The head of the European Union monitoring mission in Armenia has warned that Armenians are fearful of a new military escalation by Azerbaijan, days after Azerbaijani armed forces crossed the line of contact in Artsakh.
“Many Armenians believe there’ll be a spring offensive by Azerbaijan. If this doesn’t happen, our mission is already a success,” Markus Ritter told the German DW this week. The EU deployed a two-year civilian mission in January to routinely patrol the Armenian border and contribute to stability in the region.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry denounced Ritter’s statement as “false and slanderous.” It condemned any framing that presents the EU mission’s main task as “protecting Armenia from Azerbaijan.”
Ritter’s warning comes after several weeks of heightened tensions in Artsakh and increasingly bellicose rhetoric from Azerbaijan, with Armenian and Azerbaijani observers warning of an imminent military offensive by Azerbaijan.
On March 27, Artsakh authorities accused Azerbaijani armed forces of firing at civilians working in their pomegranate orchard near the town of Martakert. Artsakh previously accused Azerbaijani armed forces of firing on civilians on March 15, March 19 and March 22.
That same day, the Azerbaijani armed forces attempted a second advance across the line of contact near the Stepanakert-Lisagor road in Artsakh. The incursion was repelled by the Artsakh Defense Army.
On March 25, the Azerbaijani armed forces crossed the line of contact and seized a height near the Stepanakert-Lisagor road.
That same day, the Russian peacekeeping mission in Artsakh confirmed that Azerbaijan had violated the ceasefire in its daily bulletin. Russian peacekeeping forces have been deployed to the height and are negotiating with the Azerbaijani side to retreat, according to Artsakh authorities. Neither Russia nor Azerbaijan have confirmed this.
“The authorities expect the peacekeeping troops to take practical steps in order to eliminate the consequences of this violation and prevent new ones,” the Artsakh information headquarters said.
The Stepanakert-Lisagor road has been used since the start of the Artsakh blockade to transfer civilians and humanitarian goods. The road is mountainous and difficult to travel along and was rarely used before the start of the blockade. Azerbaijan has closed the Lachin Corridor, the main route connecting Artsakh with Armenia and the outside world, since December 12, 2022.
The Stepanakert-Lisagor road also connects Artsakh’s capital Stepanakert with Lisagor, Yeghtsahogh, Hin Shen and Mets Shen, several villages near occupied Shushi. It is the only route within Artsakh that bypasses the blockaded highway.
“The authorities of Artsakh have stated several times that under the conditions of the blockade that started on December 12, this mountain road is used for the organization of civil and urgent communication between Stepanakert and the four communities of Shushi region, which is carried out by tall vehicles, taking into account the very difficult and dangerous terrain of the area,” the Artsakh information headquarters said in a statement in response to Azerbaijan’s military advance.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry justified its provocation, stating that it had taken “necessary local control measures” to “suppress the use of dirt roads north of the Lachin road for illegal activities.” It accused Artsakh officials of using the road to convey soldiers, military equipment and weapons from Armenia. It also published footage of construction and improvement work along the Stepanakert-Lisagor road, which it called illegal.
Artsakh authorities said that Azerbaijan falsely accuses Artsakh of transporting ammunition along the Stepanakert-Lisagor road as a “pretext for their next aggressive and destructive actions.”
The Russian peacekeeping mission in Artsakh said that the “Azerbaijani side was informed about the need to comply with the provisions of the tripartite agreements of the heads of state, take measures to stop engineering work and withdraw units of the national armed forces to their previously occupied positions.”
After a phone conversation with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov on March 27, US Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried “expressed concern over Azerbaijani military movements.”
In the days leading up to the Azerbaijani advance, Azerbaijani authorities repeatedly accused Artsakh of transporting military equipment from Armenia. On March 24, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said that a combat vehicle belonging to the Russian peacekeeping force had escorted Armenian military vehicles along the Stepanakert-Lisagor road.
Azerbaijan has regularly claimed that Armenia delivers military equipment to Artsakh. Azerbaijani authorities have invoked this claim to demand the establishment of checkpoints along the Lachin Corridor. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry reiterated this demand after the March 25 military advance, stating that the “recent provocations by Armenia demonstrate that in order to prevent illegal activities in the sovereign territories of Azerbaijan, it is necessary to establish a border control checkpoint between Azerbaijan and Armenia at the end point of the Lachin road.”
On March 8, three Artsakh police officers traveling along the Stepanakert-Lisagor road were killed in an ambush by a dozen Azerbaijani soldiers. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said that its armed forces had been sent to the route to inspect the vehicle for weapons, ammunition, military personnel and landmines.
On February 22, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected a request for provisional measures ordering Armenia to halt any efforts to plant mines in territories that came under Azerbaijani control at the end of the 2020 Artsakh War, including “the use of the Lachin Corridor for this purpose.” On the same day, the ICJ ruled that Azerbaijan must “take all measures at its disposal to ensure unimpeded movement of persons, vehicles and cargo along the Lachin Corridor in both directions.”