By Alexandra Brzozowski
(EurActiv) — The escalation of decades-old hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Tuesday (13 September) has fuelled fears that a second full-fledged war could break out in Europe’s neighbourhood in addition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Both sides blamed each other for escalating the attacks, with Yerevan saying it had responded to what it called a “large-scale provocation” by Azerbaijan, while Baku said it was attacked by Armenia and returned fire.
The fresh outbreak of conflict prompted the US, Russia and Europeans to call for restraint.
Armenia’s defence ministry said at least 49 of its soldiers had been killed along the border, accusing Azerbaijan of having used “artillery, mortars, drones and large-calibre rifles” to launch cross-border attacks on positions in and around several towns and villages, including Vardenis, Sotk, Artanish, Ishkhanasar, Goris, Jermuk and Kapan.
Yerevan claimed the attacks had targeted both military and civilian infrastructure.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said the attack was caused by the country not wanting to negotiate over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave that is geographically surrounded by Azerbaijan but mainly populated by ethnic Armenians.
“The intensity of hostilities has decreased but attacks on one or two fronts from Azerbaijan continue,” Pashinyan said in a speech to parliament, according to Russian media.
Azerbaijan claimed that the Armenian troops had repeatedly fired on Azerbaijani military positions in the Dashkesan, Kelbajar and Lachin regions after planting mines and building up stocks of weapons along the border.
Tense ties, different allies
Shortly after the fresh clashes erupted, Pashinyan had a phone conversation with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron, European Council President Charles Michel and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Armenia looks to Moscow as the main ally that can guarantee its precarious security through the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), with Russia operating a military base in Armenia and being a key power broker in the region.
Turkey, meanwhile, is the key supporter of Azerbaijan.
Defence ministers of Armenia and Russia spoke on Tuesday morning and agreed to take steps to stabilise the situation on the border, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held a call with his Azerbaijani counterpart Jeyhun Bayramov and called for Armenia to “cease its provocations.”
In 2020, Russia sent thousands of peacekeepers to the region as part of a deal to end six weeks of hostilities between the sides which claimed more than 6,500 lives and saw Azerbaijan make significant territorial gains in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.
There was another short outbreak of violence last month when Azerbaijan and pro-Armenian separatists clashed in the contested region.
Russia’s experienced troops had been reportedly been redeployed to Ukraine and replaced with young conscripts, local reports say.
Should the situation further escalate, observers worry about Moscow’s response to the situation at its immediate borders.
The CSTO, a Eurasian security organisation that next to Armenia features Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan as members, convened on Tuesday to discuss the situation.
EU mediation attempts
Pashinyan discussed the escalation in tensions on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border with the European Council’s Michel on Tuesday, the Armenian government said.
Michel said the EU was “ready to make efforts to prevent further escalation” and said there was “no alternative to peace and stability in the region,” according to an Armenian readout of the call.
The EU repeatedly has tried to step into the diplomatic breach, presenting itself as a mediator.
Only last month, Brussels hosted a trilateral meeting between Pashinyan and Aliyev for talks on how to avert future clashes, with Michel announcing a meeting between border authorities to take place in November.
EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell on Tuesday called for an “immediate cessation” of hostilities and a “return to the negotiation table.”
“Last night’s armed confrontations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a dangerous escalation that needs to stop,” Borrell said in a short statement, adding that Toivo Klaar, the EU’s special representative for the South Caucasus, was being rushed to the region.
However, with no significant EU presence on the ground, it is not in a position to enforce the ceasefire terms.
On a visit to Baku last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen signed a memorandum of understanding with Aliyev as part of efforts to gain access to the country’s massive natural gas reserves and help cover for Europe’s reduced supplies coming from Russia.
France, which currently holds the presidency of the UN Security Council, said it will bring up the topic of clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan at the body’s next meeting and urge both sides to stick to a ceasefire, according to the office of President Emmanuel Macron.