Azerbaijan Escalates Military Presence, Initiates Operation in Nagorno-Karabakh

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Azerbaijan has escalated its military presence within Nagorno-Karabakh, marking a critical upturn in activities leading up to a recently launched operation on Tuesday. This operation, hailed as an “anti-terror” campaign by Azerbaijan, saw its second day of action as the nation made clear its intentions to press on until the surrender of ethnic-Armenian separatists.

The political climate within the South Caucasus has been fraught with tension for several months, over speculation surrounding the ethnic-Armenian enclave, internationally accredited as Azerbaijani territory. This development comes on the heels of the previous war between Azerbaijan and Armenia a mere three years ago.

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Wednesday morning saw a statement from Azerbaijan’s defence ministry announcing the neutralisation of military machinery under the jurisdiction of Armenian forces. Assets targeted ranged from military vehicles to artillery and anti-aircraft installations.

Earlier this week, Baku directed the disbandment and disarmament of “illegal Armenian military formations”, referring to them as an “illegal regime”. A parallel can be drawn to the first war between the nations following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. In a series of recuperative manoeuvres in 2020, Azerbaijan reclaimed territories, followed by a mutually agreed ceasefire overseen by Russian peacekeepers.

In response to the actions of Azerbaijan, ethnic Armenians within Karabakh appealed for negotiations and a ceasefire. However, it became apparent from the Azerbaijani mandate that the overarching objective was to achieve full control of the mountainous enclave. This intention provoked an accusation from Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan who alleged that Azerbaijan had initiated an “ethnic cleansing” operation.

Public dissatisfaction resonated throughout Armenia with frustrated protestors clashing against local police near parliament in Yerevan, fuelled by what they perceive as betrayal from leadership and demanding resignation.

In an effort to engage in talks, Azerbaijan proposed the establishment in the town of Yevlakh, geographically situated approximately 60 miles north of the regional Karabakh capital, Khankendi, known as Stepanakert by ethnic Armenians.

Within the city of Stepanakert, widespread destruction marked the landscape as residential buildings and vehicles were heavily damaged by shelling.

Since the close of 2020, Russian officials overseeing the fragile truce have been noticeably absent due to the pressing issue of Ukraine’s full-scale invasion. The Nagorno-Karabakh region houses approximately 120,000 ethnic Armenians in addition to almost 500 civilians relocated by Russian soldiers from areas posing the most significant risk.

For the past nine months, Azerbaijan has effectively blocked the only access corridor from Armenia, known as the Lachin Corridor.

According to claims by Azerbaijan, the necessity of this operation was in reaction to the loss of six lives, including four police officers, due to two separate landmine exploitations on Tuesday.

The devastation and terror rolled on as air raid sirens permeated the air amidst the distinct sounds of artillery fire and gunshots in Karabakh’s central city. Local journalist, Siranush Sargsyan reported on the horrific landscape that included a neighbouring building succumbing to a direct hit.

Officials in Karabakh reported multiple casualties, injuries including women and children, and extensive property damage. Simultaneously, Azerbaijani officials adamantly refute allegations of targeting civilians and claim only to disable legitimate military targets with precision weapons.

In the melee, Armenia’s prime minister vehemently disagreed with accusations of his military engaging in activities that constitute a violation of the ceasefire agreement.

International powers including Russia’s Foreign Ministry, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, call for immediate cessation of the military activities, renewing the need to abide by international humanitarian regulations and the 2020 ceasefire.

Observers of South Caucasus political dynamics, like Laurence Broers, note on Tuesday that the operation seems to have taken advantage of the weakened Armenian populace, blockaded in Karabakh, and aims to retake control of the Armenian-populated region in its entirety.

Pashinyan expressed concern that Russia, perceived as a regional player, seems to be retreating, thereby leaving the region at the mercy of Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey.

In response to the unfolding events, Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev’s advisor, Hikmet Hajiyev, urged for the dissolution of the ethnic-Armenian separatist administration, affirming Azerbaijan’s readiness to provide rights and security to Karabakh Armenians under its constitution.

Despite denials of troop accumulation in the area, Azerbaijan opened up pathways for the International Committee of the Red Cross to deliver aid into Karabakh via the Lachin Corridor from Armenia and the Aghdam Road within Azerbaijan.

However, the recent acts of aggression stand in stark contrast to the earlier hopeful signs of subsiding tensions. The Azerbaijani defence ministry revealed images of a vehicle allegedly destroyed by a land mine. Ethnic Armenian officials, in turn, accuse Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire agreement. The fragility of peace in the region seems to mirror the fragile truce overseen by distracted Russian peacekeepers, making the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh one to watch closely.