Azerbaijan said on Tuesday that it had launched a new military operation against an Armenian enclave inside its territory, raising fears of an expanding armed conflict in a fragile region in which the interests of Russia, Turkey and Western countries are increasingly colliding.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said in a statement that its forces had launched “local anti-terrorist” operations in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, aiming to “disarm and secure the withdrawal of Armenia’s armed formations” from its territory. The country’s foreign ministry issued what appeared to be an ultimatum, declaring that only the “dissolution” of the unrecognized pro-Armenian government in the area would “achieve peace and stability.”
The authorities in the Nagorno-Karabakh region said in a statement that 25 people — two civilians and the rest military service members — had died as a result of the attack. They posted a video from a hospital of ambulances rushing wounded people in.
As Azerbaijan’s military pressure mounted, the breakaway authorities issued a statement, asking Azerbaijan’s leaders in Baku, the capital, to cease hostilities and begin talks. The Azerbaijani presidential administration responded by calling on the breakaway government to give up arms and dissolve itself by raising a white flag.
“Otherwise, the antiterror measures will be continued until the end,” the presidential administration said in statement.
Internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, the mountainous part of Karabakh is a separatist-controlled area that has an overwhelmingly Armenian population. A 2020 war there ended in a Russia-brokered cease-fire that allowed Azerbaijan to take control of most of the territory that Armenia had captured in a yearslong war in the 1990s. That earlier conflict followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, of which both countries were a part.
In recent months as Azerbaijan’s hold on the enclave has grown tighter, residents have been left essentially sealed off from the outside world, leading to severe food and fuel shortages and major difficulties with medical care and other humanitarian hardships leading to accusations of genocide.
On Tuesday, the Azerbaijani defense ministry released drone footage of what it said was the destruction of a cannon in the region. By the end of the day the ministry said its forces had destroyed dozens of military targets inside the breakaway region. Unverified video showed explosions and the buzzing sound of a drone, a weapon that Azerbaijan used to devastating effect when it last fought, and defeated, Armenia in a 44-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020.
After that war ended with the recapture of most of the region by Azerbaijan, Russia stationed 1,960 peacekeepers to defuse tensions around the last remaining area not controlled by Baku. However, distracted by its continuing invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has been unable to keep the tensions under control as an emboldened Azerbaijan increased its foothold by putting the only road that links it with Armenia under its firm control.
The specter of a new war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is emerging as an embarrassment for the Kremlin. On Monday — just a day before Azerbaijan launched its attack — the Russian Foreign Ministry said it saw “gradual improvement of the humanitarian situation” in the region and voiced optimism that Armenia and Azerbaijan were interested in a “normalization” of relations.
But the geopolitical alignments in the region are complex, and a new war would also pose challenges for the United States and the NATO alliance. 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.
Mr. Pashinyan said: “Armenia does not participate in military operations, and I want to note once again that the Republic of Armenia does not have an army in Nagorno-Karabakh,” according to the Russian news agency Tass. “At present, we will not take any rash actions,” he added.
In a phone interview from a hospital in the Nagorno-Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, Gegham Stepanyan, the human rights ombudsman of the Artsakh Republic in Nagorno-Karabakh, said that the situation was “very difficult” as the Azerbaijani Army attacked along the entire line of contact with artillery and drones.
Much remained unclear on Tuesday, including the intensity of the fighting and the actions of Russian peacekeepers stationed in region. The enclave’s pro-Armenian government, the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, said in a statement that “at this moment the capital Stepanakert and other cities and villages are under intensive fire,” and described Azerbaijan’s actions as the start of a “large-scale military offensive.”
Since the 2020 war, Azerbaijan has insisted that it was due full control of all of Nagorno-Karabakh under the 2020 peace deal. It has demanded that the ethnic Armenians there either submit to Azerbaijani governance or depart, while increasingly blocking overland traffic between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia has condemned Azerbaijan’s demands as a form of ethnic cleansing, while Russia has appeared powerless to de-escalate tensions.
Alexander Iskandaryan, a political scientist in Yerevan, Armenia, said the current attack is not just “a small-scale escalation aimed at making an impact on peace talks.”
“Nothing like that happened since the 2020 war,” Mr. Iskandaryan said in a phone interview. “The question is whether Azerbaijan wants to capture the entire Karabakh and squeeze the Armenians out of there.”
Farhad Mammedov, the head of the Center of South Caucasus think tank in Baku, said that given its military might, Azerbaijan is free to do whatever it wants.
“This territory is completely surrounded by the Azerbaijani armed forces,” Mr. Mammedov said in a phone interview, referring to the breakaway part of Karabakh. “Any attempt to resist would be futile.”
Since the end of the 2020 war, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been engaged in high-level talks to end the conflict The negotiations have been brokered by Moscow and Western countries, but have been stalled with the sides unable to agree on key issues, including the fate of Karabakh Armenians and the precise contours of the borders between the two countries.
While Azerbaijani forces enjoy an overwhelming advantage over the pro-Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, they may still face stiff resistance from the local Armenian population. The potential role of Russian peacekeepers is also unclear. Stationed along the key highway that pierces through the contested area, as well as in other locations, they have a mandate to stay there for more than two years.
Following the 2020 war, Azerbaijani forces occupied several territories within internationally recognized borders of Armenia, increasing pressure on Yerevan to make sure it stays away from Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Azerbaijani defense ministry said on Tuesday that it had informed peacekeepers about its operation along with a Turkish-Russian cease-fire monitoring center.
But Russia said that its peacekeepers were informed about the operation only minutes before it was launched.
Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said that Russia was alarmed by the “sharp escalation of tensions and the beginning of military hostilities.”
Mr. Peskov said that Russian military representatives are in touch with both Azerbaijan and Armenia trying to steer the situation toward the path of diplomacy.
The Azerbaijani ministry of defense said in a statement Tuesday that Armenian forces had launched artillery fire against the Azerbaijanis, an accusation that was denied by the Armenian defense ministry. The government of Armenia, which is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance, denied it has any of its forces stationed in the contested area.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has been ongoing since late 1980s and was among the first interethnic clashes in the late Soviet Union that triggered its eventual collapse.
While predominately Orthodox Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis have been living largely peacefully next to each other for decades, economic crisis in the Soviet Union and Moscow’s waning power have reignited long held grievances.
Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Berlin.