The flare-up in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict for Nagorno-Karabakh entered its third week on Sunday, with fighting for the mountainous South Caucasus territory estimated to have killed more than 65 civilians and injured over 320 others, and, according to the two warring parties’ tallies of the other side’s military dead more than 8,150 enemy troops have been killed or injured. Officially, Yerevan says 480 Armenian troops and Karabakh defence forces militia have died. Azerbaijan does not disclose its casualties.
Hints about the approaching conflict appeared on September 25, two days before fighting began, when both sides accused one another of concentrating forces along the front line. A week before, on September 19, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he “negatively” assessed prospects for further negotiations in resolving the decades-old Karabakh issue, in which the Azeri side seeks the return of territories it lost in the aftermath of the Soviet breakup.
Who Started It?
Azerbaijan, Armenia, and officials from the unrecognised Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh Republic continue to contest who started the fighting. On the early morning of Sunday, September 27, Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry accused the Armenian side of launching an attack along the entire front using rocket artillery. Yerevan countered, alleging that Azeri forces launched artillery and air strikes against military and civilian positions in Karabakh, including the region’s capital of Stepanakert. By Sunday afternoon, authorities in both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh declared a full-scale mobilisation, and Azerbaijan announced curfews and martial law. Later in the day, Baku declared that it had captured seven villages, a strategic mountain peak and a highway connecting Karabakh to Armenia proper. Yerevan and Stepanakert challenged these claims.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks with his counterparts from both countries, as well as Turkey, which has been known to provide Baku with military assistance in recent years, and urged an immediate halt to the fighting.
The violence continued into the week starting Monday, September 28, with each side again issuing contradictory claims on operations on the front, with Stepanakert saying it had recaptured some lost positions, and Baku claiming it had taken several additional strategic heights amid shelling of civilian areas by the Armenian side and repelled an Armenian counteroffensive. Yerevan began planning for the evacuation of some of the region’s population of 151,000. Baku announced a partial mobilisation.
Yerevan accused Turkey of heavily supporting Azerbaijan’s offensive, and of providing the country with weapons, military advisers, and mercenaries delivered from Syria for use in Karabakh. Ankara and Baku have since vocally denied the allegations.
On Tuesday, September 29, Baku and Yerevan charged one another with exacerbating the situation, with Armenia threatening to deploy its long-range missile systems, and accusing the Azerbaijani Air Force of striking targets in the town Vardenis, which is outside Karabakh and inside Armenia proper. Later in the day, the Armenian military reported that a Turkish F-16 fighter operating in Azeri airspace had shot down an Armenian Su-25 close-air support jet. Baku and Ankara denied the claims. The same day, the mass evacuation of Stepanakert residents began, with civilians transported to areas inside Armenia. Iran also reported the destruction of an unidentified foreign drone in its province of East Azerbaijan, south of the Karabakh conflict zone.
Security Council Calls for Freeze in Fighting
On Wednesday, September 30, the UN Security Council held consultations on the Karabakh crisis and issued a statement condemning the use of deadly force, and not ruling out an additional emergency meeting including representatives from both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The same day, the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed its "deep concern” about reports of the use of terrorist mercenaries from Syria and Libya in Karabakh, stating that if the reports are accurate, the mercenaries could not only cause the situation in the territory to escalate, “but create long-term threats to the security of all countries in the region.”
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev took objection to calls from the international community for an immediate ceasefire, calling them “out of place,” and saying the existing negotiation platform for reaching a peaceful resolution to the conflict “has not achieved any results” in the more than two decades it has operated since the Karabakh war of 1992 to 1994.
The same day, the Armenian side announced the destruction of Turkish-made drones in the combat zone, including over Stepanakert and Karabakh’s northern regions. Meanwhile, Baku reported that more than half a dozen civilians had been injured in the city of Terter in an Armenian artillery attack, and reported the destruction of an Armenian S-300 air defence system. Armenia denied the latter claim, and accused Azerbaijan of transferring control of air operations inside Karabakh to the Turkish Air Force. The war extended into cyberspace, with both sides releasing footage of the alleged destruction of enemy troops and equipment. Baku also accused Armenian forces of employing the Tochka-U tactical missile system. Yerevan denied this, and reported that Karabakh self-defence forces had turned back attacks on the breakaway from the north and south.
On Thursday, October 1, Azerbaijan again reported that civilian areas in Terter had come under attack, and that one civilian was killed. The Armenian side reported the destruction of three Azerbaijani Air Force Su-25s and two Mi-24 helicopters, with one of the aircraft said to have gone down over Iran. The Azeri side denied the claims and reported that all its aircraft were “combat-ready and fully operational.” Baku also accused Armenia of hiring foreign mercenaries from the Middle East.
October 1 also saw two French journalists from Le Monde injured in the conflict zone, with several other foreign and Armenian journalists said to have come under fire. Yerevan recalled its ambassador to Israel for talks over Tel Aviv’s supply of arms to Baku.
On October 2, the European Union formally called on Turkey to stop its blatant interference in the Karabakh conflict. The same day, a bipartisan group of 49 US lawmakers called on the State Department to formally “clearly and unequivocally condemn Azerbaijan’s unreasonable aggression” and to threaten a cut-off of US aid. French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Paris had evidence that 300 Syrian jihadist militants had been transferred to the Karabakh warzone through Turkey. Ankara reiterated that it was calling on Azerbaijan to continue to liberate “its territories.”
Yerevan restated its willingness to co-operate with the established OSCE Minsk Group to reach a ceasefire, and accused the Azeri side of using cluster bombs and ballistic missiles, calculating that some 157 civilians in Karabakh had been killed over the six preceding days of fighting. Baku reported that Armenian artillery had again shelled Terter, as well as several Azerbaijani villages.
On October 3, as the flare-up neared the one week mark, President Aliyev announced that Armenia had “destroyed” the Karabakh negotiations process, stressed that Turkey is not involved in the conflict militarily in any way, shape or form, and suggested that Russia has a “special” role to play as a mediator owing to its good historical relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The same day, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called the scale of the conflict unprecedented, and suggested that Armenia would be ready to discuss the deployment of Russian peacekeepers.
Sunday, October 4 saw the continued shelling of Stepanakert by rocket artillery, and an artillery attack on the Azerbaijani city of Ganja, allegedly by Smerch MLRS. Aliyev announced that Baku would agree to a ceasefire if Armenia provided the Azeri side with a timetable for the withdrawal of its forces from Karabakh. He also denied President Macron’s ‘mercenary’ claims, saying his country has a standing army of 100,000 troops and didn’t need any foreign assistance.
Baku claimed on October 4 that Karabakh president Arayik Harutyunyan had been severely injured in an Azerbaijani strike. The Armenian side accused Baku of spreading disinformation, with Harutyunyan later spotted in public, apparently safe and sound.
The same day, 173 officials from France urged Paris to abandon its neutrality in favour of overt criticism of alleged “Azerbaijani aggression against the Armenians".
In a rare expression of unity, the top diplomats of Russia, the United States and France issued a joint statement calling for hostilities to cease immediately in Karabakh.
On Tuesday, October 6, Armenia announced that it would not be taking part in drills with other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization alliance in Belarus this year, citing the security situation in Karabakh. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu paid a visit to Baku, where he reiterated Ankara’s willingness to provide “any” support requested by Azerbaijan. Baku reported fighting along the entire front, and claimed that its intelligence services had detected radio communications of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party militia taking part in the conflict. Yerevan and Stepanakert did not comment on these reports, but denied a separate claim that Armenian forces had attempted to blow up the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.
Wednesday, October 7 saw further shelling by both sides, and reports by Yerevan that Karabakh forces had carried out a counteroffensive in the region’s north, and that an Azeri offensive had been repulsed in the south.
President Putin called the Karabakh conflict “a huge tragedy” in an interview Wednesday, and repeated the need for an immediate halt in fighting, holding telephone talks with both President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan.
#Russia's Putin says military actions btw #Armenia, #Azerbaijan "are not taking place in the Armenian territory". Therefore, Russia can't intervene in it.— Rahim Rahimov (@r_rahimov) October 7, 2020
He regarded the hostilities as "huge tragedy" and called for cease-fire.#Karabakh #NKPeace https://t.co/FvRMHOzzxP
Iran, which similarly called on both sides to halt the fighting, sent formal notes of protest to Yerevan and Baku over the stray missiles and shells making their way into Iranian territory.
Invitation to Moscow
On Thursday, October 8, the Armenian side accused Baku of deliberately shelling the town of Shusha's 19th-century Ghazanchetsots Cathedral. Azerbaijan denied responsibility for the attack, and alleged that Armenia itself may have struck the church.
Later in the day, President Putin formally invited the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan to Moscow to discuss a humanitarian ceasefire to allow for the exchange of prisoners and the dead, with both parties agreeing to do so.
On October 9, as shelling and fighting along the front continued, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan met with Lavrov, and after more than 10 hours of talks, hammered out a ceasefire starting at 12:00 noon on Saturday.
As the ceasefire came into force on Saturday, October 10, both sides accused one another of breaking it in rocket attacks, drone strikes and sporadic firing across the front. Azerbaijan released footage of the destruction of Armenian artillery, tanks and air defence systems which it claimed violated the ceasefire. The Armenian Defence Ministry accused the Azerbaijani side of “provocations,” but said the ceasefire was generally being observed.
October 11 saw renewed reports of shelling of Stepanakert and Ganja, with civilian casualties reported on both sides and both parties saying the ceasefire is not being fully observed. Karabakh President Arayik Harutyunyan accused Baku of pursuing a “policy of genocide” against Karabakh Armenians, and claimed Israel was taking part. Karabakh’s parliament called on Armenia, Russia and Iran to set up an ‘anti-terrorism center’ to detect and identify any foreign terrorists operating in the region.
President Aliyev announced that Baku was “committed to the ceasefire since it entered force.” Yerevan reported that Karabakh forces had downed an Azerbaijani Air Force Su-25. Baku called the report a “blatant lie that arose from desperation”, and said its aircraft had been grounded in accordance with the ceasefire.
Also Monday, Armenian Foreign Minister Mnatsakanyan arrived in Moscow for further talks with his Russian counterpart.