AW: Observers warn of imminent fighting in Artsakh

Armenian and Azerbaijani observers have been sounding alarm bells of an imminent military escalation in Artsakh. 

Mutual accusations of ceasefire violations have been increasing in recent weeks. On March 22, Armenian soldier Arshak Sargsyan was killed by Azerbaijani fire near the Yeraskh village on the border of Nakhichevan, according to the Ministry of Defense of Armenia. 

On March 21, two Russian peacekeepers were injured by Azerbaijani gunfire near the Ishkhanasar village in the Syunik province of Armenia. The peacekeepers were assisting in a search-and-rescue operation for an Armenian soldier who went missing after accidentally entering Azerbaijani-controlled territory while driving through foggy weather. The soldier was found on March 22. The Russian soldiers were treated at the Goris hospital.

Attacks on civilians in Artsakh have also been growing. On the morning of March 22, officials in Artsakh say Azerbaijani soldiers fired on civilians working in their vineyards near the town of Chartar in the Martuni province of Artsakh. Civilians working in their fields in the Amaras valley and Taghavard village in Martuni previously came under Azerbaijani fire on March 15 and March 19. No casualties were reported. 

Azerbaijani armed forces have killed six civilians and 15 military officials in Artsakh since the end of the 2020 Artsakh War, according to a report released by the office of Artsakh’s Human Rights Defender on March 8. 

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry has also accused the Armenian armed forces and the Artsakh Defense Army of ceasefire violations in recent weeks. The Defense Ministry said that Azerbaijani positions came under fire on March 13, 15 and 20. The Armenian side denied these reports. The Artsakh Defense Ministry said that Azerbaijani armed forces fired on the northern section of the line of contact on March 10. 

Tensions have been escalating since three Artsakh police officers were killed in an ambush by a dozen Azerbaijani soldiers on March 5. Two Azerbaijani soldiers were also killed in the fighting.  

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev also sparked fear of a military offensive when he threatened during a speech on March 18 that if Armenians want to “live comfortably on an area of 29,000 square kilometers” (the size of Armenia), “Armenia must accept our conditions, officially recognize Karabakh as the territory of Azerbaijan, sign a peace treaty with us and carry out delimitation work according to our conditions.”

“If Armenia does not recognize our territorial integrity, we will not recognize their territorial integrity either,” Aliyev said

Armenian and Azerbaijani analysts have pointed to signs of a new military escalation in Artsakh. Independent Azerbaijani news outlet Mikroskop Media reported on March 13 that Azerbaijani media have been preparing the public for the outbreak of fighting. The outlet said that Azerbaijani TV channels have been warning of an Armenian provocation that would trigger an anti-terrorist operation by Azerbaijan. 

Yerevan-based political scientist Tigran Grigoryan tweeted on March 17 that the “risk of a new Azerbaijani attack in Nagorno-Karabakh is extremely high.” “Baku has been actively preparing ground for the new escalation for weeks,” Grigoryan said. “There are reports about Azerbaijani troops concentrations on the frontline.” 

Warnings of a new military escalation come as the ongoing blockade of Artsakh by Azerbaijan passed its 100-day mark on Tuesday. 

Government-sponsored Azerbaijani protesters posing as environmental activists have blocked the Lachin Corridor, the sole route connecting Artsakh with Armenia and the outside world, since December 12, 2022. Artsakh is facing a critical humanitarian crisis and severe shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities.

Artsakh typically imports 90-percent of its food from Armenia and other countries, according to a report released by the office of Artsakh’s Human Rights Defender on March 21. Since the closure of the Lachin Corridor, all imports have come to a halt, except for the delivery of almost four-thousand tons of humanitarian aid by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Only ICRC and Russian peacekeeping vehicles have been permitted to use the Lachin Corridor.

Artsakh authorities have rationed pasta, buckwheat, rice, sugar, oil, fruits, vegetables, eggs and laundry detergent through a coupon system. Soap, cleaning products, toilet paper, diapers and feminine hygiene products have consistently been in short supply in grocery stores and pharmacies. 

Surgeries in Artsakh have come to a halt. The ICRC has transported 194 patients from Artsakh to Armenia to receive medical treatment. At least one person has died since the start of the blockade, because he could not be transferred in time for treatment. 

Gas and electricity supplies have also been periodically disrupted since the start of the blockade. Artsakh receives its natural gas from Armenia through a single pipeline that runs through Azerbaijani-controlled territory. Artsakh authorities say that Azerbaijan has deliberately disrupted the gas supply for a total of 34 days since the start of the blockade. The high-voltage power line that provides Artsakh’s electricity supply has been damaged since January 9. The Artsakh government says that Azerbaijan has prohibited specialists from accessing the power line. 

Before the blockade, half of Artsakh’s electricity was supplied by local hydroelectric power plants. Water resources in the Sarsang reservoir are in rapid decline, since the reservoir has been operating at its full capacity. 

“The ongoing blockade of Artsakh and disruption of vital infrastructure by Azerbaijan, as well as the regular and consistent armed attacks, aim at subjecting Artsakh to ethnic cleansing through physical and psychological intimidation, creating unbearable conditions and destroying the indigenous Armenian population of Artsakh,” the report from the Artsakh Ombudsman’s office says. 

Lillian Avedian is a staff writer for the Armenian Weekly. Her writing has also been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hetq and the Daily Californian. She is pursuing master’s degrees in journalism and Near Eastern Studies at New York University. A human rights journalist and feminist poet, Lillian's first poetry collection Journey to Tatev was released with Girls on Key Press in spring of 2021.