Europe & Central Asia
Posted: 5 October 2023
Armenia-Azerbaijan: Exodus from Artsakh after forceful takeover
On 19 September, Azerbaijan launched an offensive against the ethnic Armenian separatist enclave of Artsakh, framed as an anti-terrorist operation in response to two mine blasts that killed six Azerbaijanis earlier on that day. Air and artillery strikes targeted Artsakh paramilitary force positions along the entire Line of Contact as well as in and around the main city of Stepanakert (called Khankendi in Azeri). Azerbaijani forces swiftly overwhelmed defenders and breached the frontline in several sectors. Artsakh surrendered on the following day. Its paramilitary force reportedly lost over 300 killed in action, with the search for casualties ongoing. Azerbaijan claimed that 192 of its soldiers were killed and 511 wounded. Azerbaijani forces killed five Russian peacekeepers during the offensive, including the deputy commander of the contingent, although Russian forces did not intervene more widely in the fighting. Despite claims of targeting only military sites, Azerbaijani forces killed 10 civilians, including three children and the mayor of the town of Martuni, and wounded scores of others.
On 24 September, Azerbaijan opened the Lachin Corridor that it had blocked since December 2022, starving Artsakh of supplies. Ethnic Armenians flocked en masse to the Armenian border; in a week, over 100,000 of the estimated total of 120,000 residents made the two-day-long trip to Armenia, with reports of long queues at the border.1United Nations, ‘UN Karabakh mission told ‘sudden’ exodus means as few as 50 ethnic Armenians may remain,’ 2 October 2023 Azerbaijan did not hinder departures, except for the detention of Russian tycoon Ruben Vardanyan, who served as Artsakh state minister in late 2022 to early 2023, during an attempt to leave for Armenia. On 25 September, an explosion at a fuel reservoir near Stepanakert full of fleeing civilians killed 68 people and wounded about 300. It was not immediately clear what caused the blast. With the exodus of the ethnic Armenian population, Azerbaijani forces took over the largest towns of Martuni and Martakert. Azerbaijani police entered Stepanakert on 29 September.
Russia’s inaction and the West’s restrained reaction2United Nations, ‘Latest Clash between Armenia, Azerbaijan Undermines Prospects of Peace, Speakers Warn Security Council, Calling for Genuine Dialogue to Settle Outstanding Issues,’ 21 September 2023 to Azerbaijan’s forceful takeover of Artsakh prompted fears of Azerbaijan pressing its advantage at the undelimited border with Armenia. Baku is seeking to secure a land link to its Nakhchivan exclave sandwiched between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran, while also reviving irredentist rhetoric with regard to Armenia’s Syunik region.3Thomas de Waal, ‘The EU and Azerbaijan: Time to Talk Tough,’ Carnegie Europe, 26 September 2023
For more on the security situation in the region in the run-up to Azerbaijan’s offensive, see ACLED’s factsheet, Azerbaijan Moves to Retake Artsakh
Kosovo-Serbia: An outbreak of violence triggers remilitarization of the border region
Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia flared last month, with the deadliest clash reported in northern Kosovo in years, threatening to further derail efforts to stabilize the region. On 24 September, a group of approximately 30 armed people blocked roads leading to Banjska, about 20 kilometers north of Mitrovica, with parked trucks. They engaged Kosovan police arriving at the scene and then barricaded themselves in a nearby monastery. Following a several-hour-long siege by the Kosovan police most of the perpetrators appeared to have retreated across the border to Serbia, possibly as a result of negotiations.4Dimitar Bechev, ‘The EU Cannot Give Up on Serbia and Kosovo,’ Carnegie Europe, 28 September 2023 Three gunmen were killed during the clash, along with one Kosovan policeman. Several others were wounded. Upon regaining control of the monastery, police claimed to have discovered armored vehicles and a cache of various caliber weapons, some of them Russian-made and originating from Serbia.5Zana Cimili, ‘Kosovo accuses Serbia of direct involvement in deadly clashes and investigates possible Russian role,’ Associated Press, 28 September 2023 Another stash was found in the same area on 30 September.
The Kosovan government accused Serbia of instigating the attack, identifying among perpetrators Milan Radoičić, a crime boss and a leader of the Serbian List (he subsequently resigned to limit damage to the party), as well as a bodyguard of Serbia’s chief of security Aleksandar Vulin. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić denied any involvement but seemingly acquiesced to the United States’ call to withdraw heavy weapons from the border with Kosovo, after dispatching them in response to the crisis.6Constant Méheut, ‘Serbia’s President Rejects Claims of Troop Buildup Near Kosovo,’ New York Times, 1 October 2023 NATO pledged to deploy more peacekeepers to Kosovo,7NATO, ‘Secretary General statement on the situation in Kosovo,’ 29 September 2023 after having already done so in May in the aftermath of violence prompted by the government’s attempt to install ethnic Albanian mayors in Serbian-majority municipalities in the north.
The clash came after European Union-mediated talks between Serbian President Vučić and Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti apparently hit another dead end in mid-September, as the latter insisted on the de facto recognition of Kosovo’s independence by Serbia to precede discussions of municipal autonomy for ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo. In addition, Kosovo authorities are continuing to resist EU pressure for ethnic Albanian mayors in the region to resign to allow a rerun of elections.8EU External Action Service, ‘Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue: Press remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell after the High-Level meeting with Prime Minister Kurti and President Vučić,’ 14 September 2023
Russia: The spillover of war reaches a new high
Cross-border shelling and attempted drone strikes from Ukraine into Russian territory increased by 62% compared with the previous month, reaching the highest levels since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022. Over 80% of incidents occurred in the Belgorod region, with about 14% recorded in the neighboring Kursk and Bryansk regions, leaving three civilians dead in the Belgorod region and three dead in the Kursk region. In and near Kursk city, a series of drone strikes on 24 and 25 September targeted Federal Security Service (FSB) and interior ministry buildings, an oil refinery, and a military airfield. Further drone strikes on electricity substations also caused blackouts in areas bordering Ukraine within the Kursk region. Russian authorities also claimed to have repelled two incursion attempts from Ukraine, one in the Bryansk region on 4 September, and the other in the Belgorod region around 28 September.
Farther afield, a presumed Ukrainian drone struck a fuel reservoir in Sochi on 20 September, while several attempted strikes targeted strategic plants in the Moscow and Tver regions. In addition, on 18 September, an unidentified saboteur group damaged two military airplanes and a helicopter at the Chkalovsky airbase near Moscow.
Ukraine: Challenges to Russia’s supremacy over the Black Sea
Ukraine increased drone and missile strikes on military sites in Russian-occupied Crimea, with the major port city of Sevastopol repeatedly targeted; a long-range strike at a shipyard there on 13 September damaged a submarine (a first for Russia since World War II) as well as a landing ship, while another major strike on 22 September hit the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet, allegedly leading to multiple casualties among senior Russian officers. In addition, Ukraine claimed to have regained oil and gas platforms west of the Crimean shore, seized by Russia back in 2014. Ukrainian forces have been mounting pressure on the Russian military posted to the peninsula since July. The Crimean peninsula was used as a launchpad for the occupation of southern Ukraine at the early stages of the invasion, and currently allows for Russian drone and long-range missile strikes on targets farther from the frontline.
Meanwhile, Russian drone and missile strikes against Ukrainian port and freight infrastructure on the Black Sea and the Danube river continued unabated throughout the month, aimed at blocking Ukrainian grain shipments. At least 12 such attacks were reported in September, compared with six in August and eight in July. Debris from drones and projectiles used to shoot them down fell on several occasions in Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria. Despite the Russian threat to target any vessel sailing toward Ukrainian shores, at least two ships used an alternative route close to Romania’s territorial waters to export Ukrainian grain.9Matthew Mpoke Bigg, ‘Amid Black Sea Threats, Ukraine Steps Up Use of New Shipping Route,’ New York Times, 24 September 2023
For more information, see ACLED’s Ukraine Conflict Monitor.