Assessing the Fallout from Azerbaijan’s Military Offensive Against Nagorno-Karabakh
An APRI Armenia Analysis
As of September 20, 2023, 4 pm AMT
For the first time since the end of the 2020 War, Azerbaijan has launched a full-scale military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh.
At 1:15 pm Yerevan/Baku time on Tuesday, September 19, the government of Azerbaijan began intensive shelling of the Armenian-held areas of Nagorno-Karabakh. Within twenty-four hours local Armenian authorities signed a de facto capitulation agreement, accepting the long-held demands of the Azerbaijani government – issues that had previously been expected to be the subject of negotiations through ongoing peace talks.
By achieving its aims through a military assault, Azerbaijan has missed an opportunity to defuse the Nagorno-Karabakh issue through peaceful reconciliation with local Armenians. Moreover, it has added significant animus to the interstate peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It has also clearly signaled a willingness to depopulate the region, suggesting at one point the evacuation of residents through the Lachin corridor; a mass exodus of refugees through that route may still occur.
While Azerbaijan claimed to be targeting military infrastructure held by the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army, by Wednesday there were multiple accounts of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure, including a lack of access to food and electricity. The operation comes after what appeared to be substantial planning and preparation, with a heavy build-up of Azeri military hardware since the start of September. It also comes after more than nine months of a blockade by Azerbaijan that cut off the normal supply of food, medicine, and basic supplies to the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, diminishing local capacity for emergency response. On Monday, September 18, the day before the attacks started, the International Committee of the Red Cross was allowed to deliver food to the region for the first time since June, but the free movement of people, vehicles, and cargo through the Lachin corridor had not been restored.
Below are some of the major implications of Azerbaijan’s military operation, based on the collective assessment of APRI Armenia’s research team:
Tuesday’s assault on Nagorno-Karabakh further jeopardizes the ongoing peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It creates renewed distrust and ill-will between parties, while undermining one of the key points of concern for Armenia and international mediators: the development of mechanisms to ensure the safety and security of the Nagorno-Karabakh population. Given the history of violence against Armenians in Azerbaijan, as well as government rhetoric dehumanizing and delegitimizing their presence in Nagorno-Karabakh, these security mechanisms were intended to prevent the risk of ethnic cleansing in the region.
Rather than pursuing the opportunity for dialogue and bridge-building with the local Armenian population, Baku opted for military confrontation and escalation. The physical risk this creates, paired with the food shortages caused by the blockade of the Lachin corridor, exert extreme pressure on Armenians to leave their homes and evacuate to safety. This points to the coerced depopulation of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, which itself constitutes ethnic cleansing.
The military escalation and clear harm to Armenian civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh creates intense political pressure on Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, potentially destabilizing his government and complicating efforts to sign an eventual peace deal with Azerbaijan. The coming weeks may see continued political turmoil in Armenia, as well as a weakened government mandate overall as it carries out its policy agenda. That agenda has included a further diversification of Armenian foreign policy, with more active lines of collaboration with US, European, Indian, and other partners.
In the short-to-medium term, Tuesday’s operation significantly raises the risk of spillover of the conflict into southern Armenia. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has made clear references to Syunik Province and other areas of Armenia as “historical lands of Azerbaijan.” Baku has also stated that Azerbaijan would establish a land bridge to Nakhichevan and Turkey, cutting through Armenian territory and would do so by force if necessary. Additionally, since last year, Aliyev has publicly endorsed the political construct of “Western Azerbaijan,” an entity with an office in Baku that claims to represent large areas of modern-day Armenia. A recent weather report on Baku TV showed the forecast over “Western Azerbaijan,” using Azeri toponyms for the Armenian cities, including the capital of Yerevan.
Those rhetorical claims should now be taken extremely seriously. Azerbaijan currently occupies at least 140 square km of Armenian territory as a result of military incursions that have been launched since the end of the war in 2020. Following its military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh and the resulting derailment of diplomatic negotiations, it is increasingly likely that Baku will feel emboldened to seek territorial gains in southern Armenia. Since the 2020 war, the policy trend in Baku has been to press for additional concessions and military gains. Without international pushback or demands that Azerbaijan be held accountable for Tuesday’s offensive, that trend can be expected to continue.
Azerbaijan stated on Tuesday afternoon that it would facilitate the evacuation of civilians to escape the danger posed by its military operation, pressuring Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to take shelter in reception centers along the Lachin corridor. At least one eyewitness account on Wednesday stated that this route was blocked to civilians attempting to evacuate; an Armenian medic speaking on a local radio station said civilians were fired upon while being escorted by Russian peacekeepers.
Even so, the messaging from Azerbaijan that the Lachin corridor could be used for a civilian exodus indicates a readiness to facilitate the departure of a large number of ethnic Armenians from the area. The threat and intimidation facing Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh after an intense Azerbaijani military offensive could be enough to force a mass evacuation of people. If such a scenario ensues, Armenia could see an influx of refugees and a major humanitarian crisis. Without international assistance, Armenia will struggle to manage the burden of their care, as well as the potentially destabilizing impact of the crisis.
By launching a large-scale offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan has de facto revoked the ceasefire statement of November 10, 2020, whose first stipulation was an end to hostilities in the conflict area. This leaves a security vacuum. It also sidelines the said-statement to unblock economic and transport links in the region, which included plans to establish transport links between Azerbaijan and its Nakhichevan exclave.
Further undermining the November 2020 ceasefire, the inability of the Russian peacekeeping mission to maintain security or discourage Azerbaijan from military action has shown the limits of the current security arrangement. An alternative architecture must be found in order to protect civilian lives, reduce the ongoing risk of ethnic cleansing, and return parties to the negotiating table.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The coming days will show the extent to which Azerbaijan’s military offensive has succeeded in achieving its full political agenda—namely, the full reintegration of Nagorno-Karabakh without international security guarantees for the Armenian population. It will also become clear how dramatically the combination of the Lachin corridor blockade and the September 19 offensive have resulted in an exodus of the Armenian population. Those outcomes, as well as the degree of diplomatic pushback against Azerbaijan for resolving its issues by force, will determine the future course of the region and its approach to handling coming disputes.
If Azerbaijan is able to use its military and resources advantage to gain substantially from this week’s operation, at little diplomatic or economic cost, then it will be incentivized to launch similar initiatives in the future.
As the region manages the fallout of the military takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh, international partners should immediately secure the safe evacuation of Armenians who do not want to remain in Azerbaijan under the current conditions. They should guarantee secure passage for evacuees and ensure that no Armenians are harmed, detained, or incarcerated while passing through the Azerbaijani checkpoint on the Lachin corridor.
The United Nations and other relevant organizations should provide support for the emergency needs of Armenian evacuees, who could number up to 100,000. Alongside other measures, international partners should invest in a more substantial presence in Armenia, extending the EU Civilian Monitoring Mission beyond February 2025 as well as expanding its mandate and capacities. Investments in infrastructure and defensive military capacity in Armenia will also be crucial to deterring future escalations.
The path forward for Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will depend on the commitment and substantive engagement of the international community. The region is at a critical turning point; the degree and scope of stabilization efforts will determine whether the conflict expands across borders or produces other forms of ongoing turmoil between neighboring states.
About APRI Armenia
APRI Armenia is an independent and nonpartisan think tank focused on advancing regional security, sustainable prosperity, and civic engagement. Our mission is to shift Armenia’s—and the wider region’s—trajectory toward a more stable, sustainable, and democratic future.
Launched in June 2022 by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), we facilitate strategic research and convening between stakeholders in order to address critical policy issues and unlock Armenia’s potential with a solution-oriented mindset.
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