Lachin Corridor crisis: How a strategic road could spark a new war in the Caucasus

 The Caucasus Center Special Report: 

The Lachin Corridor is a mountain road that links Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is de facto controlled by ethnic Armenians. The corridor is in the Lachin District of Azerbaijan but is ostensibly under the control of a Russian peacekeeping force as provided for in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh armistice agreement.

The corridor has been described as a “lifeline” for the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, as it is the only road that connects them to Armenia and allows the delivery of humanitarian aid, food, medicine and other essential goods. However, the corridor has also been a source of tension and conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, which resulted in significant territorial losses for the Armenian side and the displacement of thousands of civilians.

The 2020 Ceasefire Agreement and Its Implementation

 The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War erupted on September 27, 2020, when Azerbaijan launched a large-scale offensive to reclaim control over Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding regions, which had been under Armenian control since the end of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994. The war lasted 44 days and claimed more than 6,000 lives on both sides.

On November 9, 2020, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed a trilateral ceasefire agreement that ended the hostilities and stipulated.

Armenia agreed to withdraw its forces from several districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh that were captured by Azerbaijan during the war, including Kalbajar, Aghdam and Lachin.

Azerbaijan agreed to halt its military operations and keep control over the territories it had regained during the war, including parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

A Russian peacekeeping contingent of 1,960 troops was deployed along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin corridor for a period of five years, renewable by mutual consent of the parties.

The Lachin corridor was to remain under Armenian control, with a width of 5 km, to ensure the connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The city of Lachin and its surrounding villages were to be transferred to Azerbaijani control by December 1, 2020.

A new transport corridor was to be opened under Russian control to connect Azerbaijan’s mainland with its exclave of Nakhchivan through Armenia’s southern Syunik province.

The ceasefire agreement was met with mixed reactions from both sides. While Azerbaijan celebrated its military victory and territorial gains, Armenia denounced its humiliating defeat and political crisis. Many Armenians protested against the agreement and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who signed it under pressure from Russia.

The implementation of the agreement has also faced several challenges and delays.

The transfer of Lachin city and its surrounding villages to Azerbaijani control was postponed until August 26, 2022, due to logistical difficulties and security concerns.

A new route to bypass Lachin city was opened on August 30, 2022, passing by two villages that were renamed by Azerbaijan from Kirov (Hin Shen) and Kirovskiy (Mets Shen) to Kichik Galadarasi and Boyuk Galadarasi respectively.

The opening of the Nakhchivan corridor has been stalled by disagreements over its route, security and legal status. Armenia has insisted that it should be under international supervision and that it should not affect its sovereignty or territorial integrity. Azerbaijan has demanded that it should be under its full control and that it should have access to other regional transport projects.

The return of displaced persons and refugees has been slow and problematic. According to the UNHCR, more than 100,000 people were displaced by the war, mostly ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent districts. While some have returned to their homes with the help of Russian peacekeepers and humanitarian organizations, many others remain in Armenia or in makeshift shelters in Nagorno-Karabakh. They face insecurity, lack of basic services, and uncertainty about their future.

The 2023 Lachin Corridor Crisis

 On April 23, 2023, Azerbaijani officials set up a checkpoint in the Lachin corridor, near the Hakari Bridge, claiming that it was meant to prevent the “illegal” transport of military supplies and natural resources from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh However, the republics of Armenia and Artsakh have denied these allegations and argued that the ceasefire agreement does not explicitly limit the use of the Lachin corridor to humanitarian needs.

The checkpoint has effectively blocked the movement of vehicles and people along the corridor, creating a humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the Armenian authorities, more than 200 trucks carrying food, medicine, fuel and other goods have been stranded at the checkpoint for days, unable to reach their destination. Moreover, thousands of civilians who commute daily between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh for work, education, health or family reasons have been unable to cross the checkpoint, causing hardship and distress.

The Armenian side has condemned the checkpoint as a violation of the ceasefire agreement and a provocation aimed at destabilizing the situation and undermining the peace process. It has called on the international community, especially Russia, to intervene and pressure Azerbaijan to remove the checkpoint and restore the free movement along the corridor.

The Azerbaijani side has defended its right to control its own territory and to ensure its security and sovereignty. It has accused Armenia of violating the ceasefire agreement by smuggling weapons and exploiting natural resources in Nagorno-Karabakh without its consent. It has also demanded that Armenia fulfill its obligations under the agreement, such as providing maps of minefields and withdrawing its remaining forces from Azerbaijani territory.

The Russian side has expressed its concern over the situation and urged both parties to respect the ceasefire agreement and to resolve their differences through dialogue and negotiation. It has also reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining peace and stability in the region and to facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid to Nagorno-Karabakh.

The international community has also reacted to the crisis with varying degrees of involvement and influence.

The OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the U.S., which has been mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since 1992, has called on both sides to refrain from unilateral actions that could escalate tensions and to cooperate with the Russian peacekeepers in ensuring the security of movement along the corridor. It has also reiterated its support for a comprehensive settlement of the conflict based on the principles of non-use of force, territorial integrity, equal rights and self-determination.

The European Union, which has been providing humanitarian and development assistance to Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding regions since 2016, has expressed its solidarity with the people affected by the blockade and urged Azerbaijan to lift it without delay. It has also stressed its readiness to contribute to confidence-building measures and dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group.

The United Nations, which has been monitoring the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh through its agencies and partners, has appealed for unhindered access to deliver aid to those in need and for respect for international humanitarian law by all parties. It has also called for a lasting political solution to the conflict that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The Council of Europe, which has been promoting human rights, democracy and rule of law in Armenia and Azerbaijan since 2001, has condemned the blockade as a violation of human dignity and a threat to regional stability. It has also urged both sides to comply with their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and other relevant instruments.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which has been supporting Azerbaijan’s position on Nagorno-Karabakh since 1993, has welcomed Azerbaijan’s efforts to restore its territorial integrity and sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh and its adjacent districts. It has also called on Armenia to respect the ceasefire agreement and cooperate with Azerbaijan to address the humanitarian issues arising from the conflict.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which is a military alliance of six former Soviet states including Armenia but not Azerbaijan, has expressed its solidarity with Armenia as a member state and its concern over the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. It has also stated that it is ready to provide assistance to Armenia in case of external aggression against its territory or sovereignty.

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.