Armenian military officials say dozens of soldiers have been captured or have gone missing in newly launched border attacks by Azerbaijan’s Armed Forces, the deadliest outbreak of fighting since the end of the 2020 Artsakh War.
Armenia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) reports that Azeri forces began shelling Armenian positions along the eastern border on Tuesday afternoon. The fighting ceased after five hours by means of Russian mediation. The ceasefire was held as of 10:00AM local time on Wednesday morning, according to the Armenian MoD.
Armenian officials say 13 soldiers were captured by Azeri forces and 24 have gone missing, their fate unknown as of yet. The MoD has only confirmed the death of one contract soldier, Meruzhan Arturi Harutyunyan (born 1991). The Armenian Armed Forces lost two military posts during the clashes.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry reported that seven of its soldiers were killed and 10 wounded. The Armenian MoD, however, said that Azerbaijan suffered 70 casualties.
Azerbaijani officials state that the fighting took place in Kelbajar and Lachin, two districts ceded to Azerbaijan at the end of the 44-day war. Armenian officials report that the clashes took place near Sev Lake in the southernmost province of Syunik, where Azerbaijani soldiers crossed the border in May and have remained since then. Indeed, residents of border villages in Syunik could hear the sounds of shooting, according to the Human Rights Defender of Armenia Arman Tatoyan.
The attacks follow several days of escalation of tensions. On November 12, Azerbaijan set up customs checkpoints along the Goris-Kapan road, restricting Armenian travel along the critical highway. Tatoyan reported that the checkpoints had isolated border communities in Syunik, whose residents rely on the road for communication and transportation. Several schools were forced to switch to online learning, because teachers and students could not commute to their classrooms.
Armenia ceded a 21-kilometer section of the Goris-Kapan highway to Azerbaijan in December 2020, a month after the end of the war in Artsakh. Azerbaijani officials had promised that Armenians would maintain unhindered access to the road, which until this week was the sole transport route connecting Syunik and the rest of the country.
Armenian officials announced on Friday that work is underway to construct a new network of alternative routes.
Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan had warned that Azerbaijan might conduct customs and passport control of Armenian citizens along the Goris-Kapan road. During a November 11 cabinet meeting, he said that Azerbaijan had threatened to set up checkpoints along the highway, unless Armenia accepted the construction of a “corridor” through southern Armenia. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly voiced his goal to establish an Azerbaijani-controlled land “corridor” that would connect Azerbaijan and its exclave Nakhichevan through Syunik.
“It would have been possible to negotiate that there was no control over that section [of the road], but the price for that would have been corridor logic, which was unacceptable for us,” Pashinyan said.
The incident took place amid an apparent breakdown of negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, rumored to take place on the one-year anniversary of the November 9 ceasefire agreement. Armenian and Russian media outlets had reported that the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia would announce a new agreement addressing border demarcation and delimitation and the unblocking of regional transportation and communication links.
Fighting along the border also escalated over the weekend. On November 15, Pashinyan confirmed that Azerbaijani troops had invaded Armenia along an undisclosed part of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. The PM also announced on Monday that he had relieved Arshak Karapetyan from the post of Minister of Defense and replaced him with his former deputy Suren Papikyan after analyzing Azerbaijan’s incursion over the weekend.
According to a statement released by the Security Council, units of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces accompanied by armored vehicles had attacked and surrounded four combat positions of the Armenian army along the eastern border at 1:00PM local time on Sunday. Azerbaijani forces pulled back following negotiations.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan (MoFA) denied that Azerbaijani soldiers had breached the border, stating that “Azerbaijani servicemen fulfill their duties in the sovereign territories of our country.”
During an extraordinary session of the Security Council on Tuesday evening, Pashinyan called on the international community to condemn continued violations of the territorial integrity of Armenia by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces, which have occupied 41 square kilometers of Armenian territory since May.
“There is no border dispute. There is aggression against the sovereign territory of the Republic of Armenia,” he said. “If the problem was the border dispute, Azerbaijan should have accepted our proposal of withdrawing forces simultaneously from the borderline between Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan, deploying international observers along the borderline and launching the process of demarcation and delimitation of borders long ago.”
Secretary of the Security Council Armen Grigoryan has appealed to Russia to provide military and diplomatic assistance under mutual defense treaty obligations. “Currently, the Azerbaijani armed forces are in the sovereign territory of Armenia. This is an act of aggression. In 1997, Armenia and Russia agreed to help each other in such cases on a reciprocal basis. That was the reason why we petitioned Russia,” he told Kommersant daily. Grigoryan says that he has also initiated a formal written application for Russian assistance.
During phone calls with his Armenian and Russian counterparts, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu called on “both sides to stop actions provoking escalation of the situation.”
The MoFA of Armenia released a statement on November 16 calling on Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the OSCE Minsk Group to demand the “unconditional and complete withdrawal of the Azerbaijani armed forces from the territory of the Republic of Armenia.” The Foreign Ministry emphasized that Armenia has “all the rights to repel the use of force against its territorial integrity and sovereignty by all means,” under the UN Charter.
The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group also released a statement calling on “the sides to take concrete steps to deescalate the situation immediately,” underscoring the “need for a negotiated, comprehensive, and sustainable settlement of all remaining issues related to or resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
The following day the European Union released a statement urging Armenia and Azerbaijan to “exercise utmost restraint, disengage their military forces on the ground and respect the commitments undertaken in the framework of the two trilateral agreements.” “The EU reiterate its commitment to work with Armenia and Azerbaijan to help overcome tensions and contribute to building a South Caucasus that is secure, stable, prosperous and at peace for the benefit of all people living in this region,” the statement reads.
The Committee of Freedom Fighters of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) expressed its readiness to “stand by the Armenian soldier,” issuing a call on November 16 to volunteers who fought in their battalions in the 2020 Artsakh War to prepare for mobilization at any moment.
The Armenia Alliance, a political coalition including the ARF, said that the resolution to the current crisis is the removal of the present leadership, in a statement blaming Pashinyan’s administration for bringing “casualties, territorial losses, division, chaos.”
“Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation should be followed by the consolidation of all capable forces, the formation of a new government and the provision of a policy for solving foreign and domestic problems,” the statement reads.