Azerbaijan launches operation against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh 2:43
(CNN) -- Ethnic Armenian fighters from the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region agreed to lay down their arms after Azerbaijan launched a brief but bloody military offensive on Tuesday, giving Azerbaijan a boost in its bid to control territory.
It is not yet clear whether this will lead to lasting peace. Armenia and Azerbaijan have already fought two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The upsurge in hostilities, in which dozens of people were killed, alarmed the international community and raised questions about Russia's ability to maintain its long-term role as a proxy in the region.
- Armenian ethnic groups accept Russian ceasefire plan after Azerbaijan's military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh
What is Nagorno-Karabakh?
Nagorno-Karabakh, called Artsakh by Armenians, is a landlocked region located in the Caucasus Mountains and within the borders of Azerbaijan. It is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is home to some 120,000 ethnic Armenians, who constitute the majority of its population and reject Azerbaijani rule.
The region has its own de facto government backed by Armenia, but it is not officially recognized by Armenia or any other country.
Under the Soviet Union, of which Azerbaijan and Armenia were members, Nagorno-Karabakh became an autonomous region within the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1923.
In 1988, the Karabakh authorities passed a resolution declaring their intention to join the Republic of Armenia, leading to the outbreak of fighting as the Soviet Union began to crumble in what became the First Karabakh War. Some 30,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced as the Armenian side gained control of the region and seven surrounding districts of Azerbaijan.
After years of sporadic clashes between the two sides, the Second Karabakh War began in 2020. Azerbaijan, backed by its historic ally Turkey, won a landslide victory in just 44 days, regaining all seven districts and about a third of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The war ended after Russia, Armenia's longtime ally but with growing ties to Azerbaijan, brokered a ceasefire. The agreement brokered by Moscow provided for the deployment of some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to the region to prevent further Azerbaijani invasions and protect the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting the territory with Armenia.
Why have tensions reignited?
Despite Russia's peacekeeping presence, Nagorno-Karabakh has been under blockade for nine months. In December 2022, Azerbaijani-backed activists set up a military checkpoint along the Lachin corridor, preventing food imports and raising fears that residents were being starved.
In the days leading up to the attacks on Stepanakert, the Karabakh Foreign Ministry warned that "the Azerbaijani side has been carrying out daily troop transfers and stockpiling various weapons... preparing the ground for large-scale aggression."
Azerbaijani soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint in the Lachin corridor, which links Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. (Photo: Tofik Babayev/AFP/Getty Images)
Despite the tensions, Tuesday's escalation was sudden. To justify its attacks on Stepanakert, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense stated that an Azerbaijani vehicle had hit a mine that had been laid in previously demined areas, killing two civilians.
Azerbaijan also claimed that its army had been subjected to "systematic shelling" by the Armenian Armed Forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.
But Armenia's Foreign Ministry rejected claims that its Armed Forces were in Nagorno-Karabakh, and that it is instead protected by the Artsakh Defense Army. "Armenia's aid to Nagorno-Karabakh is of a humanitarian nature" due to the ongoing blockade, it said in a statement.
CNN could not independently verify the two sides' claims.
By the time the Karabakh authorities agreed to the ceasefire, at least 32 people had reportedly been killed and 200 others injured. The Nagorno-Karabakh presidency claimed that its forces were outnumbered "several times" by those of Azerbaijan.
The ceasefire came into effect at 1 p.m. (local time) on Wednesday, after the Karabakh presidential office agreed to "the dissolution and complete disarmament of armed formations."
Refugee children during the bombing of Stepanakert by Azerbaijan on Tuesday night. (Photo: Siranush Sargsyan/AP)
What are the positions of Azerbaijan and Armenia?
Armenia no longer disputes that Nagorny Karabakh is part of the territory of Azerbaijan.
After the 2020 war exposed Armenia's military inferiority, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan acknowledged in April this year that his government is ready to give up its claims on the region. He argued that "peace is possible" only if Armenia limits its territorial ambitions to the borders of the former Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, that is, excluding Nagorno-Karabakh.
Now, Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan's longtime president, wants to seize what he sees as his advantage. His rhetoric has become increasingly aggressive in recent months. In a speech in May, Aliyev said of Karabakh's Armenians, "Either they bend their necks and come themselves, or things will evolve differently," a veiled threat of military action.
Azerbaijan's stance on Tuesday was inflexible, demanding "the unconditional and complete withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces" and "the dissolution of the puppet regime" in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Under the terms of Wednesday's ceasefire, Nagorno-Karabakh disbanded its army, while Armenia has continued to insist it had no military presence of its own in the region. It is not yet clear how far Azerbaijan is willing to go in insisting on the dissolution of the de facto government.
What is the implication of Russia and Turkey?
Russia is a historic ally of Armenia, while Turkey has long supported Azerbaijan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that his country supports "the steps taken by Azerbaijan, where we act with the motto of one nation, two states, to protect its territorial integrity," during his speech on Tuesday at the 78th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN).
Turkey itself launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Armenians, in a genocide of Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed "concern over the sharp escalation of tensions and the outbreak of hostilities."
Analysts said the effectiveness of Russia's peacekeeping presence, which began after the war in 2020, has waned over time. (Photo: Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images)
However, the latest violence came at a time that, according to some analysts, may constitute a fracture in the close relationship between Armenia and Russia.
- Does one of Russia's oldest allies leave the Kremlin's orbit?
Armenia has for decades relied on Russia as the sole guarantor of its security, which Moscow intends to provide through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of post-Soviet states that includes Armenia but not Azerbaijan.
But Armenia has been more frustrated by Russia's unwillingness or inability to defend it from Azerbaijani aggression, as ties between Moscow and Baku have grown.
Given Russia's inability to meet its commitments, analysts told CNN that Armenia has felt it had no choice but to diversify its security apparatus.
This month, Armenia sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine for the first time. It then hosted joint military maneuvers with the United States. Its parliament is also on the verge of ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, meaning it would be obliged to arrest Russia's President Vladimir Putin if he set foot in the country.
Pashinyan on Tuesday criticized Russia for failing to alert his government to Azerbaijan's plans to launch military action. "We have not received any information from our Russian partners about that operation," he said, according to statements quoted by Armenpress.
News of new attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh provoked cryptic reactions from prominent Russian personalities, who showed little sympathy for Armenia. Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of state-run Russia Today, said the news was "tragic, hopeless and predictable" and that "Judas' fate is unenviable."
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