By Giorgi Lomsadze
As Azerbaijan keeps a chokehold on supplies to Nagorny Karabakh in a months-long blockade driving food and fuel shortages in the Armenian-populated territory, Russia’s reluctance in intervening to unlock the situation has soured relations between Yerevan and Moscow.
Russia has long been Armenia’s security guarantor, but in an interview released on September 3, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that depending solely on Moscow was “a strategic mistake” because it has been unable to deliver. Russian media labelled Pashinyan’s statement as “unacceptable in tone”.
On September 5, Armenia recalled Viktor Biyakov, its ambassador to the Collective Security Organisation Treaty (CSTO), the Russia-led security alliance of post-Soviet countries. He was then appointed ambassador to the Netherlands and experts noted that he was unlikely to be replaced.
In addition, on September 6, Yerevan announced joint military exercises with the US on its territory from September 11 to 20, as part of preparation for participation in international peacekeeping missions.
Stretched in Ukraine, the Kremlin has avoided getting entangled in the blockade of the Lachin corridor. Russian peacekeepers, tasked with enforcing the 2020 ceasefire between Yerevan and Baku, did little to prevent Azerbaijan from setting up checkpoints along Lachin and shutting down traffic of goods. The Azerbaijani side claims Armenia was first to violate the terms of truce and that Baku had to take measures in response.
Baku’s victory in 2020 in the latest war over the Armenian-populated enclave, which is inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised territory, left the region with Lachin as the only link to the outside world: since December 2022, Baku has gradually restricted movement through the road, until it effectively sealed it off mid-June. Trucks with aid and supplies were left stranded on the Armenian side.
Dismissing these reports as exaggerations, Baku claimed that Armenia was using the route to send ammunition into Karabakh and to otherwise sabotage Azerbaijan’s push to enforce its jurisdiction over the enclave. But closing this key passage has led to mounting tensions and reduced the room for dialogue between the sides to the conflict.
“It seems that Baku’s blockade is driven by vindictiveness,” Hans Gutbrod, associate professor at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, told IWPR. “It’s hard to see this as a calculated policy since the more constructive and conciliatory approach would be much more likely to result in a last solution.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan fought two major wars over Karabakh, an Armenian-dominated autonomous region of Azerbaijan during the Soviet era. These conflicts, one from 1988–1994 and another in late 2020, claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
In between these wars there were almost 30 years of chronic exchanges of fire and state-sponsored mutual threats amid futile international efforts to broker peace.
Home to around 120,000 ethnic Armenians, the region has been de facto independent since a ceasefire was signed in 1994. Armenian troops occupied swathes of surrounding Azerbaijani lands, forming a buffer zone around the region.
In 2020, Azerbaijan reclaimed all of the occupied territories and part of Karabakh itself, and effectively encircled it from all sides. Under a Moscow-brokered armistice, Russian peacekeepers were to guarantee free and safe passage between Karabakh and Armenia through the five kilometre-wide Lachin mountain pass.
In late 2022, however, Baku effectively severed this lifeline. Supplies soon began to dwindleand shops’ shelves began to empty in the region’s main city Stepanakert, Khenkendi in Azerbaijani Aid organisations called for lifting the blockade, warning of a looming humanitarian crisis. Authorities in Karabakh, which Armenians call Artsakh, claim that Azerbaijan’s goal is to starve Armenians out of the region. On August 15, authorities reported the region’s first death from starvation.
Armenia has called for an emergency meeting of a UN Security Council to discuss the plight of its protectorate.
“The people of Karabakh are on the verge of a full-fledged humanitarian catastrophe,” Armenia’s representative to the UN, Mher Margaryan, wrote on August 11.
Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of manipulating international opinion with tales of a humanitarian crisis so as to stall the process of Karabakh’s reintegration into Azerbaijan. Yashar Aliyev, Margaryan’s Azerbaijani counterpart, said that if the situation was that bad Armenia and Karabakh would have agreed to opening up an alternative, Azerbaijan-controlled supply route.
Azerbaijan has been offering to provide essential goods to Karabakh through the Aghdam road, which would link link Karabakh to mainland Azerbaijan.
While the EU backed Baku’s proposal, Karabakh residents refused it as marking the effective legitimation of Azerbaijan’s rule over the region.
“Aghdam road is a road to ethnic cleansing,” said placards held by protesters from Karabakh on July 18, as they barricaded the entry from Aghdam.
Azerbaijani border guards’ treatment of Karabakh citizens at the Lachin checkpoint, most notably the arrest of a 65-year-old Karabakh resident on allegations of committing war crimes 30 years ago, has also hampered building trust between the sides.
Humanitarian organisations, international observers and diplomats, including EU High Commissioner Josep Borrell, said that the Aghdam road cannot serve as a substitute to Lachin road, and not just because of the mistrust between the warring sides.
“Aghdam road is not an alternative,” Olesya Vartanyan, a South Caucasus analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-headquartered think-tank, told IWPR. “After you had been using one road for 30 years, get all of your supplies through that road and have an infrastructure set up, you can’t just switch away from it overnight.”
Convened at the behest of Armenia, UN Security Council members called on August 17 for the reopening of the Lachin corridor. The Russian representative suggested using both Lachin and Aghdam for supplies.
Baku has insisted all along that the Lachin corridor is open, at least to the movement of civilians. In August Azerbaijani television aired reports showing Armenians going through the checkpoint and Baku stated that this disproved the Armenian claims of a blockade.
Reached by IWPR, Karabakh’s de-facto authorities confirmed that there “no free exit or entry to Artsakh”.
“No goods, supplies and even medication are allowed through,” the de-facto foreign ministry said in a written response to IWPR’s query. “Sometimes Azerbaijan allows the transportation of seriously ill patients to Armenia. Two days ago [in late August] it was possible to arrange the departure of a group of students, who study in higher education institutions of Armenia or other countries. But in general the situation hasn’t changed.”
International pressure has been mounting on Azerbaijan, but Baku remains defiant, at least in its public statements.
“Internationally, the situation is so liquid that it’s no guarantee that international attention alone with be enough to lift the blockade, in whole or part,” said Gutbrod. “The West does have some leverage, but it is also facing multiple crises at the same time.”
This publication was published by IWPR and prepared under the “Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project” implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.