The previous major skirmish between Azerbaijan and Armenia took place in 2020 and is known as the Second Karabakh War. The 44-day-long war, which was started after an Azeri military undertook a surprise offensive, resulted in Azerbaijan retaking seven districts and one-third of Karabakh when the ceasefire was called. The war in 2020 saw Azerbaijan undertake large-scale use of drones and loitering munitions procured from Turkey and Israel. These weapon systems played an important role, taking out Armenian air defences, fortifications and armour before the initial push by the Azeri military, which led to the aforementioned gain of territory.
On 19 September 2023, the military of Azerbaijan launched what they called “anti-terrorist activities” against the separatists in Nagorno-Karabagh, and they called for the complete withdrawal of the ethnic Armenian sources from the whole region. Baku stated that it started the operation after six people were killed because of landmines placed by Armenian security forces. Just weeks before the start of the Azeri advance, both governments stated that the other was amassing troops along the border; Azerbaijan claimed that it was just conducting pre-planned exercises. Azerbaijan was also undertaking a blockade of the Karabakh region, which they had started at the end of last year, which, according to Armenia, was creating a humanitarian crisis, as they were blocking the only land route from Armenia to Karabakh.
The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is a complex one, to say the least, with Russian involvement and arms sales to both sides, Turkey’s unwavering support for Azerbaijan, Israel’s support and arms sales to Azerbaijan, and the US and Iran supporting Armenia.
When Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence announced the start of the operation, they stated that they were carrying out localised anti-terror activities in the Karabakh region, which meant that they would only engage legitimate military targets, and no civilians would be targeted. The Russians, who had helped broker the ceasefire after the second war, were also surprised as Azeri authorities informed the Russian peacekeepers deployed in Karabakh just minutes before the starting of the military operation, according to a spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Defence. The Russian government stated that they had deep concerns with the rapid escalation in the contested region. The United States (US) and its Western allies, the European Union and the United Nations condemned Azerbaijan’s actions and called on its government to stop its military action. The Turkish government had come out in full support of their ally; the Turkish Defence Minister stated after the start of the operation that they were going to use “all means” to support Azerbaijan.
Some have stated that with Russia’s focus on Ukraine, it is currently unable to exert the same level of influence and pressure on the former Soviet states as it was able to in 2020 at the time of the second Karabakh War. Even with Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Karabakh region, the Azeris were not deterred from undertaking an attack, and it was the Russians who brokered the ceasefire this time around as well. The ceasefire was agreed to only a day after the start of the attack, led to the complete surrender of the Karabakh authorities, and that all the Armenian forces in the region would withdraw to Armenia.
Following the ceasefire, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, delivered a speech on 10 September 2023 where he stated that Armenian forces were withdrawing from the territory. He also described how the 120,000 Armenians living in the region would be able to take part in elections, receive state education, and practice their religion freely. The Prime Minister of Armenia, on the other hand, faced backlash from his people even before the ceasefire was agreed to, with scores of protestors taking to the streets of the capital calling for him to resign. While others were angry at the lack of action by Russia and the peacekeepers they had deployed in the region, the Kremlin reacted to this by stating that they could not stop Azerbaijan from doing something on its own territory and that the peacekeepers would protect the civilian population in the region.
Coming back to the Azeri claim of undertaking localised attacks, this time, just like they did back in the Second Karabakh War, they used drones and loitering munitions to target Armenian positions. The Azeri military stated that they used precision weapons to minimise the collateral damage. They specifically targeted air defence systems, command and control infrastructure, and other targets. These targets were mainly engaged by drones, but the Azeris did use other guided munitions like guided multiple-launch rocket systems, and there were also reports of them using traditional artillery for targeting military and civilians. According to some officials in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azeri offensive resulted in around 200 deaths and 400 people being wounded.
The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is a complex one, to say the least, with Russian involvement and arms sales to both sides, Turkey’s unwavering support for Azerbaijan, Israel’s support and arms sales to Azerbaijan, and the US and Iran supporting Armenia. The latter also has a border dispute with Azerbaijan. And just this month, to make the events of the third Karabakh War more interesting, Secretary Blinken warned a group of lawmakers during a briefing that there was a possibility that Azerbaijan may invade Armenian territory. But during the same briefing, Secretary Blinken also expressed confidence in the ongoing talks between the two states. The State Department also stated they were still committed to Armenia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.