Nagorno-Karabakh Briefing | Nov. 7

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan — now in its sixth week — shows little sign of easing after three ceasefires have fallen apart, and could be approaching a decisive moment as heavy clashes are reported near a key town.

Nagorno-Karabakh and areas under control of Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, before the conflict resumed in September 2020. Public domain

The military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh could be approaching a decisive moment, analysts say, as Azerbaijani forces remain focused on a key Armenian-controlled stronghold. Russia continues to express concern over the presence of Syrian mercenaries, who are fighting alongside Azerbaijani forces according to multiple reports from international media outlets. Chances of a diplomatic solution to the conflict in the near future remain slim, following the collapse of three ceasefire agreements as well as an agreement not to target residential areas with missile strikes.

Nov. 7: what you need to know today

  • Armenia reported Saturday that “fierce combat” with Azerbaijani forces took place overnight near the town of Shusha, a key stronghold in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, AFP reported. Armenian defence ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan reported “especially intensive and fierce combat” overnight outside Shusha, adding that numerous attacks from Azerbaijan were thwarted. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied the claims.
  • The mountain-top town is a key stronghold for the Armenian-backed forces controlling Nagorno-Karabakh and has been thought to be the focus of Azerbaijani attention since the start of their military campaign six weeks ago.
  • Shusha, located on a main road that links the unrecognized republic’s capital, Stepanakert, with Armenia proper is Nagorno-Karabakh’s second largest city, dubbed an “’unassailable mountain fortress,” by Radio Free Europe. A week ago, Armenian-backed authorities of the de facto state said Azerbaijani forces had advanced to within five miles of the city. Military analyst Rob Lee geolocated fights earlier this week to within 1.5 miles, but pinpointing live positions of forces is exceptionally difficult. 
  • The conflict for Shusha could be a particularly “bloody battle,” Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal reported.
  • Like many of the settlements Azerbaijan is now trying to recapture, the city was controlled by Azerbaijan prior to the 1988-94 conflict. During that war it fell under Armenian control when Azerbaijani forces “abandoned” their positions in the “cliff-top citadel,” de Waal wrote.

Nov. 7: Analysis

“If Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh army do not launch a successful counteroffensive in the coming days, they will lose a critical supply line and a threat to the unrecognized republic’s capital will emerge,” Meduza reported Saturday. If that happens, “it will be impossible to hold on to remaining territory and the hope for a compromise political solution to the conflict will be lost completely,” the news site argued in an analysis of the military situation around Shusha.

With reporting by AFP and Meduza.

Nov. 6

  • No decisive breakthrough has been reported since the end of last week, when Armenia first said Azerbaijan was close to Shusha, but Azerbaijani forces have been making “major advances” in edging closer in recent days, Asia Times reported Friday morning. A looming battle for the Armenian-held stronghold could be a decisive moment in the conflict, which has been raging for more than 40 days. Analysts previously said a stalemate could be setting in, and with winter approaching, military maneuvers in the region will become increasingly tricky as the temperatures drop and weather deteriorates.
  • Up to 80 local and international journalists are “trapped in Stepanakert,” the region’s main city, Reporters Without Borders said Thursday. The organization said the journalists could not flee to Armenia without coming “under fire from Azeri forces” along the main road connecting Armenia proper with the separatist-held territory. Stepanakert, the region’s largest town, just north of Shusha, has come under heavy shelling throughout the conflict. Sustained attacks on the city continued Thursday evening, Reuters reported, and overnight, Armenian-backed forces claimed Friday morning. 

With reporting by Asia Times, Eurasianet, Radio Free Europe and Reuters.

Nov. 6: Analysis

Long-time Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal fears a potentially “bloody battle” could be about to unfold for the Armenian-controlled city of Shusha, while Radio Free Europe analyzes the history of the city and explains its strategic importance to the current conflict.

Journalist Adrian Hartrick, who left regional capital Stepanakert in the last few days, covers the mood in the city as it prepares for a “last stand,” and the myriad conflicting reports over how the conflict is going for either side. On a similar theme, analyst Ryan O’Farrell outlines how he is mapping the latest battlefield positions and trying to cut through the propaganda, claims, counter-claims and denials from official sources in both Baku and Yerevan for an article in Eurasianet.

Nov. 5

  • Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev announced a new round of territorial gains achieved by his forces since the start of the conflict, all of which were already known and had been reported by various media outlets.
  • Nagorno-Karabakh authorities reported shelling on the key town of Shusha on Thursday morning, according to the Civilnet media outlet, which said the town’s air raid alarms were also sounding. Military analyst Rob Lee geolocated the latest fights between Azerbaijani and Armenian-backed forces to within 1.5 miles of the town — around half the distance reported by Armenia last week when it highlighted the strategic importance of defending the settlement. The human rights ombudsman for Artsakh — the Armenian name for the Nagorno-Karabakh region and de facto state — said there had been “material civilian damage” though no reported casualties so far, in a statement.
  • Armenian-backed forces also reported shelling on the smaller town of Lachin on Thursday morning. 
  • The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will not intervene in the multiple requests to take action over alleged human rights abuses which have been lodged by both Armenia and Azerbaijan over recent weeks, it said in a statement Thursday. The ECHR said many did not fall under its jurisdiction or were covered by its previous calls for both sides to “refrain from actions” which breach human rights conventions governing military conduct and the protection of civilians in times of war. It also encouraged both Armenia and Azerbaijan to provide fresh information on prisoners captured during the conflict.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday “Russia is doing everything in our power to end the conflict in the South Caucasus as quickly as possible and to save lives,” the state-run TASS news agency reported. Moscow, which will be a key player in any deal to resolve the conflict, said it was considering an Iranian peace proposal, Reuters reported, following the failure of three separate peacefire agreements brokered by the U.S and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Minsk Group, made up of Russia, France and the U.S., since the start of the conflict in September.

With reporting by Civilnet, Reuters and TASS.

Nov. 5: Analysis

Eurasianet reports on the 40,000 civilians who have fled Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia since the outbreak of the war six weeks ago. They are being put up in schools, hotels and homes of volunteers.

The Caucasus War Report open source Twitter account explains Azerbaijan’s military options regarding Shusha — a key town under shelling Thursday morning, the capture of which would mark a significant victory for Baku.

Nov 4

  • Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said almost 2,000 Middle Eastern fighters have been dispatched to Nagorno-Karabakh and expressed his concern over the “internationalization” of the conflict in an interview with Russian daily Kommersant. Armenian officials have for weeks accused Turkey of supporting Azerbaijani forces with mercenaries from Syria.
  • Negotiations between Moscow and Yerevan over the “size and type” of Russian military assistance are ongoing, an Armenian MP and head of a parliamentary committee on foreign relations has said, according to Open Caucasus Media. Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan formally opened discussions with Moscow — with whom Armenia has a collective defense pact — over the weekend about possible military support.
  • Iran continues to step up its efforts to be a key player in resolving the conflict, which has brought fighting close to its northern border. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tuesday that Armenian-held territory in Azerbaijan “must be returned” and warned the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh was threatening regional security, AFP reported. Iran, which has good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and is home to 10 million ethnic Azeris by some calculations, also warned Baku over the use of Syrian mercenaries, saying it would not tolerate a “terrorist” presence “in proximity to our borders.”  
  • Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Hikmet Hajiyev told reporters at a press conference Tuesday that Nagorno-Karabakh was probably the most militarized region in the world at the moment, journalist Cavid Aga reported.
  • Analysts say something of a stalemate could have set in, with Azerbaijani forces having been close to the strategically-important second city of Shusha since the end of last week. Fighting continued there overnight, the Armenian-backed local authorities reported. However, journalist Neil Hauer noted the clashes between the two sides have been getting gradually closer to the city in recent days, and that a major entry road to the region has been closed to civilian traffic. Meanwhile, up to 40% of the region’s main city, Stepanakert, has been destroyed and the city’s mayor told News.Am that 70% of its residents have left. 
  • Baku claims it has recaptured enough territory to resettle 500,000 people, British paper The Daily Telegraph reported. The UN counts that around 860,000 Azeris became refugees — or internally displaced persons (IDPs) — as a result of the 1988-94 conflict, fleeing either Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh.

With reporting by AFP, Al Jazeera, Kommersant, News.Am, Open Caucasus Media and The Daily Telegraph.

Nov 4: Analysis

The Nagorno-Karabakh Observer analyses the possible military stalemate that could have set in after weeks of Azerbaijani advances.

Nov 3

  • Reports of “indiscriminate” attacks on civilians by both sides could amount to “war crimes,” the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Monday evening. The international organization said “reports that cluster munitions have been used by both parties” were “deeply troubling.” Both Armenia and Azerbaijan had pledged to stop targeting civilian and residential areas in a new agreement struck Friday — though that appeared to fall through over the weekend. “Such attacks must stop and those responsible for carrying them out, or ordering them, must be held to account,” Bachelet said.
  • In a statement published on its website, the UN also said it was alarmed by “deeply disturbing” videos which appeared to show Azerbaijani troops executing two Armenian soldiers. While warning of the proliferation of fake images across social media, the UN said independent investigations had found the videos to be “compelling.”
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan separately Monday evening, the Kremlin said in a statement.
  • Fighting continued overnight and into Tuesday morning, according to reports from both sides. Armenia claimed Azerbaijani shelling killed one civilian Monday evening, AFP reported.
  • Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan compared the terror attack in Vienna which occurred Monday evening with the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in a tweet published Tuesday morning. “Nagorno-Karabakh has been fighting against the Azerbaijani-Turkish terrorist tandem for over a month now. I share the grief of the people of Austria,” Pashinyan said. He added that Nagorno-Karabakh was “at the front of the anti-terrorist war … without exaggeration, the fate of civilization is decided here.”

With reporting by AFP.

Nov. 3: Analysis

A Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty video report looks at claims of cluster munitions attacks.

Nov. 2

  • The two sides pledged to not target civilians or “non-military objects,” the OSCE Minsk Group — co-chaired by the U.S., France and Russia and tasked with mediating the conflict — said. The loose agreement was struck at talks between the sides in Geneva, though fell far short of a new ceasefire deal, three of which have already collapsed. Armenia and Azerbaijan also pledged to provide a list of prisoners who had been captured since fighting broke out more than a month ago.
  • However, within hours both sides had accused the other of targeting residential areas with ongoing missile strikes, Al Jazeera reported.
  • Moscow said it would provide “necessary” support to Armenia should the conflict spill out from the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh territory, AFP reported. It came after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan formally requested consultations with Russia within the framework of their collective defense treaty. Russia has so far adopted a cautious approach to the conflict, unlike rival Turkey which has vociferously backed its ally Azerbaijan.
  • Baku said there would be no need for Russian intervention because it was not threatening Armenian territory, AFP reported. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but has been under de facto control of Armenian-backed separatists since 1994.
  • Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pledged to fight “to the end,” should any diplomatic talks fail to result in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions being put under Baku’s control, Reuters reported.
  • No side reported achieving any major territorial gains over the weekend, after Armenia said Azerbaijan was closing in on the region’s second largest city, Shusha, at the end of last week.
  • Armenia claimed Azerbaijan used white phosphorus — a chemical weapon restricted under the Geneva Convention — in an attack Saturday morning, Russia’s TASS news agency reported. Azerbaijan denied the claims and said Armenia had been transporting white phosphorus into the area, Al Jazeera reported.
  • U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said Turkey should play no role in a peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh and said he was working with Scandinavian governments to put together a potential peacekeeping mission, Armenian public radio reported. Russia said it had not received details on the proposal, news site RBC reported. As of Saturday, Sweden said it had not received any official request from the U.S. to send peacekeeping troops to the region. 

With reporting from AFP, Al Jazeera, Open Caucasus Media, RBC, Reuters and TASS.

Nov 2: Analysis

Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s main city could become “another Sarajevo,” if Azerbaijani forces manage to capture it, Neil Melvin, director of international security studies at the RUSI think tank in London told Reuters in a piece assessing Baku’s military options. 

Academic and analyst Samuel Ramani summarizes the view of Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a foreign affairs think tank close to the Kremlin, on how Russia is approaching the stand-off between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Oct. 30

  • Azerbaijani forces were closing in on the town of Shusha, the second largest in the region, on Thursday evening, the leader of Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh said. Its capture would mark a turning point after a month of fighting. “Whoever controls Shushi controls Artsakh,” he said, using the Armenian names for the town (Shusha) and Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), AFP reported. Both sides reported continued missile strikes overnight and into Friday morning.
  • Talks are set to take place in Geneva on Friday with the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group — the main body involved in peacekeeping efforts in the region made up of representatives from France, Russia and the United States. Russia’s state-run Sputnik News reported Thursday, citing an Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, that the two sides would not meet bilaterally, but would each hold separate talks with the Minsk Group’s co-chairs. The meetings were originally agreed as part of the latest U.S.-brokered ceasefire deal which was struck last weekend but almost immediately collapsed.
  • Russia is open to Azerbaijan reclaiming seven areas surrounding the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenia has controlled for 26 years, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.
  • Armenia either directly used internationally-banned cluster munitions or supplied them to Armenia-backed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh for an attack on the Azerbaijani city of Barda, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported. Azerbaijan claimed the strikes Wednesday killed at least 21 civilians, but Armenia denied responsibility. Human Rights Watch called on Yerevan to “immediately cease” using the banned weapons and destroy its stocks.
  • The U.S. said it believes “there is no military solution to this conflict,” following a phone call between National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Thursday evening, according to a U.S. statement released after the call. O’Brien said Armenia was “taking the brunt of the casualties” and called for renewed negotiations and a ceasefire.

With reporting by AFP, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Caucasus Media and Sputnik News.

Oct. 30: Analysis

The Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies assesses the extent of Azerbaijan’s military gains since the start of the conflict.

Oct. 29

  • Azerbaijani authorities announced that the bodies of 30 Armenian soldiers that died in ongoing fighting were handed over to the Armenian side early in the day, thanking Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for the associated mediation efforts. Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed the handover and said that Armenia is ready for a reciprocal humanitarian gesture.  
  • Azerbaijan launched its heaviest missile strikes in a month of fighting on Stepanakert, the largest city in its Armenian-populated breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, separatist officials said. “Azerbaijan struck Stepanakert for several hours, tens of missiles hit the city,” Karabakh’s rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan told AFP. “Civilians were injured as a result of the strike, the heaviest during the recent fighting,” he said.
  • A planned meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers scheduled Thursday in Geneva has reportedly been postponed until Friday, according to Russian state-run news agencies RIA Novosti and Sputnik News, citing unnamed diplomatic sources in Baku. The meeting was agreed as part of the U.S.-brokered ceasefire which rapidly collapsed earlier this week.
  • U.S. Presidential candidate Joe Biden called on Donald Trump to stop the flow of military equipment to Azerbaijan and urge Turkey and Russia to also stop supplying the sides with weapons. In a statement posted on his campaign website, Biden added that “a large-scale humanitarian disaster is looming for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
  • The United Nations said Wednesday more than 130,000 people have been displaced by the fighting and that more than 70 schools and kindergartens had been damaged. Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN Secretary General said the body strongly condemned attacks on population centers, pointing to the reported Armenian strike on Barda, 20 miles from the frontline, earlier this week which Azerbaijan claims killed at least 20 civilians — the most reported in a single attack since the conflict resumed.
  • Reports from witnesses to that Wednesday rocket attack on Barda continued to emerge overnight, including a first-hand account and photos of the aftermath from New York Times reporters who were caught up in the attack. Armenia has denied responsibility.
  • Both sides accused the other of launching new attacks Thursday morning, though no major fatalities were reported.

With reporting from AFP, RIA Novosti, Sputnik News, The New York Times, France 24 and Azadliq Radiosu.

Oct. 29: Analysis

Laurence Broers, Caucasus program director at London-based peacebuilding organization Conciliation Resources who has written widely about Armenia, Azerbaijan and the conflict assesses the stakes as foreign ministers were due to meet in Geneva — a meeting which has now been postponed until Friday.

“Now the situation is close to turning into a protracted war — a war of attrition,” Vladimir Novikov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Socio-Political Studies of the Black Sea-Caspian Region told The Moscow Times. “There are no diplomatic solutions to the conflict yet. Both sides have taken tough positions.” He added that a key factor in whether Russia will become more involved is the geography of the conflict — Moscow will find it harder to refuse its obligations under a collective defense pact if fighting extends into Armenia proper.

Both Pashinyan and Aliyev would face significant domestic repercussions should they be seen to back down, Andrey Suzdaltsev, dean of the faculty of world economy and world politics at the Higher School of Economics told Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti agency. “If Stepanakert is captured, there will be a wave of refugees — more than 100,000 people who will flood Yerevan and all the cities of Armenia. Then Pashinyan will be turned from a defender of sovereignty to a loser. If Aliyev loses, he will suffer heavy consequences. There is strong opposition. A victorious war was needed to strengthen his power and pass it on to his inheritor. He needs victory.”

Oct. 28

  • Azerbaijan said Wednesday an Armenian missile strike on its Barda district near the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline killed 21 civilians, but Yerevan denied carrying out an attack, AFP reported. It would be the deadliest reported attack on civilians since new fighting over the disputed region broke out a month ago and the second in two days that Azerbaijan says killed civilians. An Armenian spokesperson called the claims “groundless and false.”
  • Yerevan also accused Azerbaijani forces of deadly new strikes on civilian areas of Karabakh, as both sides claim the other is increasingly targeting civilians after weeks of fierce frontline clashes.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump said he was “disappointed” in the breakdown of the latest ceasefire and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who negotiated the deal, pressed both Baku and Yerevan to honor the agreement.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone Tuesday evening about the conflict — the latest international showdown which sees the two powers backing opposing sides. According to a summary of the call published by the Kremlin, Putin expressed “deep concern” over the “growing involvement” of fighters from the Middle East in the region.
  • Iran announced it was increasing its air defenses along its northern border, which it shares with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, hours after Tehran also increased troop levels in the region. Iran has also offered to join diplomatic efforts to end the fighting alongside Russia and Turkey.
  • Before publishing statements of Wednesday’s claimed attacks, Azerbaijan said 69 civilians had been killed since the fighting broke out, while Armenia claims 37 civilian deaths on its side. Overall, Putin said last week that almost 5,000 people have died in the fighting — a significantly higher toll than publicly claimed by either Armenia or Azerbaijan.
  • In an address to the nation delivered Tuesday evening, and published on the Armenian government’s official YouTube channel, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan pledged to launch a “destructive” counterattack to recapture territory lost by Armenian-backed forces since the start of fighting last month.
  • Russia has reportedly set up a small military outpost on the border of Armenia in an apparent attempt to keep Azerbaijan’s offensive from spilling over into Armenian territory, Eurasianet reported.

With reporting from AFP, BBC, Channel 4, Eurasianet, Newsweek and TASS.

Oct 28: Analysis

The Financial Times’ Moscow bureau chief Henry Foy explains how Azerbaijan’s expensive, modern military equipment has overwhelmed Armenia’s outdated defenses.

Journalist Arzu Geybulla, originally from Azerbaijan and now based in Istanbul, reports how the campaign is taking its toll on Azerbaijan despite the military gains, and predicts President Aliyev will find it hard to agree to a diplomatic solution given fervent support for the campaign at home. The full Twitter thread starts here.






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