Nearly two years after both countries fought an over month-long war over Nagorno-Karabakh (also referred to as Artsakh by Armenians), Armenia and Azerbaijan are yet again on the verge of conflict. Armenia has recently accused Azerbaijan of “provocation” over the Lachin corridor, and Russia of failing to play its peacekeeping role in the region.
The resurgence of the conflict, at a time when war is ongoing in Eastern Europe, has unleashed a global geopolitical race, as the US and its European allies attempt to curb Russian influence— hitherto strong—in the region.
The Lachin corridor is the only road link that connects Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. Though Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, the majority of its residents are ethnic Armenians and have strong links to Armenia.
Since December 12, hundreds of people calling themselves environmental activists have marched into the Lachin corridor, claiming that Armenia is endangering the regional ecosystem by exploiting natural resources, and demanding an end to its mining activities.
Armenia sees the protests as sponsored by Azerbaijan, and has accused it of blocking its only road link with the region. It has claimed that the blockade has created a humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh by causing disruptions in the supply of basic goods.
Azerbaijan has denied playing a role in the protests. The Azeri Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov has even questioned the Armenian claim that the corridor is completely blocked. He claimed that “dozens of transport vehicles, cars of the (Russian) peacekeeping contingent, the international committee of the Red Cross, and Armenian ambulances are using the Lachin corridor daily.”
Azerbaijan, however, had objected to Armenian mining at the Gyzylbulag gold deposit and the Damirli copper and molybdenum deposits in Karabakh, calling it “illegal” and damaging to the environment.
Russia has “stressed the need for the earliest possible unblocking of the traffic along the Lachin corridor in accordance with the parameters stipulated in the November 9, 2020, trilateral top-level statement.”
Geopolitics of the conflict
According to some estimates, over 120,000 ethnic Armenians live in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In 1991, immediately after the dissolution of the USSR, these Armenians had declared their independence from Azerbaijan, calling their new state the Republic of Artsakh. The self-proclaimed republic was not recognized by any country except Armenia.
Since then, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars over this region. In the last war, in 2020, which lasted for nearly 44 days, at least 6,500 people were killed. For the first time, Azerbaijan was able to make strategic gains in Nagorno-Karabakh, with the benefit of open military support provided by Turkey. It now controls the majority of the self-declared Artsakh republic.
The war ended following Russian intervention in November 2020, and all three countries issued a joint statement calling for the maintenance of the status quo and the beginning of a peace process mediated by Russia. Russia also agreed to send a peacekeeping force to Nagorno-Karabakh. Unfortunately, this peace process has not made much progress. Allegations and counter-allegations are often made by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and there is often violence in the region.
In September last year, over two hundred people were killed in sudden clashes between the forces of both countries.
Meanwhile, the West has begun to use the conflict as a means to undermine Russian influence in the region. This is happening both in the context of the war in Ukraine and the historical race for influence in the post-Soviet republics. The media has already started talking about the growing role of the US in the region, and the need for sanctions and other coercive measures as a way out of the conflict.
Former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a rare visit to Armenia in September last year after the clashes and met Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The New York Times claimed at the time that this was an attempt to use the opportunity provided by the war in Ukraine, which has made the Russian position weak.
US Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken also held a meeting of the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in November in Washington.
Armenia, which has been considered a traditional ally of Russia, has failed to secure its full backing as Russia tries to balance its relations with Turkey, a close Azeri ally, due to the peculiar situation created in the context of the war in Ukraine.
This has led to Armenia recently canceling the joint military operations of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an alliance of post-Soviet countries. Pashinyan has also openly accused Russia of failing to lift the blockade, and has appealed to the UN, the European Union, and G20 to intervene in the matter.
This has invited a sharp Russian reaction, with Maria Zakharova, spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, rejecting the Armenian allegations and claiming that Russian peacekeepers are doing everything they can do in their zone of influence to maintain peace. She also asked the Armenians to desist from making “public attacks” as they may do “visible harm to the process of Armenian-Azeri normalization.”
Russia has also blamed Armenia for dragging its feet on the issue of talks and taking unclear and vague positions, which have prevented discussions related to the peace treaty.