The Armenian side launched a campaign of blaming Azerbaijan in enforcing a “blockade” of the region and even in committing “genocide” of the Karabakh Armenians. Despite the lackluster international reaction, the position of the so-called “Republic of Artsakh” towards Baku had been radicalising, as the separatists refused to accept food and other goods delivered by Azerbaijan, insisting on receive them exclusively from Armenia through the Lachin road. The rising tensions also triggered a change of power in Khankendi, where the previous “President” Arayik Harutyunyan, considered to be Nikol Pashinyan’s ally, was replaced by the former head of the local “Security council” Samvel Shahramanyan. Since September, both sides started to amass troops along the border, while Azerbaijan also deployed additional forces in the vicinity of the de-facto “republic”. Despite the fact that the situation was reaching a boiling point, newly elected Karabakh “authorities” decided to raise stakes, as “President” Shahramanyan on 9 September voiced demands for securing a legal status for Nagorno-Karabakh, de facto abandoned by Yerevan in October 2022, On the morning of 19 September, a series of fatal landmine accidents happened in the Azerbaijani-controlled areas, with a total death toll of 14 Azerbaijanis from police, security services as well as civilian workers. Baku officially claimed that the landmines had been recently planted and classified it as acts of sabotage and terror on behalf of the separatists. At about 1:30 pm the Ministry of Defense held a briefing, announcing the start of an “anti-terror operation” in the Karabakh region aimed at destroying Armenian military facilities and fortifications without targeting civilian infrastructure. It was specifically mentioned that Russian peacekeeping forces had been informed of the situation.
Azerbaijani armed forces committed massive strikes on the military garrisons and weaponry in the Armenian-controlled area and just hours later it became clear that local forces were totally vulnerable. After a significant part of the infrastructure was destroyed, the Azerbaijani army also launched an offensive on the ground from several directions. On the morning of 20 September, it was reported that important positions at Heyvali (Drmbon) and Sarsang water reservoir in the north of the region had fallen under Azerbaijani control, while communication between the major towns of the unrecognized republic had been cut. Against this background, local authorities had no choice but to accept Baku’s conditions, agreeing on a ceasefire starting from 1 PM on the conditions of a complete demilitarisation of Karabakh. Today, on 21 September their representatives held negotiations with Azerbaijani authorities in Yevlakh.
International reaction to this lightning-speed operation has been remarkably muted. Major conflict mediators- US, EU and Russia- have traditionally expressed their deep concern and called for the cessation of hostilities. Similar reaction followed from Iran on whose support Armenia had been relying for a while. Unsurprisingly, only France issued a harsh statement, condemning Baku’s military operation. But most importantly, official Yerevan abstained from any interference, and Pashinyan denied any presence of Armenia’s armed units in Karabakh, de-facto meaning that Armenia doesn’t have anything to do with this escalation. Moreover, he openly claimed that the goal of this operation was to trigger Yerevan to a war which could have resulted in new territorial losses and the destruction of Armenian statehood. Tigran Abrahamyan, an Armenian MP from the opposition party “With honour”, also confirmed that the Azerbaijani side was not targeting civilians. In his statement made on the evening of 20 September, President Aliyev said “he highly appreciated” the position taken by the Armenian government.
So why has the Karabakh knot been cut precisely in this way and at this time? Surely, a military solution was not Azerbaijan’s preferred option, at least after October 2022, in the situation where Armenia directly recognised the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan with Karabakh without preconditions, and the functioning of the de-facto Republic was no longer sustainable beyond the short term. As Russia increasingly lost capacity or willingness to ensure its survival even within dramatically reduced post-2020 borders, preferring instead to speak with Azerbaijan and Türkiye, Baku believed the leadership in Khankendi would embrace the inevitable. In fact, the outcomes of the Pashinyan-Aliyev negotiations in Prague in October 2022 and their further meetings in Brussels have emphasized that Yerevan de-facto withdrew claims for representing their former protégés in Karabakh while major international actors quietly accepted the inevitable scenario, focusing instead on enhancing their influence in the region. The installation of an Azerbaijani checkpoint on the Lachin road, which had been claimed absolutely inadmissible by the separatists, should have served to emphasize the inevitability of the ultimate integration of Karabakh. From a military point of view, during the years after the Trilateral statement Azerbaijan had been consolidating its strategic dominance in Karabakh, as it became very easy to obtain precise information about the location of remaining armed units and important military installations.
Still, very important and often overlooked reasons for Azerbaijan to accelerate its pressure on the Karabakh Armenians was humanitarian. Since summer 2022, Baku started to move civilian population into the liberated territories, starting from Zangilan but then to Shusha and Lachin. This month, local schools opened their doors to the first pupils. In this situation, protecting the security of the relocated families and ensuring the proper functioning of local facilities turned into matters of state importance and of course, Baku viewed the demilitarisation of Karabakh as the sine qua non for these purposes.
Still, all these structural changes failed to force Khankendi to acquiesce to the changing realities, as the latter continued to insist on talking on an equal footing with Baku and denying the possibility of integration into Azerbaijan. Moreover, the separatists did not conduct the demilitarisation of the region, despite all the pressure from Baku. Even the closure of the Lachin road, believed to be a nuclear argument that would finally convince Armenians to accept Azerbaijani conditions, failed to do that.
Part of the blame for this escalation should be attributed to the Armenian government which had failed to maintain a consistent and clear position on peace and the future status of Karabakh. Instead, it continued to fluctuate, while Yerevan’s participation in the “hunger” campaign against Azerbaijan and some other moves shattered the modicum of trust that had been built between Aliyev and Pashinyan during their several meetings held since 2022. Baku has had reasonable reservations as to the sincerity of the Armenian leadership regarding the peace agenda, suspecting it in the desire to gain time until some favourable geopolitical changes might happen and the Armenian army gets stronger to try to shift the balance in its favour. Moreover, Yerevan’s latest attempts at representing Azerbaijan as a Russian ally trying to “punish” Armenia- while it has been featuring among the major facilitators of Russia’s sanction evasion- for its alleged Westward drift have caused a significant outrage in Baku which has been actually on sour terms with Moscow recently.
So, the “24-hour war” of 2023 may have just put an end to the 35-years’ old Karabakh conflict. The talks in Yevlakh and maybe the subsequent meetings should elucidate the contours of the reintegration process and the future of the Azerbaijani-Armenian relations in general. This situation represents a perfect opportunity for the two countries to finally agree on a comprehensive peace solution, as most probably the issue of “supporting Artsakh” will not remain any longer on the Armenian political agenda, releasing pressure from Yerevan. The future role of the Russian peacekeeping mission in Karabakh (or whether there will be any at all), that has a mandate until November 2025, is unclear; Moscow will mostly likely try to retain certain influence in the region, probably negotiating with Baku on its renewed responsibilities. Another risk lies in the rise of Armenian revanchists which may trigger the country into chaos, thus further delaying prospects for a stable peace in the region. Still, the current situation represents a unique chance for the two countries to finally end this bloody chapter of their history and form a totally new geopolitical configuration.
Murad Muradov is the co-founder and deputy director of the Topchubashov Center in Baku, Azerbaijan.