Time is running out for Nagorno-Karabakh

After months of blockading the Lachin Corridor, Azerbaijan’s aim has become clear: Baku wants to reconfigure supply lines to Karabakh through Azerbaijan proper to accelerate Karabakh’s integration. Increasingly, it has international support to do so.  

The blockade of the Lachin Corridor—the only road connecting Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia—that began in December 2022 has brought a renewed urgency to peace talks between Yerevan and Baku.  

Populated primarily by Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh is nevertheless internationally-recognised as territory of Azerbaijan. 

The blockade, begun by self-styled Azeri “ecological protesters” was formalised by a checkpoint operated by Azerbaijan this spring. Since July 11 it has even been closed to International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) vehicles, after Baku accused ICRC vans of smuggling contraband from Armenia into Karabakh.  

The impact of the blockade on the region has been devastating, according to the ICRC. “Tens of thousands of people rely on humanitarian aid reaching them through these routes,” the organisation said in a statement on July 25.  

“The civilian population is now facing a lack of life-saving medication and essentials like hygiene products and baby formula. Fruits, vegetables, and bread are increasingly scarce and costly, while some other food items such as dairy products, sunflower oil, cereal, fish, and chicken are not available. The last time the ICRC was allowed to bring medical items and essential food items into the area was several weeks ago.” 

Azerbaijani officials, however, reject the assertion that there is any blockade on Nagorno-Karabakh, pointing to their openness to alternative supply routes running to the breakaway state’s capital of Stepanakert (Khankendi in Azerbaijani) via the Baku-controlled city of Aghdam.  

The Azerbaijani ambassador to Germany tweeted drone footage of that “beautiful road”, declaring it “open for the delivery of all goods for our Armenian residents living in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.” 

The official Azerbaijani readout of a call between Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on July 29 notes, “President Aliyev stated that although the Azerbaijani side put forward a proposal to use the ‘Aghdam-Khankendi’ road to meet the needs of the Armenian residents, which was supported by the European Union and the ICRC, Armenia opposed all proposals. The Armenian side’s claim about the ‘humanitarian situation’ and ‘blockade’ is a political manipulation.” 

Road to integration 

As supplies of basic goods dwindle, authorities in Stepanakert fear that a switch in humanitarian supply lines from the Lachin Corridor to the Aghdam route could spell the end for their de facto autonomy.  

The Lachin Corridor is, at least in theory, guarded by Russian peacekeepers under the terms of the ceasefire that ended the Second Karabakh War in 2020 and allows for people and goods to travel to and from Armenia. The Aghdam route would not connect to Armenia and would be under the full control of Azerbaijan, leaving Karabakh Armenians fully dependent on Baku even as they pursue a dialogue to negotiate their future. 

The International Court of Justice ruled in February that Azerbaijan must keep the Lachin Corridor open, and the Armenian diaspora—especially in the United States and France—has kept the fate of Karabakh Armenians as an international cause célèbre. Yerevan and Baku are pursuing their own talks but through two uncoordinated tracks: one mediated by Washington and Brussels and the other by Moscow. As both the West and Russia struggle to maintain the favour of Armenia and gas-rich Azerbaijan alike, Stepanakert authorities are betting that their international allies can convince Baku to re-open the Lachin Corridor before supplies completely run out. 

As European Council president Charles Michel welcomed Baku’s proposal to open the Aghdam supply route at a July 15 meeting with the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders in Brussels—though he noted the Aghdam road ought to be a complement, not replacement, to the Lachin Corridor—reports indicated Azerbaijan increasingly favoured the Western-led track of talks and was souring on Moscow’s. 

“We took note of the expressed readiness of the Azerbaijani authorities to also supply goods via the city of Aghdam,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on July 26, repeating Michel’s stance. “This should not be seen as an alternative to the reopening of the Lachin corridor.” 

Rare alignment 

Russia, once viewed by Karabakh Armenians as their staunchest defender, took notice of Baku’s shifting favour. The same day as Michel’s comments, Moscow released a statement noting that Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s May remarks reflecting Armenia’s willingness to recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan “radically changed the fundamental conditions” of the 2020 ceasefire and that “under these [new] conditions, responsibility for the fate of the Armenian population of Karabakh should not be shifted to third countries.” 

Then, after a trilateral meeting of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts on July 25, Lavrov again suggested Karabakh Armenians must accept Azerbaijani sovereignty. 

“There are many important and complicated issues to be addressed,” said Lavrov. “The most sensitive of them has been and remains the issue of rights and safety guarantees for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh in the context of ensuring the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.” 

While Russia has utilised other frozen conflicts and breakaway states in emerging Europe to make it more difficult for Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine to pursue EU and NATO membership, neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan seem likely to seek EU or NATO membership anytime soon.  

It is in Russia’s strategic interests to improve relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which means settling the Karabakh dispute. 

Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), so Russia has a treaty obligation to defend Armenia from attack. However, after Azerbaijani attacks on the territory of Armenia-proper in September 2022, the CSTO declined to come to its defence—largely because Russian forces are already stretched thin in Ukraine and the Central Asian members of the CSTO are too close to Azerbaijan to support intervening against it.  

Russia has also sought closer relations with Azerbaijan—especially on energy issues—and there are allegations that Russian fossil fields are laundered through Azerbaijan to avoid Western sanctions. Moscow also wants to prevent Azerbaijan from becoming even closer to Turkey, a NATO member. 

Turkey has consistently supported Azerbaijan on all matters related to Karabakh. “The Lachin road is the territory of Azerbaijan,” said Turkey’s new foreign minister Hakan Fidan on July 31. “Baku is free to make any decision it considers necessary. This is Azerbaijan’s sovereign right.” 

The EU and US are home to large Armenian diasporas that are very active in their domestic politics, but both are interested in Azerbaijan’s energy resources and location along the Middle Corridor to facilitate Eurasian trade that avoids Russia. The US also welcomes Azerbaijan’s hostility towards its nemesis, Iran, and alliance with its ally Israel. Neither the EU nor US, however, is interested in committing the troops to the region necessary to replace Russian peacekeepers. 

This leaves Russia, the EU, and US aligned on the need for peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan but racing to secure a diplomatic settlement. For residents of Stepanakert meanwhile, time is running out.

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