Europe & Central Asia
Posted: 3 August 2023
Armenia-Azerbaijan: Artsakh blockade reaches a breaking point
Since Azerbaijan closed its checkpoint in the Lachin corridor on the border with Armenia following a shooting incident in mid-June, the humanitarian situation in Artsakh has gone from bad to worse with medical stocks, food, and fuel running critically low.1Joshua Kucera, ‘With Tightening Of Blockade, Azerbaijan Presents Karabakh Armenians With A Choice: Surrender Or Starve,’ Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 31 July 2023 The checkpoint is now also closed for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) following its embroilment in a smuggling incident, with only medical evacuations from Artsakh to Armenia intermittently allowed.2Ani Avetisyan, ‘Patient transfers halted from Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan ‘demands medical examinations,’ Open Caucasus Media, 21 July 2023 Azerbaijan proposed that humanitarian goods be delivered via the Aghdam-Askeran road linking the country with the enclave but on 18 July Artsakh residents blocked the road with concrete slabs. The ICRC, echoed by the European Union foreign policy chief, warned that it was unable to deliver relief via either route and urged that it be allowed to continue its work unimpeded.3ICRC, ‘Azerbaijan/Armenia: Sides must reach “humanitarian consensus” to ease suffering,’ 25 July 2023; European External Action Service, ‘Azerbaijan: Statement by High Representative Josep Borrell on the humanitarian situation on the ground,’ 26 July 2023 Protests against the blockade occurred in Yerevan and Stepanakert/Khankendi. On 26 July, Armenia attempted to send humanitarian aid to the Lachin corridor, but Azerbaijan refused to let it through. Azeri officials accused the Artsakh leadership of keeping hostage the local population and again demanded that Armenia completely withdraw from Artsakh, stop its support for and disarm Artsakh separatist authorities.4Twitter @HikmetHajiyev, 26 July 2023
The worsening humanitarian situation comes in spite of a decrease in armed clashes in July. The number of armed clashes recorded along the Armenia-Artsakh5The disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. ACLED refers to the de facto state and its institutions in the ethnic Armenian majority areas of Nagorno-Karabakh as Artsakh — the name by which the de facto territory refers to itself. For more on methodology and coding decisions around de facto states, see this methodology primer.-Azerbaijan Line of Contact halved since the latest peak in June, with areas around Artsakh among the most affected. Azerbaijani forces continued targeting Artsakh farmers conducting agricultural works, as well as the metallurgical plant in Yeraskh on the border with Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave whose construction Baku opposes.6Echo Kavkaza, ‘Baku demands that Yerevan halt construction of a plant on the border’, 20 July 2023 The conflict over Artsakh has persisted since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Artsakh won a secession war against Azerbaijan in 1994, with the latter regaining parts of Artsakh and adjacent areas after another war in 2020.
Belarus: Wagner Group arrival spooks neighbors
The Wagner Group set up camp in central Belarus following its abortive rebellion against the Russian regular army in June. Allegedly having handed over heavy weapons to the Russian Ministry of Defence and shut down its training base in Russia’s Krasnodar region,7Riley Bailey et al., ‘Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 12, 2023,’ Institute for the Study of War, 12 July 2023; Meduza, ‘Wagner Group fighters announce closure of organization’s main base,’ 17 July 2023 at least a part of the group has been spotted moving toward or arriving in Belarus since mid-July. Up to 4,000 Wagner fighters are believed to be in Belarus, ostensibly in order to train Belarusian armed forces.8Yuras Karmanau, ‘Monitoring group says thousands of Wagner mercenaries have arrived in Belarus since failed uprising,’ Associated Press, 24 July 2023 The Wagner Group also appears to have relocated custom-made armored personnel carriers to Belarus but have been hitherto seen operating only small firearms (for more on the Wagner Group, see ACLED’s the new report, Moving Out of the Shadows: Shifts in Wagner Group Operations Around the World).9Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty – Belarus Service, ‘Images Show More Military Equipment Gathered At ‘Wagner Camp’ In Belarus,’ 26 July 2023
Fearing cross-border incursions and amid Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusan President Alexander Lukashenko’s hostile rhetoric toward Poland,10Helen Collis, ‘Putin warns Poland an attack on Belarus would be an attack on Russia,’ Politico, 22 July 2023; Daniel Bellamy, ‘Belarusian president claims that Wagner fighters want to invade Poland,’ Euronews, 23 July 2023 Belarus’ European Union neighbors beefed up their security presence on their borders with Belarus and are considering closing border crossings.11Agence France Press, ‘Lithuania and Poland ‘may close Belarus borders’ due to Wagner fighters,’ 29 July 2023 Ukrainian border guards also reportedly increased their presence along the heavily mined areas neighboring Belarus.12Fredrick Kunkle and Sergii Mukaieliants, ‘With Wagner in Belarus, tension grows on northern Ukraine border,’ Washington Post, 27 July 2023 Russia used Belarusian territory to launch its aggression against Ukraine in late February 2022, but has since stopped launching attacks from there. Speculation about the small and inexperienced Belarusian army joining the Russian war against Ukraine has been recurring, with the most recent informational campaign seen in late 2022 to early 2023.13Pavel Slunkin, ‘Putin’s last ally: Why the Belarusian army cannot help Russia in Ukraine,’ European Council on Foreign Relations, 27 October 2022
Russia: Drone strikes on Moscow intensify amid ongoing spillover from the war in Ukraine
The spillover of Russia’s war in Ukraine into Russia’s internationally recognized territory continued in July, with several notable strikes on Moscow. Drones reached Moscow City center on at least two occasions in late July, hitting areas close to the Russian Ministry of Defence and Moscow City towers hosting businesses and government agencies. Another intercepted drone was spotted close to the government’s Vnukovo airport in the Moscow region on 4 July. Russian state media were allegedly advised to refrain from covering the incidents.14The Insider, ‘Russian television channels banned from covering UAV attack on Moscow,’ 24 July 2023 The majority of attempted drone strikes (at least 36 of about 40 recorded strikes in July), however, occurred along the border with Ukraine in the Belgorod region, where Russian air defenses shot down about 10 other drones. ACLED records 160 drone strikes on Russian territory in the seven months of 2023 compared to 20 in 2022. The frequency of drone strikes rose sharply from May 2023, mostly affecting the border regions of Belgorod, Bryansk, and Kursk, although some drones targeted areas further away from the border with Ukraine.
Cross-border shelling and missile strikes continued at similar levels compared to the previous two months. Most also occurred in the Belgorod region, which was particularly affected by shelling. The security situation has precluded the return of civilian residents to the embattled town of Shebekino. Missiles reached the Rostov region for the first time on the evening of 28 July; debris from an intercepted Ukrainian artillery strike fell on a museum building in Taganrog, injuring 16 civilians.
In an apparent response to cross-border violence as well as the failed Wagner mutiny, the Russian parliament authorized the transfer of heavy weapons to internal Russian Guard troops and allowed regional authorities to create ‘state military enterprises’ to fend off incursions from Ukraine and drone strikes.15Meduza, ‘Just try it again, mercenaries,’ 26 July 2023 In addition, the legislature rushed through amendments raising the conscription age from 27 to 30 years for men and introducing a number of penalties for draft dodgers.16Meduza, ‘It smells like a major war,’ 25 July 2023
Ukraine: Russia bombs ports to block grain exports
On 17 July, Russia refused to extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative. The initiative, which has been in place for about a year, aims to ensure the safe passage of commercial vessels exporting Ukrainian grains to avoid price hikes and famine in developing nations. Shortly before the announcement, Ukrainian naval drones damaged the Kerch bridge linking Russia to the Crimean peninsula it has occupied since 2014. Russia’s departure from the deal, however, is most likely linked to Western refusals to ease sanctions on a Russian bank involved in Russian fertilizer exports.17Patrick Wintour, ‘What was the Black Sea grain deal and why did it collapse?’ Guardian, 20 July 2023 Russia’s previous walkout in October 2022 – which followed an earlier Ukrainian strike on the Kerch bridge – lasted only a few days as Turkey and Ukraine carried on shipments notwithstanding. This time, Russia has threatened to treat any vessels en route to Ukrainian maritime ports as military targets and started bombing ports and storage sites in and around Odesa city, as well as facilities on the Danube river not covered by the initial deal.18Jake Horton and Tural Ahmedzade,’Russia’s new tactic for cutting off Ukraine’s grain,’ BBC, 29 July 2023
Scores of buildings in Odesa city center, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, came under shelling.19United Nations, ‘Odesa: UNESCO strongly condemns repeated attacks against cultural heritage, including World Heritage,’ 23 July 2023 A Russian missile strike on 23 July all but destroyed the city’s cathedral. Several civilians were killed and dozens were injured in mostly overnight attacks. The overall levels of violence in the Odesa region doubled in July compared to the monthly average since the start of the year. Russian strikes in residential areas, resulting in multiple civilian casualties, were also recorded in the cities of Lviv, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Zaporizhia, Orikhiv, Sumy, Dnipro, and Kryvyi Rih. The latter was repeatedly pounded throughout the month, with a strike on a multi-story apartment block and a university building on 31 July leaving six civilians dead, including a child, and over 80 people wounded.
Ukraine’s strike on the Kerch bridge comes amid an increasing emphasis on striking Russian targets further afield in occupied Ukraine. Facing layered Russian defenses and mines in the Zaporizhia region, Ukrainian forces concentrated on rendering Russian military posture less tenable by hitting areas further away from the frontline, especially in Crimea, where drone and long-range missile strikes at military sites, albeit mostly intercepted, prompted the evacuation of civilians from affected areas. In addition, Russia claimed to have foiled a claimed Ukrainian partisan attack on the self-appointed governor of the peninsula.20The Moscow Times, ‘Russia Claims to Foil Assassination Attempt on Crimean Governor,’ 3 July 2023 Ukrainian strikes at ammunition and fuel depots were also recorded in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. While Ukrainian forces continued gaining ground, mostly south of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, Russia may have launched a counter-attack on the boundary between Kharkiv and Luhansk regions in a probable bid to distract Ukrainian forces deployed further south.21Marc Santora, ‘They Shoot Without Stopping’: Where Russia Is on the Attack in Ukraine,’ 26 July 2023 Fighting also continued north and west of Russian-occupied Donetsk city as well as on the boundary between Donetsk and Zaporizhia regions.