Azerbaijan attacks disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, breaking cease-fire

The 'local anti-terrorist' strikes in the ethnic Armenian enclave threaten to reignite a war with implications for Russia, Turkey and the West

Azerbaijan attacks Armenian enclave
Azerbaijan attacks Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh
(Image credit: Azerbaijani Defense Ministry / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Azerbaijan on Tuesday launched an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous semi-autonomous region populated by 120,000 ethnic Armenians, threatening to reignite a late-Soviet-era conflict that now involves Turkey, Russia and the West.

Azerbaijan said it was conducting "local anti-terrorist activities" inside Nagorno-Karabakh after landmines killed six Azerbaijani military personnel. But reports from the region indicated heavy shelling, missile strikes and a full-scale assault, and Azerbaijan's military and presidential administration suggested the assault will not end until the breakaway ethnic Armenian administration surrenders and submits to the authority of Azerbaijan's government.

Authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh said 25 people, including two civilians, were killed in Tuesday's attack.

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Nagorno-Karabakh is inside Azerbaijan's internationally recognized borders, but Armenia won control of the region after years of bloody conflict between the two Soviet states from 1988 to 1994. Most of the Azeri population was driven out in those wars, and Armenians held the region until Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, won back much of the area in a 2020 war that ended only when Russia stepped in and brokered a cease-fire.

About 90,000 ethnic Armenians were driven out in the six-week war in 2020, and the cease-fire was bolstered by about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh. Tensions had been mounting since December, when Azerbaijan effectively cut the region off from its sole route to Armenia, leading to shortages of food, medicine and fuel. Western-backed talks this year had held the promise of turning the cease-fire into a permanent peace, but analysts said that with Armenia's Russian backers tied up in Ukraine, Azerbaijan is taking its shot at capturing the entire region.

The "geopolitical alignments in the region are complex," The New York Times explained. "Azerbaijan's closest ally, Turkey, is a NATO member. Armenia has a military alliance with Russia, while Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia has sought to deepen ties with the West. In the 2020 war, there was widespread disappointment in Armenia that Russia did not come to the country's aid more assertively." The U.S. and Russia both urged Azerbaijan to abide by the 2020 cease-fire.

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