Following a landmine incident on its territory, and with multiple negotiating tracks under increasing risk of collapse, Azerbaijan appears to have wrestled back control of its breakaway Karabakh region
On 19 September, following the death of seven Azerbaijanis in two separate incidents with landmines that Baku claims were laid by Armenian sabotage groups, fighting has once again broken out in the South Caucasus. In what Baku terms a “counter-terrorism operation” targeting ethnic Armenian separatist forces in what remains of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), some suspect the incident was simply a pretext for wrestling back control of the breakaway region.
For several weeks there had already been concerns that Azerbaijan had been amassing troops and military equipment along the line of contact with Karabakh despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers. The contingent had been deployed as part of a November 2020 ceasefire agreement with Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Indeed, in recent weeks there had also been serious concerns that separate parallel peace processes to end the conflict, facilitated or mediated by Russia, the European Union, and the United States, had faltered. A particular obstacle had been the inability of the sides to agree on any mechanism to discuss the rights and security of the ethnic Armenian population of the disputed region as part of Azerbaijan proper.
Though Armenia has acknowledged this likelihood, the de facto leadership in Karabakh had been more resistant, though there had been signs of progress. On 1 September, its de facto president resigned, leading to a successor being chosen by the national assembly rather than by popular vote, and an agreement was brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to open roads for humanitarian aid.through Azerbaijan’s Lachin and Aghdam regions
Since December last year, access to the region had been disrupted by Azerbaijan through the Lachin Corridor, the strategic lifeline between Armenia and Karabakh stipulated by the 2020 ceasefire statement. Eventually, on 17 September, though not without resistance from the the de facto authorities, two trucks from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) used both roads , carrying flour, medicines, and hygienic items to the besieged population.
Even so, Karabakh Armenians remained concerned that the second route, via Aghdam, would effectively acknowledge Baku’s sovereignty over the region and that this would mark another step in the integration of the mainly ethnic Armenian population into Azerbaijan proper.
In light of further failures to meet with representatives of the Karabakh Armenians to discuss their integration into Azerbaijan, this appeared to be Baku’s goal with the operation it also described as intended to “restore the constitutional order”. Others, however, alleged that it would also result in the “soft" ethnic cleansing of the ethnic Armenian population with many choosing to leave rather than remain in an area that for three decades has been outside the control of Baku.
Indeed, on the evening of the first day of fighting, Azerbaijan announced that it was prepared to accept an offer to negotiate with Karabakh representatives if such a meeting took place in territory under its control, namely the city of Yevlakh. However, it also dictated the agenda – the disarming and dissolution of Karabakh’s armed forces as well as the integration of the ethnic Armenian population.
At time of writing, there have been 30 fatalities, including seven civilians, reported from the Karabakh Armenian side, with 138 wounded, including 29 civilians, though this is likely to rise if fighting continues. Meanwhile, fearful that the fighting could spread, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that his country’s armed forces would not intervene on the side of its ethnic kin in Karabakh.
Yerevan, however, did appeal for intervention from the international community which has been united in its calls for Azerbaijan to end its military action and to return to the negotiation table. The United States and the European Union have specifically called on Baku and the Karabakh Armenians to finally sit down to negotiate a resolution to the crisis. The last time they did so, albeit with Russian mediation, was in March at the base of the peacekeeping contingent in Khojaly.
Despite their presence on the ground, however, the Russian peacekeepers did not intervene, leading some to accuse them of collusion. Baku had anyway maintained that it would not target the population while Russian peacekeepers also escorted civilians way and provided them with food and shelter. Concerns that the situation might worsen, however, might have been allayed following an announced ceasefire today.
Under the terms of the agreement released by its official information agency, Karabakh has agreed to the withdrawal of any Armenian military units still present on the territory under the control of Russian peacekeepers as well as the disarmament and dissolution of its own forces.
More crucially, however, Karabakh representatives will meet tomorrow in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh to discuss “the reintegration, ensuring the rights and security of Nagorny Karabakh Armenians, as well as the issues of ensuring the quality of life of the Nagorny Karabakh population, within the Constitution of Azerbaijan”.
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