29 September 2020 – 09:56
By Vasif Huseynov
The decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated again, on September 27, with the second intense military confrontation in three months. According to the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan, at about six o’clock in the morning, the Armenian Armed Forces commenced a large-scale provocation and fired on positions of the Azerbaijani Army as well as civilian settlements in the Karabakh frontline zone. The attack utilized large-caliber weapons, mortars and artillery of various calibers (APA, September 27).
Unlike the previous large-scale clashes in mid-July of this year, which started along the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan and was mostly limited to the Tovuz/Tavush regions of the sides (see EDM, July 14), the military exchanges that erupted this time around occurred in Azerbaijan’s occupied Karabakh region and covered a wider area. The Azerbaijani defense ministry reported that the first shelling began in areas surrounding Tartar, Aghdam, Fuzuli and Cabrayil (APA, September 27). In its “counter-offensive operation along the entire front,” Azerbaijan mobilized personnel and tank units with the support of missile and artillery troops, front-line aviation and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), the ministry’s press release read (Azertag, September 27).
The recent confrontation followed warnings by the Azerbaijani side about Armenia’s preparation for a large-scale conflict. In a September 19 interview with local television channels, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev stated that Armenia was “preparing for a new war. They are concentrating their forces near the line of contact [in Karabakh]… We follow their actions. Of course, we will defend ourselves” (APA, September 19). Both sides had been on alert for a new escalation since the July clashes, conducting intensive military exercises with their external allies (see EDM, August 14; Asbarez, July 24).
In turn, blaming Azerbaijan for the start of the hostilities, the Armenian authorities announced on the morning of September 27 that “the Azerbaijani army attacked the entire length of the line of contact with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and missile strikes” (Panorama.am, September 27). At this stage, it is not clear which side’s version of the latest outbreak of violence is more plausible. Yet a certain level of preparation on the Armenian side—namely, multiple Russian arms shipments to the country via heavy transport flights (see EDM, September 11)—could conspicuously be observed for weeks leading up to the clashes.
Shortly after the outbreak of the fighting on Sunday, Armenia declared martial law and general mobilization (TASS, September 27). Although the State Service for Mobilization and Conscription of Azerbaijan first announced that there was no need for general mobilization at the moment, an extraordinary session of the Azerbaijani parliament later decided to impose martial law in some cities and regions of the country (Azertag, APA, September 27).
A few hours after the launch of the hostilities, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense declared the liberation of seven villages in Fuzuli and Jabrail districts as well as the recapture of multiple important heights (Azertag, September 27). Most of the captured territories are of crucial strategic importance. In particular, Azerbaijani forces secured visual control over the Vardenis–Aghdara highway, which connects occupied Karabakh with Armenia (Azvision.az, September 27). The highway, completed by Armenia in 2017, adds an alternative to the previously established road connecting Karabakh with the Republic of Armenia, thus facilitating speedier transfers of Armenian military cargo into the occupied Azerbaijani territories. The successful Azerbaijani military operations have now undermined the continued safety of using this path for Armenian forces. At the same time, the recaptured locations will provide Azerbaijan with new strategic positions from which to potentially continue deeper into the occupied territories. The loss of those positions was confirmed by Yerevan, following initial denials (Panorama.am, September 27).
Toward the end of the day, on September 27, Shushan Stepanyan, the press secretary of the Armenian minister of defense, announced that casualties on the Armenian side totaled 16 killed and more than a hundred wounded (Twitter.com/ShStepanyan, September 27). Azerbaijan offered no official information on numbers of its killed or wounded troops, but the defense ministry did note it was verifying reports of civilian casualties (Azeridefence.com, September 27).
As soon as news emerged of the latest Azerbaijani-Armenian escalation, multiple states and international organizations called on the conflicting forces to return to an immediate ceasefire. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a telephone conversation with his Armenian counterpart, Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, called for an end to the fighting and declared that Moscow would continue its mediation efforts (Mid.ru, September 27). Meanwhile, just as it did following the July clashes, Turkey again expressed strong support to Azerbaijan through multiple channels. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs assured that Ankara is ready to assist Baku in any way the latter might request (TRT, September 27).
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, the main international mission tasked with the mediation of peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States, called for a “return to the ceasefire and resumption of substantive negotiations” (Osce.org, September 27). Earlier this year, the Armenian government rejected the so-called Madrid Principles, the major conflict resolution mechanism proposed by the Minsk Group (Aysor, September 27). In 2019, the efforts of the institution were further complicated by the Armenian defense ministry’s adoption of the “new war for new territories” concept as well as Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s call for the unification of Armenia and Karabakh (Asbarez, April 1, 2019; EurasiaNet, August 6, 2019).
Against this backdrop, the languorous approach of the Minsk Group to the conflict has come under extensive and increasing criticism in Azerbaijan, both by the government and the general public. Most recently, Azerbaijanis were outraged by the relatively passive reaction of the institution to what they considered incendiary moves on the part of the Armenians. These provocations included an announced plan to move the “capital” of the occupying regime in Karabakh to the historical town of Shusha, which holds profound cultural importance for Azerbaijanis, as well as the illegal settlement of Lebanese-Armenians in the occupied Azerbaijani territories (EurasiaNet, September 21; see EDM, September 23). The last three decades of failed negotiations have discredited the peace process for many inside Azerbaijan and Armenia alike, leading to growing warnings that the status quo will lead to the further intensification of the conflict.