiations, Pashinyan called for unification of Armenia and Karabakh in August 2019, declaring “Karabakh is Armenia, period” to a crowd chanting “Miatsum” (unification) in Khankandi, a small town in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh.
The erosion of the negotiating process was admitted by Aliyev on July 6th 2020, as he criticised the international mediators in the negotiations declaring that the peace process had become “meaningless”. Less than a week after this statement, Azerbaijan was attacked by the externally-supported armed forces of Armenia on the state border in the direction of Tovuz region of the country. Although the clashes calmed down quickly, there were numerous developments which led to the outbreak of the war on September 27th.
For example, over the last two months, Azerbaijan had warned about Russia’s military shipments to Armenia through complex transportation routes as the shortest route via Georgia was not available thanks to the principled position of the Georgian government. On September 19th Aliyev warned that Armenia is “preparing for a new war … concentrating their forces near the line of contact … We follow their actions. Of course, we will defend ourselves.”
Less than ten days following this statement, the civilian settlements and the positions of armed forces of Azerbaijan were attacked by the armed forces of Armenia in the early morning of September 27th. Although most states and international organisations have called the sides to cease fire immediately, a ceasefire is not expected or is not clear how it could be achieved under the current conditions. Both sides have imposed martial law and declared general or partial mobilisation while getting prepared for longer and larger military operations.
In the afternoon of September 29th, Armenia declared that it will “use equipment and munitions designed to engage wide area targets, intended for large and indiscriminate destruction of manpower, and static and mobile property alike”. Several minutes after this statement, Azerbaijan’s defence ministry warned that Yerevan was preparing to transfer the S-300 missile-defence systems from Armenia proper towards Karabakh, adding that Azerbaijan will destroy them as soon as they cross Azerbaijan’s borders.
In a similar vein to the periods of previous clashes between the two countries, Armenia again propagates old narratives claiming that jihadis fight on the side or they are being transferred by Turkey to Azerbaijan to fight against Armenia. Without giving any evidence or proof, some otherwise reputable news agencies shared this fake news and disinformation, pouring more fuel to the already intense situation.
It seems from this particular juncture that the conflict is doomed to further escalate unless Armenia decides to fulfil the demands of the United Nations Security Council resolutions and withdraw its military forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan warns that Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories that are under occupation of Armenia at the moment are not disputed territories, as some quasi-neutral third-parties describe, but are integral part of its internationally-recognised territories, and it is resolved to liberate these territories.