Taking advantage of the weakened Russian force projection in the South Caucasus and on the tortuous path towards a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, from 12 December 2022 a blockade of the Lachin corridor affects the ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, to put further pressure on Yerevan and move the compromise point between the two countries on more favorable terms to Baku.
Since the intense September 2022 clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the reasons for which had been summarized in a previous analysis, a new meaningful chapter in the relations between the two countries has been added beginning 12 December 2022.
A group of Azerbaijani civilians identifying themselves as environmental activists occupied the Lachin corridor, confronting the Russian peacekeepers present in the area, and limiting the passage of supplies from Armenia directed toward the ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Lachin corridor is in fact the only land route between Armenia and the mountainous region, currently controlled by Russian peacekeepers in accordance with the November 2020 Trilateral Statement. The group of civilians officially protests against Armenia’s exploitation of Azerbaijan’s resources, specifically, the demonstrators are calling for an end to the illegal mining of mineral deposits by the Armenian population in the area and the subsequent environmental impact.
As expected, Yerevan claims that the protests were orchestrated by the Baku authorities, which respond by stating that the Lachin corridor has also been illegitimately used by Yerevan to transport military goods into Nagorno-Karabakh, in violation of the November 2020 Trilateral Statement.
The circumstance damages significantly the ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, who consider themselves under siege, signaling shortages of food, medicines and gas. Azerbaijan has repeatedly denied these claims, citing the unhindered traffic of vehicles belonging to the Red Cross and to the Russian peacekeeping contingent in the region.
In the middle, Russian peacekeepers prefer not to take sides, emboldening Azerbaijan and triggering Armenia’s Pashinyan to express concern about their activities.
Baku, by virtue of its position of strength, obtained following the 2020 44-day war, is putting pressure on the Yerevan authorities, probably to obtain concessions in the negotiations, exploiting the moment of objective isolation of Armenia. Further, the mid-December blockade and the growing isolation of ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region could prompt them to leave the region, an eventuality that would be very welcome in Baku.
At the same time, the current moment seems propitious for Azerbaijan to distance itself from the Russian orbit, also making use of the excellent cooperation with Türkiye.
Ankara itself would be very interested in creating the conditions for a swift implementation of the “Zangezur corridor” which would connect Azerbaijan to the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic within Azerbaijan and Türkiye to the rest of the Turkic world through Armenia’s Syunik Province. An opportunity certainly made more feasible as Armenian difficulties grow and if the remaining ethnic Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region leave their homes due to the humanitarian crisis.
Azerbaijani “freedom of maneuver” which also derives from the role of privileged interlocutor with the EU for the distribution of natural gas and oil, which “the 27” desperately need. Following the outbreak of war in Ukraine and consequent sanctions, Baku has every interest in satisfying within its possibilities these requests, signing lucrative deals.
Moreover, the European Union and the U.S. would not appear in principle against the aforementioned “Zangezur corridor” which would basically cut Armenia from its important partner Iran.
In recent days, however, the European Council established, at the request of Yerevan, a civilian European Union Mission in Armenia (EUMA) under the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), expected to operate from 20 February with a two-year mandate. The mission intends to contribute to stability in the border areas of Armenia, building confidence on the ground, and ensuring an environment conducive to normalisation efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan supported by the EU. Such a Mission follows the two-month European Union Monitoring Capacity (EUMCAP) in Armenia that ended on 19 December 2022, deployed with the aim of reducing tensions between the two states and strengthening their mutual trust. Not surprisingly although EUMCAP had been agreed with Azerbaijan, Baku was not of the same opinion regarding EUMA. Azerbaijan in fact notably raised concerns about not being consulted by the EU on the future deployment of the mission.
The European Union with this Mission increases its engagement in the region and strengthens its presence on the ground, being able to count on a staff of 100 in the coming months and having a role in supporting border demarcation and trilateral dialogue between the EU, Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve the conflict. Greater interventionism of the EU favored by the state of crisis of the Russian Federation, which has criticized the initiative of “the 27”: Russia’s foreign ministry said on 26 January the EU mission would “only fuel geopolitical confrontation in the region and exacerbate the current contradictions”…“We are convinced that the key factor for stability and security in the region for the foreseeable future remains the Russian peacekeeping contingent”.
Clearly, Moscow is afraid to lose its grip on the region, and especially its effectiveness on the ground, restored since the November 2020 Trilateral Statement, but currently does not have the strength to follow words with deeds.
The events of the last few weeks signal Azerbaijan’s acceleration to reach more favourable peace conditions, leveraging on its position of undoubted advantage. Armenia’s most important allies: the Russian Federation and Iran cannot currently guarantee effective protection for Yerevan’s interests and seem to wait for more favorable times, however the final tile to end the conflict with a peace treaty always seems to be the one missing.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and are expressed solely in his personal capacity