Lachin Corridor Blocked: Azerbaijan Blames Russian Peacekeepers

The latest incident in the ever-tense relations between neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan occurred on Monday, December12, when groups of Azerbaijanis blocked the Lachin Road that links the recently liberated Nagorno-Karabakh region with Armenia to protest against what they term environmental degradation in the region. A day earlier, Azerbaijan had issued a diplomatic note to Russia, whose peacekeeping forces have been patrolling the corridor since late 2020, expressing concern over the rampant exploitation of its natural resources right under the nose of Russian forces.

Even though Nagorno-Karabakh has been effectively under Azerbaijani control since 2020, the region still hosts a sizable Armenian population with connections in the neighboring country. The delicate balance has been maintained by Russian peacekeeping forces that have been stationed across this 5-km wide road since a peace deal was hammered out after months of conflict 2020.

Angered at the blockade, Armenia has blamed Azerbaijani military forces of staging the blockade, disrupting civilian traffic between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia for hours, especially during the winter season. The Azerbaijani government has rejected the accusation and has clarified that the blockade is being carried out by civilians, many of whom are Azerbaijani environmentalists, over concerns that illegal gold and copper mining is being carried out in Nagorno-Karabakh and the resources are being smuggled to Armenia through the Lachin Corridor. Additionally, Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of supplying arms to Armenian groups in Nagorno-Karabakh through this corridor.

A particular target of Azerbaijani accusations is Ruben Vardanyan, a former Russian oligarch of Armenian ethnicity who adopted Armenian citizenship in 2021, gave up Russian citizenship the following year, and was appointed state minister of Artsakh—a self-proclaimed sovereign state in the Nagorno-Karabakh region that is recognized by neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani authorities blame Vardanyan of enabling the illegal smuggling of valuable mineral resources between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.  Azerbaijani officials have stated their resolve not to allow Vardanyan to succeed in his schemes to promote smuggling and environmental damage in the region.

While both sides have a history of trading accusations and holding each other responsible for disrupting peace in the region, Azerbaijan has raised the stakes by dragging Russia into the picture. Under the peacekeeping deal signed with Russian mediation in 2020, Russian forces are responsible for maintaining peace along the corridor. However, Azerbaijan has accused Russian forces of being complicit with the Armenians and turning a blind eye to their activities in the region.

Russia’s foreign ministry has rejected the Azerbaijani accusations terming them unfortunate and counterproductive, while clearly asking for the blockade to be removed at the earliest. Russia is the chief guarantor of peace between the two nations, but it seems that this recent accusation by Azerbaijan will test Russian resolve to maintain neutrality between the two nations. While Armenia and Russia are strong allies in several regional alliances, Azerbaijan has enjoyed close relations with Russia’s Black Sea rival Turkey. Hence, this move would further strain relations between Azerbaijan and Russia at a time when Azerbaijan needs as much diplomatic support as it can get.

On the part of Russia, the challenge is nothing that it has not seen before. Owing to Soviet legacy, the country has peacekeeping forces stationed in several neighboring countries, including Moldova, Georgia, and more recently Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is confident about its ability to navigate easily through the current crisis and is likely to be unsympathetic to Azerbaijan’s concerns. In fact, the recent accusations appear to be a sign of frustration over Azerbaijan’s inability to exercise absolute sovereignty over the region that it had liberated after more than two decades of Armenian opposition. Anxiety is also rising about the intentions of the Russian forces given the close relation between Russia and Armenia.

Armenia and Iran Amplify Diplomatic and Military Relations Against Common Threats

On October 21, the Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan welcomed his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian at the Foreign Ministry and was apparently pleased with the Iranian Foreign Minister’s acknowledgment of Armenia’s security interests at the same level as Iran’s own and his clear assertion that Iran would not tolerate any tampering with the current Armenia-Iran border.

Not only that, on the same day he inaugurated a new Iranian consulate in Kapan, which lies in the Syunik province lying along the Armenia-Iran border and which links Azerbaijan with the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.

Both Azerbaijan and Turkey have been pressing Armenia to allow them land transit access along Syunik, which Armenia has not accepted. Within this context, the Iranian Foreign Minister’s statement was heard clearly across Armenia’s borders in Baku, Ankara, and Moscow, as was intended.

Decoding the Armenia-Iran-Azerbaijan Triangle

Despite being an Islamic republic, having strong ethnic Armenian and Azeri communities within Iran, and having borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Iran has traditionally enjoyed warmer relations with Armenia, for a variety of reasons. It alleges that Azerbaijan has irredentist aspirations towards Iran’s Azeri provinces, supports secessionist forces, and refers to the provinces as Southern Azerbaijan in the local media. Azerbaijan’s close relations with Israel and Turkey also make Iran anxious about its intentions in the region.

Azerbaijan harbors similar suspicions and complaints against Iran for running anti-Azerbaijani propaganda, sponsoring Hezbollah activities in Azerbaijan, and conducting covert operations to weaken the Azerbaijani state.

Iran has always viewed Armenia as a more reliable partner in the Caucuses and it is its only gateway into the region. Due to this, Iran is against any moves by Azerbaijan and Turkey to acquire a land corridor through Armenia that would disconnect the two allies. While it accepted Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, it is wary of Azerbaijan’s expansionist plans.

Armenia Seeks Iranian Drones to Maintain Military Parity with Azerbaijan

According to some media reports, a senior Iranian military official, Major General Yahia Rahim Safavi, has revealed that Armenia is interested in purchasing Iran’s military drones to bridge the military imbalance with Azerbaijan. Naturally, Iran would be glad to help its ally boost up its defense capabilities against an unfriendly neighbor.

Iran has supplied Russia with at least three types of drones—the Mohajer-6 which has a 200-km range, the Shahed-129 which travels up to 450 km, and the Shahed-191, which goes up to 2000 km. Despite no official word from the two countries, Ukraine claims to have shot down and captured several Mohajer-6 drones coming in from Russia to drop payloads over Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.

Can Iranian Drones Match Up to Azerbaijan’s Turkish Drones?

Both Ukraine and Azerbaijan are among the biggest buyers of Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 military drones. These drones have been credited for playing an instrumental role in Azerbaijan’s decisive victory over Armenia in the 2020 conflict and helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion in 2022. In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan’s fleet of TB2 drones was responsible for destroying nearly 40 percent of Armenia’s inventory of military equipment. The Ukrainian Air Force has officially confirmed only two successful attacks on Russian targets using the TB2 drones.

Given these facts, it is unlikely that the addition of Iranian drones to Armenia’s arsenal will put Azerbaijan on the back foot.

Russia will also be watching the developments closely as they affect key allies Iran and Armenia and involve Turkey—its key rival in the Black Sea—as well. Moscow is the primary guarantor of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan and has become alerted to European efforts to increase diplomatic influence in the Caucuses and tap into its vast gas reserves.

Can Timely Diplomacy Avert a Second Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict?

Azerbaijan and Armenia entered into a fresh round of violence soon after midnight on Tuesday, 13 September, each accusing the other of undue provocation and claiming to have responded ‘proportionately’.

Based on the information currently available, Azerbaijan is said to have fired mortar shells at Armenian troops stationed along the border. Azerbaijan defends this move by claiming that Armenian forces were amassing ammunition and setting up landmines along the border, and had even fired at Azerbaijani posts, bringing the Azerbaijani border districts under threat. These districts include Lachin which had until recently been under the control of Russian peacekeeping troops under the terms of the 2020 ceasefire agreement, and had been handed over to the Azerbaijani forces last month.

Losses on Both Sides

The attacks took place near three important cities on the Armenian side, Jermuk, Goris and Sotk, according to a statement issued by the Armenian Defense Ministry, resulting in a loss of 49 Armenian soldiers. Armenia’s defense ministry claims that attacks were also made against civilian infrastructure and struck near several villages and towns near the border with Azerbaijan. The losses on the Azerbaijani side have not been reported or confirmed although the Defense Ministry has acknowledged damage to its military installations.

Western Interests and Positions on the Clashes

This latest flare-up between two important countries of the South Caucuses has regional as well as international implications. At a time when the neighborhood is suffering from the fallout of the Russia-Ukraine war and tense negotiations between the US and Iran, another conflict in the region could spell disaster for peace. It is not surprising then that major world powers have been spurred to action to quell the rising tension between the two nations.

Responding to the Armenian outreach, US Secretary of State has called for both sides to end hostilities immediately, while sending a warning out to Russia to avoid any misadventures that could exacerbate the situation.

French President Macron has also requested both sides to abide by the 2020 ceasefire agreement and has stated that it will submit the matter to the UN Security Council.

The EU has recently been making diplomatic overtures towards both countries in order to replace Russia as the primary mediator in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflicts, and even offered a new peace treaty to both countries. Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU’s foreign policy chief has called upon both countries to cease hostilities immediately and go back to negotiations. Additionally, the President of the European Council Charles Michel has stated the EU’s readiness to take steps for preventing further escalation and restore peace in the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has come out in full support of ally Azerbaijan by demanding that Armenia desist all provocative actions against it.

Russia Scrambles to Mediate

As expected, Moscow has taken serious note of these developments as it cannot afford another conflict in its backyard that would distract it from the ongoing Ukraine operation, where it has suffered some setbacks recently, especially territorial losses in the Kharkiv region, when key towns in the area were retaken by Ukrainian forces.

Nonetheless, responding to Armenia’s request to intervene under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of which Russia and Armenia are members, but Azerbaijan is not, Moscow has stepped in to bring both the parties to the negotiation table and restore the ceasefire. According to Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson of the Kremlin, President Putin is actively engaging leaders on both sides to resolve the tension at the earliest.

Implications for Russia’s Regional Involvement

If the two sides continue to escalate the violence despite regional and international efforts, the implications for Russia’s role in the region could be significant. Long regarded as the mediator of first instance in all disputes in the Caucuses, Russian supremacy both in Central Asia and the Caucuses may be challenged by Turkey, which allies itself strongly with Azerbaijan, as well as China. Not to mention the role of the EU, which has launched an aggressive charm offensive to wean away the two countries from Russian influence.

More important is the question of how long Russian can invest its energies in the Ukraine conflict at the cost of peace along the rest of its 20,241-kilometre border. For western powers desiring to divert Russia’s focus from its actions in Ukraine and ultimately bring the country down to its knees, such regional tensions could be very beneficial.

Will Armenia and Azerbaijan head towards another War?

The fresh skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan border resulted in the casualties of soldiers according to the officials and media reports. Once again, the thick clouds of war are hovering on the South-Caucasus region.

It seems that both countries are engaged in an unending conflict. The border violence leads to the massive wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both the countries had fought two full-fledged wars. Last year’s war resulted in the loss of 6000 live.

After the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in which Azerbaijan retaken its lands terming its liberated territories, both the countries signed a ceasefire arrangement brokered by Russia. After the ceasefire agreement, the current border violence is the biggest one in recent months. However both sides still apparently stuck with the Russian brokered ceasefire deal.

Armenia In A State Of Doldrums: Making An End To Its International Isolation Become Uphill Task

In a bid to demonstrate a sequel of economic betterment, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian successfully show off the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council meeting in the capital city of Yerevan amidst the mounting pressure of the public to curb the country’s worst economic crisis.

Besides Eurasia Economic member states the leaders of non- Eurasian Economic Union states’ heads, Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong and Iranian President Hassan Rohani also attended this event.

Amidst the presence of keynote member states and state heads of economic like Singapore, the million-dollar question is raised, how this gathering of the heads of states will reduce the Armenian isolation in the international arena?

Mega corruption and poverty-stricken economy witnessed mass-opposition protests in Armenia, eventually forced Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan to resign on April 23, 2018. The political turmoil resulted in forming a new government. The Armenians people had given a mandate to Nikol Pashinian waiting for a miracle for the redress of all their miseries.

To streamlines, the country’s ramshackle economy is not an easy task for the new incumbent Prime Minister. Pashinian’s have mammoth challenges in the limited time under the growing pressure of the people demanding him to deliver what he promised during his election campaign.

Armenia has a long history of facing numerous challenges from a political turmoil to a newly elected government of Nikol Pashinian the path is topsy-turvy.

The country has massive economic challenges. Rather than finding economic solutions, Nikol Pashinian is trying to divert the public attention towards national security issues. It’s much easy to engage the public into hostile rhetoric against its neighboring Azerbaijan rather than delivering for what he was voted by his countrymen.

Around 11 percent of the Armenian population lives under the poverty line by earning less than $3.20 (1,530 Armenian drams) a day. The government is facing a constant budget deficit that leads towards a 16 percent unemployment rate all-time high.

The meetings like the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council are a positive gesture to improve the ruined image of Armenia but how much benefit Armenia can get from these events where mostly the big shares go in the mouths of big fishes.

The ticking clock is going against tall claims made by Nikol Pashinian during his election to improve the country’s economy and to end poverty in his country.

Armenia is in a trap between internal and external challenges. The impact of the external challenges is directly affecting the internal situation of the country.

The fast-developing situation on Nagorno-Karabakh by the international community is increasing pressure on Armenian to end this illegal occupation of the 20 percent territory of Azerbaijan. Armenian claims are not getting serious attention in the international arena.

The United Nations (UN) resolution violation by Armenia is resulting in global isolation. On another side, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anna Naghdalyan rejected a statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that he made on Nagorno-Karabakh recently and Armenian rhetoric can lead to a major rift between the two countries.