Armenian soldiers patrol nearby a demarcation line after Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a Russian-brokered ceasefire in November 2020 ending six weeks of fighting. (Photo by Andrey Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images)
Moscow (CNSNews.com) – With the Russian military entering its second month of heavy fighting in Ukraine, renewed tensions in the Caucuses may soon see it also step into a conflict between two Russian allies and former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Russia’s Defense Ministry on Saturday accused Azerbaijani troops of entering a village under the jurisdiction of Russian peacekeepers in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, setting up an surveillance post, and conducting drone strikes against local Armenian forces.
The ministry warned that the moves represented a “clear violation” of a ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia, brokered by President Vladimir Putin in November 2020 following a six-week war between the two countries.
As part of the deal, Russia deployed 2,000 peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh to help keep the peace between the two sides.
“The command of the Russian peacekeeping contingent is currently taking measures to resolve the situation and get the troops retreat to their initial positions. Azerbaijan has been sent a call to withdraw troops,” the statement said.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied violating the ceasefire agreement, saying its actions were a response to sabotage attempts by “remnants of the Armenian army and illegal Armenian armed detachments.”
Both sides have offered conflicting statements on the current status of the village in question. On Sunday, Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that Azerbaijan had begun withdrawing its troops from the village following negotiations.
However, that claim was almost immediately contradicted by the Azerbaijani ministry, which stated that its forces remained in the village and the surrounding heights.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov on Monday ordered the military to kick off “intensive” exercises and “be ready at any moment to use the modern weapons, equipment and other combat means adopted for service.”
The mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has been a source of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia for decades. During the 1990s, the Armenian government helped the region’s Armenian ethnic majority push Azerbaijani forces out and establish a self-proclaimed republic.
In the fall of 2020, however, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale offensive into Nagorno-Karabakh. In the span of six weeks it routed Armenian forces and recaptured most of the territory it had lost during the 1990s.
Fighting ended after Moscow helped to broker a ceasefire agreement and sent peacekeepers to help ensure that both sides lived up to their obligations.
The deal has come under growing pressure in the weeks since Russia launched its military offensive in Ukraine on February 24. Nagorno-Karabakh authorities accused Azerbaijan of disrupting the region’s main gas pipeline, shelling Armenian-populated villages, and broadcasting messages over loudspeakers ordering their residents to evacuate.
In response to the escalation, Nagorno-Karabakh officials declared a state of martial law and issued a formal request to Russia to send more peacekeepers to the region.
Meanwhile, the Armenian Foreign Ministry in a statement Monday appeared to accuse the Russian peacekeepers of not doing enough to push back against Azerbaijan.
“We expect that the peacekeeping forces of the Russian Federation in Nagorno-Karabakh will take concrete measures to stop the incursion of Azerbaijani units into the peacekeeper’s zone of responsibility,” the ministry said.
“We consider it necessary to conduct a proper investigation into the actions of the peacekeeping contingent during this entire period of the incursion by Azerbaijani units, to answer a number of questions.”
Some have questioned whether Moscow can afford to divert its attention to the brewing crisis on its southern border at a time its forces are engaged in heavy fighting in Ukraine.
Oleksiy Danilov, head of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, told reporters on Sunday that an Azerbaijani offensive into Nagorno-Karabakh could “very much” help Ukraine, by forcing Russia to fight on a “second front” in the Caucuses.
Adding a new complication, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at the weekend warned Azerbaijan that “any military invasion into Armenia will be met with a reaction from the Iranian armed forces.”
Russian journalist Anatoly Karlin argued that the combination of Russia’s air and missile power and Iran’s forces on the ground could prove enough to deter Azerbaijan.
“Iran has more ground troops than (Russia) even in absolute terms,” he wrote on Twitter. “And unlike the Russians, they’re all standing around doing nothing right now.”
Iran has historically maintained close ties with Armenia, partially as a means to counterbalance Azerbaijan’s influence – and because if fears that Azerbaijan could promote secessionism within Iran’s borders. Ethnic Azerbaijanis are Iran’s largest ethnic minority group, accounting for nearly a quarter of the country’s population.
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