Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh: Between Azerbaijani blockade and Russian impotence

Perth Now

Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh – a mountainous region internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, although it has effectively been under Armenian control for three decades – seem to be one of the greatest victims of Russia’s debacle in Ukraine. Unable to achieve any of its political and military goals in the Eastern European country, the Kremlin has clearly demonstrated the total uselessness of the Russian peacekeeping troops in the South Caucasus.

Following the 44-day war Armenia and Azerbaijan fought in 2020 over Nagorno-Karabakh, some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers have been deployed to the region. Their major task is to ensure security of the Lachin Corridor – the only road connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh where ethnic Armenians make up the majority of the population. However, in early December Azerbaijani demonstrators, who are believed to be environmental activists, blocked the Shusha–Dashalty intersection, which is under the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping mission. They accuse the Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh authorities of “the illegal exploitation of natural resources of Azerbaijan”.

Even though leaders of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh (Artsakh being the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh) have reportedly halted mining operations in the region, the Lachin Corridor remains blocked in 2023, and the Russian troops do not seem to know how to end the crisis. Indeed, surreal scenes of Azerbaijani journalists provoking Russian peacekeepers went viral on social networks in December. Azerbaijani special forces eventually got involved, but there were no serious incidents.

Azerbaijan seems to be using the Lachin Corridor blockade as a method of pressure on Armenia, aiming to force Yerevan to fully implement the 2020 ceasefire deal the two countries’ leaders signed in Moscow. What Baku insists on is a construction of the Nakhchivan Corridor, also known as the Zangezur Corridor – a road and a railway that should connect mainland Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhchivan through Armenia’s territory. According to the Kremlin-brokered ceasefire deal, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), rather than Armenian authorities, is to guarantee the free transit through the southernmost Armenian province Syunik, which means that Yerevan would lose its sovereignty in this part of the country. Moreover, Azerbaijan is interested in the creation of a land passage without any passport or customs controls. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Armenian leadership firmly opposes any construction of the Nakhchivan Corridor through southern Armenia.

From Azerbaijani perspective, if Baku cannot have a direct land link with Nakhchivan, Armenia will not have a land connection with Nagorno-Karabakh. But even if Yerevan decides to make a concession to Baku, builds its section of the Nakhchivan Corridor and allows Azerbaijan to have a free passage through Armenian territory, there is no guarantee that the energy-rich country will not attempt to again block the Lachin Corridor. As a clear winner of the 2020 war, Azerbaijan still has a significant leverage over Armenia, and expects to establish full control over Nagorno-Karabakh, one way or another. The region is effectively surrounded by the Azerbaijani army, and in case of another round of large-scale hostilities, the Armenian forces would almost certainly suffer another tragic defeat that would have huge consequences for the Armenian population there.

Thus, some 120,000 Karabakh Armenians continue living under a de facto siege, while reports suggest that the region is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. Azerbaijan, however, denies such claims, arguing that “obstacles to the use of the road are created by people who introduced themselves as the leaders of local Armenians.” Although Yerevan calls on the international community to end the blockade of the Lachin Corridor by sending a mission to the region, at this point there are no indications the position of the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh will improve anytime soon.

One of Armenians’ major problems is that the fact that the “guarantor” of their security is the Russian Federation – a country that cannot provide security to its own people, let alone to the Karabakh Armenians. That is why Yerevan is hoping to replace the Russian peacekeepers with a potential United Nations or the European Union peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. But since the region is a de jure Azerbaijani territory, it is virtually impossible to deploy any international troops to Karabakh without Baku’s approval. Under the current geopolitical circumstances, Azerbaijan does not have any reasons to host additional foreign troops on its soil. Instead, it is waiting for 2025 which is when the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate will expire. Meanwhile, Baku will likely continue tolerating their presence in Karabakh, especially since the Kremlin proved unable, or unwilling to resolve the Lachin Corridor crisis.

Indeed, Russia’s weak position in the global arena – which is a direct consequence of Moscow’s fiasco in Ukraine – perfectly fits Azerbaijan’s geopolitical interests. Moreover, Baku knows that the European Union – seeking to expand energy cooperation with Azerbaijan in order to end its dependance on the Russian natural gas – is unlikely to ever openly side with Armenia. Thus, the energy-rich South Caucasus nation is expected to continue pressuring Yerevan to sign a peace treaty, explicitly recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, and start building the Nakhchivan Corridor.

Finally, given that the Moscow 2020 deal did not end the Karabakh conflict, but has only frozen it and put it “on hold”, sooner or later the situation in the region could escalate again.

Source : Global Comment