Azerbaijan has launched large-scale military maneuvers ahead of an expected first meeting between President Ilham Aliyev and new Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said on March 11 that up to 10,000 troops, 500 tanks, 300 missile systems, aircraft, and other military equipment will take part in the five-day exercises.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said the drills “do not contribute to the creation of an environment conducive to peace.”
No date has been decided yet for the meeting between Pashinian and Aliyev over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but both sides have voiced a willingness for them to take place.
Mainly Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan amid a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Since 1994, it has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces that Azerbaijan says include troops supplied by Armenia. The region’s claim to independence has not been recognized by any country.
Internationally mediated negotiations helped forge a cease-fire in the region, which is not always honored, but have failed to produce a lasting settlement of the conflict.
James Appathurai, the NATO secretary-general’s special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, welcomed Armenia’s new approach toward easing tensions with Azerbaijan over the disputed region.
“We are encouraged by the fact that the new government is making new efforts in the political process,” Appathurai told a news conference in Yerevan on March 11.
“NATO’s indisputable assessment is that the conflict can be settled peacefully. This conflict cannot have a successful military solution,” he added, noting Armenia’s contribution to international security through its participation in the alliance’s peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Pashinian on March 11 started a working visit to Nagorno-Karabakh, where he is scheduled to hold a meeting of Armenia’s Security Council scheduled for March 12.
It is not clear why exactly the Security Council’s meeting will be held in Nagorno-Karabakh, not in Yerevan.
Pashinian, a former anticorruption journalist and opposition lawmaker, became prime minister last year following peaceful protests that he spearheaded.
On March 9, international mediators from the OSCE’s Minsk Group welcomed Pashinian and Aliyev’s readiness to meet, but called on the sides “to refrain from statements and actions suggesting significant changes to the situation on the ground, prejudging the outcome of or setting conditions for future talks, demanding unilateral changes to the format without agreement of the other party, or indicating readiness to renew active hostilities.”