Azerbaijan said on Tuesday that it had launched a military operation against an Armenian enclave inside its territory, raising fears of an expanding armed conflict in a fragile region in which the interests of Russia, Turkey and Western countries are increasingly colliding.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said in a statement that its forces had launched “local anti-terrorist” operations in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, aiming to “disarm and secure the withdrawal of Armenia’s armed formations” from its territory. The country’s foreign ministry issued what appeared to be an ultimatum, declaring that only the “dissolution” of the unrecognized pro-Armenian government in the area would “achieve peace and stability.”
The defense ministry also said that it had been using high-precision weapons to target what it said were Armenian firing points and other military facilities in the area.
As Azerbaijan’s military pressure mounted, the breakaway authorities issued a statement, asking Azerbaijan’s leaders in Baku, the capital, to cease hostilities and begin talks.
Unverified video footage from the region showed explosions and the buzzing sound of a drone, a weapon that Azerbaijan used to devastating effect when it last fought, and defeated, Armenia in a 44-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020.
“At this moment the capital Stepanakert and other cities and villages are under intensive fire,” the region’s pro-Armenian government, the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, said in a statement, describing Azerbaijan’s actions as the start of a “large-scale military offensive.”
Nikol Pashinyan, the prime minister of Armenia, said: “Armenia does not participate in military operations, and I want to note once again that the Republic of Armenia does not have an army in Nagorno-Karabakh,” according to the Russian news agency Tass. “At present, we will not take any rash actions,” he added.
Following the 2020 war that ended with the recapture of most of the region by Azerbaijan, Russia stationed 1,960 peacekeepers to defuse tensions around the last remaining area not controlled by Baku. However, distracted by its continuing invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has been unable to keep the situation under control as an emboldened Azerbaijan kept increasing its foothold by putting the only road that links it with Armenia under its firm control.
In a phone interview from a hospital in Stepanakert, Gegham Stepanyan, the republic’s human rights ombudsman, said that the situation was “very difficult” as the Azerbaijani army attacked along the entire line of contact with artillery and drones.
“As of now, we have information about two dead and 11 people injured as a result of the attack,” said Mr. Stepanyan. “People are being brought from various towns and villages.”
Much remained unclear on Tuesday, including the intensity of the fighting and the actions of Russian peacekeepers stationed in region.
Internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, the mountainous part of Karabakh is a separatist-controlled area that has an overwhelmingly Armenian population. The 2020 war there ended in a Russia-brokered cease-fire that allowed Azerbaijan to take control of most of the territory that Armenia had captured in a yearslong war in the 1990s. That war followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, of which both countries were a part.
As part of the deal, Russia deployed about 2,000 peacekeepers to maintain stability in the area where tens of thousands of Armenians remained — but which, under international law, was part of Azerbaijan.
Ever since, Azerbaijan has insisted that it was due full control of all of Nagorno-Karabakh under the 2020 peace deal. It has demanded that the ethnic Armenians there either submit to Azerbaijani governance or depart, while increasingly blocking overland traffic between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia has condemned Azerbaijan’s demands as a form of ethnic cleansing, while Russia has appeared powerless to de-escalate tensions.
Now, the specter of a new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is emerging as an embarrassment for the Kremlin, which is failing to keep the peace between two former Soviet countries as it focuses on its war on Ukraine. On Monday — just a day before Azerbaijan launched its attack — the Russian Foreign Ministry said it saw “gradual improvement of the humanitarian situation” in the region and voiced optimism that Armenia and Azerbaijan were interested in a “normalization” of relations.
But a new war would also pose challenges for the United States and the NATO alliance. Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Turkey, is a NATO member. Armenia has a military alliance with Russia, while Mr. Pashinyan has sought to deepen Armenia’s ties with the West. In the 2020 war, there was widespread disappointment in Armenia that Russia did not come to the country’s aid more assertively.
According to Aleksander Iskandaryan, a political scientist in Yerevan, Armenia, the current attack is not just “a small-scale escalation aimed at making an impact on peace talks.”
“Nothing like that happened since the 2020 war,” Mr. Iskandaryan said in a phone interview. “The question is whether Azerbaijan wants to capture the entire Karabakh and squeeze Armenians out of there.”
Since the end of that war, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been engaged in high-level talks to end the conflict and sign a peace agreement. The negotiations have been brokered by Moscow and Western countries, but have been stalled with the sides unable to agree on key issues, including the fate of Karabakh Armenians and the precise contours of the borders between the two countries.