Optimism that upcoming talks in Washington will quell fighting between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh has appeared to dim as the two sides engaged in new battles and leaders in Baku and Yerevan hardened their positions.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in an interview published on October 22 that the prospects for reaching a peace settlement were "very remote." The day before, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian said that he could see no diplomatic solution to the long-running conflict at this stage.
Despite their negative tone, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he hoped that the United States would work with Moscow to broker a resolution to the conflict.
"I very much hope that our American partners will act in unison with us and will help the settlement," Putin said on October 22 in Moscow.
Two Russian-brokered cease-fires collapsed instantly after taking effect as the warring sides continue to engage in fierce fighting involving artillery, rockets, and drones.
Putin's comments come as Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanian and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov are due to meet separately with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington on October 23.
Pompeo has said he would tell them that "the right path forward is to cease the conflict, tell them to deescalate, that every country should stay out -- provide no fuel for this conflict, no weapons systems, no support."
The meeting will take place as heavy fighting continues over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory located inside Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenians, as well as surrounding areas controlled by Armenian forces.
Hundreds of people have been killed since fighting flared on September 27, raising fears of a wider conflict in the South Caucasus drawing in Turkey, which backs Azerbaijan, and Russia, a key player in the region that has a military treaty with Armenia.
Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh on October 22 published the names of 26 more of their soldiers who had died in the fighting, bringing the number of fighters killed on the Armenian side to 897.
Azerbaijan has not disclosed its military casualties. It has said 61 Azeri civilians have been killed and 282 wounded.
Putin said on October 22 that Moscow believed that nearly 5,000 people had been killed cumulatively in the fighting.
Aliyev has demanded promises that Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts controlled by Armenian forces will be returned to Azerbaijan. He said the issue will be raised in the discussions in Washington.
"I think that now Armenian leadership must be more reasonable, and to commit itself to liberation of the occupied territories. So, our main objective at these discussions will be to find out whether the Armenian leadership is ready to liberate our territories or not, and if ready, then when?" he said in an interview with Japan’s Nikkei newspaper, according to a transcript.
The Azerbaijani president said he would not rule out "cultural autonomy" for ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, where they would have certain rights within their municipalities.
Armenian forces and the Azerbaijani military claim to have inflicted devastating losses on the other side, but reports from the opposing sides are often contradictory and hard to verify.
Azerbaijan has repeatedly claimed to have secured military gains on the ground, while Armenian forces have acknowledged difficult fighting.
Aliyev on October 22 made the significant claim that his forces took control of the border with Iran, something Armenia denied.
"The state border between Azerbaijan and the Islamic Republic of Iran has been completely secured through liberation of the Agbend settlement," he said on Twitter.
Pashinian said in an interview with Interfax on October 22 that Armenia would accept the introduction of peacekeepers, including Russian peacekeepers, into the region.
Internationally recognized as part of mainly Muslim Azerbaijan, the mountainous territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has been controlled by mainly Christian ethnic Armenians, backed by Yerevan, since a 1994 cease-fire.