A dangerous new period of renewed hostilities in Nagorno Karabakh put larger regional security and stability at risk, with a rising number of combatant casualties and civilian deaths on both sides
Renewed hostilities escalate in fighting over Nagorno Karabakh
In the early morning of Sunday, September 27, Azerbaijani armed forces launched a coordinated offensive targeting military positions in Nagorno Karabakh and triggering a steep increase in open hostilities and outright warfare. In the opening days, the Azerbaijani offensive advances, leveraging Turkish military support and assistance, and seizes territory,inflicting considerable damage. As the fighting intensifies over the remainder of the month, Armenian efforts to defend Karabakh are challenged by the intense attacks involving tanks, artillery and military-grade drones or UAVs, while Azerbaijan and Turkey coordinate their resistance to diplomatic demands for an immediate ceasefire.
Fighting over Nagorno Karabakh expands quickly onSeptember 28-29, as artillery attacks the Armenian border city of Vardenis on the other side of the border with Karabakh. Armenian Ministry of Defense spokeswoman Shushan Stepanian also reports that Azerbaijan’s Su-25 combat aircraft and Turkish Bayraktar attack drones were engaged by Armenia air-defense units, culminating in the downing of an Armenian Su-25 aircraft over Armenian airspace, reportedly shot down by a Turkish F-16 jet. The incident, which increases the risk of a wider escalation, follows the Turkish deployment of several F-16s to Azerbaijan for a joint Azerbaijani-Turkish military exercise held in August. Those remained stationed at the Azerbaijani military airfield in Gyanja, Azerbaijan’s second largest city located several dozen kilometers from the northern areas of Nagorno Karabakh.
Armenia mobilizes military reserves and declares martial law
In response to escalation, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declares martial law late on September 27 and orders the mobilization of military reserves. In comments after convening an emergency meeting of his government and National Security Council, Prime Minister Pashinyan called on the international community to “prevent Turkey from any possible intervention which would further destabilize the situation in the region”.
For his part, Armenian Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan stated that “as a guarantor of the security of Artsakh (Karabakh), the armed forces of the Republic of Armenia are prepared to provide any assistance to ensure the security of Artsakh’s population”.
Ruling pro-government party loses second parliamentarian
In a surprise move on September 25, Gayane Abrahamyan, a pro-government deputy resigned from the parliament, hinting at her disagreement with others in the “My Step” bloc. The 41-year-old Abrahamyan, a former journalist and civic activist, was first elected on the party list of Prime Minister Pashinyan’s “My Step” bloc in the December 2018 election. The resignation is the second such setback for the ruling pro-government bloc, coming after the September 10th resignation of Arsen Julfalakyan, who noted his serious disagreement with Minister of Education, Culture and Sports Arayik Harutiunian. Despite these cases of internal dissent, the pro-government bloc still retains control of some 88 seats in the 132-member parliament. The two vacancies are to be filled by other candidates from the “My Step” party list.
Court affirms pre-trial detention of opposition oligarch
In a ruling issued on September 25 by a Yerevan court, the arrest and pre-trial detention of one of Armenia’s wealthiest men, oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan, leader of the Prosperous Armenia party, was formally approved. The arrest of the 63-year-old Tsarukyan stems from a criminal investigation into his role in an alleged case of “vote buying” on behalf of his party’s candidates in the parliamentary election of 2017. As a leader of the opposition Prosperous Armenia party, the second largest group in the parliament with 24 seats, Tsarukyan has become an outspoken critic of the government and has publicly called for the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan.
Tsarukyan’s immunity from arrest or prosecution as a sitting member of parliament was lifted by that body in a vote three months earlier. This court ruling approving his arrest and detention overturns an earlier decision in June by a lower court that released him from custody. Despite an earlier political alliance with Prime Minister Pashinyan, that political relationship was short-lived and ended in October 2018 when Pashinyan dismissed all cabinet ministers affiliated with Tsarukyan’s party. Since then, Tsarukyan, who was especially close to the former Armenian leadership deposed in the 2018 “Velvet Revolution,” has renewed his criticism of the government for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis and attacked the government’s education reforms, which he decried as undermining “Armenian traditional values.”
“Prime Minister Pashinyan called on the international community to “prevent Turkey from any possible intervention which would further destabilize the situation in the region””
Armenian government welcomes fresh EU aid
On September 24 the Armenian government welcomed the announcement by the European Union of a new aid package to Armenia of some 60 million euros ($70 million) to finance and support state efforts to manage and respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The fresh EU aid will also provide half of the aid package to fund more specific measures aimed at legal reform and court modernization, while also including important support for the planned establishment and operation of a new special anti-corruption court.
With 30 million euros set aside for dealing with the pandemic, the new aid will bolster ongoing measures to manage the public health crisis. As Armenian Economy Minister Tigran Khachatryan reported, since the onset of the crisis in March 2020, the government has distributed over $300 million in a special financing and stimulus package, with over $190 million in financing allocated in bank-provided preferential loans, subsidies and tax incentives and credits.
Armenia opens embassy in Israel
On September 18, Armenia formally opened its newly established embassy in Israel, selecting Tel Aviv as the site for the Armenian diplomatic presence. The move follows a coordinated strategy by the Armenian foreign ministry to refocus diplomatic engagement in the broader Middle East. Newly appointed Armenian Ambassador to Israel Armen Smbat presided over the formal ceremony and was joined by the Armenian Jerusalem-based Patriarch Nourhan Manougian. The Armenian government first decided to open the embassy in September 2019 and began with providing consular services as a first step toward reaching its full diplomatic presence.
Although Armenia and Israel first established diplomatic relations in 1992, the two countries never established embassies in each other’s capitals. Previously, former Armenian ambassadors to the Jewish State were based in Paris, Cairo and Yerevan, while Israeli diplomatic representation is traditionally through a “roving ambassador” based in Tel Aviv.
The timing of the move is delicate, however, as Israel has provided significant amounts of offensive weapons to Azerbaijan in recent years, including deadly military-grade drones and UAVs that have been deployed against Karabakh Armenian forces and were engaged in Azerbaijan’s attacks on Armenia in July 2020. Such arms sales have surpassed billions of dollars (USD) worth of advanced weapons sold by largely state-supported Israeli defense companies.