In the shadow of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan threatens to erupt into violence and, potentially, a major conflagration if a solution cannot be found soon. The Lachin corridor, as the main connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, plays a key role here.
Translated from the German by Ben Yielding.
For almost five months, the so-called Lachin corridor, the main transport route between Armenia and the de facto republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been all but closed. The corridor was blocked first by supposed Azerbaijani environmental activists and now by an Azerbaijani checkpoint. The blockade has been internationally condemned, and in February the International Court of Justice in The Hague called on Azerbaijan to restore free movement in the corridor. The consequences of the blockade were and are devastating for Nagorno-Karabakh and uncertain for the wider region.
The blockade itself and the Azerbaijani checkpoint set up on 23 April are in breach of the trilateral ceasefire agreement of 9 November 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan brokered by Russia. Yet, neither has been obstructed by Russian peacekeeping troops, who are the only security guarantor in the corridor under the agreement. It can be assumed that the blockade and the new checkpoint are Azerbaijan’s attempt to exert control not only over local infrastructure but over the whole region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is also pursuing even more far-reaching plans that could generate additional conflicts of interest in the region. What are the prospects for a peaceful solution to the situation?
The effects of the blockade and the new checkpoint
The blockade not only brought a hard winter to the roughly 120,000 citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh by partly cutting them off from gas and electricity supplies and raising the prices of food and other goods and services to exorbitant levels. It has also impeded people’s lives to such an extent that many are emigrating from the region and, according to Armenia’s legal representative at the International Court of Justice, the Lachin corridor has become a ‘one-way street’. In particular young people and families are leaving the region, as they have few job opportunities and see no prospects for themselves.
For some time, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev has been pursuing a policy that he describes as ‘corridor for corridor’. In doing so, he is drawing an analogy between the Lachin corridor and the transit route known in Azerbaijan as the Zangezur corridor between western Azerbaijan and the autonomous Azerbaijani region of Nakhchivan, an exclave between Armenia, Turkey, and Iran. In Azerbaijan’s view, the Lachin corridor should be seen as a kind of blueprint for Zangezur, where, Baku’s argument goes, Azerbaijan would readily accept Armenian checkpoints. The big difference is that Armenia completely rejects the idea of a corridor, which would cut off the country’s southern province of Syunik and its vitally important border with Iran from the rest of Armenia. Azerbaijan’s interest is above all economic, as a direct land connection with Turkey, its closest ally, would spur economic activity in the region.
The interests of international and regional actors
Whereas Turkey stands wholeheartedly behind Aliyev’s policies – and not just in matters of corridor diplomacy, Iran has repeatedly spoken out against a possible transport corridor in southern Armenia to be used by Azerbaijan. Military exercises by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps along the Armenian-Iranian border in October underscored this position.
While the Minsk Group of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe increasingly exists only on paper, the European Union (EU) has gradually expanded its mediation role in the South Caucasus. On Armenia’s request, the EU set up a civilian observation mission in February 2023 to contribute to building trust between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
As for Russia’s role as a mediator and an actor with its own regional interests, its actions are expressed largely through the behaviour of the so-called Russian peacekeepers. The approximately 1,960 soldiers deployed at the checkpoints along the line of contact between Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as in the Lachin corridor have a robust mandate but are extremely passive. The peacekeepers have responded to Azerbaijani offensives on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh by doing nothing. Russia’s hesitation towards Azerbaijan is clear evidence of a fear of alienating an important economic partner and provoking the country’s Turkish ally. Because of Western sanctions, Russia has had to resort to alternative access to trade routes and global markets and has thus become dependent on Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The peacekeepers are therefore no longer fulfilling their ceasefire mandate, even though it is in Russia’s interest to maintain its influence and remain present in the region. Although the Kremlin has lost legitimacy in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which affects its role as a force for power in the region, commanders on the ground have profited from the blockade and made a lucrative business of charging civilians high prices for arranging journeys into and out of Nagorno-Karabakh, according to reports by Novaya Gazeta Europe. Some commanders have even charged several thousand dollars per lorryload of food deliveries into the region.
The behaviour of the Russian contingent has seriously strained Armenia-Russia relations as well as Armenia’s position towards the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). During the 44-day war in 2020, Armenia had already expressed disappointment at the lack of Russian support. In the following years, when Azerbaijani units repeatedly entered Armenian territory, the CSTO rejected Armenia’s requests for support on the basis of article 4, which promises members military aid if they face aggression. Calls have grown in Armenia for the country to suspend its membership of the organisation. While pro-European forces demand that Armenia be made more accessible for Western military alliances and support, the generally pro-Russia opposition views the government’s current position towards the Kremlin and the CSTO as negligent and highly dangerous.
Potential for escalation vs. prospects for peace
Since Azerbaijan established its own checkpoint in the Lachin corridor and began to control every movement into and out of Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku has made even more extensive demands. Aliyev has also made repeated claims to Armenian territory since 2021. In the long run, these claims seek to weaken Yerevan’s demands for a special status for Nagorno-Karabakh.
Although peace talks are again taking place, a sustainable peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains a distant prospect. The vision for Nagorno-Karabakh as repeatedly articulated by members of the Armenian government will be difficult to implement. It includes, first, a special status for Nagorno-Karabakh; second, an armed international peacekeeping mission with a robust UN mandate and Russia’s agreement; and, third, a demilitarised zone around the territory of Karabakh. Azerbaijan currently appears very self-confident and is not prepared to make many concessions – either towards Armenia or towards the Karabakh Armenians, with whom Baku has been negotiating bilaterally for some time. If, in the foreseeable future, there is neither a peace agreement between the conflicting parties nor a negotiated solution between Azerbaijan and the representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh, it cannot be ruled out that the Azerbaijani leadership, spurred on by its population, makes a renewed attempt to achieve with military means what has not been possible with diplomatic efforts.