Azerbaijan pounded Nagorno-Karabakh on Wednesday, killing at least 32 according to Armenia and wounding many more in the breakaway region controlled by ethnic Armenians, despite calls from Russia and the United States to halt the spiral into war.
Azerbaijan began its “anti-terrorist” operation on Tuesday against Nagorno-Karabakh after some of its troops were killed in what Baku said were attacks from the mountainous region. Karabakh is recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Karabakh was being shelled intensively in an attempt to provoke a war. He demanded that Russian peacekeepers do their job and warned that unidentified forces were talking about a coup in Yerevan.
Ethnic Armenians in Karabakh said Azerbaijan had triggered a new war against the 120,000 people living in an area they consider their homeland. Nearby Turkey backed Azerbaijan, with which it has strong linguistic, cultural and economic ties.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to “immediately cease hostilities” and told Pashinyan that Washington supported Armenia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Russia – distracted by the war in Ukraine – called for calm but some Russian officials scolded Armenia for flirting with the West and said this could lead to serious problems.
“This is a big war – Azerbaijan has started a full operation,” Ruben Vardanyan, former head of the ethnic Armenian administration in Karabakh, told Reuters from its capital, which is known by Armenians as Stepanakert and by Azeris as Khankendi.
He said close to 100 people had been killed and hundreds more injured. Reuters could not independently verify the figures. The Yerevan government put the death toll at 32.
“Everyone is ignoring this, Russia is silent but so is the West,” Vardanyan said.
Another war in the former Soviet Union could disrupt the geopolitical balance in the South Caucasus, an area criss-crossed by energy pipelines where Russia, the United States, Turkey and Iran are jostling for influence.
Azerbaijan’s defence ministry said earlier on Wednesday that military measures “continue successfully”, with weaponry and military equipment destroyed.
Armenians in Karabakh, a region they call Artsakh, said fighting was continuing with varying intensity. Vardanyan said Azerbaijan continued military strikes overnight into Wednesday.
Russian peacekeepers have evacuated more than 2,000 civilians from Karabakh, Russia’s defence ministry said. A major outflow of some 120,000 civilians from the region could trigger a refugee crisis in Armenia.
Aliyev told Blinken that Azerbaijan would halt its operation only after Armenian fighters surrendered, Russian news agencies quoted the Azeri presidential administration as saying
Azerbaijan said its intention was to “disarm and secure the withdrawal of formations of Armenia’s armed forces from our territories, (and) neutralise their military infrastructure”.
Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, called “for an immediate end to the fighting” after the European Union, France and Germany condemned Baku’s military action.
In Yerevan, Pashinyan warned in a national address on Tuesday of threats from “forces, external and internal” to Armenia’s statehood.
“I have to record that, as expected, calls for a coup d’état are already being heard from different places, even in Armenia.”
Armenians and Azeris clashed in the region in 1988 as the Soviet Union crumbled, fighting what came to be known as the First Karabakh War in which about 30,000 people were killed and more than a million displaced. That war ended in 1994 with ethnic Armenians in control of the mountainous territory.
In 2020, after decades of skirmishes, Azerbaijan – buoyed by revenues from its oil and gas exports and backed by Turkey – began a military operation which became the Second Karabakh War, swiftly breaking through Armenian defences.
Azerbaijan won a resounding victory in the 44-day war, taking back parts of Karabakh. Russia brokered a ceasefire then and is now urging both sides to return to it.
Protesters unhappy about what they see as Moscow’s failure to stop Azerbaijan chanted anti-Russian slogans outside Russia’s embassy in Armenia on Tuesday evening, Russia’s state TASS news agency reported.
U.S. soldiers will complete a joint military exercise with Armenian forces in Armenia on Wednesday as planned, and it was not affected by Azerbaijan’s offensive in Karabakh, a U.S. military spokesperson said.