TERTER, Azerbaijan – For years, Armenian leaders had spoken cautiously and ambiguously about the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, to avoid inflaming passions in Azerbaijan. But that suddenly changed this spring, when the prime minister declared the region unmistakably Armenian.
To Azerbaijanis, who lost a bitter and unresolved war with Armenia in the region in the 1990s, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s remark landed with explosive force. Even more infuriatingly, he was delivered to Shusha, a city that Azerbaijanis consider their cultural capital but which is in a territory lost during the war.
“The last nail in the coffin of the negotiation process was when he declared Nagorno-Karabakh to be Armenian,” said Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to the Azerbaijani president.
The two countries returned to all-out war a month ago, with Azerbaijan determined to reclaim the roughly 13% of its land that Armenia seized 26 years ago, displacing 800,000 Azerbaijanis in the process. . The fighting threatens to draw Turkey, on the Azerbaijani side, and Russia, which supports Armenia.
The victims of the conflict have already numbered in the thousands, but as his troops advance Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev shows no signs of slowing down and the country is in the throes of war fever.
A ceasefire negotiated in Washington last weekend was broken less than an hour after it took effect, with the two sides exchanging artillery fire on Monday morning.
Mr. Aliyev calls for the Armenian forces to withdraw at internationally recognized borders, in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolutions and basic principles agreed upon in previous negotiations. These were the terms agreed 10 years ago but never enforced, and analysts say Armenia has become less ambiguous this year over claiming the territory seized during the war.
Mr. Hajiyev said in an interview that Azerbaijan had hoped for progress when the Armenian leader, Mr. Pashinyan, came to power after a popular uprising in 2018. At their first meeting, Mr. Pashinyan, a former journalist, asked Aliyev but promised to pursue a new policy on Nagorno-Karabakh.
This policy never came. Tensions have escalated this year, analysts say, as Pashinyan and his defense minister made increasingly populist statements on the territory, announcing plans to make Shusha the regional capital and in August there moving Parliament. These steps can ultimately turn out to be major miscalculations.
An American-Armenian historian, Jirair Libaridian, suggested it. “We have become obsessed with our dreams instead of focusing on the possible,” he wrote in September.
Independent analysts widely view Azerbaijan as the main engine of the war, saying it has prepared a major offensive, but add that Pashinyan has pushed the boundaries with his populist rhetoric.
“It makes sense that Azerbaijan wanted to start this, not the Armenians, who just want the status quo,” said Thomas de Waal, principal researcher of Carnegie Europe and author of “Black Garden”, a book on Haut- Karabakh. “But the Armenians also played their part with provocative movements.”
The Armenian government has accused Azerbaijan of mounting a planned offensive and instigating the clashes that have led to all-out war, and claims it is acting entirely in self-defense.
Russia has been a crucial presence for Armenia. It supported Armenia in the initial conflict, maintains two military bases in the country, and provided support and equipment.
Since the moribund truce of 2009, leaders of the two countries have acted cautiously, believing it to be politically safer to stick to the status quo than to risk the territorial compromises that a peace agreement would require, Mr. . of Waal.
All the while, Mr. Aliyev, who inherited the presidency from his father in 2003, was using his country’s oil and gas wealth to bolster the army, purchase advanced weapons, and send officers for training in line with standards. NATO standards in Turkey.
The rearmament effort appeared to bear fruit in 2016, when in four days of fighting, Azerbaijani forces took control of a village just above the ceasefire line. But Russia intervened to stop the advance, said Farid Shafiyev, a former diplomat and director of the government-funded Center for Analysis of International Relations in Baku.
The popular disappointment at that time was palpable, he said. He noticed the same public reaction when Russia negotiated a ceasefire on October 10, just two weeks after the last fight. “People were very depressed,” he said.
The immediate spark of the current conflict came in July, during a deadly clash near the border town of Tovuz, where essential oil and gas pipelines from Azerbaijan are heading to Georgia and Turkey.
Armenian soldiers fired at an Azerbaijani military vehicle, causing violent cross-border exchanges that killed more than a dozen people, including several officers.
One of those killed, Major General Polad Hashimov, was a popular figure whose death sparked a wave of emotion. A small protest has turned into a protest of tens of thousands marching in the capital, Baku, demanding the country to resume Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The events of July sent a shock wave,” said Hajiyev, political adviser. “And public opinion and young people sent this message: ‘Enough is enough’.
Frustrations over the coronavirus pandemic and severe water shortages have increased the pressure, Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Izmayilova said. “It was clear to Aliyev that the public was ready to explode and it was time to act.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan viewed the clash in Tovuz as a strategic threat to Azerbaijan and immediately dispatched planes and troops for two weeks of joint military exercises with the Azerbaijani army.
Turkish analysts saw Mr Erdogan’s move as a way to gain leverage in his relations with Russia. But protecting its Turkish ally, which recently replaced Russia as Turkey’s main source of natural gas, was also hugely important.
“It is a cliché that Turkey was the instigator,” Shafiyev of the Center for Analysis of International Relations said of Azerbaijan’s adventure in war. But he confirmed, as Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Aliyev have since then, that Turkey has pledged active support if Azerbaijan should encounter difficulties.
In August, Azerbaijani authorities said the military had stopped Armenian troops making another cross-border incursion. “We understood that something was going to happen,” Hajiyev said.
After years of sporadic artillery firefights, both sides were ready to do more by September.
Villagers living on the Azerbaijani side of the ceasefire line near the town of Terter were notified by the Azerbaijani army on September 26. Some of them had left cars overnight. Those who stayed described an Armenian rocket barrage at 7 am the next day.
“We hear shelling all the time, but it was completely different,” said Gulbeniz Badalova, 59, who lives in Terter, just 500 meters from the ceasefire line. “They started shooting continuously and we all got scared.”
Azerbaijan quickly retaliated, saying it was defending its civilian populations. “They started attacking civilians and we were forced to carry out a counteroffensive,” Hajiyev said. But even some officials admitted they were waiting for an excuse to launch an attack.
Azerbaijani troops have already retaken parts of four southern districts along the border with Iran and moved closer to the Lachin Corridor, a mountain pass that is a critical supply route from Armenia.
But there is no doubt that things have been difficult for the Azerbaijani forces. Baku did not release the number of military casualties, but Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said on Thursday that each side had already lost more than 2,000 troops in less than a month of fighting. The missile strikes also killed at least 65 civilians from Azerbaijan and 37 from Armenia, according to official figures from both sides.
Public support for the offensive remains firmly behind Mr. Aliyev and the military, but the president could face a difficult job in managing expectations.
Many Azerbaijani families displaced by the shelling in Terter are originally refugees from Karabakh, and said they would not be satisfied if Mr. Aliyev stopped after taking only a few districts.
“This is not enough,” said Zarifa Suleymanova, 43, before listing all the regions Azerbaijan needed. “We have very courageous sons. It won’t take long. “