Azerbaijan has announced a major new military offensive in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, declaring an “evacuation” of ethnic Armenians in the “danger zone” and opening a crisis that risks escalating into all-out war.
The escalation comes after months of unsuccessful negotiations and amid growing speculation that Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, is preparing to use force to end a decades-old conflict. A war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020 left thousands dead on each side. In recent months, Azerbaijan has strengthened the blockade of food and medicine supplies to the Armenian enclave which lies entirely within its territory.
Baku’s Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that it was launching “local anti-terrorism activities” to “suppress large-scale provocations” in the territory. Reports and video footage from Nagorno-Karabakh show intense shelling and shooting in the enclave. Air raid sirens sounded in Stepanakert, de facto capital of the unrecognized state.
Azerbaijan’s claim that it would also evacuate the Armenian population from “dangerous areas” immediately sparked fears of ethnic cleansing.
The prospect of renewed war in the Caucasus represents a major strategic and diplomatic setback for the EU, which is courting Azerbaijan as an ally and alternative gas supplier to Russia.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made an official visit to Azerbaijan last July with the aim of increasing natural gas exports. Describing the country as a “reliable and trustworthy partner”, she and President Ilham Aliyev signed a memorandum of understanding on increased economic cooperation, despite warnings from experts that Brussels was simply seeking to replace one autocracy with another .
The Azerbaijani government said it launched the assault Tuesday in response to the destruction of vehicles by land mines, which killed four of its soldiers and two civilians, but it gave no indication of how the Karabakh Armenians besieged laid down these weapons.
“As a member of [“anti-terrorist”] “Measures, positions on the front line and deep and long-range firing positions of the formations of the Armenian Armed Forces, as well as combat assets and military installations are neutralized using high-precision weapons accuracy,” the Azerbaijani government said in a statement.
Speaking to POLITICO, Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijani President Aliyev, said “the goal is to neutralize military infrastructure” and added that the local Armenian population had received SMS messages warning them of “actions anti-terrorists.
“They were asked to stay away from legitimate military targets,” Hajiyev said.
In a subsequent statement, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said it had established “humanitarian corridors and reception points” to “ensure the evacuation of the population from the dangerous zone.”
However, in a voicemail from Stepanakert, Siranush Sargsyan, a local Armenian journalist from Karabakh, told POLITICO that neither she nor any member of her family had received text messages warning of the attack and said he Azerbaijan’s offer of a “humanitarian corridor” to leave was impossible to trust. “How can I trust them? They will kill me, that’s for sure,” she added.
Fears of “ethnic cleansing” against Armenians
After Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, a Russian-brokered ceasefire deal has since collapsed, with Azerbaijani forces taking control of the Lachin corridor , the road connecting the territory to Armenia. Since then, aid agencies say they are unable to deliver food and fuel due to growing fears of “ethnic cleansing.”
In a message shared by intermediaries outside the region due to intermittent internet connection, Sergei Ghazaryan, the foreign minister of the unrecognized government, said Azerbaijan had sent troops “in order to implement its policy of genocide is directed towards the physical destruction of the civilian population. and the destruction of civilian property.
In an interview with POLITICO last week, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Azerbaijan had deployed a large number of troops on the two countries’ shared border and along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh. “It is not possible to rule out an escalation scenario,” he said. As Azerbaijan may increasingly depend on Turkey’s strategic support, Pashinyan complained that Russia was no longer well placed to guarantee Armenia’s security after Ukraine’s invasion .
Photos and videos purportedly posted by mobilized Azerbaijani soldiers showed large convoys heading towards the region, many of which were marked with an inverted A symbol – similar to the Z sign that Russian forces painted on their vehicles during the invasion of Ukraine last year.
The offensive comes after months of high-stakes negotiations brokered by the EU, US and Russia in a bid to avoid a repeat of the 2020 war and end the worsening famine.
In July, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Brussels was “deeply concerned about the serious humanitarian situation” and called on all parties to commit to “negotiated outcomes and a future built on common interests and mutual trust.
In a call with Aliyev earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Azerbaijan to refrain from military escalation and stressed the “need for dialogue”, while urging the country to reopen the Lachin corridor.
European Council President Charles Michel, who has led negotiations with Armenia and Azerbaijan in recent months, said the news was “devastating” and insisted that “Azerbaijan’s military actions must be stopped immediately to allow a real dialogue between the Armenians of Baku and Karabakh.”
This story is currently being updated.