Azerbaijan’s forces have captured a strategically important city in the war for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, in a major breakthrough which effectively severs the disputed territory’s lifeline from Armenia.
The seizure of Shusha threatens to isolate the mountainous Armenian-controlled enclave and sets up a likely Azeri assault on its nearby capital, Stepanakert, after six weeks of fighting that has killed thousands on both sides.
International efforts led by Russia to enforce a ceasefire have repeatedly failed as Azeri forces, backed by Turkey, have steadily captured swaths of territory surrounding the enclave, which is legally part of Azerbaijan but is populated by ethnic Armenians and has been controlled by a Yerevan-backed administration since the early 1990s.
Shusha — known as Shushi to Armenians — is the second-largest city in Nagorno-Karabakh. Its location on the snaking mountain road that links the enclave’s capital to the Armenian border made it a crucial target for Azerbaijan, and military analysts have suggested that its capture would give Baku huge leverage in any potential peace talks over the future of the territory.
“This will become a great day in the history of Azerbaijan,” the country’s president Ilham Aliyev said on Monday as he announced the capture of the city.
“The city of Shushi is completely out of our control,” said Vahram Poghosyan, spokesman for the head of the enclave’s administration. “The enemy is on the outskirts of Stepanakert, the existence of the capital is endangered.”
The announcement contradicted a statement by Armenia’s defence ministry that the city had not fallen but was subject to heavy fighting.
Nagorno-Karabakh broke from Azerbaijan following the fall of the Soviet Union, sparking a war that killed 30,000 people before a shaky detente was forged in 1994. Since then, international law has recognised the territory and its surroundings as Azeri land occupied by Armenian forces.
Backed by bellicose rhetoric from Turkey and a host of modern weapons purchased over the past decade that have overpowered Armenian forces armed mainly with legacy equipment, Azerbaijan said its assault this autumn would not cease until it had recaptured the entire territory.
Russia, traditionally the pre-eminent power in the Caucasus, has a mutual defence pact with Armenia and a military base in the country, but has steadfastly remained neutral throughout the recent fighting, seeking to protect its ties with Baku and wary of provoking a broader conflict with Ankara. The mutual defence pact only covers attacks on Armenian sovereign territory.
“Russia continues to make every effort to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by political and diplomatic means,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday.