NAGORNO-KARABAKH — A lone Azerbaijani soldier stands on a rocky outcrop in the foothills of Nagorno-Karabakh, a contested region within the country that was briefly — if tenuously — stable under a Russia-brokered cease-fire.
Behind him, just visible in the distance, is the city of Stepanakert, inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but governed by its ethnic Armenian majority as the Nagorno-Karabakh capital.
“You can photograph the mountains, but not this,” he says, lowering his Kalashnikov and pointing to a camouflaged observation post looking out over the valley.
The situation is tense. On Wednesday, Azerbaijan announced it had begun a new offensive, dubbed “Operation Revenge,” against troops loyal to the Armenian-backed administration that governs Stepanakert as the “Republic of Artsakh.”
Accusing the separatists of attacking first, leaving an Azerbaijani soldier dead, the country’s armed forces captured several strategic heights, reportedly killing two Armenians.
The fierce fighting broke out in an area supposedly under the protection of Russian peacekeeping forces deployed under the cease-fire, which ended the swift but bloody Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. Both sides hailed the deal as a guarantee of stability and security. But with Moscow increasingly embroiled in its invasion of Ukraine, its commitment to the region has come into question.
The Kremlin has reportedly drawn down some of its more experienced peacekeepers, redeploying them to Ukraine. Instead, young conscripts are now manning the mountain outposts meant to act as a buffer against provocations. Locally, Russia’s reputation is in tatters.
Russia, alleged Stepanakert’s human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan, isn’t punishing Azerbaijan for cease-fire violations — and the country is “taking advantage of the situation.”
Not so, Azerbaijani media counters. Russia, outlets allege, is in fact supporting the Armenian-backed forces in Stepanakert, even stockpiling weapons for the separatists.
The EU recently attempted to step into the diplomatic breach, presenting itself as a legitimate mediator. But with no significant EU presence on the ground, it is not in a position to enforce the cease-fire terms.
Suddenly, the specter of war is looming over Nagorno-Karabakh, once again.
The recent flare-ups have focused on a dispute over the Lachin corridor, currently the only road linking Armenia and Stepanakert.
Under the 2020 cease-fire terms, Armenia committed to building a new road through the area that bypassed two additional towns, allowing the country to assert more control over them. Once complete, Stepanakert’s forces are supposed to withdraw and Azerbaijan will reassert control over the villages it passes through.
However, the two sides appear to be interpreting the deal differently.
On Wednesday, Armenian Security Council President Armen Grigoryan told reporters the demand to close the Lachin corridor is “illegal” and that “no plan has yet been agreed.”
Responding on Thursday, Araz Imanov, a senior Azerbaijani official in the Karabakh Economic Region, told POLITICO that “the problem we have is that the Armenian side must complete the alternative road.” According to him, “if they want to avoid conflict, they must honor the agreements we have.”
In the hours since the launch of Operation Revenge, Armenia has rejected claims it is not abiding by the deal, insisting the alternate road is being built and will be completed in the spring.
Stepanyan, the Stepanakert human rights ombudsman, said Azerbaijan is simply trying to drive the Armenians from the existing corridor early, noting the deal gave Armenia three years to complete the alternate road.
“The cease-fire is really in danger and the situation could get out of control at any moment,” he claimed.
Imanov pushed back, denying that the truce was under threat: “If we really wanted to enter these territories, we would simply walk into them.”
A ‘crushing’ response
The new road isn’t the only issue at stake.
More broadly, Azerbaijan claims the Armenia-backed Artsakh forces are “terrorist formations” operating within its borders, arguing the cease-fire requires them to withdraw or disband.
Speaking to POLITICO, Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman Anar Eyvazov alleged that these “illegal detachments” opened fire first in the recent clash, killing one of their servicemen. The operation, he said, “involved not only revenge, but also the pursuit of local, limited, but significant goals.”
And he made a pledge: “The countermeasures will be even more crushing.”
However, Stepanakert insists its forces are not bound by the terms of the 2020 agreement, even if Baku sees them as an extension of the Armenian army. And among the local population, there are fears of an ethnic cleansing campaign if the troops retreat and the Azerbaijani army moves in.
Since the peace deal was signed in 2020, Azerbaijan has regained control over seven regions of the country that separatist forces moved into and controlled after the first Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in 1994. Thousands of Azerbaijanis were displaced.
Since taking back the land, Baku has been actively rehoming Azerbaijanis made refugees by the conflict three decades ago.
Armenians in and around Stepanakert now fear they will face the same fate if Azerbaijan sets its sights on ending the decades-old standoff over Nagorno-Karabakh, once and for all.
Is Russia losing control?
Russia is still a regular presence — both physically and in conversation — in Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former members of the Soviet Union.
Yet while Moscow has intermittently served as a peacekeeper in the region since the countries became fully independent, local frustration is growing with the Kremlin.
On the Armenian side, there is anger that Russia does little to actually police the cease-fires it helps negotiate.
“In the past year and a half, we have seen that despite the presence of Russian peacekeeping troops, Azerbaijan regularly violates the cease-fire and uses physical force against the civilian population,” said Stepanyan, the Stepanakert human rights ombudsman.
On the Azerbaijani side, many still blame Moscow for the outcome of a 1994 cease-fire that ended the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, which left the region under the control of pro-Armenian troops.
With Russia’s role being questioned by both sides, the EU has increasingly worked to fill the gap. In May, Brussels hosted Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev for talks on how to avert future clashes.
Following the negotiations, European Council President Charles Michel said the priority would be “advancing discussions on the future peace treaty and addressing the root causes of conflict.”
But the EU, of course, doesn’t have a military to keep the peace.
At the same time, the West is increasingly turning to Azerbaijan for energy as it races to turn away from Russian fossil fuels.
On a visit to Baku last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen signed a memorandum of understanding with Aliyev as part of efforts to gain access to the country’s massive natural gas reserves and help cover for Europe’s reduced supplies coming from Russia.
Ahead of the deal, Stepanakert pointed to the EU’s previous condemnation of Azerbaijan for “a policy of erasing and denying the Armenian cultural heritage in and around Nagorno-Karabakh,” and urged it to insist on provisions in the deal that would help maintain the status quo. However, no such wording was ultimately included.
In a statement Wednesday, Toivo Klaar, the EU’s special representative for the South Caucasus, said the bloc is “committed to deepening its engagement in the peace process” and helping “turn the page on decades of strife.”
But in the foothills of Nagorno-Karabakh, such diplomatic talk feels far away amid the backdrop of a brewing conflict.