TASS-FACTBOX. On September 19, 2023, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry announced the beginning of anti-terrorist measures in Nagorno-Karabakh. The disarmament and withdrawal of the Armenian forces from the territory were declared as the goals. Earlier on Wednesday, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said it had decided to stop local anti-terrorist operations in Nagorno-Karabakh as of 12:00 Moscow Time on September 20. A full ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh has been reached through the mediation of Russian peacekeepers, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The TASS-FACTBOX editors have provided information on the history of the Baku-Yerevan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
History of Nagorno-Karabakh
The territory of the present-day Nagorno-Karabakh became part of the Russian Empire in the early 19th century as a result of the Russian-Persian war of 1804-1813. After the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of Soviet Russia, the region’s status remained uncertain for several years. On July 4, 1921, the Kavbiuro (an organization set up by the Bolsheviks in April 1920 as the regional body of the Russian Communist Party) decided to transfer the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. However, the very next day the issue was reconsidered in favor of Azerbaijan, "based on the need for national peace between Muslims and Armenians."
From 1921 the region was part of the Azerbaijan SSR as a broad autonomy, and from 1923 as an autonomous region (NKAO). The majority of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh were Armenians (94% according to the 1926 census, 77% according to the last Soviet census of 1989).
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s proclamation and the 1991-1994 armed conflict
On February 20, 1988, the NKAO addressed the USSR leadership, as well as the Azerbaijan and Armenian SSRs’, with a request to consider the issue of transferring the region to Armenia, but the Union leadership regarded this request as a manifestation of nationalism.
On July 12, 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its secession from the Azerbaijan SSR. Armed clashes broke out in the region. On January 15, 1990, the USSR authorities imposed a state of emergency in the NKAO and the surrounding areas.
In 1991, during the parade of sovereignty and the formation of new sovereign states, Nagorno-Karabakh de jure became part of the independent Republic of Azerbaijan. However, on September 2, 1991, the region proclaimed itself the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) within the USSR. This triggered an open armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Karabakh conflict was the first major armed clash in the post-Soviet space. Having conducted a number of large-scale offensive operations, the NKR defense forces established nearly total control over the autonomy (92.5% of the territory of the former NKAO), as well as occupied fully or partially seven Azerbaijani border districts (about 8% of Azerbaijan's territory). In turn, Azerbaijan retained control over parts of the Martuni, Martakert and Shahumyan districts of the NKR.
According to various estimates, the Azerbaijani side's losses amounted from 4,000 to 11,000 killed during the conflict, while the Armenian side's losses ranged from 5,000 to 6,000.
Hostilities stopped after the signing of an agreement calling for a ceasefire in the conflict zone (Bishkek Protocol, May 5, 1994) and an agreement on an indefinite ceasefire (May 9, 1994).
Post-1994 situation in the region
Over the next 25 years, Nagorno-Karabakh continued to be a contentious issue in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. The political process of conflict settlement, which was conducted, among other things, within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group (since 1992; Russia, the US and France), did not yield any results. The sides accused each other of violating the ceasefire. Localized incidents involving the use of firearms occurred on the border. From time to time, major armed clashes broke out in the conflict zone. For instance, at least 33 people, including Armenian and Azerbaijani servicemen and civilians, were killed in hostilities in April 2016.
Armed clash in 2020
In 2020, the situation in the region sharply escalated. Armed clashes that began in July escalated in September into full-scale hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan involving the use of military equipment. On September 27, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry reported that Armenia was intensively shelling the positions of the Azerbaijani army. In response, Baku decided to launch a counter-offensive operation along the entire frontline. Martial law was imposed in Azerbaijan and Armenia, mobilization was announced. According to Azerbaijan, about 3,000 country's troops and 100 civilians became victims of the hostilities. According to the Armenian side, about 4,000 people were killed during the armed clashes.
The conflict was halted after Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed a Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement on November 9, 2020. The Azerbaijani and Armenian forces remained in their positions, with Russian peacekeepers stationed in the region. A number of districts around the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic including Kalbajar, Aghdam and Lachin were brought under Baku's control.
On November 11 of the same year, the Russian and Turkish defense ministries signed a memorandum on the establishment of the joint Russian-Turkish center for monitoring the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh (located on the territory of Azerbaijan, started operating in 2021).
Further measures on conflict resolution
In continuation of the settlement process, on January 11, 2021 in Moscow, the leaders of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a new joint statement, which provided for the unblocking of all economic and transport communications in the region.
On November 26, 2021 in Sochi, the leaders of the three countries agreed to take steps to increase the level of stability and security on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border. They also discussed the need to establish a bilateral commission on its delimitation and subsequent demarcation.
In 2022, Yerevan and Baku agreed to conclude a peace agreement. On April 6, 2022 in Brussels, Ilham Aliyev and Nikol Pashinyan held a meeting mediated by the head of the European Council Charles Michel. Following the meeting, they instructed their foreign ministers to begin preparations for negotiations on a peace treaty. However, the draft document has not been agreed upon. Demarcation of the common section of the border and unblocking of transportation routes are among obstacles to its conclusion.
Armed conflict in September 2022
On September 13-14, 2022, a major armed conflict occurred on the Azerbaijani-Armenian state border involving artillery and large caliber weapons. The sides accused each other of escalation. According to the Armenian side, 207 people were killed or went missing as a result of the fighting. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry reported that 80 Azerbaijani servicemen died.
The Armenian Security Council asked for help from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a member of which the republic is. By the decision of the CSTO Collective Security Council, a mission headed by the organization's Secretary General Stanislav Zas was sent to Armenia to assess the situation. Yerevan expressed dissatisfaction with the CSTO's decision. Later, on November 23, 2022, Nikol Pashinyan stated at the organization's summit in Yerevan that "the absence of a clear political assessment of the situation <...> may not only mean the CSTO's refusal of its allied obligations, but may also be interpreted by Azerbaijan as a green light from the CSTO for further aggression against Armenia."
Statements on mutual recognition of territorial integrity
On October 6, 2022, in Prague, following a meeting with the participation of European Council President Charles Michel and French President Emmanuel Macron, Nikol Pashinyan and Ilham Aliyev reaffirmed their countries' commitment to the UN Charter and the 1991 Alma-Ata Protocol, through which both sides recognize each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty (Armenia recognizes Azerbaijan's territory of 86,600 square kilometers, including Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan recognizes Armenia's territory of 29,800 square kilometers). Besides, they agreed to invite a civilian mission of the European Union to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.
On May 17, 2023, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan during the Council of Europe summit in Reykjavik confirmed that Armenia recognizes the sovereignty of Azerbaijan within its borders on the territory of 86,600 square kilometers, which includes Nagorno-Karabakh (under the condition of ensuring the security of the Armenian population in the region).
On May 28, 2023, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev opined that Baku and Yerevan might sign a peace treaty in the near future if the Armenian side "does not change its position again." The next day, speaking in parliament, Pashinyan said that the countries do not have an agreed draft peace agreement. He added that he was not satisfied with the results of negotiations with the Russian side on unblocking the Lachin corridor linking Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Lachin corridor problem
The Lachin corridor is the only land road from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. In November 2020, after agreements on cessation of hostilities were reached, a Russian peacekeeping contingent was deployed in the Lachin corridor.
In December 2022, Yerevan claimed that passage through the corridor was blocked by a group of Azeris who claimed themselves to be "eco-activists''. The protest was suspended in April 2023 after a checkpoint of the Azerbaijani State Border Service was set up at the entrance to the Lachin corridor on the Hakari Bridge over the Hakari River.
In June 2023, after a shooting incident between Armenian and Azerbaijani border guards, the Azerbaijani authorities closed the entrance to the Lachin corridor. Yerevan officials reported a blockade of NKR and a humanitarian catastrophe. Moscow called on Baku to immediately unblock the traffic. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the blocking of the entrance is a violation of the trilateral agreements reached in 2020.
The Azerbaijani side has repeatedly stated that it was ready to provide the Armenian population of the region with everything they needed. At the same time, according to Azerbaijani foreign policy advisor Hikmet Hajiyev, Baku proposes to open the movement of humanitarian cargoes along the Lachin corridor and the road from Aghdam to Khankendi. On September 12, 2023, a humanitarian cargo from Russia was delivered to Khankendi via Aghdam. The Azerbaijani authorities regarded this event "as a positive step and an important advance in the direction of opening the Aghdam-Khankendi road." The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry confirmed the readiness to open the Lachin road parallel to the Aghdam-Khankendi route for humanitarian cargoes to Nagorno-Karabakh through the International Committee of the Red Cross. The requirement of compliance with border and customs procedures was put forward as a condition.
Events of September 2023
On September 7, 2023, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan made a statement claiming that Azerbaijan was concentrating troops on the border with Armenia and the dividing line with Nagorno-Karabakh. In response, Baku said Armenia was concentrating troops on the border and erecting defense fortifications. The sides also accused each other of ceasefire violations.
Amid the escalating situation, Yerevan announced the start of joint military exercises with the United States Eagle Partner on its territory. Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Yerevan's decision does not contribute to stabilizing the situation in the region.
On September 8, 2023, Armenian Ambassador to Moscow Vagharshak Harutiunyan was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry, where he was given a "tough presentation" amid Yerevan's unfriendly actions. The Russian Foreign Ministry drew attention to the emergence of "certain doubts in official circles and political elite of the Republic of Armenia about the expediency of allied ties" with Russia, as well as within the CSTO. The Russian Foreign Ministry emphasized that the Armenian leadership has taken a number of unfriendly actions, including launching the process of ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which had previously issued "warrants" against the Russian leadership, as well as conducting military exercises with the participation of the United States. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry noted that Moscow firmly assumes that Russia and Armenia remain allies, and all agreements on the development and strengthening of relations will be fully implemented.
Start of Baku’s 'anti-terrorist measures'
On September 19, 2023, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry announced the beginning of "anti-terrorist measures of local nature" in Nagorno-Karabakh. The ministry specified that its goals are to ensure the provisions of the trilateral statement of the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia of November 9, 2020. Also, among them are disarmament and withdrawal of the Armenian military from this territory, as well as neutralization of their military infrastructure. The Azerbaijani Armed Forces eliminate the positions of Armenian formations, their long-term firing points, as well as military means and military facilities, while civilian agencies are not targeted.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry also specified that it had informed the command of the Russian peacekeeping contingent and the leadership of the Russian-Turkish monitoring center about its plans. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the information from Baku was delivered to the Russian peacekeepers a few minutes before the start of hostilities.
Yerevan, in turn, accused Baku of "large-scale aggression" and said that the Armenian Armed Forces were absent in Karabakh.
Russia called on the sides to stop the bloodshed and return to a political and diplomatic settlement. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that Moscow has urged Baku and Yerevan to honor the trilateral agreements, taking into account the realities and Armenia's recognition of Azerbaijan's sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.