What's In Blue

Posted Wed 20 Sep 2023

Briefing on the Situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh Region*

Tomorrow afternoon (21 September), the Security Council will convene for a briefing on the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. France requested the meeting following a letter sent by Armenia to the president of the Security Council. The letter cited Article 35 (1) of the UN Charter, which states that any UN member state “may bring any dispute, or any situation referred to in Article 34 [that is, one that may lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute] to the attention of the Security Council or of the General Assembly”. Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia and the Americas Miroslav Jenča* is expected to brief. Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ararat Mirzoyan and Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeyhun Bayramov are expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a dispute over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. It has an ethnic Armenian majority, however, and is backed by Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh’s effort to secede in 1988 was the catalyst for the war that ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994. After the fighting ended, Armenian forces wholly or partially asserted control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts. In September 2020, a full-fledged war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory. The war, which lasted six weeks, ended through a Russian-brokered peace deal, which saw the withdrawal of Armenian forces from substantial parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven adjacent districts—areas which Azerbaijan now controls. Under the terms of the agreement, Russia deployed about 2,000 peacekeeping troops to Nagorno-Karabakh, who remain in place.

Tomorrow’s briefing will address the recent military escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Yesterday (19 September), Azerbaijan announced the launch of “anti-terror measures” in the region following what it described as an escalation of tensions in recent months. Azerbaijan alleged that the escalation resulted from the “systematic shelling” of Azerbaijani army positions and other aggressive actions carried out by Armenian troops, and argued that Armenian forces have remained in the region in violation of the terms of the 2020 trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Azerbaijan further said that the “anti-terror measures” were being carried out in part to “disarm and secure the withdrawal of formations of Armenia’s armed forces from our territories, neutralize their military infrastructure…and ultimately restore [Azerbaijan’s] constitutional order”.

The Armenian foreign ministry has denied Azerbaijan’s assertions that Armenian troops and military equipment have been stationed in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Yerevan has been maintaining that its involvement in the region is solely humanitarian. It has highlighted the urgency of this support in light of the humanitarian crisis that it blames Azerbaijan for instigating by blockading the Lachin corridor—the only road connecting Armenia to the roughly 120,000 ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. (For background on developments related to the Lachin corridor, see our 16 August What’s in Blue story.) On 9 September, Baku and representatives of the Nagorno-Karabakh region reportedly reached an agreement to reopen two transit routes, including the Lachin corridor. According to media reports, the first humanitarian convoy made its way into the Nagorno-Karabakh region on Monday (18 September).

In a 19 September statement, Armenia characterised Azerbaijan’s military actions as a “large-scale aggression” aimed at ethnically cleansing the local population of Nagorno-Karabakh. It also accused Azerbaijan of targeting civilian objects under the guise of neutralising military infrastructure—a claim dismissed by Baku, which insists that “only legitimate military targets” were being incapacitated using high-precision weapons. According to local representatives in the region, attacks by Azerbaijani forces resulted in dozens of civilian casualties, including at least ten deaths. Yerevan’s statement called on the international community, particularly the Security Council, and the Russian peacekeeping contingent “to undertake clear and unequivocal steps to put an end to Azerbaijan’s aggression”.

According to media reports, the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, which claims to represent ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, issued a statement today (20 September) confirming that Azerbaijan had broken through its defensive lines and seized several strategic positions in the area. The statement further noted that the Republic of Artsakh agreed to a ceasefire proposed by the command of the Russian Peacekeeping Contingent (RPC). According to the statement, the ceasefire agreement, effective today from 13:00 local time, stipulates the withdrawal of Armenian military divisions and equipment from the Nagorno-Karabakh region and mandates the disarmament of local defence forces. The first meeting to discuss the ceasefire will reportedly take place tomorrow (21 September) in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh.

Several international interlocutors, including the UN and the co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group—France, Russia, and the US—have expressed concern about the outbreak of violence and called on all parties to de-escalate tensions. (The OSCE Minsk Group played a pivotal role in diplomatic efforts after the 1994 ceasefire.)

As details regarding the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of hostilities and the status of the ceasefire brokered today remain unclear, Council members may be keen to hear Jenča’s assessment of the situation at tomorrow’s briefing. Jenča may refer to Secretary-General António Guterres’ 19 September statement, in which he expressed concern over the use of military force in the region. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk also commented on the situation, emphasising that “an agreement grounded in human rights…[i]s more urgent than ever”.

Council members are likely to express concern regarding the recent violence and call on the sides to cease military activity and resume dialogue. Some members may condemn Azerbaijan’s use of force, including its alleged use of heavy weapons against residential areas, which they believe may contribute to the worsening of an already dire humanitarian situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and undermine the prospects for peace. These members may also call on Baku to guarantee the rights and safety of the population of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, in accordance with international law.

Russia is expected to emphasise that the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region is an internal affair within Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory. It may also highlight the significant role played by its peacekeeping contingent in brokering today’s ceasefire agreement. In a Telegram post issued today, Russia’s defence ministry noted that the RPC “continues to fulfill its functions in aggravated conditions” and that “all possible assistance is being provided to the civilian population”, 2,261 of whom had reportedly sought refuge in the RPC’s base camp.

Yerevan has criticised Moscow and the RPC for what it views as a lack of action to defend the residents of the Nagorno-Karabakh region against alleged transgressions by Azerbaijan, including its alleged blockade of the Lachin corridor. This led to tensions in the relationship between Moscow and Yerevan. In January, Armenia declined to host military exercises of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) within its borders. Furthermore, Armenia has moved towards ratifying the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). (Notably, the ICC issued an arrest warrant earlier this year for Russian President Vladimir Putin over alleged war crimes related to the forced removal of children from Ukraine.) On 8 September, marking another point of contention, the Russian foreign ministry summoned Armenia’s ambassador to Russia to discuss “unfriendly steps” taken by Yerevan, including Armenia’s participation in joint military exercises with the US which concluded today (20 September).

Council members remain united in their support for a negotiated solution for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and supportive of the efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group. In the past, the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh represented a rare instance of cooperation between Russia and the P3 (France, the UK, and the US)—members who are often divided on other issues addressed by the Council. However, these dynamics may have changed because of recent developments, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In addition, recent years appear to have brought growing competition—between Russia, on the one hand, and the EU and the US, on the other—to assume the leading mediation role in negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.


Post-script (21 September, 3:30 pm): A previous version of this story indicated that Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo is expected to brief. The story was amended to reflect that Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia and the Americas Miroslav Jenča eventually briefed at the meeting.

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