Short-lived Ceasefire in Karabakh Conflict: Rockets Fired at Ganja and Other Civilian Centers
After the initial outbreak of fighting, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh reached a new dimension as Armenian forces began a series of attacks outside of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven other occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan. The attacks, which have serious implications for regional security, complicate the peace process and caused numerous civilian deaths.
Armenia began its attacks on Azerbaijani cities outside of the occupied territories on October 4 by launching rockets towards Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city, located more than 100 kilometers away from Nagorno-Karabakh. The initial attack left one person dead, more than 30 people injured, and harmed civilian infrastructure and historic buildings. Arayik Harutyunyan, “President” of the regime controlling Nagorno-Karabakh, one that is not internationally recognized, stated on Facebook that he personally ordered attacks on Ganja. Additional targets included other populated areas in Azerbaijan, including Beylagan, Barda, and Tartar, where schools, farms, and homes have been destroyed. Also on October 4, Armenian forces began shelling Mingachevir. The city, which has a population of more than 100,000, is home to one of the world’s largest dams holding back the biggest reservoir in the South Caucasus and includes a hydroelectric plant that provides electricity to over 40 Azerbaijani cities, towns, and rural communities, including the country’s two largest cities, Baku and Ganja. If that dam were to break, the resulting flood would hit 14 Azerbaijani cities and produce a humanitarian as well as an environmental disaster. International press also reports Azerbaijani forces have hit non-military targets in Stepanakert and other towns in Nagorno-Karabakh and in the other areas of Azerbaijan long occupied by Armenian or Armenian-backed forces. Armenia alleges that Azerbaijan shelled the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha where women and children had been sheltering. Azerbaijan denies this claim.
Armenian forces have targeted the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in the Yevlakh region of Azerbaijan. More than 300 cluster bombs landed within ten meters of the pipeline. The pipeline has a capacity of 1.2 million barrels/day and has transported 3.5 billion barrels of oil since its completion in 2006. As the only corridor across Eurasia that does not cross either Iran or Russia, this pipeline, along with the recently competed Southern Gas Corridor that follows this same route, is important to diversifying Europe’s energy supplies and thus boosting regional and global energy and economic security. These pipelines’ shareholders include BP, ExxonMobil, Equinor, ENI, Total, and TPAO. Its closure, as former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Robert Cekuta has noted, could therefore have broad strategic as well as economic implications.
On October 8, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Later, foreign ministers Jeyhun Bayramov of Azerbaijan and Zohrab Mnatsakanyan of Armenia were invited to Moscow to discuss a ceasefire agreement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s meeting with Bayramov and Mnatsakanyan began the evening of October 9 and, after 10 hours of talks, concluded at 3:00 the next morning. Participants agreed on a humanitarian ceasefire to start at 12:00 noon October 10 to recover bodies and exchange prisoners of war. Important as well, the agreement also stated peace negotiations should resume in the longstanding Organization for Security and Cooperation’s (OSCE) Minsk Group context. In agreeing, the parties put aside Prime Minister Pashinyan’s request to make the unrecognized government of Nagorno-Karabakh a third party in the negotiations.
Shortly after the ceasefire went into effect, both sides began reporting violations. Within 24 hours after the ceasefire was agreed, Armenian forces launched another attack on Ganja, striking an apartment building with a Soviet-era Tochka-U (NATO designation Scarab) tactical ballistic missile. As of the time of publication of this article, there are nine deaths and 34 injuries reported, including 16 women and six children. Armenian authorities also report Azerbaijani attacks on Stepanakert. At 4:00 a.m. local time October 10, Armenian forces launched another attack on the Mingachevir dam and hydropower facility using a Scud tactical ballistic missile that was reportedly neutralized by Azerbaijan’s air defense systems.
Each side accuses the other of starting the resumed fighting, However Armenia’s targeting of Azerbaijani cities and prominent national assets and sites is a substantial regional escalation in its use of force, as explained by Major General Michael Repass, U.S. Army (Retired). Deliberately targeting cities represents an increase in the intensity and scope of warfighting and potentially signals its willingness to inflict and sustain more casualties, even if they are in the civilian sector. Reportedly as well, it launched these long-range missiles from Armenian soil and not Nagorno-Karabakh. The substantial risk for Armenia is that Azerbaijan will respond in kind or escalate vertically and horizontally as well, thus risking an all-out war among the two states, rather than limiting the fighting centered on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Central to any analysis of the situation is the question of what comes next. The publics in both Armenia and Azerbaijan are angry, deeply fearful of the other side, and unwilling to see their governments take less than maximalist positions. A return to the pre-September 27 status quo seems unlikely and not feasible. As recommended by Ambassador (Ret.) Richard Hoagland, former U.S. Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, the ideal situation would be a ceasefire brokered by the international community and the start of serious talks — again supported by the international community — towards a negotiated settlement. However, in doing so, the international community would need to insist Armenia adhere to the four UN Security Council resolutions that call for Yerevan to withdraw from the occupied territories. Furthermore, the international community should affirm with one voice that by invading and occupying the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan it has violated one of the most strongly held international standards in the post-Soviet world that international borders are sacrosanct. After all, this point is central to the international rules-based system that has brought and helped maintain peace in Europe and elsewhere. The bedrock U.S. policy in the post-Soviet sphere has never changed since the independence of the former Soviet Socialist Republics: that the United States supports and protects the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of these countries.
The most recent ceasefire agreement, called for by Putin himself, failed almost immediately. Perhaps a broader coalition working for peace could succeed. However, by sitting back and not engaging and by not demanding adherence to the principles that have brought peace, security, and prosperity to so much of the world, the United States and other countries are in danger of undermining that system. As Rear Admiral (Ret.) Ron MacLaren noted, the United States needs to play an active role in resolving this crisis. Its interests are at stake in the business sector as well as in world standing. The United States needs to focus more closely on helping to resolve these disputes.
Author’s note: This article was made possible with contributions by Ambassador (Ret.) Richard E. Hoagland, Ambassador (Ret.) Robert F. Cekuta, Major General U.S. Army (Ret.) Michael S. Repass, and Rear Admiral (Ret.) Ron MacLaren.