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Azerbaijan and Armenia exchange fire in Nagorno-Karabakh border zone

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addresses parliament Sept. 13, following an escalation in military hostilities with Azerbaijan. (Tigran Mehrabyan/PAN photo/Reuters)

Deadly clashes erupted Monday night along the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia near the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, in a flare-up of a decades-long conflict.

The Armenian Defense Ministry said in a statement that Azerbaijani forces attacked “both military and civilian infrastructure” overnight in areas of Goris, Sotk and Jermuk using drones and large-caliber firearms.

Military officials in Azerbaijan acknowledged the strikes but accused Armenia of a “wide-scale provocation,” planting mines near border facilities and shelling Azerbaijani positions earlier on Monday.

Armenia called these allegations “an absolute lie” and blamed Baku for the renewed hostilities.

“For the moment, we have 49 killed, and unfortunately, it’s not the final figure,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said, addressing his parliament. Azerbaijan said its army also suffered losses but did not provide figures.

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Azerbaijan may have sought to seize an opportunity while Armenia’s key ally, Russia, has diverted all its attention to the troubled invasion of Ukraine where it suffered a strategic blunder last week, according to some analysts specializing in the South Caucasus.

“This escalation takes place when Russia is distracted as never before after the collapse of the Kharkiv front, and offensive action against Armenia can surf the global wave of revulsion for Russia since Armenia is formally Russia’s ally,” Laurence Broers, an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program, said in a tweet.

Broers added that Baku is enjoying “unprecedented leverage in every direction” as Russia now relies on transit routes through Azerbaijan to connect with Iran and Asia amid growing global isolation.

The European Union has also grown more dependent on Azerbaijan for energy as it seeks alternatives to Russian gas.

On Tuesday, Armenia appealed to Moscow for help, saying it would invoke the Russia-led regional security bloc called the Collective Security Treaty Organization as well as the U.N. Security Council.

“Defense ministers of Armenia and Russia reached an agreement to take the necessary steps toward stabilizing the situation,” Yerevan said following a phone conversation between Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu.

The Russian Foreign Ministry later said it was “extremely concerned” about the developments and urged parties to adhere to a cease-fire agreement brokered by Moscow. The truce, which was supposed to take effect at 9 a.m. local time, has reportedly been broken since then.

Pashinyan also called U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French President Emmanuel Macron to request “an adequate” response to the hostilities.

Blinken, in a statement, said that Washington was “deeply concerned” over the situation.

“As we have long made clear, there can be no military solution to the conflict,” the U.S. statement said. “We urge an end to any military hostilities immediately.”

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Turkey, which is allied with Azerbaijan, said Tuesday that Armenia should cease provocations and focus on peace negotiations.

The long conflict in the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which began in the late 1980s, was redrawn by a full-scale war in 2020, in which Azerbaijan recaptured territories that Armenia had occupied for decades.

The six-week-long war ended with military victory for Azerbaijan and a fragile Moscow-backed truce, in which Armenia surrendered large swaths of territory. Analysts have argued that the 2020 cease-fire deal, and the presence of Russian peacekeepers, are unlikely to bring full stability to the region.

The conflict is being closely watched from Brussels.

As part of the E.U.’s bid to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels, the European Commission in July inked a major gas deal with Azerbaijan that aims to double the country’s exports to the E.U. within a few years.

The E.U. is pushing to “diversify away from Russia and to turn towards more reliable, trustworthy partners,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said then. “I am glad to count Azerbaijan among them.”

Though Europe is uncommonly united on the need to curb or cut energy imports from Russia, von der Leyen’s comment — and the deal — raised eyebrows. Critics questioned whether it was fair to call Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev a trustworthy partner, or if it was wise to double down on fossil fuel deals with authoritarian governments in general.

Meanwhile, European Council President Charles Michel in recent months has sought to play peacemaker between Baku and Yerevan, hosting meetings between the two sides. Aliyev and Pashinyan met in Brussels in late August for talks.

Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.